Less than two years removed from having the world's top wine, Washington's largest winery is making a change at the top.
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is promoting Juan Muñoz Oca to head winemaker at Columbia Crest in Paterson. Ray Einberger, who has been head winemaker at the 2 million-case-winery since 2003, has been promoted to director emeritus of winemaking for the entire company and will act as an in-house consultant for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates' luxury wineries in Washington, as well as Columbia Crest. Einberger's duties will include evaluating vineyards and being involved in the winemaking process, particularly blending.
"I'll be like a mobile winemaker," Einberger said. "I'm going to be in the vineyards a lot, tasting wine and offering advice."
This comes less than two years after Wine Spectator named Columbia Crest's 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon the top wine in the world, a ranking that propelled not only the winery and its parent company, but also the Washington wine industry.
"Ray deserves this," said Doug Gore, Ste. Michelle's executive vice president of winemaking, viticulture and operations - and also Columbia Crest's first winemaker. "It's a nice acknowledgement and a good way for him to use his skills. He'll reach out to the rest of us and bring in his opinions and thoughts. He'll be thought-provoking."
Gore hired Einberger in 1993 from Opus One, one of the top luxury wineries in the world. They talked while Gore was on a tour of the winery's Napa Valley facility, and Einberger saw an opportunity in Washington.
"I told Doug, 'It's time for a change, and you guys (in Washington) are the new frontier.'"
Muñoz Oca joined Ste. Michelle Wine Estates as an intern in 2001 and moved to Columbia Crest later that year before leaving to explore winemaking in France and Australia. He returned in 2003 and was promoted to red winemaker five years ago and has had Einberger as his mentor ever since.
"He's a good person and has a great way with people," Gore said of Muñoz Oca. "It's just great to see Columbia Crest continue with the right people making the right wine with the right passion. Juan will put his own stamp on Columbia Crest because he's a very talented guy."
Muñoz Oca, 35, doesn't seem too intimidated to step out from Einberger's considerable shadow and oversee a winery that produced more than 2 million cases of wine last year.
"It's a big responsibility," he said. "We are a large chunk of the production in Washington and recognized in every state and 48 countries, and that's a heavy load, but we have a wonderful team and are really passionate about what we do, and I think it's going to be easy to carry on the tradition that Ray and Doug put together."
Muñoz Oca is a native of Argentina and learned winemaking from his grandfather at the esteemed Bodegas Tosa winery in Mendoza.
"My grandpa lived outside the winery, so that was my backyard."
He picked his first grapes at the age of 8 and later worked in after-school jobs in the winery's cellar and helped during harvest. He went to college in Spain. This fall will be his 20th vintage making wine. He lives in Kennewick with his wife, Jessica, and two children. The couple met when she worked at Chateau Ste. Michelle's red winemaking facility near Columbia Crest.
Columbia Crest is releasing a Reserve Malbec, as well as a Reserve Tempranillo, both of which reflect Muñoz Oca's background in Argentina and Spain. While he thinks Washington Malbec has come a long way in a brief period of time, he still gives the nod in quality to Argentina.
"I think Malbec in Argentina has a little bit more character," he said. "It has to do with years and years of selection of the best cuttings from the best vineyards. I think Washington has the potential because of the weather, the climate, our soils. And, of course, with the knowledge of our viticulturists we can probably grow any variety we want to."
He said it will just take a bit of time for Washington to match the proper clones of Malbec with the right areas. He added this is the same with many varieties.
"It's an industry that is evolving every day. We're learning about the different places in the different appellations, and we're learning what each variety will do in each of these niches."
Remarkably, Muñoz Oca is just the third head winemaker for Columbia Crest since it opened in 1982, and the two prior winemakers - Gore and Einberger - will have offices just a couple of floors above his cellar.
"It's great," he said. "They can come down to the cellar at any time, at any point, and figure out what we're doing because we're still doing the same winemaking Doug was doing in the mid-'80s."
For Einberger, the new opportunity also is related to the success he has enjoyed at Columbia Crest. The pinnacle was the Wine Spectator award in 2009, and that was followed up last year, when the Columbia Crest 2007 H3 Merlot was No. 43 on the Spectator list - the only Ste. Michelle Wine Estates wine to earn a place amid the magazine's top 100.
"I've reached my apex with Crest and needed new challenges," Einberger said. "This is a real honor, and I'm excited about the new role. My goal is to help our people make better and better wines."
And Einberger has no concerns with Muñoz Oca stepping into the head winemaker role.
"Juan is going to be great," he said. "He's a balance between analytical and innovative winemaking. He'll fit in there very, very well."
Einberger grew up in California's Santa Clara Valley and went to San Jose State University with the intention of becoming a science teacher. He was sharing a house with nine other guys, one of whom was studying at the college's culinary sciences institute and another who worked at a winery. The group ended up having a lot of great meals and learning to pair wines, and that got Einberger hooked. He finished his degree and headed to U.C. Davis while also working at Silverado in Napa Valley. He became the winemaker for Opus One in 1990, which also gave him the opportunity to work with top Bordeaux producers before he headed to Washington in 1993.
"I worked in Napa and Sonoma for 18 years, and now I've been up in Washington for 18 years," he said.
And he has no plans to head back to his native California anytime soon.
"I love making wine in Washington, and I'm really looking forward to working with the super-premium guys in our company."
Andy Perdue is the editor of Wine Press Northwest. For more information, go to www.winepressnw.com.