WALLA WALLA, Wash. – Merlot has slipped to No. 2 when it comes to red varieties in Washington state, but a recent library tasting in Walla Walla of Waterbrook Winery has founding winemaker Eric Rindal believing in the grape more than ever.
“Merlot still could be the ‘state grape,’ ” Rindal said after a vertical tasting that began with a show-stopping Columbia Valley production from the 1987 vintage. “It was surprising how well these are doing.”
Rindal was age 23 when he started Waterbrook in 1983, and 23 years later, he sold it to Precept Wine in 2006.
“I still have a few of these wines in my cellar at the house,” said Rindal, who continues to live in Walla Walla, where he helps run a winery management software firm. “I have to admit it had been a long time since I tasted them, and it was kind of impressive, actually. There were wines that were really nice. It was a little bit unexpected on my part.”
When Rindal and his first wife, Janet, launched Waterbrook, it was the fourth winery in the Walla Walla Valley. The historic tasting, orchestrated by Precept and current Waterbrook winemaker John Freeman, included the 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, 1987 Merlot and 1997 Meritage.
“We did an ’83 Chardonnay, but for Cabernet and Merlot, our first vintages were ’84,” Rindal said. “That was early, early on in Washington history. There were a few pioneers who came before me, obviously, Gary Figgins and Rick Small. The Prestons. There were a few out in Prosser, but it seems like there were only nine wineries in the state when we started.”
Rindal considers himself a longtime proponent for Merlot in Washington, and he credits much of his early winemaking style to Kay Simon – his first consultant.
“She had just started Chinook after leaving Chateau Ste. Michelle, and I think that what I learned early on probably came from Kay,” Rindal said. “She gave me a good minimalist basis for what she thought Washington was. And that has held true over time.”
The restraint showed in many of the Waterbrook library wines came to bear with the amount of red fruit, shimmering acidity and an undercoat of tannin.
“The challenge with those was that early on they were not as approachable in a style that we have today that is sort of expected and required by the wine press and the restaurant and even in the consumers,” he said. “I think our palates have certainly changed. The challenge was having the foresight to be able to design wines that were meant to be aged. And required it. You didn’t want to drink them young. They need four, five, six, seven years before they started to become interesting.
“But what’s more interesting about that is they still hold some interest,” he added while a smile broadened across his face. “It was really quite surprising the amount of fruit that some of them were holding.”
Winemaking style is only one explanation for the longevity in many of the older Waterbrook wines.
“There’s been a lot of talk about global warming and how that has affected our environment for a lot of different things, the oceans, and many aspects of life,” Rindal said. “A few decades do not a weather pattern make, but the seasons as I recall them early on in the 80s were just cooler. You struggled sometimes to get Cabernet ripe. Merlot was really fun because it can hang out there a long time to just come to that perfect ripeness.
“Now we see Merlot being picked much earlier — 10, 15, 20 days earlier that when we would have picked it back then,” Rindal continued. “And yet they are at high sugars now. We’ve got more heat up here in Washington. Whether we see that as a long-term trend or revert back to some of those earlier times, it’s hard to say.”
That also begins to explain why many of the 20th century Merlots from Waterbrook are tasting so nicely in the 21st century.
“I loved the Merlots,” Rindal said. “This proved they could go the distance, and I’m not sure they still do or are designed to do that. They were difficult to sell in the early days. They were still hard, pretty tight and angular. They took time (in the bottle.)”
It’s been more than six years since he sold his brand to Andrew Browne and Precept, and the timing was right, Rindal said.
“I have three children and they weren’t all that interested in following me into the wine business, and I had an opportunity to sell to Andrew,” he explained. “It seemed to be a good time after almost 25 years, and we were at 50,000 cases at the time. Really, we needed to move to 150,000 cases if we were going to keep going. There was a step in between there, and (Precept) was better equipped than I was to see that through.”
Precept also maintained some consistency by retaining John Freeman, whom Rindal appointed as Waterbrook’s head winemaker in 2005 — a year before he sold the winery.
Freeman and Precept’s other winemakers in Washington have access to more than 2,700 acres of estate vineyards. In the early days, Rindal’s primary fruit sources for Waterbrook were Balcom & Moe, Moreman, Sagemoor and Klipsun vineyards. He also recalled buying fruit in 1983 from Stewart Vineyards in Granger.
