It’s been a career of soaring heights and tragic lows. When, in 2009, the resilient Champoux was at the top of his game, everything he’d worked for came crashing down.
ALL OF THE cabernet sauvignon is pulled from the vine, the dark, juicy grapes plucked, crushed, fermented and safely tucked away into barrels for the winter.
Paul Champoux’s final harvest is complete.
Washington’s most celebrated and resilient grape grower has put down his pruning shears, marking the completion of a career that brought remarkable triumphs and incredible hardships.
Champoux is 65, an age when folks in corporate jobs call it a career. It doesn’t work that way on the farms in the dusty Horse Heaven Hills of Eastern Washington. Champoux figured he would leave his vineyard feet first.
He nearly did.
Champoux was raised in the Yakima Valley, where he grew hops. In 1979, Chateau Ste. Michelle hired him to help plant 2,000 acres of wine grapes around Paterson, now home to Columbia Crest. Amid those vines, he discovered his passion.
A decade later, he began managing Mercer Ranch, a rundown vineyard in nearby Alderdale. By 1996, he put together a group of wineries to buy the vines, including Woodward Canyon, Quilceda Creek, Powers and Andrew Will. It was renamed Champoux Vineyards, and the winery partners soon were delivered some of the finest grapes in the state.
Within a decade, the partnership paid off when The Wine Advocate, a newsletter then owned by famed wine critic Robert Parker, scored the Quilceda Creek 2002 cabernet sauvignon a perfect 100 points. That wine used grapes primarily from Champoux, and Quilceda Creek’s father-son duo of Alex and Paul Golitzen followed with 100-pointers in 2003, 2005 and 2007. These remain the only four wines in Washington history to earn perfect scores from a major wine publication. Champoux was at the top of his game, the height of Washington viticulture.
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Then everything he worked for came crashing down.
On July 4, 2009, a mosquito bit him. Two weeks later, he came down with flu-like symptoms, and two days after that, he was paralyzed. His wife, Judy, feared he would die during the two weeks it took a Portland hospital to diagnose West Nile virus.
But by the start of harvest, Champoux could begin to move his wrist, and he directed his crew as Judy held the phone to his ear. By Christmas, he was drinking wine — albeit through a straw.
Within a year, Champoux was getting around in a wheelchair, and by 2011, he could walk a few steps with a walker.
Just when it seemed life was getting back to normal, Judy was hit in 2012 with an inner-ear imbalance and a bad back that kept her off her feet for the better part of a year.
Now, it’s time for them to focus on their lives rather than the seasons of the vines. It’s time for Champoux to concentrate on getting out of the wheelchair for good.
So they have sold their shares in the vineyard they built from nearly nothing, and for the first Christmas in their adult lives, Paul and Judy Champoux are able to relax.