Thursday, April 8, 2010

An Iowa Boy Does Great In Walla Walla!

Nothing excites me more than when I hear about winemakers who have firmly-planted roots in my home state of Iowa. The more I study wine, the more I am finding this out. Last Summer, a local wine store in Des Moines hosted Dave Merfield, winemaker for Walla Walla, Washington-based winery, Northstar. Dave, originally from Greene, Iowa, was famous for bringing the winery's Merlot into the spotlight. Merlot has gotten a bad rap ever since the movie "Sideways" came along. A lot of people became snobs after that and refused to drink it. But not me... I had heard great things about Merlots coming from Washington. I couldn't wait to meet Dave and sample these wines. But, alas, it was not meant to be... I don't really remember why I couldn't arrive at the event any earlier than I did, but by the time I did, he had already left. I must've been having a bad day because as I stood there sampling the wines by myself, it just wasn't the same. I knew I'd missed out on a great opportunity to meet one of the best! And although I never got to meet Dave that day, the wines have always stood out in the back of my mind.

So, you must be wondering how a boy from Iowa, of all places, ended up making wine in Walla Walla? I asked myself this too and started researching...Back in the 90s, Dave or "Merf" as he is affectionately known as, became interested in the crafting of beer (not wine). Microbreweries were popping up all over, especially in the state of Washington. So he moved there to make beer. His interest and knowledge in beer-making came in handy years later when an opportunity popped up to learn the craft of winemaking. Dave began his winemaking journey as an enologist then moved on to become an assistant winemaker. Since 2007, he has been head winemaker at Northstar and leads a great team that includes legendary California winemaker, Jed Steele. (Jed is a consulting winemaker at Northstar.) Merf has been known to say he loves his job! That is so refreshing to hear!

Fast forward to a few months ago when I began my quest to learn more about Washington wines. Dave Merfield and Northstar Winery were the first things that popped into my head. I decided to contact Dave and he was gracious enough to write back almost immediately and coordinate something with Chateau Ste. Michelle's communications manager, Grace Doyle. She sent me a couple samples of the latest vintages of Northstar's fine Merlot. (Northstar is part of the Ste. Michelle Estates family. ). The two I received were the 2006 Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot and the 2005 Northstar Walla Walla Merlot. Both are unique in their own ways and have that special stellar "Merf" touch that the winery is best-known for. He is a master of handcrafting and blending-- so much so that these wines have received rave reviews from some of the leading wine publications and experts. Bravo!

The 2006 Columbia Valley Merlot is composed of fruit sourced from 17 different vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA! (76% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petit Verdot). Aged for 18 months is 70% French oak/30% American oak barrels, this smooth and velvety red boasts very ripe and concentrated flavors of raspberries, dark cherries and blackberries with a nutty vanilla finish. It is extremely elegant and worth every penny of its $41.00 price tag. This is a very food-friendly wine and I tasted it with a medium rare steak and the rich flavor paired nicely. One taste of this and you will throw away your "Sideways" DVD forever!

The 2005 Walla Walla Merlot came to me all wrapped in beautiful white tissue paper with the name of the wine printed all over it. A very special touch for a very special wine! Indeed! The grapes for this one were chosen from some of Walla Walla's best vineyards. This is considered Northstar's flagship wine. (80% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Petit Verdot) This one is a completely different animal. It overflows with bright cherry and plum flavor yet is a bit more earthy and structured. More so than the Columbia Valley Merlot. No vanilla finish but lingering and smooth. Aged 17 months in 80% French oak/20% American oak. $50.00. (Please note that since I sampled this wine, they have released the 2006 vintage to the public. It is currently available on their website.)

These may seem like special occasion wines but please don't wait for a special occasion. With these Merlots, anytime is the special occasion. I have to say Dave Merfield has done Iowa proud with these wines! I will certainly be proud to shake his hand and hopefully I will have that opportunity when I come out to Walla Walla in June! To purchase these and other great Northstar wines, please visit the website at You may also be able to find these in fine wine stores in your neighborhood. Let's bring MERLOT back in a big way! Northstar is a great place to begin!

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