Henning Knipprath hails from a world-famous nexus of wine: Koblenz, Germany, where the Rhine meets the Mosel.
So, naturally, Knipprath Cellars specializes in port and other Portuguese and Spanish styles.
It all makes sense, once you hear the full story behind this Spokane winemaking pioneer.
We sat down with Henning Knipprath at his winery, in the century-old Parkwater Schoolhouse near Felts Field, and learned the story behind his signature ports, sherries and tempranillos.
SR: Tell us about your background and how you got started in the wine business.
Knipprath: It started in Germany, in the Rhine area. My grandfather was very passionate about wines, and there was not a meal (without wine) – well, I should say, maybe breakfast. But, for him, meals were created around wine.
That got me curious and interested. When we went back to the United States (after moving back and forth from Germany several times), I went to college in California (Cal State Northridge). There was always the presence of the growing wine industry there, and I took some ancillary classes.
And as a result, I continued to expand my awareness and appreciation of it. And finally, going into the Air Force, they offered me Washington state as a base to transition to. So I found myself here in Spokane, at Fairchild. I was a (KC-135 tanker) pilot out of here.
SR: Tell us about the origins of Knipprath Cellars.
Knipprath: Between having the interest already, and coming to Washington at the time (1990), when the wine industry just seemed to be getting into motion, it seemed not inappropriate to perhaps look into opening a winery as a way to establish a family and get involved in the industry.
Knipprath Cellars started in fall of 1993, part time. I was still in the service, so it was very part time. We were downtown, and we ended up transitioning to full time in 1999 at this location, and we have been in this building ever since.
SR: How did the winery evolve?
Knipprath: We started making wines like everyone else: the French varietals, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon. We were (also) making cabernet franc, syrah and rieslings. We were trying to find where we needed to hold the tiller. We were making some Alsatian style white wines, too, dry gewurztraminer, dry muscat. They turned out quite nice.
And then we started making some ports. And surprisingly, the demand for the ports was outpacing anything else we had.
SR: How did you even come up with the idea of making port?
Knipprath: During my tour with the Air Force, we ended up in Spain for a little while, and England, where there was a lot of appreciation and awareness for port. And the one wine style that my grandfather enjoyed, along with the German wines, was Portuguese port.
I just really enjoyed them, myself. To me, they can exhibit a wide range of styles and complexities.
So the first port we made was our Positron port. Mike Hinzerling (in the Yakima Valley) was making port, and I think Whidbey (Island) port was in existence. But by and large, it was a fairly rare commodity in the state. For producers at the time, port tended to be relegated as an afterthought, versus what we do, which is: This is at the forefront of where we want to take this product.
(We used) Columbia Valley grapes, and made it in a traditional style. I would say that was back when we were still part time, in 1998 or 1997.
SR: What made you realize that port was your future?
Knipprath: The demand, the interest and the fact that we were getting ratings and reviews that were really good. We have taken gold and silver medals for virtually all of the ports that we have crafted.
We started making what I refer to as nontraditional ports, flavored ports. Those were, curiously enough, inspirations that came from being aged in barrels, with the idea of crafting (traditional) port out of them. In one instance, we had a cabernet sauvignon port that was picking up some dark overtones to it, and we thought, “How could we really bring this out more? This is really interesting.” So we thought, “Let’s try to craft a chocolate-type cabernet port.” Really, we were the first in the state to create that; in fact, the first in the Northwest to offer that. It has a natural cocoa essence infused (it is called Au Chocolat! Port).
LaV! Port is vanilla-bean aged. Our up-and-coming most popular one is our Spanish Nudge Coffee Port. It’s a syrah port, aged with Starbucks dark roast coffee and cinnamon sticks, and it has a Spanish coffee flavor. Nice layered flavors. You would enjoy it in the evening, when you would have a coffee after-dinner.
We have also started a sherry solera, and we have an oloroso sherry.
SR: Do you still make other wines?
Knipprath: What we’ve done – to make it more thematically consistent – is that we still offer some drier dinner-type wines, but now we have an emphasis on Iberian grape varieties. So now we have a red wine, the Vino Tinto, and a tempranillo, and a dry rosé, that’s a blend of syrah and grenache.
SR: What are some of your most successful and popular offerings?
Knipprath: The tempranillo is very popular. As far as the ports go, for the traditional port enthusiasts, the Positron Tawny Port is a big favorite. I have to say our Reserve Matrix is very popular, too. That’s our reserve ruby port. For the people who don’t mind the nontraditional styles, I’ve got to say the Spanish Nudge right now is the big popular one.
SR: Tell us about your tasting room.
Knipprath: This is the Parkwater Schoolhouse. It actually served K-through-12 when it was built in 1913. It was the only structure in the area other than the hangars at Felts Field. It served as the schoolhouse for 30 years. … It reopened as a Catholic School for a number of years and has served a variety of other uses, including as a convalescent home in the 1970s and a brewery for a few years. Hale’s Ales had a kegging operation here before they consolidated to Kirkland.
SR: What’s in the future for Knipprath Cellars?
Knipprath: There’s room enough to grow and expand here. The size of the building would allow us to go up to 4,000 cases a year production. Right now, we’re around 1,800 cases a year. We would like to continue to grow.
Just when you think you’ve figured things out, part of the plan for the future is to re-introduce some French wine varietals that we keep being asked about. Based on the number of people who are asking, it may be time bring some of those back.
But I think as awareness continues to grow about what we do – as a winery that intended to make port from the start – that will continue to define our business.
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