Aerial view over Precept harvest at Wallula Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills AVA, Washington. / Photo by: Andrea Johnson
Horse Heaven Hills is a region of unsurpassed physical beauty. It is also home to nearly a third of Washington State’s wine grape acreage. A large amount of production occurs in the appellation, which also boasts a rich agricultural history. Yet many barely know this viticultural outpost exists. Fewer have been there.
Eastern Washington, where almost all the state’s wine grapes are grown, is a desert where 30 or more miles might separate one far flung town from another.
Even by those standards, Horse Heaven Hills is remote.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” says Rob Mercer, president of Mercer Estate Winery, ICAN and Mercer Ranches. “It’s hard to get to. There’s not much up here but a few families and a few vineyards.”
That is not hyperbole. The closest town of any real size is 40 or more minutes away from most vineyards. The area doesn’t even have a gas station, stranding more than a few winemakers over the years.
When you crest the top of the Horse Heaven’s broad plateau, it’s immediately apparent why cowboy James Kinney proclaimed it “horse heaven” in 1857. Grasslands and agricultural crops stretch as far as the eye can see.
“It almost feels like you’re in Iowa or Kansas,” says Kate Michaud, winemaker at Double Canyon. “It’s just all wheat and grapes.”
The gleaming, mile-plus-wide Columbia River draws the appellation’s southern boundary. The whole region looks more like a set location for a Western than wine country.
“The ruggedness and the vast, wide-openness of the landscape is really hard to appreciate until you get here,” says Jeff Andrews, managing partner of Andrews Family Vineyards.
From left, Champoux Vineyards; Right, Old Vine grapes at Columbia Crest Winery. / Photo by: Andrea Johnson
A Long Agricultural History
Horse Heaven Hills’ history as an agricultural region is intertwined with two multigenerational farming families: the Mercers, who farm 2,000 acres of vineyards in the area, and the Andrews, who farm nearly 4,000 of the region’s roughly 17,000 acres under vine.
The Mercers came to the Horse Heavens in 1886, when Willis Mercer purchased land there to raise sheep. The Andrews family’s ancestors, George and Mabel Smith, moved to the area in 1940 to start a farm.
Neither family would have an easy time of it, given the remoteness and scant rainfall of six to nine inches annually. Things got considerably harder for the Smiths, however, when the federal government seized their farm to use as a firing range in 1941.
“They were given 48 hours to leave the property,” says Andrews, the Smiths’ grandson. Still, the Smiths persisted, ultimately breaking ground on an astonishing 100,000 acres of farmland.
Life got easier for the Mercers when irrigation arrived in 1968, leveraging the nearby Columbia River. Come 1972, Don Mercer, one of Willis’s grandchildren, and his wife, Linda, planted the area’s first vineyard, Mercer Ranch.