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Northstar’s Head Winemaker Gets His Inspiration From Beer

(Washington) – Winemakers often say, “It takes a lot of beer to make good wine.” And David “Merf” Merfeld should know. He made a lot of good beer for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates before he started making great wine for Northstar Winery — the Woodinville, Washington, company’s upscale Merlot brand.

“I would (still) probably be making beer if I wasn’t making wine,” Merfeld said.

Merfeld grew up in Iowa on his family’s farm. Then he followed a friend to Seattle in 1990, where he became enchanted by the emerging craft beer scene. That inspired him to study at the beer-producing program at the University of California-Davis, then more instruction at the American Brewers Guild in Woodland, Calif.

Armed with that knowledge, Merfeld returned to Washington and worked his way up the ranks at Grant’s Brewery Pub in Yakima, which Stimson Lane (now Ste. Michelle Wine Estates) purchased in 1995. Grant’s had been a long-time watering hole for Ste. Michelle winemakers and staff.

Ste. Michelle launched the Merlot-focused Northstar with the 1994 vintage and it was looking for someone with Merfeld’s personality and fermentation background to run it. So in 2001, Merfeld worked his first crush for Northstar, assisting winemaker Gordy Hill and famed California consulting winemaker Jed Steele. A year later, Ste. Michelle built Northstar a permanent home in Walla Walla and Merfeld took over as head winemaker in 2005.

He uses grapes from throughout the Columbia Valley, though he focuses on select vineyards for his various Merlots and other wines, and he has reduced his dependence on oak barrels and the flavors they impart.

“The wines used to be 75 percent new oak,” Merfeld said. “I love oak, but the wines weren’t as balanced, and you couldn’t get a sense for the vineyard. Now, we’re at 50-60 percent new oak. You are picking up more subtleties.”

This fall, Merfeld will release his 2009 Premier, a 190-case lot of 100 percent Merlot, which is the debut bottling from a project that Ste. Michelle has dubbed, “The Big Dipper Chronicles.” Lots from several vineyards throughout the Columbia Valley were in the running, but the 2009 Premier is all from Cold Creek Vineyard, an estate site north of the Yakima Valley that dates back to the 1970s.

“My goal was to create a wine that had more acidity in it and was balanced with alcohol,” Merfeld said. “And 20 to 30 years from now, I’ll be in my rockin’ chair still enjoying it.”

Merfeld, a family man, stays close to his first passion — beer — through Grant’s.

“The No. 1 beer I’m drinking is Black Butte Porter, but I love all beer,” Merfeld said. “I’m fortunate that I still have a lot of friends in the beer industry.”

SOURCE: The News Tribune

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