Zerba Cellars 2016 Wild Z wins Walla Walla wine competition

By on June 25, 2019
The Zerba Cellars 2016 Estate Wild Z Red Wine was voted best of show at the 2019 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition, a scholarship fundraiser for the winemaking program at Walla Walla Community College. (Richard Duval Images)

WALLA WALLA, Wash. – It’s been an emotional year for Zerba Cellars, so the 20-employee company welcomed the news that its 2016 Estate Wild Z Red Wine was voted as best of show at the seventh annual Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition.

“Many people know that we lost the spirit of our company on St. Patrick’s Day this year when Marilyn Zerba passed after suffering a stroke,” said Dan Paynter, general manager of Zerba Cellars in Milton-Freewater, Ore.

It was no surprise to see Zerba Cellars making headlines for its award-winning wine program. It is rooted in the three Walla Walla Valley vineyards owned by Cecil Zerba, who married Marilyn in 1981. The Walla Walla natives launched their eponymous winery in 2002 after two decades of growing field crops and flowers. Wild Z soon became their signature wine, and the 2016 vintage is a Merlot-based blend.

“People know and remember that wine because of the zebra on the label,” Paynter said.

A total of 30 wineries combined to enter 105 wines in the competition that also serves as a fundraiser for the viticulture and enology program at Walla Walla Community College. The on-campus judging is a collaborative effort between Great Northwest Wine and the school, leading to an annual scholarship for a College Cellars student. Great Northwest Wine’s career contributions to the Walla Walla Community College Foundation surpass $11,000 with this year’s competition.

Dunham Cellars makes splash with Sauv Blanc

Dunham Cellars winemaker Robert Campisi produced the best white wine of the 2019 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition, a Sauvignon Blanc from the 2018 vintage, his first as head winemaker for the Dunham and Blair families. (Richard Duval Images)

Three years ago, Dunham Cellars captured best of show at Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition, and the storied winery near the Walla Walla airport nearly took top honors again.

This time, however, it was a 2018 Sauvignon Blanc that wowed the judging panel, which voted it as the competition’s best white wine. Dunham Cellars President John Blair credited Gamache Vineyard in the Columbia Basin and Robert Campisi, who was promoted to head winemaker last year. Not bad for Dunham’s first release of Sauvignon Blanc.

“Really our decision to make a Sauvignon Blanc came down to getting access to a special parcel from Kent Waliser at Gamache,” Blair wrote in an email. “We kicked around the idea last spring, but only if we got access to great fruit. Our own grower, Ken Hart, mentioned he might be able to sweet-talk Kent into letting us get our hands on some Gamache. We all know Kenny has a way with words and here we are making Sauvignon Blanc!”

Waliser, director of vineyard operations for Sagemoor Farms, told Great Northwest Wine, “Gamache is becoming special, and I am so glad we bought it. In the right hands the whites are really amazing.”

Campisi, who graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in economics and physics, worked for the late Eric Dunham and then Daniel Wampfler prior to taking over in 2018.

“We’re just very proud of Rob,” Blair wrote. “Here’s a guy who started in 2008 at Dunham knowing nothing about winemaking, took his lumps, sponged as much as he could off of Eric and Dan, worked his way up from the bottom to cellar master, then assistant winemaker, and eventually head winemaker. He’s been around long enough to deeply understand our style and has the chops to continue tweaking and improving the quality coming out of our cellar.”    

No winery in the judging won more gold medals than Dunham Cellars, which earned best-of-class honors with its 2016 Syrah and golds for its 2017 Shirley Mays Chardonnay and 2016 Trutina Red Wine.

5 gold medals follow Precept’s Freeman

John Freeman worked for founding winemaker Eric Rindal and took over as Waterbrook’s head winemaker when Precept Wine purchased the historic brand in 2006. (Photo courtesy of Waterbrook Winery)

Seattle-based Precept Wine places a considerable amount of responsibility in the hands of winemaker John Freeman, who oversees several brands at the Waterbrook Winery facility. 

As a result, he was credited with five gold medals for wines from Browne Family Vineyards, Pendulum and Waterbrook wineries. All of them were for red wines, including the Browne Family Vineyards 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2015 Merlot, the Pendulum 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2016 Red Wine and the Waterbrook 2016 Reserve Malbec.

