SW Washington Wineries: An Interview with Winemaker Michele Bloomquist of Heisen House Vineyards
Southwest Washington has a very dynamic wine industry. WineTrails NW lists 30 wineries in the region. Wineries are scattered throughout the area in scenic rural areas and urban settings like downtown Vancouver. This is the first in a series of profiles of Southwest Washington wineries and winemakers.
First up – an interview with Michele Bloomquist of Heisen House Vineyards. With its historic, 1898 home and restored barn, which is one of the oldest in Clark County, Heisen House Vineyards is located just north of Battle Ground at 28005 NE 172nd Avenue on a site with a rich history. The Heisen House is a family home and not open to the public. However, outdoor and indoor tasting rooms (in a beautifully remodeled milking parlor) allow for visiting the winery regardless of the weather on Saturdays and Sundays from noon until 5 p.m.
A benefit of blogging – this interview was conducted while sampling nine(!) different wines in the outdoor tasting room. We are happy to report that all were excellent and two (2009 Sangiovese and 2010 “Happy” Sparkling White Wine) were purchased for later consumption.
Michele Bloomquist (MB): The first wine I ever heard of was Boone’s Farm. And then there were all the country coolers and all that stuff. I graduated from college in 1996. I got a job at a company in San Francisco and I would go down there on Monday morning and come back on Thursday night. I had a good friend who lives down there and she and her husband loved to go wine tasting. They would take me wine tasting to Napa and Sonoma and that was my first introduction to wine tasting. That is how it happened in 1998 or 1999.
ZEST: How did you learn to make wine? Who were your mentors? Did you have special training?
MB: Walt Houser at Bethany Vineyard was very supportive as was Carl English of English Estate Winery. I’ve picked everybody’s brains and whenever a problem comes up, Gary Gouger of Gouger Cellars, has been very helpful. He has a degree in enology. And I also learned from books and just doing it.
I have taken some classes at Clark College. John Dingenthal and Bill Fuller were the teachers and I learned a lot from them as well. Those classes were really helpful. I was already winemaking by the time I started taking those classes but both of those professors were 20-year veterans of the industry so it was a great opportunity to learn from them about vines and wines.
ZEST: How did you end up with your winery? When was it founded?
MB: It wasn’t a plan. It happened by accident. I was driving by one day and I saw a little glimpse of the peak of the roof of the house. At that time, it was completely surrounded by bushes and shrubs. You could hardly see there was house there. All this [the vineyard] was blackberries and briars, tires and stumps and concrete chunks. But I could see a little glimpse of the house so I pulled in and there was a for sale sign. That was 2002.
I fell in love with the house and that’s how I came here. During the process of making the offer, I found out that the house was on the state and national historic registers and here it was vacant and falling apart and neglected and the barn was falling down and the house hadn’t been cared for in many years. That is what first brought me to this property. I knew that I wanted to do something to share it with people because it’s a historic place.
So at first I was going to do a lavender farm, which you can see the remnants of my first voyage into lavender. Then that same summer the apple trees were loaded with apples and a friend said “Hey, let’s make hard apple cider.” I had never made alcohol before but I had been wine tasting and it was so much fun and it turned out good and I was hooked.
So the next year I made cider and wine and then I started helping Walt and other people and reading about it and learning about it. You learn a lot by doing it. I spent about five years of hobby winemaking before Walt (of Bethany Vineyard) and other people were saying “You should open a winery.” So I can either thank Walt or blame him depending on the day!
ZEST: Where do you get your grapes? For on-site grapes – how many acres do you grow and what kind are they?
MB: We opened on Memorial Day weekend, 2010. We have one acre of grapes in production. I have Gamay Noir, Tempranillo, Gewurztraminer and Orange Muscat. It’s a test for the area. We are still trying to establish what grapes are right for Clark County.
We buy our grapes from growers in Eastern Washington (Walla Walla and Benton City). Our vines are still two summers away from having fruit. We’ll have hopefully four barrels of wine from those vines. But we are making 500 cases of wine a year so we have well exceeded what our vineyard would be able to provide. We are growing and we don’t have enough land to plant all the grapes that we need so we will always have to both purchase and grow, which is very common in the industry.
ZEST: What are your available wines?
MB: Currently, available wines are Reds – Merlot, Sangiovese, Cabernet, Cab Franc, Tempranillo and “one Love” Reserve Red Blend (all vintage 2009) and Whites – Dry Muscat, Dry Rose and Happy (a sparkling wine) (all vintage 2010). (Descriptions are available here.)
ZEST: Which is your favorite?
MB: Cabernet Franc
ZEST: Where are your wines available?
ZEST: How do you spend your days? What is a typical day for a winemaker?
MB: Well, I have another business. I work full-time as a freelance writer so Monday through Friday, I’m wearing my writing hat and the winery is our evening and weekend endeavor. My typical day is juggling responsibilities – family, a freelance career and then the wine.
I don’t know if there is such a typical day. It’s very seasonal, in the fall we are making wine, in the winter, we are planning for the summer and pruning, in the spring we are bottling, in the summer we are open and waiting for the grapes and maintenance.
ZEST: How would you describe the SW Washington wine industry?
MB: We are in the golden age which is the emerging winery region. It’s a very special time. At every one of these wineries most likely the person behind the bar is going to be the winemaker who is pouring the wine. It’s a very special time and a very small window. For a lot of people who are serious wine tourers, that is the epitome of the winery experience to meet the winemaker at every single stop and you can do that here in Clark County.
ZEST: When you aren’t drinking your own wines, what are your current favorites?
MB: My very favorite and probably the first wine that I tasted it and “got it” what good wine was at a place called The Pines in the Columbia Gorge. Their Red Zinfandel, which often sells out, that was the first time I thought “Wow, this is what good wine tastes like.” I would say that Hood River is one of my favorite areas (for tasting).
ZEST: What is the best thing about being a winemaker?
MB: The best thing about is when the truck pulls up with a big bin of grapes and it’s time to get dirty. That’s the very best part of being a winemaker. It is fun to make wine. I LOVE it.
ZEST: What is the hardest thing about being a winemaker?
MB: It is probably that I don’t get to go wine tasting as much as I used to and I miss it! And I would love to do more traveling but for right now we are growing our business and we need to be here.
ZEST: What is coming up that you’re excited about for your winery?
MB: We have the Battle Ground Wine Loop Tour next Saturday. Memorial Weekend is our big kickoff of the season – we will be open Saturday, Sunday and Monday, noon to 6 p.m. We are launching our Friday night music that same weekend. Every Friday night we will have music from 6-9 p.m. and a local restaurant comes out and serves food starting Memorial Day weekend all the way to the end of September. And then we have four farm festivals in the summer where we have artists and craftspeople come and set up and then we have fun that way, too!
Details about Heisen HouseVineyards are available at the winery Web site. The Battle Ground Wine Loop Tour, which is held the 2nd Saturday of the month, visits Heisen House Vineyards along with Rusty Grape Vineyard and Olequa Cellars. For a complete (and growing!) list and map of 11 Clark County wineries visit here. For a longer list of wineries throughout Southwest Washington, visit WineTrailsNW. No need to head to Napa. Get out there and try our local wines!
Winery photos courtesy of Heisen House Vineyards.