“Our first vintage was supposed to be six tons of a Cab, six tons of Merlot, a bit of Sauv Blanc and Chardonnay, and we ended up with 2,200 cases,” Rindal said.
He grew up in the Seattle area, but his ties to Walla Walla began with a ski trip to Sun Valley when he met his first wife, Janet. They moved to her hometown, Walla Walla, where some of Janet’s longtime family friends were the Fergusons – who went on to open the iconic L’Ecole No. 41 with son-in-law Marty Clubb as the winemaker.
“I was a cellar rat the first year at L’Ecole,” Rindal said.
During the vertical tasting, Rindal shared stories about some members of Waterbrook’s alumni association, which includes Ron Coleman, who handled marketing before launching Tamarack Cellars, and Christophe Baron, once an intern from France who went on to create Cayuse. Waterbrook also served as a place where others could work on their wines, including Charlie Hoppes and Mike Januik.
After selling Waterbrook, Rindal entered into retirement, but he soon sought more from life and a return to the wine industry. He’s found that with Ingio/Vin Balance, a winery management software firm that specializes in enterprise resource planning.
“Now I travel extensively throughout the West Coast and, to some degree, on the East Coast,” Rindal said. “I have a software company that does ERP systems for wineries that was leftover from Waterbrook. I kind of retired there for a little while and played with some airplanes, did some other things and got bored.
“I find that I need some sort of business to keep interested. And I love the wine business. I always have,” he continued. “This is sort of a different aspect. A lot of people have come to the wine business from the software business, and they say they have sort of a lifestyle winery business. I have the opposite. Now I have a lifestyle software company.”
And even though it has been years since Rindal has worked there, Waterbrook’s winemaking team and tasting room staff seemed to enjoy sharing stories and wine with him.
“I feel really privileged to have the staff, John and all his crew to invite me here and participate,” he said. “It was really quite fun for me. I really enjoyed it. The Waterbrook brand is in good hands with John. It’s nice to see the rest of the crew are still here carrying on the tradition.”
Waterbrook Merlot vertical tasting notes
1987 Merlot: The nose was reminiscent of King Estate’s jam made with strawberries and Pinot Noir, backed with red currants and some dustiness. There was very little bottle bouquet. The drink carried scant signs of oak, allowing for strawberry/rhubarb pie flavors and delicious acidity. A heckuva way to begin the vertical. Rindal recollections: “The big challenge in those days was vigor because there wasn’t a lot of drip irrigation yet so the water cycling tended to produce more vegetative fruit. We were working with a lot of new vineyards back then. Everything was done by the ton.”
1992 Reseve Merlot: Aromas highlighted red raspberries, rhubarb compote, cranberry, some toasted marshmallow and a bit of Flintstone vitamin. There was great texture on the vibrant palate with juicy raspberries, blueberry acidity and Marionberry cobbler. Rindal recollections: “The sugar level was very common for back then. The grower made the decisions back then. If reds hit 23 brix, they were harvested. For the whites, it was 21.5, so there were higher acidities. If you wanted a little bit more hang time? If it was even close, you’d better take it (from the grower) or you’ll lose it because someone else will take it.”
1994 Merlot: Its wardrobe was a remarkable reddish purple, not the brickish color that one might expect from a nearly 20-year-old wine. The nose came with dusty red fruit, pink peppercorns and clean linen. Inside, there was still plenty of fruit, leading with black currant flavors, delicious acidity and slaty tannins.
1995 Merlot: Time hadn’t served this nearly as well from the aromatics, primarily because of annoying brett, although there was more of that linen/flannel and some lime peel. On the palate, there was more black currant and raspberry but not as much fruit as the 1994. Tannins were more evident, and it finished with some enjoyable mint.
1995 Reserve Merlot: This could have been a vineyard-designate because it all came off Jim Holmes’ Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain. The nose showed red cherries and currants, brown sugar, sage, mint and tobacco leaf. Those same fruity notes arrived as flavors, as did the tobacco leaf, and a late grab of gravelly tannins. Rindal recollections: “Jim could have been a bit miffed he didn’t get a call-out on the label.”
