Hightower Cellars - Red Mountain Bottling Line

A View from the Tasting Room Floor Up.

Last week I had quite
the experience helping bottle wine at Hightower Cellars on Red Mountain.

As a Washington Wine Ambassador, www.washingtonwine.org/, I receive occasional invites to help wineries, small and large, with events and other activities. The most recent invite was to help Hightower Cellars bottle their 2006 vintages. Since I never bottled wine before, I thought this would be a good opportunity to volunteer and see for myself what it is like. Red Mountain is only a 15 minute drive from my home, so I arrived at the winery at approximately 9:30 AM ready to work.


Tim and Kelly emptying barrels.

Kelly and Tim Hightower are the winemakers of Hightower Cellars. Hightower was originally located in Woodinville, Washington. But, with the purchase of land on Red Mountain, along with water rights, they’ve been producing outstanding wines on Red Mountain since they moved there in 2002.

Mobile Bottling

Hightower does not own, or have room for, bottling equipment. But Bill Hamlin of Custom Mobile Bottling, has a complete wine bottling system on wheels!

 

Outside and inside of the mobile bottling trailer. (interior photo courtesy of Debbie)


His mobile bottling system does everything a winery could want. Bill said with his system, he can bottle 60+ bottles per minute, and the wine is more gently bottled, reducing the “bottle shock” effect. There is also a modern filtration system which the winemaker can make use of or not before bottling.

After the bottle is filled, the equipment corks the bottle, next a person drops a foil cap on top, and then the system seals the cap and applies the label. The bottles move down the line where a small crew boxes, seals and stacks the cases of wine on a palette. Bill Hamlin was there the entire time during the bottling. He was constantly monitoring equipment and making adjustments as needed.

I heard Bill described as a "perfectionist" several times by the Hightowers, an essential trait for running a bottling line. This is after all the final packaging and preservation phase of the wine we are going to purchase from stores and restaurants.


Team Effort

I was not the sole Washington Wine Ambassador volunteering on the bottling line. Bill Hamlin brought his own crew for the bottling. We volunteers were there as bottling relief. Debbie, also a Wine Ambassador, was from Seattle helping out (and she provided several of the photos I am using here) as was Ted, Ted is a member of the Tri-City Enological Society. 

"Wine is food, wine is life"


FYI: Debbie and her husband have purchased property in the Benton City area and have plans to open a Bed and Breakfast. Wish them luck, we could use more good places to stay in the area.

I should also mention that Larry Pearson and his wife, owners of Tapteil Estate Winery, showe d up and helped out too. Larry has been growing grapes on Red Mountain since 1985. A real group effort getting the 2006 Hightower vintages bottled.



It Was a Hot Day

Summer in SE Washington can be on the warm side. We’re hitting triple digits this week. The last 18 years I’ve been primarily a “desk jockey” working the computer gig. By now you probably figured out that the combination of “atypical” physical labor, heat, and dehydration led to me feeling a bit woozy by the afternoon. There was plenty of food and water available for all; you just have to remember to take advantage of it. After working quality control checking labels and foils on bottles, I sealed boxes for a while, later I used a portable lift to move palettes.

Almost Done In

After a lunch break, what did me in was plastic wrapping a palette of wine. A palette holds 60 cases of wine, 12 bottles per case. There are 12 cases per row, stacked 5 cases high which makes 60 cases on a palette. Each palette has to be wrapped up tightly, which requires the wrapper to hold a rather large, heavy roll of industrial “saran wrap” and wrap it round and round, up and down, upper corner to lower corner. It takes a lot of plastic and many trips around the palette to finish the job. That left me winded and hurting more than I thought it would. I went back to quality control on the bottling line.

That Too Hot Feeling - Heat Stroke

By the afternoon it was hot, and even hotter inside the bottling trailer. The exhaust fumes from the generator kept blowing past me, which didn’t help. My symptoms: profuse sweating, feeling over-heated, feeling light-headed, feeling nauseous, it was at this point I flagged someone down to cover for me.

Rather unexpectedly, at approximately 3:30 PM I found myself laid-out on the floor of the recently built Hightower tasting room. Kelly and Tim came back to make sure I was okay. Last year Kelly had too much sun and suffered heat-stroke. Guess it was my turn this year. I was moved to the tasting room floor so I could stretch out and recuperate. Shirt off, shoes off, belt unbuckled, melting ice-pack on my forehead and a cold bottle of water placed strategically, well, below my unbuckled belt. From my vantage on the floor, I got to know Kate and Jackie.

