Intrinsic a wild new wine from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates

By on April 1, 2016
Juan Muñoz Oca is the head winemaker for Intrinsic.

Juan Muñoz Oca, head winemaker for Columbia Crest, also is behind Intrinsic, a new Cabernet Sauvignon made in an unusual way. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

PATERSON, Wash. – One of Washington’s largest wineries is thinking small – but in a big way.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has launched a new brand called Intrinsic, and it’s like nothing ever seen before. Anywhere.

Juan Muñoz Oca, head winemaker for Columbia Crest, will be pouring the Intrinsic 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon himself at this weekend’s Taste Washington in Seattle, and he could not be more excited.

“The genesis of the wine is our experimentation and our playfulness at the winery,” Oca told Great Northwest Wine. “I love the fact that we can do experimental, funky, avant-garde winemaking.”

In typical winemaking, red wines are produced by crushing the grapes, then leaving the juice and the skins together for a week to 10 days. This is the standard procedure all over the world. Oca and his winemaking team at Columbia Crest do this for the millions of cases of wine they produce vintage after vintage.

But a few years ago, he began to wonder if they were leaving something behind when they removed the skins from the fermenting juice after a week. He was curious what might happen if he patiently waited a little longer.

Like nine months.

It turns out that he was able to give birth to an entirely different kind of wine, one that eschewed the use of new oak.

“I’m lucky enough to have friends who make wine in many places around the world,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to make wine in many places around the world.”

Oca grew up in Mendoza, Argentina, and worked in the wine industry there. He also worked in Spain and Australia before settling down in Washington.

“There are many things that are common throughout the world of wine,” he said. “We all use the same oak. There are nuances to it: different forests, different cooperages, different toast levels. But at the end of the day, it’s the same. You might be making wine in the southern Willamette or the Clare Valley or Mendoza, and all our wines will have the same oak. But we were wondering if there was something that we could reach out to that could give us some of those nuances without the masking effect of the oak.”

Intrinsic a wild wine ride

Columbia Crest winery is in paterson, washington

Like many wineries, Columbia Crest uses a lot of new oak for its red wines. But with Intrinsic, it used none. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Crest)

So Oca and his crew took on some experiments. They put the wine through its normal process of fermentation on the grape skins, then they sealed the stainless steel tank and waited.

“The wine was undrinkable for a while, into December and through the holidays,” he said. “Then in February, it started changing. Then in March, it turned a corner. Then it got better and better. Softer texture, higher intensity of tannin that normally you would get from aging in oak – especially new oak. It had the beautiful texture and even flowery aromas. Yet it didn’t have any of the vanilla and toast in it that comes from new oak.”

In other words, the wine smoothed out its own tannins naturally.

“That’s why we call it Intrinsic,” Oca said. “As in the intrinsic qualities of the grape and reaching out to the grapes and getting more from them. It’s really cool in many ways.”

The team experimented for a couple of years, testing theories and realizing it had discovered a technique that should be pursued on a larger scale. So in 2014, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates took a leap and provided Oca and his crew the space to try the method on a much larger scale.

To do this, the winery had to take four large fermentation tanks out of operation for an entire harvest. Typically, a fermentation tank is used for a week to 10 days, then drained, cleaned and filled again. It might be used seven or eight times at a winery the size of Columbia Crest.

But for Intrinsic, the tanks were used once for the Cabernet Sauvignon and sat there filled until the Fourth of July. So while the winery saved money on oak, it had to give up tank space to create Intrinsic.

While Intrinsic is part of Columbia Crest, it is being treated as its own brand, just as wineries such as 14 Hands, Snoqualmie, Red Diamond and Two Vines are, even though a lot of these wines are made at Columbia Crest.

For the inaugural vintage, Ste. Michelle didn’t hold back: It made 30,000 cases.

That’s not a lot for Ste. Michelle – which produces two-thirds of the wine in Washington – but it already makes Intrinsic one of the state’s biggest wineries.

A tasting of the 2014 Intrinsic reveals aromas of plum and blackberry reduction sauce, followed by flavors that are smooth, even silky on the palate, yet still backed by firm yet pliable tannins. In the background is a wildness, something reminiscent of soy sauce and black olive.

The wine retails for $22 and already is appearing on store shelves throughout the Northwest. Oca said it will see some national distribution.

Intrinsic brings enjoyment

Intrinic label

Intrinsic’s label was created by New York street artist Zimer. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Crest)

Being the head of a large winery doesn’t necessarily mean you make a lot of wine. Rather, it means you direct the people who make the wine. But Oca – like many winemakers – prefers to get his hands dirty, and experimenting with new techniques leaves him smiling.

“I feel like Intrinsic is allowing me to step out of the Columbia Crest path,” he said. “I find myself experimenting. For many folks out in the industry, that turns into their personal projects. For us, it’s Intrinsic.”

So instead of starting his own small label on the side – something that Ste. Michelle winemakers are not allowed to do per company policy – Oca gets to be an entrepreneur, a guy with a great day job with a side gig at work.

The style of Columbia Crest wines – sleek, silky and immediately enjoyable – was set long before Oca arrived some 15 years ago. And it’s his job to continue that style for the winery’s legion of fans. It’s in nobody’s best interest to make any radical changes to a successful style of wine. So Intrinsic fills that void in Oca’s winemaking brain.

“I don’t think it matches the profile of the Columbia Crest fan,” he said. “This guy is a little more rustic and a bit more aggressive. And I love it. It’s like a passion project. It’s pretty cool.”

What’s also cool is the label, which Oca describes as inspired by street art. In fact, it was drawn by Brooklyn street artist Zimer (you can see his name included in the artwork if you look closely).

Zimer took the energy for his art from what is in the bottle.

“My inspiration for the label was the wine itself,” he said. “The product is deeply rooted in tradition but reimagined for modern taste, a concept I chose to continue. A woman in a red dress is as timeless and sensual as a glass of wine. Just as the wine flows through the bottle, the dress will flow along with it.”

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is a frequent judge at international wine competitions. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times. You can find him on Twitter and .


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