You Are Viewing Profiles

Washington Wine Month Stop #27: Northstar Winery

Just let the north star be your guide to our 27th stop on our Washington Winery tour.

Northstar winery specializes in the Merlot varietal and head winemaker, David Merfeld gets his inspiration sometimes from crafted beers.

Maybe this is the winery to change Rex Pickett’s character, Miles’, opinion of the Merlot varietal.

About the Winery:

“Just as the North Star has been used through the ages as a directional guide, Northstar Winery was established in the early 1990s to guide the creation of world-class Merlot-based wines that demonstrate the potential of the variety in Washington State.”

The region has since been recognized as one of the world’s most exciting and acclaimed regions for Merlot. Washington lies at the same latitude as the Bordeaux region in France, yet has the additional benefit of a longer growing season and cooler nighttime temperatures.

These characteristics aid in the even ripening of grapes and the locking in of acidity, resulting in full-bodied yet balanced Merlots. Northstar’s first vintage was in 1994 and the state-of-the-art winery was
 built in 2002.

In its earliest years, Northstar was guided by celebrated California winemaker Jed Steele, who worked extensively with their current winemaker, David “Merf” Merfeld, head Winemaker since 2005. Now leading the way, and with access to the top 2 percent of Columbia and Walla Walla Valley’s finest Merlot grapes, Merf is creating wines of great distinction and acclaim.

About the Winemaker:

As a young man growing up in Greene, Iowa, David Merfeld never guessed he’d one day become a winemaker crafting world-class Merlots in Walla Walla, Washington. Since joining the Northstar winemaking team in 2001 he has done just that, learning the ropes as an enologist and assistant winemaker before becoming the winery’s winemaker in 2005.

“Merf,” as he is known to all, began his journey towards Northstar in 1990 when, impressed by the quality of the Northwest’s microbreweries, he relocated to Washington to pursue a career in craft brewing. When the opportunity arose to apply his knowledge of fermentation science to making wine at Northstar, he jumped at the chance to become involved in the burgeoning Washington wine industry.

“Washington is one of the most exciting wine regions in the world, and Washington Merlot is the purest expression of our unique terroir,” says Merf. “When I got the offer to make Merlots at Northstar, no one had to ask me twice.”

Northstar’s commitment to making Merlots that rank among the world’s best begins in the vineyards. Merf quickly proved to have an expert’s eye for sourcing and blending the highest quality fruit from around the Columbia Valley.

“Merf has what all great winemakers must have: a sixth sense about grape selection and exacting standards when blending the best of the best from the vineyards,” said legendary California winemaker Jed Steele, a Northstar consultant who has worked with Merf since 2001.

“It’s incredibly exciting for me to see the way these wines take shape and grow into what they eventually become – a great experience in the glass,” – David Merfeld

Merf tailors the barrel regimen for each vineyard lot based on his deep knowledge of that vineyard’s character and history. He evaluates each lot frequently, a practice fine-tuned by his years of experience, before assembling an array of trial blends that aim for a perfect balance of varietal purity, fruit intensity, and ripe, harmonious tannins.

Once fruit is selected from the state’s top vineyard blocks, Merf and his team guide it through a gentle sorting and whole-berry fermentation. Then the toolbox comes out. State-of-the-art winery equipment, cutting edge tannin research, and old-fashioned instinct all aid Merf in creating the final blends of Northstar’s highly acclaimed Merlots from both the Walla Walla Valley and Columbia Valley designations.

“Winemaking is a constant learning experience and the vineyards, lab, and equipment resources we are fortunate to have at Northstar give us a great advantage in making the kinds of wines we strive for,” says Merf.

About the Vineyards:

Washington State is America’s second largest wine-producing region, with over 31,000 vine acres and 600 wineries, 90 percent of them east of the Cascade Mountain range in the Columbia Valley of Eastern Washington, a high-plains region in which the Snake, Yakima and Columbia rivers converge. The Columbia Valley encompasses eight American Viticultural Areas: Walla Walla Valley, Yakima Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills, Wahluke Slope, Puget Sound and the Columbia Gorge.

In this semi-arid climate, vines are planted on south-facing slopes to enhance sun exposure in the summer and air drainage in winter. The Cascades block the harsh storms coming in from the Pacific Ocean and so, Eastern Washington receives only 6 to 8 inches of rainfall annually. This creates an ideal environment for wine grapes to thrive year after year. The Columbia Valley’s warm, sunny days and extended sunlight hours (17.5 during the summer growing season) help develop intense flavors while its cool nights ensure high levels of acidity in the Merlot grapes.

As Merf explains, “The sparse rainfall we receive, coupled with our free-draining soils, allows us to control the size of the vines’ canopy, which in turn affects berry size. Smaller berries lead to more concentrated color and flavors in the grapes, and our cool nights ensure superb balance in our wines. We’re on the same latitude as the Bordeaux region of France but we have a larger ripening window, so our Merlots are full-bodied, fresh and more vividly varietal than those from other wine regions of the world.”

About the Winemaking Process:

Merlot fruit from Washington’s top vineyard sites forms the backbone of the Northstar wines, enhanced by the careful blending of other traditional Bordeaux varietals to add texture and complexity to the Merlot fruit. Merf considers these varietals his “spice rack,” and each adds a key component to the final blend:

•    Cabernet Sauvignon softens Washington Merlot with bright cherry and raspberry fruit flavors
•    Petit Verdot adds color and structure
•    Cabernet Franc brings softness and an olive herbal tone

After Merf creates the final blends for Northstar’s Walla Walla and Columbia Valley Merlots, as well as for the Stella Maris red blend, the wines are bottled and aged for up to 18 months to ensure they are enjoyable upon release and still capable of aging gracefully in bottle for 10-15 years.

Northstar Winery

1736 J.B. George Road
Walla Walla, WA 99362

(509) 529-0948

Be Sociable, Share Great Wine News!