College Cellars grad Huse grabs 3 golds

Five Star Cellars winemaker Matt Huse, winemaker Kendall Mix of Middleton Family Wines , center, and Judah Pira, director of vineyards for Walla Walla Vintners taste 2014 samples of Malbec and Carménère from Seven Hills Vineyard on Feb. 27, 2015. The 10th annual Seven Hills Vineyard tasting was held at L'Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Wash.
Five Star Cellars winemaker Matt Huse noses barrel samples of red wine from a Seven Hills Vineyard tasting in 2015. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Matt Huse, the second-generation vintner at Five Star Cellars, continues to flash some of the winemaking skills he learned at Walla Walla Community College by earning three gold medals for red wines from the 2014 vintage.

The Five Star 2014 Malbec achieved best of class, while his Super Tuscan-inspired Quinque Astrum and Syrah.

High grades for Lowden’s historic schoolhouse 

Mike Sharon took over the winemaking duties at L’Ecole No. 41 in 2006. (Photo courtesy of L’Ecole No. 41)

L’Ecole No. 41 scored a trio of gold medals at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition, each a vineyard-designate bottling from heavily decorated vineyards lorded over by Norm McKibben.

Mike Sharon, in his second decade as winemaker at L’Ecole, was awarded gold medals for his Left Bank Bordeaux-inspired 2016 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Perigee and 2016 Pepper Bridge Vineyard Apogee red wines. Seven Hills also set the table for another gold, the 2017 Estate Luminesce Sèmillon • Sauvignon Blanc.

Woodward Canyon 2016 Old Vines tops Cab field

The Woodward Canyon 2016 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon, which pays tribute to A.P Woodward, was voted as the best Cabernet Sauvignon of the 2019 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition, which is staged inside a classroom at College Cellars. (Photo by Mitzi Hadley/Great Northwest Wine)

The tiny town of Lowden also produced the best Cab of the 2019 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition when the Woodward Canyon 2016 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon emerged as the best of class after receiving a unanimous vote for gold among the judges.

The 2017 Estate Merlot also earned a double gold and best of class, and the 2018 Chardonnay showed Kevin Mott’s delicious consistency with that variety. A year ago, the 2017 Chardonnay was selected as the best white wine of the judging.

Swan song vintage for Grantwood shows grace

Joe Grant doesn’t charge a tasting fee at Grantwood Winery in Walla Walla, Wash. (Photo courtesy of Grantwood Winery)

Walla Walla native Joe Grant, a self-taught winemaker, stole the show at the 2018 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition with four gold medals for red wine, led by the Grantwood Winery 2016 Petit Verdot that captured best-of-show honors.

And yet, Grant scheduled himself to retire from the wine industry on Jan. 1, 2020, so he didn’t crush in 2018. As a result, the 2017 vintage serves as the final harvest for Grant, and his bargain reds are just as delicious. He received gold medals for his 2017 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($30), the 2017 Syrah ($20) and his 2017 Petit Verdot ($22).

Zerba Cellars eyes 20th Platinum Judging

Zerba Cellars opertates three tastings rooms in two states – Woodinville, Wash., Dundee, Ore., and Milton-Freewater, Ore. (Richard Duval Images0

Wine Press Northwest magazine selected Zerba Cellars as its 2011 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year. And it ranks fifth all-time on the magazine’s list with 30 Platinum Awards, an honor roll led by Gehringer Brothers, Maryhill, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards.

Last fall, the 2015 Wild Z earned a gold medal at the Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, a judging dominated by regional sommeliers and wine buyers.

“It’s not a surprise that this wine has again scored so well, and it’s always exciting for us when the Platinum results come out,” Paynter said. 

As a result of last week’s tasting in Walla Walla, Zerba Cellars has three more qualifiers for this fall’s 20th annual Platinum Judging after gold medals were awarded to the 2016 Wild Z, the 2016 Cabernet Franc and the 2016 Cockburn Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The awards continue to provide rewards for Cecil Zerba, who has moved into a retirement role, Paynter said.

“Cecil is still 100 percent the owner, but he is sharing the profits from the company with the employees,” said Paynter, who is based in Portland and has spent 13 years with Zerba Cellars. “It’s a bonus program for every employee who works for us.

“Many of the vineyard workers have been here longer than I have, and we have tasting room people who have been with us 8-9-10 years,” Paynter added. “We firmly believe that our guests love to see familiar faces when they come in.”