Kate and Jackie

Kate is in charge of the tasting room. The Hightower tasting room is open Friday and Saturday from 11 - 5. You couldn’t ask for a friendlier hostess, especially if you find yourself prone on the ground. 

 

Jackie placing lables on boxed cases (photo courtesy of Debbie).


Jackie is Tim Hightower’s mom. What a great mom, she’s responsible for the bottle of water and the improvised bed upon which I found myself reposed. Besides being Tim’s mom, Jackie has a background in Landscape Architecture. She’s become involved with the Washington Grape Growers Association and is very knowledgeable about soil types on Red Mountain (they are growing their own grapes there) and is expanding her expertise to Walla Walla and the surrounding region. I recall that she said basalt soil types are low in phosphorous, which does affect vine growth.

New Tasting Room

The Hightower tasting room is brand new. A Seattle architect (whose name I forgot) designed this energy efficient addition to the existing Hightower barrel room. From the floor I admired the attractive block walls and high wood ceiling. The blocks looked different, and reminded me of granite with their light/dark textured surface. Tim Hightower told me later that the blocks are specially made from recycled wood chips and concrete.



Tasting room interior recycled blocks and the west facing exterior.

These recycled blocks have a high “R” value and even though their facility is now twice the original size, their electric bill has not changed - great bonus.

 

Sunset and vineyard view from the winery.

The tasting room faces west and has a gorgeous two-story view of vineyards, valley and a lot of big blue sky. Think sunset party, because there is an attractive patio outside with chairs and tables just waiting to be used.

Rested to Finish Up

After an hour of rest and conversatio
n, more fluids and some salty mixed-nuts, I headed back outside to see if I could be of some use. By 6:30 PM we had finished bottling about 1,250 cases of wine! Bill said that was about the most he’d ever bottled in one day. That morning we bottled 2006 Merlot, then the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by 2006 Red Mountain Red, and 2006 Pepper Bridge (Walla Walla) and we finished the day with 2006 Murray Cuvee Red (a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot).

Back to the Tasting Room

Yes, after a long day of bottling it was back to the tasting room to actually sample some wine. As my regular readers know by now, I’m biased about wine and only post when I have something positive to share. So here’s some positive sharing. Seek out the Hightower label. Their wines are very good and their label is sophisticated and presents well too.

 


Brief Tasting Notes


We sampled four Hightower Cellar wines in the tasting room.


We began with the 2005 Murray Cuvee: Clean, bright, good acidity and the perfect wine for summer BBQ ribs or hamburgers. Recommended.

Next we moved on to the 2005 Merlot: Oh very tasty. Great color, lots of flavor, love that finish. This is a wine I could enjoy any day or every day, a favorite. Recommended.

Then the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon: This is an elegant wine. Classic Cabernet is how I would describe it, with gentle
tannins and a long finish. Save this one for Filet Mignon and date night. Recommended.

We then finished with the 2005 Red Mountain Red: Big red wine, gobs of flavor, huge finish, and classic Red Mountain characteristics. Yes, you can tell by taste that this is a Washington, Red Mountain red wine. Save this one for anniversaries and special occasions, lovely. Recommended.

Kelly and Tim have developed a style of wine I certainly appreciate. They retain more of the flavor of th
e fruit in their wine by minimizing the filtering before bottling (Kelly said they only use a “big bug catcher”). Of course they do much m
ore than that in crafting Hightower Cellars. Hightower Cellars is on my list and on my lips. I’m telling everyone I know about them and suggesting they visit their tasting room soon. A tasting room I know from the floor up. Tim also mentioned he has Syrah and Viognier grapes growing. So I’m really looking forward to enjoying his Rhone style red wine sometime in future.

Go Tasting

I hope you have the
opportunity to enjoy some Hightower Cellars wine and I encourage you to make the effort to visit their tasting room on Red Mountain. Kelly, Tim, Jackie and Kate made a terrific impression on me. Kudos.

 

North side of the winery at sunset.

FYI: The tasting room opened in M
ay and has regular hours 11 AM – 5 PM Friday and Saturday. You’ll find the tasting room by driving to the top of Red Mountain on Sunset Road, when you run out of paved road, turn left onto the gravel road and they are the second turn on the right. If you venture out now, you may just catch the Verasion, which is when the grapes change color as they ripen towards maturity. Lovely view up there.

Hightower Cellars Website


Learn more about Custom Mobile Bottling here.

Tapteil Estate Website

Cheers!


Did I mention it was hot last Friday?

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