WALLA WALLA, Wash. – Backed up against the Blue Mountains, the Walla Walla Valley is one of the relatively cooler regions of Washington’s Columbia Valley.
Tuesday, it was cool and a bit rainy in the southern end of the valley along JB George Road near the Oregon state border. The lower temperatures the past 10 days have slowed harvest a bit and allowed wineries to catch up on finishing fermentations, cleaning cellars and giving crews a little time off.
At Northstar Winery, winemaker David “Merf” Merfeld was busy monitoring fermenting wines and scheduling when grapes would arrive.
Merfeld, 49, began his career with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates as a beer maker, back when the company owned Grant’s Brewery in Yakima, Wash. From there, Merfeld joined Northstar in 2001, when the wines were being made at the company’s winemaking facility on the Wahluke Slope.
The idea for Northstar was born during a visit by Ste. Michelle winemakers to the legendary Bordeaux producer Chateau Petrus, whose wines are made from the noble Merlot grape. As the winemakers tasted the wines of Petrus, they looked at each other and said, “We can do this.”
Northstar Winery’s early history
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The first vintage of Northstar was 1994, and Charlie Hoppes, then red winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, helped ferment those first wines at the company’s Yakima Valley facility in Grandview. The purpose of Northstar was to produce the best possible Merlot achievable from Washington grapes.
From the early years of Northstar, legendary California winemaker Jed Steele, who has long admired Washington viticulture, served as the winery’s consulting winemaker. Through the years, Northstar winemakers have included Gordy Hill and Rusty Figgins. Merfeld became head winemaker in 2005, three years after the company built Northstar’s beautiful winery about 15 miles south of downtown Walla Walla.
Today, Northstar’s focus remains on Merlot. Merfeld and his team craft 13,000 cases of wine. Of that, more than half are three Merlots: the Columbia Valley, the Walla Walla Valley and the Premier, a new reserve-level wine that debuted last year with the 2009 vintage. Fewer than 200 cases of the Premier were produced.
The first Premier is nearly sold out, but the 2010 is expected to be released this winter.
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