Wild Z reflects transition at Zerba Cellars

Zerba Cellars was founded in 2002. (Richard Duval Images)

The 2016 Estate Wild Z represents a passing of the baton at Zerba Cellars. Doug Nierman spent a decade as the Zerba winemaker before leaving after the 2016 crush for Mark Ryan. Nierman’s longtime assistant Brent Roberts, a graduate of Washington State University’s winemaking program, took over in 2017. Roberts worked at Cougar Crest Estate Winery and Gramercy Cellars in the Walla Walla Valley before returning to Zerba Cellars. He leaned heavily on the 50-acre Cockburn Vineyard, not far from vaunted Seven Hills Vineyard, for the 2016 Wild Z.

“This is the 15th year of that wine, which started out as Wild Thing, and we had to change the name,” Paynter said in reference to a trademark belonging to famed California producer Carol Shelton. “It’s certainly the wine that we make the most of, representing about one-seventh of our production, and its suggested retail is $24. We’re only in two states – Washington and Oregon, where it’s available at Fred Meyer, Whole Foods, New Seasons and Market of Choice in Portland and the Seattle markets.”

Their wines are poured at tasting rooms in three cities and two states – Woodinville, Wash., Dundee, Ore., and at the log cabin along Highway 125 in Milton-Freewater. Zerba’s other two plantings are Dad’s Vineyards near the tasting room and Winesap Road Vineyard in the buzzworthy Rocks District.

“We have quality juice in the bottle for a very fair price, and we feel that our customer service is superior, too,” Paynter said. “We view our tasting rooms as our living rooms and our customers as guests, and we try to treat them with some Southern hospitality in the Northwest.”

A celebration of life for Marilyn Zerba is planned for later this summer.

Judges for the 2019 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition were Kristine Bono, direct-to-consumer manager, Tertulia Cellars, Walla Walla, Wash.; Kent FitzGerald, KWFitzGerald Consulting, Walla Walla; Andy Perdue, wine columnist, The Seattle Times; Mike Rader, Great Northwest Wine panelist, Kennewick, Wash.; Gordy Venneri, co-founder/retired, Walla Walla Vintners, Walla Walla, and Sara Wilson, sommelier/executive chef/wine buyer, Mystic Café, Lewiston, Idaho. Moderators included Ken Robertson, columnist, Wine Press Northwest magazine, Kennewick.

2019 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition results

The Dunham Cellars 2018 Sauvignon Blanc was selected as the best white wine of the 2019 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition, an achievement made more remarkable because it was the first time that Dunham Cellars produced a Sauvignon Blanc. (Photo by Mitzi Hadley/Great Northwest Wine)

Best of show/Best red wine/double gold medal
Zerba Cellars 2016 Estate Wild Z Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley $24

Best white wine/double gold medal
Dunham Cellars 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Columbia Valley $22

Best rosé/double gold medal
Seven Hills Winery 2018 Dry Rosé, Columbia Valley $18

Best of class/double gold medal
Woodward Canyon 2017 Estate Merlot, Walla Walla Valley $52
Woodward Canyon 2016 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington State $99
Dunham Cellars 2016 Syrah, Columbia Valley $35

Best of class/gold medal
Five Star Cellars 2014 Malbec, Walla Walla Valley $38

Double gold medal
Canvasback 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley 55
Cougar Crest Estate Winery 2017 Rock Bottom Vineyard Estate Albariño, Walla Walla Valley $24
Dunham Cellars 2017 Shirley Mays Chardonnay, Columbia Valley $25
Forgeron Cellars 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $35

