One of Washington’s most successful and celebrated winemakers is calling it a career – at least for the moment.
Ray Einberger, whose Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was ranked No. 1 in the world by Wine Spectator magazine, is retiring from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. His last day with the company is Wednesday.
Einberger, 62, grew up in the Bay Area and went to college at San Jose State University, where he studied special education and general science. A home brewer at the time, Einberger shared a house with a chef and a guy who worked at a winery. It was the perfect recipe for him to learn about great food and wine.
“I got hooked on wine,” he told Great Northwest Wine.
After graduating, Einberger moved to the Napa Valley and began working in the wine industry. He spent three years at Round Hill Cellars in St. Helena and nine years at Silverado Vineyards in Napa before landing a job on the winemaking team at Opus One in Oakville, the famed collaboration between Robert Mondavi and Bordeaux’s Chateau Mouton Rothschild.
Einberger joins Columbia Crest in 1993
In 1993, he met Doug Gore, head winemaker of Columbia Crest. The two actually had grown up just 20 minutes away from each other in California but had never met. Einberger expressed an interest in moving to Washington to make wine in what he viewed as a great place to produce Cabernet Sauvignon – and make his mark.
Gore hired him as Columbia Crest’s first assistant winemaker in 1993.
“He was a talented guy who brought with him really, really good winemaking skills,” Gore said. “Between the two of us, we had a good sharing of ideas and thoughts and discussions and arguments. It made for really good winemaking at Crest.”
During his time at the winery, Einberger earned the nickname “Sugar Ray” because of his inclination to let grapes hang on the vines a little longer and accumulate a little more ripeness.
Within a decade, Gore was promoted to executive vice president, overseeing winemaking and viticulture, and Einberger took the helm at Columbia Crest.
Einberger led a team of talented winemakers who included Keith Kenison (now head winemaker for 14 Hands), Marcus Notaro (who went to Col Solare and now is head winemaker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars), Juan Muñoz-Oca (now head winemaker for Columbia Crest) and Darel Allwine (now head winemaker at Col Solare).
“I had great teams around me,” Einberger said. “My team had more 90-plus-point wines than any other winery in the world in the decade I was winemaker at Crest.”
That culminated in 2009, when Wine Spectator – the world’s largest and most influential wine publication – named the 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon as the world’s best wine.
“I was so happy for the state,” Einberger said. “Before that, we were known for Merlot. But I always had this sense that our Cabernets were more like Bordeaux. By getting that award, it just propelled the whole industry. A lot of winemakers around the state called me and said, ‘Ray, our Cabernets are selling like mad!’ So we all won.”
Ironically, Einberger and Gore didn’t even think that was Crest’s best wine that year.
“The funny thing about 2005 was we all thought the Walter Clore Private Reserve would get bigger accolades,” Gore said. “It turned out to be the Cabernet.”
Not that he’s complaining.
Einberger moves to in-house consultant role
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Two years later, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates promoted Einberger to a new position of in-house winemaking consultant. For the past three years, he has traveled between Washington and California to work with winemakers at the company’s luxury brands, including Col Solare, Northstar, Stag’s Leap and Conn Creek.
For Gore, moving Einberger into the new job was a great fit for the entire company.
“He had gotten the No. 1 wine, and that was a big deal,” Gore said. “He had developed a great team at Crest, and I could see a track where we could promote Juan, and Ray could still be around. We used him in California and Washington, and he’s really helped us a lot.”
Einberger would spend two weeks at a time in either Washington or California, providing insights and suggestions on such details as vineyard sourcing, barrel programs, blending and winemaking techniques. He said he became a better winemaker because of the job, too.
Now with more than 20 years with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Einberger is ready to move on. But don’t expect to find him on a porch with his feet propped up.
“I have 40 years in the industry, so I kind of want to kick back,” he said.
That might mean six months, he added with a chuckle.
“I have some projects under way in California,” Einberger said.
He plans to produce a few small-production wines – 500 cases each – focusing on high-quality bottlings that reflect a sense of place.
He’s in the early planning stages of a similar project in Washington, the details of which are still somewhat murky but might include Cabernet Sauvignon and perhaps Zinfandel.
“I want to get back to my roots with high-end, small-production wines.”
Einberger plans to continue to live half the year at his home north of Seattle, with the other half in California wine country.
“I have wonderful memories of Washington state winemaking – and wonderful memories in California,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates will miss Einberger’s talent – and his energy.
“We appreciate Ray’s long service and contributions to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates,” said Ted Baseler, the company’s CEO, “including his role in creating the Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Gore, who has been Einberger’s boss, mentor and friend for the past two decades, is wistful about his departure.
“Ray brought Washington its first No. 1 wine in the world. You’ll never take that away from him,” Gore said. “I love him like a brother, and we’ll continue to talk, I’m sure. He’s a talent. He’s a top winemaker in the United States.”
For Einberger, the feeling is mutual.
“Doug and Ted have always let me follow my passion and creativity,” he said. “The result was many years of world-class wines. I still have the passion for vines, wines and life in general. I have many new adventures ahead of me.”
In other words, this is not the last we’ll see of Ray Einberger.