Wine Scene: Valley pioneer focuses on cabernet franc

This article was originally published on November 30, 2017 in the Yakima Herald Republic

Kay Simon – a graduate of the enology program at UC Davis – migrated to Washington state in 1977.  “There was a sort of influx of a bunch of us (UC Davis grads) from California, because [we] had the technical degrees that were not yet available in Washington State.” Starting out at Chateau Ste. Michelle as the red wine maker in 1978, she met her now-husband Clay Mackey. “Clay and I decided we would be better-suited to work for ourselves than a corporation, and we separately left employment … and Clay started writing our business plan.”
That business plan grew into Chinook Winery – beginning in borrowed spaces, the winery ultimately found its way to its present location in Prosser in 1990.  During those early years, concord grapes dramatically outnumbered vinifera in the state and there were just three wineries in Prosser during that time. Today, there are 22 producers in Prosser, more than 90 wineries in the Yakima Valley and one-third of the state’s wine grapes are grown in the Yakima Valley American Viticulture Area (AVA).

As a winemaker, Kay is best known for her Cabernet Franc – a grape used more frequently in blends than as a standalone variety.  Chinook Wine’s Cabernet Franc is often touted by the region’s wine trade to be one of the most varietally correct wines produced in Washington.

The grape was first planted in Washington State and cultivated in experimental blocks by Washington State University in the Yakima Valley during the 1970s. Cabernet Franc was first planted commercially in 1985 by Yakima Valley pioneer Mike Saur of Red Willow Vineyard. Originally, the grapes went into Bordeaux style blends. The first single varietal Cabernet Franc in Washington was released in 1991 by Columbia Winery. Because the cab franc grape grows so well in the Yakima Valley, more producers have begun to make cab franc as a single varietal wine.

Simon determined that “Cabernet Franc would be a good variety for [she and Clay] to grow [in the valley], because it’s a little more winter-hardy than Cab Sauv, and it also ripens a bit faster. For our particular winery, it was a good fit.” Like many who grow this variety, Chinook Winery produced a blend for the first few years, but in 1998, after a block of Cabernet Franc was coming into its first crop, a friend introduced Kay to some dry rosés from southern France. “[Clay and I] were sipping on one of those on the patio one evening, and looked at each other and thought: ‘we could make this.’”

The wine became Washington State’s first Cabernet Franc Rosé. Today it is the fourth most widely planted red grape in the state behind Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Washington Cabernet Franc is distinctive for its fruit forward characteristics.

Kay fights the oft-accepted idea that Cabernet Franc is primarily a blending grape, and continues to produce it unblended. She says: “There is a history of it being a standalone variety, both in Europe, and [in the United States].”

Continued growth is what’s in store for the variety, according to Kay: “I think from a historical standpoint, given that it’s a better winter survivor than many of our other reds, it’s just going to do better.”

Kay’s Cab Franc and Cab Franc Rosé are excellent choices for the holidays; either as a hostess gift, served at holiday parties or included on the dinner table for Christmas. These wines can be found at Stems wine shop, Wrays Thriftway, or at the tasting room in Prosser. The tasting room is open by appointment during the winter months.

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