Trip to Paterson, WA. in mid-90s convinces
Butch Milbrandt to grow 80 acres of wine grapes
Today, Butch and his brother Jerry are among
Washington’s most prolific wine grape growers
By Ken Robertson
When Columbia Basin apple and potato grower Butch Milbrandt met for coffee with his friend and fellow farmer Jack Jones one morning in the mid-1990s, their conversation turned to a new idea — growing wine grapes.
And at Jones’ invitation, Milbrandt decided to ride along with Jones for a visit to Paterson, WA., home to Columbia Crest Winery, where many of the wines from Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates are produced.
“At the end of the day, I had a contract to grow 80 acres of grapes — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay,” Milbrandt recalls of the trip, which would change his life and his farming operations for the rest of his life.
Ultimately, it also would change the face of the Northwest wine industry, with the two, along with Butch’s brother Jerry, becoming some of the state’s largest grape-growing operations and a force behind the creation of two new American Viticultural Areas in Washington — Ancient Lakes and Wahluke Slope.
Jones would plant thousands of acres of grapes over the decades before his death in 2015, launch his own winery, Jones of Washington, and become a partner in one of the Northwest’s largest wine grape operations, J & S Crushing of Mattawa, with Dick Shaw.
Milbrandt would plant his first 80 acres of wine grapes north of Mattawa in 1996-97 in white wine varieties. Eventually, he and Jerry would plant about 3,800 acres of grapes in the two AVAs.
“Jerry and I decided we wanted to be large enough to have a measure of control,” said Butch.
Their partnership continued until 2017, when Butch, now 72, decided he wanted to retire, and they split up their operation.
Butch retained two of their wine labels, Milbrandt and Ryan Patrick, which now operate tasting rooms in Leavenworth, Prosser and Woodinville. He also kept the Raven’s Cliff and Clifton Hill Vineyards
But the brothers weren’t done collaborating. When Butch was looking for a new winemaker, by chance he contacted one of the Northwest’s best, Kendall Mix. It turned out Jerry had been thinking along the same lines for his Wahluke Wine Co. operation.
“So, Jerry and I agreed to hire him (Mix) to do both,” Butch said. Mix’s official title nowadays is head winemaker at Wahluke Wine Co., which is based in Mattawa and owned by Jerry Milbrandt.
Three years later, it’s turned out to have been a great decision to combine Milbrandt-grown grapes with Mix’s wine-making talents.
Stacy Bellew, director of public relations and direct-to-consumer strategies at Milbrandt, notes that the Milbrandt label and its Ryan Patrick stablemate have produced more than 70 wines that scored 90 points or better in recent years, and Kendall Mix’s wines of the last few vintages have added more than a dozen to that total.
How does he do it so consistently?
“My overriding philosophy is that grapes are a fruit product, so when you taste the wine, you should taste the fruit,” said Mix. “I consider myself a bit of a blender, even when I’m making a 100% varietal. I’ll use different blocks (of grapes), different vineyards, then create complexity with different fermentations, different yeasts, different coopers and different oaks.
“But it all descends from the vines. If you don’t start with premium grapes… well, you can’t turn a hog’s ear into a silk purse.”
Mix first met the Milbrandt brothers when he was working for Chateau Ste. Michelle and using some of their “great grapes — Malbec from Northridge Vineyard and Cabernet from Clifton Hill.”
For white wine grapes, he notes, “Evergreen is a pretty special vineyard for Riesling and Chardonnay because of its minerality and acidity,” both signature qualities of white wine grapes grown in the Ancient Lakes AVA. It’s also the vineyard where Chateau Ste. Michelle obtains 50% to 80% of the Riesling grapes that are made into its famous Eroica Rieslings.
For reds, the Wahluke Slope AVA contains some of the warmest sites in the state and offers a long fall ripening season, Mix noted. In the vineyard, “the (leaf) canopies we achieve tend to be smaller, without a lot of shading and allow ripeness and intensity of flavor.”
One result is that the tannins in the fruit are ripe and augment viscosity, creating a balance between intensity and elegance. He feels it’s an especially great place for producing outstanding Washington Merlot.
“People are starting to realize Washington grows great Merlot,” he concluded.
Mix’s journey into the world of wine has unusual roots. He was born and raised in Alberta, Canada attending the University of Alberta in Edmonton and majoring in microbiology.
