Renowned Champoux Vineyard's
Paul Champoux Recovers
With Grit, Determination
and Small Steps
September, 20, 2011
By Christina Kelly, Avalon Wine Senior Editor
A tiny mosquito
altered Paul Champoux's life.
West Nile virus toppled his 6-foot-plus frame, shut down his muscles and nerves, and nearly stopped his heart. When the virus left him paralyzed, it initially threatened production of one of the finest vineyards in North America.
That was in July of 2009. Two years after he was infected, the affable vineyard partner and manager of famed Champoux Vineyard continues to recover, taking small steps to walk again, putting his weight on legs that quit working during the peak of the virus. Although most people with the West Nile virus exhibit flu-like symptoms, Champoux's severe reaction is rare.
"My life is getting back to normal," said Champoux, 62, a former hops farmer who has spent more than half of his life growing grapes in Eastern Washington in the Horse Heaven Hills region. "I am learning to live life in a different way. You just make it work."
Unable to walk on his own yet, Champoux now uses a wheelchair at home and an all-terrain vehicle to dart in and out of the vineyards. His straightforward, going-to-lick-this-thing, positive attitude draws smiles from winemakers who have worked with Champoux for many years.
"If there was anyone who can come back from this, it is Paul Champoux," said Greg Powers, a winery partner in the vineyard and a personal friend. "It has been tough to see him in a wheelchair and struggle to get better. The four-wheeler has been a great help. He can get around in the vineyards now and see things for himself. He has more freedom."
Powers said Champoux, who is chairman of the Horse Heaven Hills Wine Growers Association, was recently provided a gavel to run the meetings with a mosquito attached to the head. Every time he banged the gavel, he whacked the mosquito, providing comic relief during what is normally a down-to-business group.
Paul Champoux, back in the vineyard, 2011
Champoux -- The Vineyard With a Stellar Reputation
Located 35 miles south of Sunnyside, WA, Champoux Vineyard grapes are coveted by many winemakers who scramble to get on a waiting list. The wineries that regularly get Champoux fruit rarely give up their allotment. Cabernet Sauvignon is king at the vineyards, although wineries are gaining recognition with other Champoux fruit, including a brisk Riesling, a violet-infused Cabernet Franc, the luscious blueberry-flavored Syrah and some of the best Merlot grown in the Northwest.
Champoux Vineyard was originally part of the expansive 6,600 acre Mercer Ranch, owned by the family of Don Mercer, whose family planted the first vines in 1972. In 1990, Paul and Judy Champoux began leasing some of the vineyard land that sits about five miles from the Columbia River.
Surrounding the vineyards are farmlands, tumbleweeds and small towns surviving on the agricultural way of life: if you need something, your neighbor loans it to you. Businesses in this neck of the woods come and go, but farmers, on their umpteenth vintage of John Deere, are the mainstay.
"It's a real special piece of soil," said Rick Small, owner of Woodward Canyon, who uses grapes from Champoux as the backbone of his Old Vines and Artist Series wines. "Paul has been a farmer all his life, and knows that area very well. At the time he started, the established crop on the land was potatoes. It was a gamble to pull them out and plant a vineyard. He worked that land long before it was called Champoux."
In fact, Paul Champoux worked in vineyard management for Chateau Ste Michelle in 1979 at the site that would later become Columbia Crest Winery, and began growing grapes on Mercer Ranch a few years later. In 1996, Paul and Judy formed a partnership, and with Chris Camarda (Andrew Will Winery), Alex Golitzin (Quilceda Creek), Rick Small (Woodward Canyon) and Bill Powers (Powers Winery), purchased the vineyard land.
The first 100-point wine from Champoux Vineyards came in 2002 for Quilceda Creek's Cabernet, when the highly influential Robert Parker, critic for the Wine Advocate, awarded the perfect score. 100-point scores for Champoux Vineyard-based wines followed in 2003, 2005 and 2007. A generous handful of Quilceda wines have received 99-point scores from Parker as well. Andrew Will, Woodward Canyon, Sineann, Powers, Soos Creek and Fidelitas wineries have also scored high marks from critics for wines made from Champoux grapes. Those winemakers credit their success to Paul Champoux for his meticulous work in the vineyard.
Entrance to Champoux Vineyard
The Key to Success
Plant nutrition is Champoux's secret weapon. Each plant goes through what he calls five stages or "seasons": the initial growth, the reproductive cycle, the secondary growth, the lag phase, and the maturation cycle. Every season has a different nutritional requirement, for which Champoux creates a different nutrient spray - something he says many vineyard owners and managers don't do. He helps his vines through the photosynthesis process, when they make the carbohydrates needed for energy development. He uses foliar nutrition to correct any imbalances that he sees in his tissue samples.
Collecting data from year to year allows Champoux to keep track of patterns in various blocks of vines. It is this meticulous nurturing - "spoon-feeding" the grapes, he calls it - that Champoux believes can accentuate the color, flavors, and varietal characteristics. "I try to get the vines riper through nutrition and start my sugar conversion earlier," he says. "That's my antifreeze. I make sure there is plenty of soil moisture for the winter. If it is dry around the root system, winter conditions will suck all the moisture out of the roots and freeze-dry it."