1996 Merlot: This year marked the debut of a new label for Waterbrook, but this vintage goes down as one of most memorable vintages for Washington winemakers because the devastating winter of 1995-96. Many vineyards in the Columbia Valley got wiped out. Collectors of Leonetti remember seeing “American” listed as the AVA because Gary Figgins needed to go beyond the state. And this wine didn’t show well in the nose with marjoram leading the cranberries, currants and pie cherries. On the palate, there was considerably more fruit, drinking akin to a big Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills with high-toned fruit fruit, loads of acidity, but with sturdy tannins. Rindal recollections: “We made very little that year, and what fruit we did get came from Harold Pleasant near Prosser. Our production couldn’t have been more than a third of normal. (Ste. Michelle CEO) Allen Shoup was pretty generous with fruit for certain, smaller wineries, but that didn’t extended to Waterbrook unfortunately,” Rindal said with a chuckle. “He let some of his (grape) contracts go just to keep a lot of the little guys going, which was very generous that year. I’m sure he took some heat for that at the corporate level. There was lasting damage to some of the vineyards, and it took several years to recover from that.”
1999 Merlot, Red Mountain: The theme of purple fruit started with aromas of fresh President plum, boysenberry, and blueberry, joined by lilac, pineapple and dried apricot. Those same purple fruits washed through as flavors, and they hanged on the palate with a lot of acidity. Rindal recollections: “That’s Washington Merlot. I think Waterbrook bought more Red Mountain fruit – Klipsun and Ciel du Cheval – than anyone in the late ’80s and early ’90s. We’d try to get all of Patricia (Gelles’) Sauvignon Blanc.”
2000 Merlot, Red Mountain: Signs of the barrel program emerged early in the nose with vanilla bean and cinnamon, yet there was plenty of dark red fruit in support with hints of black currant jam and black cherry. Sweet cherries led the flavors, and the tannins structure was more balanced as the currant and cherry flavors hang through the finish. Rindal recollections: “There was a big shift. We started out trying to make a European model and trying to make them to hold up over time, but there was this evolution being driven by the wine press to make wines that were immediately accessible, especially at a restaurant. The wines had to be drinkable now. Fewer people wanted to cellar them for some periods of time. Harvey Steiman was in charge of Washington state (for Wine Spectator), and people were changing winemaking styles to suit his palate – no question. All of us were. Well, not all of us. There was Mike Moore at Blackwood Canyon, rest his soul.”
2001 Merlot, Red Mountain: This showed similar to the 2000, starting with aromas of vanilla, brown sugar, black cherry and a red fruit compote. The flavor profile was delicious with black cherries, juicy acidity and refined tannin. There almost was no perception of alcohol, although it finished just a bit short.
2004 Merlot: Raspberry, Montmorency cherry and slate aromas funneled into a continuation of ripe red fruit flavors. Pleasing mouthfeel with balanced acidity and tamed tannin made for a lingering fruity finish. Rindal recollections: “Merlot still could be the ‘state grape.’ ”
Vertical tasting of Waterbrook Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Cabernet Sauvignon: There wasn’t much fruit left in the nose, yet there was fascination with hints of jalapeño jelly and green olive. It was more vegetative on the palate, but there were tasty notes of cassis and dried cranberry, lemon peel acidity and sublime tannins. Rindal recollections: “The fruit would have come from Sagemoor, Balcom & Moe and Moreman. The Cab didn’t really get ripe that year.” Subsequent research revealed that Moreman Vineyard fruit — a site in Pasco, Wash., — also contributed to Rick Small’s Woodward Canyon Old Vines program in 1984.
1987 Cabernet Sauvignon: Arguably a sign of some cork issues, the nose hinted at cinnamon and cedar, but it was robbed of fruit. There was plenty of black cherry flavors, though, good acidity, a bit of molasses and showed balance. Rindal recollections: “We worked with Bob Moreman those first few years. After Bob retired, Waterbrook moved most of its sourcing to Red Mountain where we worked with Fred Artz at Klipsun and Jim Holmes at Ciel. Bob was very much an important part of the Sagemoor/Moreman/Balcom & Moe/Preston group of early vineyard operators that represented the core of wine grape growers in the Columbia Basin.” The Moreman block is now known as Reed Vineyard and operated by Mike Reed, a former son-in-law of Moreman.
1990 Cabernet Sauvignon: These big reds continue to lean toward red fruit, starting with aromas of dusty Van cherries, orange peel and slate. Flavors brought lots of acidity with red currant and pie cherry, backed by crushed sage, and plenty of grip from tannin. Rindal recollections: “When we started, we’d get 2,200-2,300 heat units. Later, some of the spots where we getting fruit were receiving 3,500 heat units, so it was a different region than when we started. And the freezes were much more frequent back then. Historically, there have been three freezes in Washington state that have frozen apple trees out. Now that’s cold. Grapevines are pretty hardy. Most of the time they will come back the next year and be fine if they are on their own rootstock.”
