Juan Muñoz-Oca, chief winemaker for the growing Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, was practically born with Malbec running through his veins.
A native of Argentina’s Mendoza Valley, Muñoz-Oca was introduced to premium wine as a child. Before he turned 10, he knew he was going to be a winemaker when he grew up.
The South American country is among the world’s leading wine producers, thanks in part to its focus on the Bordeaux-based variety, imported by French winemakers in the 19th century. Argentina is credited with saving Malbec. The varietal had lost popularity in nearly every region on the globe, except Cohors in the south of France.
To learn more about Argentina’s journey to Malbec fame, read The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec by Ian Mount, a comprehensive history of Argentina’s growth, maturity of its wine region and its rise to become one of the top wine-exporting countries on the planet.
Muñoz-Oca’s first job in wine was at Pascual Toso, a winery in Mendoza, working in the cellar on school vacations thanks to connections through his grandfather and uncle. Following college, the world became his cellar with stints in Spain, Australia and France.
After meeting a Washington State University viticulturist, Muñoz-Oca was intrigued by the new-to-him New World. In 2001, he joined Columbia Crest in Paterson — part of the Woodinville-based Ste. Michelle Wine Estates — as a viticulturist. Holding multiple positions during two decades, he ascended in 2019 to the position of chief winemaker for the eighth-largest wine company in the U.S.
Before he arrived, Malbec was rarely used within the Ste. Michelle suite of labels. It eventually became clear that his experience with Malbec from Argentina would influence his winemaking in Washington, leading to a reserve-level single variety and many top blends — although special projects Intrinsic Wines and Borne of Fire are more about Cabernet Sauvignon or red blends that also include Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec.
One of the major appeals of Malbec is that its structure tends to come from its acidity, which boosts the flavors of blackberry, chocolate and plum. It also allows the variety to age well because of its reliance on acidity rather than the puckering tannins that prop up other red wines. Because of this, Malbec pairs deliciously with grilled meats, another famous product of Argentina. (Muñoz-Oca prefers his steaks with a bit of char on them.)
After investing the first chapter of his career in Malbec, Muñoz-Oca thought he was leaving the variety behind when he came to Washington state. It turns out that the grapes grown here are similar in quality.
However, he identifies several areas of strength for Argentina:
- The sheer volume of Malbec produced gives Argentine winemakers substantial experience with the grape.
- A well-ingrained practice is for growers to search each vineyard for the vines that produce the best grapes. They take cuttings from those to propagate in a new vineyard. This means only the best vines are put forward.
- Argentinians keep looking up, planting more vineyards at higher elevations, into the foothills of the Andes to the west. These higher elevations mean more retained acidity, which translates to brighter fruit flavors.
His favorite region is the Uco Valley north of Mendoza, where the sunlight intensity allows for early grape ripening. This stacks up nicely with the advantages to growing Malbec in the Columbia Valley. Muñoz-Oca says Argentina and the Columbia Valley match up pretty well in terms of precipitation and irrigation. And the Washington State Wine Commission loves to remind the rest of the world that the sun shines up to 17 hours a day during the summer — providing more light to grow by than in many wine regions because of our northerly latitude.
One of Muñoz-Oca’s favorite regions for Malbec in the Pacific Northwest is along the foothills of the Blue Mountains in the Walla Walla Valley. He also is fond of Malbec from Col Solare’s estate vineyard on Red Mountain, saying the warm temperatures and higher elevation combine to produce some of the best Malbec grapes he has found in Washington. Because he works for the same company that owns Col Solare, he was able to make suggestions to help those grapes and subsequent wines compete with those of the Uco Valley.
Another noteworthy source of Malbec is StoneTree Vineyard along the arid Wahluke Slope. Some of those grapes are sold to Wautoma Springs in Prosser, a boutique winery co-owned by Muñoz-Oca’s wife, Jessica Munnell. The winemaking power couple often walk vineyards together, but that is the only input Muñoz-Oca has with her wines. Her co-owner in Wautoma Springs is acclaimed grape grower Tom Merkle.
Muñoz-Oca confesses to being slightly annoyed that Munnell’s reserve Malbec, called Inky, rivals his, even though he’s the one born in Argentina. He says it comes down to the fact that Munnell is a more naturally gifted winemaker than he is. Now-defunct Wine Press Northwest Magazine named Mercer Estates its 2016 Washington Winery of the Year when Munnell was the Mercer family’s winemaker.
Munnell and Muñoz-Oca visit Argentina every few years. He always brings bottles of Washington Malbec, the quality of which gets high praise from his winemaking friends. Shocked at how expressive the wines from Washington are, they maintain that Pacific Northwest wineries aren’t charging enough per bottle.
He did once attempt to bridge both worlds by making Mendoza-grown Malbec for Columbia Crest under the Red Diamond label. But the internationally sourced wine didn’t click with consumers, so the exercise lasted just one vintage.
Even so, the creative effort is proof that global connections are valuable to inspire viticulture and winemaking in the Pacific Northwest.