Gold medal
Abeja 2015 Heather Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $68
Browne Family Vineyards 2015 Merlot, Columbia Valley $35
Browne Family Vineyards 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $40
Canvasback 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain $40
Drink Washington State 2016 Visit Wahluke Slope Carménère, Wahluke Slope $29
Dunham Cellars 2016 Trutina Red Wine, Columbia Valley $29
Eternal Wines 2016 Eternal Darkness Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $59
Five Star Cellars 2014 Quinque Astrum, Walla Walla Valley $38
Five Star Cellars 2014 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $36
Grantwood Winery 2017 Petit Verdot , Walla Walla Valley $22
Grantwood Winery 2017 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $30
Grantwood Winery 2017 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $20
L’Ecole No. 41 2016 Pepper Bridge Vineyard Apogee, Walla Walla Valley $54
L’Ecole No. 41 2016 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Perigee, Walla Walla Valley $54
L’Ecole No. 41 2017 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Luminesce Sèmillon • Sauvignon Blanc, Walla Walla Valley $21
Lagana Cellars 2018 Breezy Slope Vineyard Pinot Noir Rosé, Walla Walla Valley $20
Mackey Vineyards 2013 Concordia SGM, Walla Walla Valley $38
Pendulum 2016 Red Wine, Columbia Valley $21
Pendulum 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $21
REININGER Winery NV CPR Chuck P. Reininger Fourth Edition Red Wine, Columbia Valley $90
Seven Hills Winery 2016 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley $25
Tertulia Cellars 2016 Riviere Galets Estate Vineyard Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $40
Waterbrook Winery 2016 Reserve Malbec, Columbia Valley $25
Woodward Canyon 2018 Chardonnay, Washington State $44
Zerba Cellars 2016 Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley $36
Zerba Cellars 2016 Cockburn Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $36

Silver medal
ALUVÉ 2016 Menozzi Vineyard Estate Petit Verdot, Walla Walla Valley $52
Cougar Crest Estate Winery 2015 Cougar Hills Vineyard Block Eleven Estate Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $35
Cougar Crest Estate Winery 2018 Estate Chardonnay, Walla Walla Valley $35
Drink Washington State 2016 Dip into Lake Chelan Pinot Noir, Lake Chelan $29
Drink Washington State 2018 Visit Walla Walla White Blend, Walla Walla Valley $19
Eleganté Cellars 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $36
Eleganté Cellars 2014 Malbec, Walla Walla Valley $36
Eleganté Cellars 2015 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $36
Eternal Wines 2016 Eternal Foundation Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $59
Eternal Wines 2016 Eternal Zen Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $59
Eternal Wines 2017 Eternal Bliss Fortified Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $49
Foundry Vineyards 2018 Conley Vineyard Roussanne Pétillant Naturel Sparkling Wine, Columbia Valley $29
Foundry Vineyards 2018 Soluna Vineyard Grüner Veltliner Pétillant Naturel Sparkling Wine, Columbia Gorge $26
Foundry Vineyards 2018 Tempranillo Rosé, Columbia Gorge $23
Grantwood Winery 2017 Tempranillo , Walla Walla Valley $18
Grantwood Winery 2017 Heritage Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley $18
Grantwood Winery 2017 Rudy Red Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley $18
Helix by Reininger 2015 Phinny Hill Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills $30
L’Ecole No 41 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $39
L’Ecole No 41 2016 Estate Merlot, Walla Walla Valley $36
L’Ecole No 41 2016 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $36
Lagana Cellars 2016 J&S Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $36
Lagana Cellars 2016 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $32
Mackey Vineyards 2013 Merlot, Columbia Valley $36
Plumb Cellars 2014 JK Vineyard V Estate Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $28
Plumb Cellars 2015 JK Vineyard Estate Sangiovsese, Walla Walla Valley
Plumb Cellars NV Plumb Crazy, Walla Walla Valley $18
Prospice Wines 2017 Les Collines Vineyard Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $45
Prospice Wines 2017 Resurgent Vineyard Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $45
Prospice Wines 2018 Breezy Slope Vineyard Rosé, Walla Walla Valley $22
Prospice Wines 2018 Gamache Vineyard Viognier, Columbia Valley $28
Seven Hills Winery 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Columbia Valley $16
Smoky Rose Cellars 2018 Chardonnay, Walla Walla Valley $32
Smoky Rose Cellars 2018 Rosé of Pinot Noir, Walla Walla Valley $20
Tertulia Cellars 2016 Ryans’ Reserve Estate Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley $45
Tertulia Cellars 2017 Riviere Galets Estate Vineyard Grenache, Walla Walla Valley $35
Tertulia Cellars 2018 Rosé, Walla Walla Valley $20
Woodward Canyon 2015 Artist Series #24 Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington State $59
Zerba Cellars 2016 Carménère, Walla Walla Valley $45
Zerba Cellars 2016 Cockburn Vineyard Tempranillo, Walla Walla Valley $45
Zerba Cellars 2016 Estate Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $36

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the president and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for 15 years. He is a frequent wine judge along the West Coast.

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