Jessica Munnell intended to grow flowers. A degree in horticulture at Washington State University, a greenhouse to follow. A future filled with dirt under her fingernails and a beautiful bouquet of blooms on her kitchen table, in perpetuity.
Life, in this way, did not go to plan. And now, instead of putting ranunculus in a vase, she puts longleaf phlox on the bottles of her Wautoma Springs Rosé.
“I have a memory of being at WSU, during my bachelor’s degree — drinking Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewürztraminer, thinking I was very, very fancy. Maybe now college students are drinking wine, but then …”
She needn’t finish this sentence. Then, and even after, they were likely drinking Boone’s Farm. Or MD 20/20. Or perhaps Arbor Mist Blackberry Merlot, on ice, in a large Nalgene bottle.
Although Jessica, who grew up in the Columbia Valley, describes her beginnings in Washington wine as “pure luck,” she earned the opportunity at WSU to intern for acclaimed researcher Robert Wample, which led to her master’s project focused on grape vines. There’s a quote attributed to the late Branch Rickey, who was responsible for Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, that goes, “Luck is the residue of design.” While Jessica’s first step into the world of viticulture and enology felt like chance, her subsequent career has been choice after choice, carving a decided path through the landscape of Washington wine.
Post-grad, Jessica joined Ste. Michelle Wine Estates as a viticulturist, a job that built a foundational element to her career but felt more like a jumping off point than a landing spot.
“As a viticulturist, I really loved what I was doing. I just didn’t know what was next. ‘Is this what I’m going to do … forever?’ And I didn’t have an answer for that.”
“I needed to find something that was a better fit, and I loved the physical aspect of being a cellar hand, the hard work of the harvest,” she says. “The science and art of winemaking — it brought it all full circle, and I never looked back. It was the little taste I needed to see that, ‘Yes, this is the right thing for me to do.’ ”
Eight months of wine work in the Outback brought her clarity, but free-soloing up rickety ladders and hopping from tank to tank with a bucket of dry ice in the crook of her arm wasn’t the end-all be-all, so she took off to Spain; Barcelona in particular.
“I took a Spanish class and shopped for shoes — literally spent all my Australian dollars.”
Toward the end of a summer spent soaking in the wonder that is Gaudí’s playground, she set an alarm for 2 a.m. and interviewed for an enologist position at Snoqualmie Vineyards — then led by Joy Andersen. There, Jessica was part of an all-female winemaking staff; something that isn’t terribly common now, let alone in the mid-2000s.
From Snoqualmie, she moved to the Canoe Ridge Estate red wine production facility as an assistant winemaker; ultimately stepping back from the Ste. Michelle family to start one of her own with Juan Muñoz-Oca, a winemaker from Argentina.
Wautoma Springs starts with 2008 vintage
No longer a pearl on the string, Jessica eventually launched Wautoma Springs with Tom Merkle, her business partner and second-generation grape grower.
Wautoma Springs began small with the 2008 vintage: 200 cases of red wine made on the crushpads and in the cellars of friends and neighbors – something quite common in an industry where formidable talents tend to break out on their own — so long as they haven’t signed a non-compete.
With her own wines in her back pocket, she spent nearly six years in Prosser at Mercer Estates as head winemaker. Her skill took Mercer to another level and earned the award for Washington Winery of the Year in 2016 from Wine Press Northwest magazine. And she made Wautoma Springs wines on the side every vintage along the way.
Taking on a job as a consultant allowed her to spend a bit more time and energy on her family and growing Wautoma Springs – which now boasts white wines, red wines and tapas in a tasting room in Prosser’s Vintners Village, where there exists a wonderful energy within the walls. You’ll likely see Rachel Mercer there. She oversees the kitchen and any pairings with which you indulge, and you may even see Jessica, but she might not tell you she’s the woman behind the wine. This is rather typical of winemakers, who are generally more at home in the lab than behind the tasting bar; but retreating from the public has one distinct disadvantage. You never get to hear what your work means to the people experiencing it.
“When people say, ‘Oh, we saved this bottle, and we opened it on our anniversary’ — that kind of stuff, it’s just, wow,” Jessica says. “Wow!”
Spending time in the tasting room allows her to feel the energy that her work creates, a part of the life cycle of wine that is often left to the creator’s imagination.
“Early in my career, Juan — my husband — and I went on vacation to wine country. We went to Vega Sicilia, one of the older wineries in Spain. I mean this is the kind of winery that you get willed your grandfather’s allocation,” Jessica says. “You don’t just get to be there — to buy there. It is steeped in tradition, over 100 years old.
“The winemaker puts us in his car and drives us around showing us different blocks of grapes — it was just the most amazing experience,” she continues. “We walked through the cellar, tasting out of tanks, tasting out of barrels. They don’t even produce a white wine, and he had us tasting a Roussanne he had made for fun – and it just cemented things for me. It stoked the passion even more … just the time he took with us, two young people from Washington.”
She wonders: “He probably thought we were from D.C.”
Vega Sicilia — for those who are not hip to the Ribera del Duero scene — is often regarded as one of Spain’s premier wineries. Located in the northwest, the region typically focuses on Tinto Fino, aka Tempranillo, a celebrated grape with too many pseudonyms. Vega Sicilia itself began in 1864. Its founder, Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, planted the original Vega Sicilia vineyards with Bordeaux varietals in addition to the local varietal du jour, Tempranillo, a unique choice at the time. Much of the Vega Sicilia production remains shrouded in secrecy – and very few as allowed to peek behind the curtain.
Nonplussed by the pesky need for maintaining market share (who needs it when you’re practically an institution), Vega Sicilia has gained a reputation for letting their vintages do what they will, or as they say, “a culture of patience and dedication.” If the wine wants to be in barrel for 10 years – so be it. It is the will of the grape, and the winemakers are merely stewards of the process.
There is something to be said about having patience – and knowing the right move when it presents itself.
“When I was in Spain after harvest in Australia, I bought a bottle of Vega Sicilia Unico,” Jessica recalls. “I kept it — in all the worst conditions. My hot apartment in Barcelona, my hot apartment in Prosser. I gave it to Juan as a gift, and we opened it for our wedding.
“It was perfect,” she continues. “It had traveled. It lived in my suitcase. It should have not been good. It should have been a huge disappointment, and we still would have drunk it. But it wasn’t. It was perfect — and beautiful.”