Although the vineyard is not completely organic, Champoux uses no synthetic fertilizers, sprays herbicides only when necessary, and farms with organic compost and cover crops. He adds elemental sulfur, along with copper and phosphorus, as a nutrient for the development of flavors and to help balance the high pH levels of the soils. Another key to growing grapes in this location is water management. Champoux uses drip irrigation and micro-sprinklers throughout the property, which requires the finesse of a tightrope walker: too little water can overstress a plant and affect the reproductive cycle; too much water creates an overabundance of growth, diluting the berries' flavors and creating excessive humidity around the plants.
Winemakers throughout the Northwest know of the vineyard's reputation; Champoux says he probably gets 20 to 30 or more calls per year from wineries asking for fruit that is already spoken for. "It's a good place to be," he acknowledges with a slow smile.
As Rick Small puts it, "I don't think it is a coincidence that the best winemakers end up with that fruit. The two seem to come together naturally. We know what we want, and Paul knows how to deliver it."
Champoux knows the seasons of his vineyard intuitively, say winemakers. As the third generation of a family of farmers in eastern Washington, he has worked the soils, learned the secrets of water manipulation in a dry region, and developed a keen sense of timing and sensitivity to changes in the weather. He nurtures and hovers over his 180 acres, striking a delicate balance in grapes that ultimately end up in wine from about 25 producers.
The sandy, well-drained, loamy soils are whipped daily by winds that blow from the west through the Columbia Gorge, thickening the grape skins and concentrating the sugars. Half the vineyard is planted to Cabernet; the rest consists of small blocks of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Lemberger, Chardonnay, Riesling, Muscat Canelli, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
"I take what Mother Nature gives me and add my own techniques," said Champoux, who originally intended to be a high school teacher rather than a grape grower.
Mother Nature Gives a Life Lesson
The Champouxs never expected Mother Nature to throw them a curve ball. Mosquitoes and other insects are a part of farm life, and Paul has been bitten before. The one that bit him sometime in early July of 2009 carried the West Nile virus. The incubation period is about two weeks, and Champoux was feeling tired and achy. A quick trip to the local hospital when his joints and muscles were stiff and sore only garnered the advice to drink more water and take anti-inflammatory medication.
On July 17, Paul Champoux could not move from the neck down. He was rushed to a local hospital and later flown to Oregon Health & Science University. Doctors spent nearly two weeks trying to rule out neurodegenerative disorders such as Lou Gehrig's disease before centering on West Nile.
"I was frightened of course. This was my best friend and life partner and we were fighting this together," his wife Judy recalled. "From that moment on, we switched gears to focus on whatever it took for a full recovery."
Slowly, Champoux gained feeling, first in his wrists and later in his lower extremities, but grueling rehabilitation was necessary to keep his muscles from atrophying and the nerve connections responsive. The couple knew the tests indicated that Paul could recover and even walk again, but it would take hyper-vigilance to make it possible.
"We made short and long-term goals," said Paul. "We set up the house so that all the equipment needed for rehab was readily available. If I could use the walker and go 50 feet, the next goal would be 100 feet."
If there was a lesson from Mother Nature in the past two years, the couple says it was that they no longer sweat the small stuff, and have learned to recognize small victories.
"You learn who your friends are during times like this," said Paul, who credits much of his recovery to his wife. "I've had contact from friends from high school that I haven't heard from in many years. I've learned that the most important things in life involve family and friends, and that the strongest part of recovery is attitude."
Battling Recovery Together
During the time when Paul was recovering, the 2009 harvest and crush became the next hurdle to jump, and the sense of anxiety was palpable. Chris Camarda said everyone was worried since Champoux's skills relied heavily on his intimate knowledge of the vines and grapes.
"It was a tough time, and we didn't know what to expect," Camarda said. "Paul's lack of mobility kept him from the vineyards."
Champoux's bed became Grand Central Station. Judy would hold the phone to her husband's ear and he would instruct his crew on harvesting the various blocks in the vineyard. His vineyard manager, Kevin Laurent would bring grapes for Paul to sample before harvest.
"My crew stepped up and did a fantastic job," said Paul. "This is when you find out just how good a crew you have. The 2009 vintage was in and it was good."
By the 2010 harvest, Paul was able to get out into the vineyards in a truck that Judy would drive. Little by little, his muscles responded to daily work-outs and vigorous physical therapy. The couple was determined that West Nile would not define them, only make them stronger.
But Mother Nature wasn't finished with the Champouxs. On November 24, 2010, a severe freeze struck most of Eastern Washington, with temperatures around 25 degrees. For 24 hours, the cold plummeted to minus 10 degrees. That cold snap heavily damaged many of the vineyards in the region in Yakima, Walla Walla, Red Mountain and Champoux.
"I am estimating that my crops will be down about 50 percent," said Champoux, recognizing the parallel between his own recovery and that of his vineyards. "Some of it will be replanted, and some won't have fruit for one to two years. We'll make the adjustments and build a stronger vineyard."
The same could be said for the Champouxs. Both admit that they would like to slow down a bit and perhaps travel more in the future.
"We love what we do, but it would be nice to get away from the vineyards more often," said Judy. "We've always been in this together. We talk to each other realistically - we don't pretend. There is still more work ahead and we approach it one day at a time."
In the meantime, Champoux just planted a half-acre of Marquette vines, a promising new red wine variety that combines high levels of cold hardiness and disease resistance with excellent wine quality. Champoux refers to it as Pinot Noir's grandson.
"You got to move on," said Champoux. "You've got to look to the future."