1995 Cabernet Sauvignon: The nose was rather herbal and somewhat foxy, joined by black pepper. Black currant flavors and assertive tannins show early and ride through the midpalate, finished by enjoyable cherry vanilla.
1996 Cabernet Sauvignon: Black cherry, cinnamon, tar and saddle leather aromas also take in a bit of marjoram. The flavors turn to red cherries and currants with managed tannins and good acidity. Considering the vintage, this was a particularly worthy effort and one standing up to time.
1997 Cabernet Sauvignon: There’s definitely more barrel notes and extraction showing in this wine, as aromas of brown sugar, horehound and charcuterie dominate the fruit. There’s a rich delivery of dark purple fruit on the palate, though, with layered acidity, chocolaty tannins and black cherry in the finish. Rindal recollections: He noted changes to winemaking and barrel programs, “but the biggest change was in the vineyard. It was a challenge to see who could pick last.”
1998 Cabernet Sauvignon: Alas, this wine suffered terribly from TCA.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon: Hedonism arrived when this wine was poured. The nose showed some overripeness with cola, black cherry, bay rum, Aussie-style black licorice and brown sugar. It brought huge flavors of black currant and marvelous sandy tannins, followed by some heat and sturdiness in the finish.
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon: This wine’s heritage centers on vines on Red Mountain now owned by Corliss Estates. There’s a return to the purple fruit aromas of boysenberry, blueberry and plums, although there are hints of red currant, lime, lilac and minerality. The flavors focus on ripe plum, cassis and juicy blueberry, which combine to give it big acidity before some tannins arrive late.
2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: A wine that’s ready to drink now, the nose is beautiful with ripe purple fruit, smoked meat and cinnamon bark. Big boysenberry and Rainier cherry flavors dominate, backed by juicy acidity. Its low tannin structure gives it a light style for Washington Cab. After spending two years as Rindal’s assistant, this vintage marked John Freeman’s debut as the head winemaker for Waterbrook. A year later, Rindal sold the winery to Precept, which has retained Freeman.
A snapshot of other Waterbrook library wines
1998 Meritage: Here’s one of the few wines in the tasting to show considerable bottle bouquet with dried red fruits and marjoram.
1999 Meritage: A classic Claret nose of cassis, black cherry, cinnamon bark and Wheat Thins made this particularly tantalizing, and there was considerable reward on the palate. That same fruit was framed by brilliant balance, an equation that includes ripe acidity, some viscosity and late tannin. In retrospect, this showing wasn’t surprising considering the continued success of the 1999 Merlot.
2000 Meritage: Interestingly, this showed somewhat similar to the 2000 Cab in the nose with toffee, brown sugar, marjoram, sage and hops. The fruit emerged on the palate with cranberry, pie cherries and red currants, packing it with acidity. It finished with sandy tannins.
2003 WB Primarius Meritage: The bright nose of Jolly Rancher grape candy gave away the influence of Malbec (20%), which also came with blackberry and blueberry. Those same juicy purple fruits rushed in with vigor and acidity. There’s still some good years ahead for this tasting room-only release, which Rindal said relied heavily on StoneTree Vineyard – an acclaimed Tedd Wildman site on the Wahluke Slope.
2002 Mélange: In an afternoon surrounded by many still-worthy wines, this rated among the best. The nose still packed a lot of cassis, cherry and raspberry notes, along with mint leaf, cinnamon bark and nutmeg. And the brisk fruit came gushing through to the palate, joined by boysenberry and ripe plum. There’s no distraction from tannin. It was so brilliant, stunning and youthful, one could win a bet that it’s a 2010 vintage. And remember, this wine retailed for about $10.
2004 Syrah: Another shocker, an example of a Syrah that’s still swinging for the fences. There’s a big whiff of orange Creamsicle in front of plums, blackberries and boysenberries, followed by hints of cotton candy and Olympic Provisions’ Sopressata salami. That same purple fruit return to the tongue, where this drink is far from flabby. Great acidity continues to carry it, and its tannin structure offers a fun feel of flannel.