How Woodward Canyon Winery Old Vines Cab became a classic

By on January 21, 2016
Woodward Canyon Winery has been making its Old Vines Dedication Series Cabernet Sauvignon since 1981.

Rick Small’s first Cabernet Sauvignon was the Old Vines Dedication Series when he started Woodward Canyon Winery in 1981. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

LOWDEN, Wash. – Woodward Canyon Winery‘s Old Vines Dedication Series Cabernet Sauvignon has been one of the classic Washington wines since its inaugural vintage back in 1981.

It all starts with the grapes, said Rick Small, owner of the Walla Walla Valley winery. He started out using Cabernet Sauvignon fruit from Sagemoor Vineyards north of Pasco – and he’s still using those grapes today to make one of the great American red wines.

We recently caught up with Small at his winery west of Walla Walla to chat about his Old Vines Cab. Here’s the interview.

Woodward Canyon Winery’s first Cab

Rick Small owns Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden, Wash.

Rick Small is the owner of Woodward Canyon Winery, which he launched in 1981. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

When Small launched Woodward Canyon Winery in 1981, he wanted to make a Cabernet Sauvignon.

“We wanted to do something special,” he told Great Northwest Wine. “One of my next-door neighbors, who happened to be the curator at Whitman College at the time, suggested possibly doing some sort of dedication to Walla Walla pioneers.”

Walla Walla is a town rich with history, so for that inaugural Cab, Small put a photo of A.P. Woodward on the label and named the wine “Dedication Series.” For the next quarter-century, a different Walla Walla Valley pioneer appeared on the label, with each person’s story going on the back label.

But that became problematic after awhile. Some family members gave permission to use photos, while others didn’t.

“It got into issues with rights and intellectual property,” Small said.

So when a member of the Woodward family stopped by the winery and suggested putting A.P. Woodward back on the label, Small jumped at the idea and has stuck with it since.

“The Woodward family has been supporters of our winery,” he said. “They’re still in the valley.”

In the first few years, Small gravitated toward some of the best Cab vineyards in area. One of his favorites was Sagemoor, which was planted in the early 1970s along the Columbia River.

In 1983, Small made what has become one of the best wines he’s ever crafted. It was a small crop and most of the grapes came from Kiona Vineyards on Red Mountain. It also was the year his daughter, Jordan, was born.

“i don’t think I did anything unique or anything like that,” he said. “I just think it was really, really good fruit. That was a special vintage. It’s had good staying power.”

Adding Champoux to the mix

Champoux Vineyards is in Washington's Horse Heaven Hills.

Rick Small and Kevin Mott use Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Champoux Vineyards’ oldest block, planted in 1972 in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Because the Cabernet Sauvignon was so good the first couple of years, Small attracted the attention of Don Mercer, who planted the first vines in the Horse Heaven Hills in 1972. Mercer and his wife stopped by Woodward Canyon in 1984 to taste and purchase wine.

“Don said to me, ‘You should buy grapes from me.’ That kind of set up the situation for me to get some fruit in 1985 from Don,” Small said. “I got it from the same place that I’m actually still using today.”

That vineyard was known as Mercer Ranch, and by the 1990s, it was taken over by Paul Champoux, who developed it into Washington’s finest vineyard. In fact, in 1996, Small joined Champoux and a few other wineries to purchase the vineyard, and he maintains an ownership stake in it today.

Mercer Ranch and Sagemoor were planted the same year, and these are some of the oldest Cab vines in Washington, so Small began to refer to the wine as his Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon.

“It’s always going to be Cabernet from Sagemoor and Champoux,” he said. “We’re just trying to make the best wine.”

In 2010, Small and his winemaker, Kevin Mott, didn’t produce an Old Vines Cab – a first in the history of Woodward Canyon.

“I didn’t do that lightly,” he said. “I have to be able to look people in the eye and say, ‘This vintage isn’t good enough to make an Old Vines.’ ”

So all the Champoux and Sagemoor Cab that would have gone into the Old Vines instead dropped down one tier into his Artist Series, a Cabernet Sauvignon that sells for $59 per bottle – $40 less than the Old Vines. Many wineries would not have the fortitude to make such a decision, but for Small, it was a no-brainer.

“I tasted the wine several weeks ago, and I absolutely know now that I made exactly the right decision,” he said. “I sleep better at night knowing that. You can’t think about one vintage. You have to think about your reputation and the goodwill hopefully you build up by doing things like that. You just do the right thing. My dad brought me up that way.”

2012 Old Vines Cab top of the class

Woodward Canyon Winery's 2012 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon is the top wine in The Seattle Times top 50 wines of 2015.

Owner Rick Small, left, and winemaker Kevin Mott are the two behind the Woodward Canyon Winery 2012 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon, which is The Seattle Times Wine of the Year for 2015. (Photo by Great Northwest Wine)

Two years after declassifying all of the barrels that would have become the Old Vines Cab, Mott and Small crafted one of the great wines from one of Washington’s finest vintages.

The 2012 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon won all kinds of awards throughout 2015 when it was released, culminating in being named The Seattle Times Wine of the Year.

“One of the things that’s cool about that ’12 vintage is that wine is still from the same blocks that we’re talking about from ’83 and ’87,” Small said. “We’re using Sagemoor fruit and Champoux fruit predominantly – and from the same places.”

Following the historically cool 2010 and 2011 vintages, 2012 was spectacular by any measure. It wasn’t too warm, and it wasn’t too cool. Everything started and finished exactly when they should.

“That was one of the beautiful things about the ’12s,” Small said. “It was a little more toned down than the warm vintages. I thought they showed a little more elegance.”

He’s just now releasing the 2013 Old Vines Cab, and he and Mott are working on the ’14 and ’15 vintages, both of which have him excited.

With the Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon annually being Woodward Canyon’s star wine, it often is in high demand despite the $99 price tag. When released, the wine is available first to those on Woodward Canyon mailing list before it is goes into general distribution. Even though there usually is only between 500 and 700 cases made, the wine does go into top wine shops throughout the Pacific Northwest as well as select markets such as New York and Chicago.

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is a frequent judge at international wine competitions. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times. You can find him on Twitter and .

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