Food & Drink

Northwest Wines: Winemaking couple produce same wine from same vineyard

It isn’t difficult to find multiple wineries making wines from the same vineyard. However, it is rare indeed for two winemakers who are married and producing wine for competing companies to make the same wine from one exclusive vineyard.

But this month, Jessica Munnell and her husband, Juan Muñoz-Oca, are releasing Cabernet Sauvignons from little-known but highly regarded Wautoma Springs Vineyard in Washington’s Columbia Valley. Munnell is head winemaker for Mercer Estates in Prosser and co-owner of Wautoma Wines, while Muñoz-Oca is head winemaker for giant Columbia Crest.

They met while working for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates: Munnell was a viticulturist at the time, and Muñoz-Oca, a native of Argentina, was an intern. They’ve now been married for nine years and have two children.

But their babies are Cabernet Sauvignons from the 2011 vintage. Wautoma Springs is owned by grape grower Tom Merkle, who began planting the vineyard in 1999. It is near Cold Creek, a vineyard owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates that is north of the Yakima Valley community of Sunnyside and south of the Wahluke Slope.

“It’s really in the middle of nowhere,” Munnell quipped.

Columbia Crest has always contracted Wautoma Springs’ grapes, and the vineyard was an important component of the Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which was deemed the best wine in the world in 2009 by Wine Spectator magazine.

In 2008, Merkle and Munnell teamed up to create Wautoma Wines, a small winery producing just a few hundred cases. In 2013, they released El Prat, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec that earned the No. 10 ranking on The Seattle Times top 50 list.

In 2011, Munnell brought in 2 tons of grapes from Wautoma Springs, while Muñoz-Oca received the other 90 tons. It was his first harvest as head winemaker for Columbia Crest. She didn’t take over at Mercer until 2012.

In March, Wautoma will release its 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, of which Munnell made just 26 cases, available at www.wautomasprings.com. And Muñoz-Oca will release his 2011 Wautoma Springs Cabernet Sauvignon, which will go to Columbia Crest wine club members first, then will be sold through the tasting room in Paterson. He made 350 cases.

While one might think that talk around the dinner table might always turn toward wine, that isn’t necessarily so, Munnell said.

“When Tom starts to get ready to pick the vineyard, he’s coordinating with Juan. As we’re approaching harvest, he’ll let me know when Juan is going to pick.”

So Munnell hears she’s getting her grapes from the grape grower and not her husband?

“By the time we’re harvesting Cab, we’re in the middle of harvest,” she said. “There’s not a lot of time for chit-chat. If Juan has decided to pick (Wautoma), then I’m going to agree.”

So whose wine is better? The couple couldn’t agree, so they gave us a bottle of each to try.

“I think she has the superior palate and better winemaking skills,” Muñoz-Oca said.

“I think he just wants to stay married,” Munnell replied with a grin.

Here are our impressions of the two wines, which we tasted side by side in a blind judging:

Wautoma Wines 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $48: Mild oak notes stay out of the way of gorgeous fruit aromas of boysenberry, black raspberry and faint hints of sage. On the palate, it is round and luscious with suave tannins and ample acidity through a lengthy and stylish finish.

Columbia Crest 2011 Wautoma Springs Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $35: Aromas of dark black cherry, blackberry and violet lead to ripe, dark flavors that include notes of black licorice, black olive, black currant and sweet herbs, including a note of sage. Fairly assertive tannins lead to a big, classic finish.

And which was better? We gave the slight nod to Munnell’s version.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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