When Crista Claar Whitelatch –owner and manager of Claar Wine Group– and her husband retired from the Navy, it made perfect sense for them to jump into the wine business. After all, Claar’s parents had been working the fields as farm owners for decades – and hands-on work felt natural to the family.
We chat with Whitelatch about what it’s like to run a vineyard and what goes into producing award-winning wines.
CRUSHBREW: How did Claar Cellars get started?
CRISTA CLAAR WHITELATCH: My parents, Audrienne and Russell Claar, homesteaded the farm in 1949 and my grandfather, Ed Albro, bought the farm overlooking the Columbia in the early 50’s. I am an only child and my father always hoped I would marry a farmer. Little did he know that I’d marry a Naval Officer who knew pumps, welding and how to fix things – all skills he learned in the Navy and all necessary to farm!
My husband, Bob Whitelatch, retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant Commander/ O-4 and I transferred from active duty into the Naval Reserve in 1983 and we moved to Pasco and started farming. While we farmed and raised two sons, John, and James, I continued in the Naval Reserve and retired as a Captain/O-6. Over the years we have moved the original farms from peaches, nectarines, apricots and apples into 130 acres of vineyard. John and James are now partners in our business Claar Wine Group.
CB: Your location has its own microclimate, which happens to be ideal for growing and producing wines. Can you tell us a bit more about it and the benefits of the area?
CW: Our vineyards are planted on a shelf of an ancient lake bed left over from the Missoula Floods. Wind-blown sand has created deep sandy soils that contain multiple caliche layers interspersed throughout the depth of the soil and these two factors contribute to optimum soil pH and water drainage.
Our vineyard is planted approximately 150 to 300 feet above the Columbia River, which allows cold air to drain away from our site. This is beneficial during our summers that are hot during the day and cool during the night, often with 40-degree changes. In the cold of the winter, cool air drains down into the canyon below. Our vineyard management includes drip irrigation and a bilateral cordon training system. With drip irrigation, we are able to control the amount of water and nutrients that our vines can use which allows us to achieve optimum ripeness earlier in the growing season. The result of these factors is wines that are ripe in fruit, soft on the palate and that need little manipulation in the winemaking process.
CB: Can you tell us about your Port-style fortified wine? What makes it so different to other wines?
CW: Our port is unique in that we use grape varieties that our vineyard has to offer including, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc. The style in which we make our port really takes the winemaking out of the equation and leaves everything up to the process. The process is a solera type system where each year we make 1 or 2 barrels of the port using one or two of the aforementioned varieties listed above and then blend them back into previous year’s vintages. My husband, Bob, says “there is a portion of wine in each barrel that is over 20 years old”. With this process, we are able to make a unique wine that contains authentic port characteristics.
CB: You produce a very long and impressive number of wines. What is your favorite and why?
CW: It is hard to say what my favorite wine is; no parent admits a favorite! We ask the winemaker to make multiple styles and varieties of wine and make them all Premium. Our wine with the most accolades and one of my favorites is our Claar Cellars Syrah. It gains multiple awards each year and our Winemaker, Joe Hudon, really likes the two different sites that he gets to play with in making a complex wine that contains great varietal character; using one vineyard site to add early ripening characters of white pepper and acidity and the other site to offer ripe flavors of dark cherry, cassis and bacon fat with a fat, voluminous palate due to a high pH near 4.0.
This is a wine that we can be bold with and take some risks as it offers dark pigment and equally dark fruit when picked at optimal ripeness. He plays around with different barrel toasts and maturation regimes and because of our moderate winery size he has plenty of volume to play with; creating multiple lots with differing attributes such as vineyard site, harvest date, fermentation style, oak type and etc. It is a fun wine to work with and look forward to year to year.
CB: With such an impressive line of wines, how do you decide what to produce and what new things to add to your list every year?
CW: We have 130 acres of vineyard and so we can have a lot of SKU’s with brands including Claar Cellars, Chateau Walla Walla, Demri Layne, Kelso, Le Chateau, Nicola’s Red Mark, and Ridge Crest. The markets that we work with often dictate what we sell but sometimes we make them just because; for example my husband, Bob’s, favorite is Barrel Fermented Chardonnay which he calls his “old folks wine”, referring to the trend by younger buyers away from heavy buttery chardonnays to unoaked. So we make some Barrel Fermented but most of the chardonnay we produce is unoaked.
Our greatest case production is for our red wines. We know that we have to have a certain volume set aside for them and then we make sure to keep the reserve tiers separate so that we can bottle them at the right moment in the aging process. Our vineyard site and markets dictate what new wine styles and varieties we introduce and so we have recently planted Pinot Gris, Viognier, Malbec and Petit Verdot.