RICHLAND, Wash. – Often, the wine industry is all about connections.
For Jessica Munnell, connections made when she worked for Chateau Ste. Michelle many years ago have come around and are allowing her to pursue the opportunity to co-own a small Washington winery.
Munnell, who has made wine around Washington and around the world, is partnering with one of the state’s top grape growers to produce a small amount of red wine under the name Wautoma Wines.
She co-owns the winery with Tom Merkle, who owns Wautoma Springs Vineyard north of the Yakima Valley. Merkle, a vineyard manager for Zirkle Fruit Co., planted Wautoma Springs beginning in 1998 and has expanded it to 52 acres. Wautoma Springs is next to Cold Creek, one of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s prized estate vineyards.
That’s where the connections started.
Wautoma, Cold Creek and Ste. Michelle
Back in 2001, Munnell was a viticulturist for Ste. Michelle, and one of the vineyards she worked with was Cold Creek. Munnell, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Washington State University, also met Juan Muñoz-Oca when he was an intern for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and the two later married. Muñoz-Oca now is head winemaker at Columbia Crest, the Northwest’s largest winery.
After traveling to Australia working harvest, Munnell returned and began working as an enologist at Snoqualmie Winery in 2003, moved to Chateau Ste. Michelle’s red winemaking facility at Canoe Ridge in 2005 and was promoted to assistant winemaker for the state’s oldest winery. She worked there for more than two years before leaving to start a family.
While she was caring for her young daughter, she got the idea of starting her own small winery and sought out Merkle as a partner.
“He wanted a winemaking connection too, but he is a busy guy,” she said.
They started the collaboration with just a few barrels in 2008 and 2009, which they sold to other wineries as bulk. Their 2010 vintage was the first they bottled. It is a blend of Wautoma Springs Cabernet Sauvignon and Stone Tree Vineyard Malbec from the Wahluke Slope and is called El Prat, the name of the airport in Barcelona. The wine earned Great Northwest Wine’s top “Outstanding” rating in a recent blind tasting.
She made 241 cases of the wine, which retails for $28.
Wautoma Springs fruit goes to Col Solare, Columbia Crest
Most of Merkle’s 52 acres of Wautoma Springs Cabernet Sauvignon is contracted to Col Solare and Columbia Crest. In fact, a significant percentage of Crest’s 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon came from Wautoma, and that wine was named No. 1 in the world in 2009 by Wine Spectator magazine.
Needless to say, it is prized fruit.
Not satisfied making just 10 barrels of wine, Munnell decided to jump back into the winemaking game in a bigger way. In April 2011, she took a job with Artifex, a custom-crush facility in Walla Walla. She worked there for eight months doing lab analysis work.
“That gave me confidence and reminded me that I had a lot of winemaking experience,” she told Great Northwest Wine.
Then in April 2012, she was hired as head winemaker at Mercer Estates, a 35,000-case winery in Prosser owned by one of the most respected families in Washington agriculture. Munnell is making the Wautoma wines at the Mercer facility with the owners’ full support.
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She and Muñoz-Oca also made sure his bosses at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates were clear about the scope of Wautoma Wines. As a Ste. Michelle winemaker, he cannot take on any consulting work or start his own winery.
“We talk about everything, but he can’t be involved,” she said. “He also gets Wautoma Springs fruit, so it’s almost going to be a throwdown over who is going to make the best Wautoma Springs Cab. You know how it is when you’re married.”
She plans to expand production slightly to 350 cases for the 2011, with a Cabernet that showcases the Wautoma Springs fruit, as well as a Stone Tree Malbec and perhaps a blend. Even then, Wautoma Wines will not become anything more than a side project for the foreseeable future.
“My fulltime job is Mercer’s winemaker,” she said. “This has been fun to keep me in the wine industry, but it won’t be my fulltime job anytime soon.”