“I was trying to figure out what to do with it when I took intro into brewing and winemaking. Then, I wondered, ‘Can people really make a living in the wine industry?’”
While at UC Davis in California, Mix worked as an intern at Robert Mondavi, and, “That’s what really tipped the scale as to what I wanted to do.”
When his wife had trouble obtaining a work visa for California, he moved back north and ended up working at Canoe Ridge in 1993 for Chateau Ste. Michelle.
While there, he discovered he loved the idea of making Washington wines, and 27 years later, “I still love doing it.”
In a business where every fall brings long days and too-short nights during harvest, the fall of 2019 was especially challenging. Cold weather arrived when a lot of fruit was still hanging as crews hoped anxiously for a few more days of late-fall warmth to finish ripening.
Mix said he worked 76 days straight from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Bellew believes dedication like that is partly inspired by the company ethic and by the example Butch Milbrandt himself sets, keeping his company and its employees focused on business but also on the communities where it operates.
That concept is part of its mission statement, she noted. At each tasting room, the staff is expected to identify a community service project quarterly and organize a fund-raiser. A chunk of all proceeds raised at each event goes to the chosen charity.
Bellew also said Milbrandt also promotes from within, making sure its current employees get every chance to move up within the company.
Such practices are “a cornerstone of who we are,” she added.
Milbrandt and its sister winery Ryan Patrick Wines have three tasting rooms in the state of Washington — at its flagship winery in Prosser, in Woodinville Wine Country, and in the beautiful Bavarian town of Leavenworth. The Prosser tasting room is located in Prosser’s Vintner’s Village at 508 Cabernet Court, Prosser, WA. 99350. Phone: (509) 788-0030. The Woodinville tasting room is located at 14450 Woodinville-Redmond Rd. N.E., Woodinville, WA. 98072. Phone: (425) 949-7660. And the Leavenworth tasting room is located at 707 U.S. Hwy. 2, Leavenworth, WA. 98826. Phone: (509) 888-2236.
If you can’t get to any of Milbrandt’s tasting rooms, you can order wine via their online store at: www.shop.milbrandtvineyards.com. Or you can order wine by calling any of their tasting rooms and have the wine shipped to you.
Release of Inaugural Sparkling Rosé
Every weekend during the month of September, Milbrandt Vineyards will be celebrating the release of its inaugural Coeur Cause Sparkling Rosé with an event they are calling “Sparkling Rosé MASKerade.” The event will be happening simultaneously at all three Milbrandt tasting rooms in Prosser, Woodinville and Leavenworth from l p.m. to 6 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the month of September.
The sale of every bottle of Coeur Cause Sparkling Rosé will benefit art and education programs for children in partnership with Friends of the Lower Grand Coulee, a 501(c)(3).
During the event, Milbrandt’s inaugural Sparkling Rose will be released with an expanded flight of seven wines (reds and whites) along with gourmet bites. The event will also include art exhibits, a “Safe & Swanky” face mask contest, prizes awarded for stylish masks, a raffle and a silent auction. For more information about the event visit: www.milbrandtvineyards.com/events.
Reservations are required for seated tastings, so make sure to call the Milbrandt tasting room you wish to visit. The tasting room phone numbers are Prosser (509) 788-0030, Woodinville (425) 949-7660 and Leavenworth (509) 888-2236.
AWARD WINNING WINES
Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, many wine events and competitions have been canceled or postponed this year.
But it’s noteworthy that at one of the Pacific Northwest’s larger wine competitions, Savor Northwest, held this past February in Cannon Beach, OR., that wines from Milbrandt and sister label Ryan Patrick won a number of awards. The competition annually attracts hundreds of entries from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia.
Milbrandt and Ryan Patrick wines won the following awards:
Best of Class: 2019 Ryan Patrick. Pinot Grigio
Double Gold: 2017 Milbrandt, Brothers Blend Red Wine
2017 Milbrandt, The Estates Cabernet Sauvignon
2017 Milbrandt Single Vineyard Clifton Hill Cabernet Sauvignon
2016 Ryan Patrick, Rock Island Cabernet Sauvignon
2017 Ryan Patrick, Elephant Mountain Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
2017 Milbrandt Cabernet Sauvignon
2018 Milbrandt Chardonnay
2018 Ryan Patrick, Sagemoor Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay
2019 Ryan Patrick, Rosé
EDITOR’S NOTE: Ken Robertson, a retired newspaper editor, has been sipping and writing about Northwest wines for more than 40 years.