MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore. — Cecil Zerba has faced challenges in the past decade that made him wonder why he got into the wine industry.
Chief among them was 2004, when a January freeze hurt 80 percent of the vines in the Walla Walla Valley. Cecil and his wife, Marilyn, were planting vines and building their winery building in Milton-Freewater, Ore., about 15 minutes south of Walla Walla. Zerba had just put vines in and the weather froze them to the ground.
"At that point, construction stopped on the building," Cecil said. "It all went back to being about the vineyard and the wine. I didn't want to borrow any more money."
At that time, Zerba Cellars had just finished its second vintage, during which time Cecil reluctantly took over as winemaker when his consultant moved on in the middle of harvest. The former electrician thought growing grapes and starting a little winery would be a good retirement job.
"Little did I know!" he said with a deep, gruff laugh. "That about wore me out. It made an old man out of me."
All the hard work paid off, as those wines from the 2003 vintage turned out brilliantly and helped Zerba Cellars begin to stand out in the ever-growing Walla Walla Valley.
Today, Zerba produces 7,500 cases of wine and has three tasting rooms in two states. It also is Wine Press Northwest's 2011 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.
The Zerbas took an unusual path to being one of the finest wineries in the Northwest. Both grew up in the valley, with Cecil's family's roots here stretching back to before the Civil War.
They married in 1981 and soon after opened a nursery, growing plants for field crops such as tomatoes and melons. They also grew a dozen different kinds of flowers.
"I didn't know the difference between a marigold and a petunia," Cecil said with a twinkle in his eye.
But that didn't keep the business from being a success. They began selling produce to grocers between Walla Walla and Baker City and in 2000 sold more than 2 million pounds of pumpkins to Albertsons. They began planting wine grapes in 2000 and sold the nursery business in 2003.
In 2002, the Zerbas launched their eponymous winery with purchased grapes, then followed up in 2003 with a mix of purchased and estate grapes from their Winesap Vineyard. Success came quickly, as the 2003 Syrah earned a Platinum in Wine Press Northwest's year-end best-of-the-best competition in 2005, and two more wines from that vintage won Platinum again in 2006. Merlots from the 2004 and 2005 vintages subsequently won Platinums, too.
In 2007, the Zerbas hired Doug Nierman as winemaker. Nierman, a Wenatchee Valley native, caught the winemaking bug a decade ago and moved to California to work at wineries in Sonoma and Napa before traveling to the University of California at Davis to earn a master's degree. He returned to the Walla Walla Valley to work at Long Shadows Vintners and Pepper Bridge Winery before taking over at Zerba. His first vintage there was an instant hit, with three of Zerba's 2007 reds - Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Petit Verdot - winning Platinums last fall. His philosophy is straightforward.
"We're pretty low-tech," Nierman said with a laugh. "We really try to keep everything separate. We have a lot of two-, three- and four-barrel lots, which ends up being a lot of extra work. But we keep them all separate until we get ready to sit down for blending and end up with a lot of tools and options."
The Zerbas are glad to have Nierman, especially Cecil.
"I did winemaking by consensus," he said. "Doug has the palate. He can determine what's lacking in a wine and to bring it up. He's just taken it to a whole new level."
Nierman has a lot of great grapes from which to choose, as the Zerbas have three estate vineyards and a half-dozen others under contract, all in the Walla Walla Valley. In addition to "Dad's Vineyard," which is 4 acres, and Winesap, which is 12 acres, the Zerbas also have Cockburn, a 188-acre vineyard (60 planted) in the southeastern corner of the appellation. Here, they have 20 different varieties, among them Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Petite Sirah and Semillon. Planted in 2004, with new plantings three years ago, the vineyard is pretty much in full production.
"It's up off the valley floor and has a ton of promise," said Cecil, who handles all the viticulture. "Everything we grow there does well. It's just a beautiful site."
Not willing to stand still, last year the Zerbas opened two new tasting rooms, one in Woodinville and one in Dundee. As an Oregon winery - even though they are just a few hundred feet from the Washington border - the Zerbas have struggled to find their niche in the Evergreen State. At first, they flirted with the idea of opening a production facility in Walla Walla so they could officially be a Washington winery, too, but they ultimately figured out another way to open the Woodinville tasting room in May, just across from the Hollywood Schoolhouse. This was a great solution for reaching many of their 700-plus wine club members who live in the Seattle area.
They followed up in August with the Dundee tasting room. It's on Highway 99W, where traffic continuously seems to be at a standstill in the small Yamhill County community. For the Zerbas, this was a natural and easy fit. For years, they had been participating in Oregon wine events in Astoria, Newport and McMinnville, so they already had a strong following in the Portland area.
"We weren't sure how the Pinot guys were going to feel about us coming in there," Cecil said. "But they are great about sending people our way."
And he has no thoughts of adding a Pinot Noir to his already lengthy list of wines just to fit in.
"We could put up a sign that says, 'Everything but Pinot,' " he said with a laugh.
In fact, offering something others don't have ends up being a positive for consumers as well as neighboring wineries, he said.
The strategy of having three tasting rooms has paid off greatly for the Zerbas, who have been able to weather the recession by reaching out directly to consumers.
"When you're sending it to wholesale, you're selling it at half-price and working harder to sell it," Zerba said. "That's the reason for the tasting rooms. I'd much rather have someone come in and buy it directly from us than wait for a distributor to find shelf space for us."
Visiting Zerba Cellars
Zerba Cellars has three locations:
Walla Walla Valley:
85530 Highway 11
Milton-Freewater, OR 97862
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
Directions: Take Ninth Street south from Walla Walla. This will turn into Highway 11. Just after crossing the Oregon border, look for Zerba Cellars on the right in a log cabin.
14525 148th Ave. N.E., Suite 114
Woodinville, WA 98072
Hours: Noon-6 p.m. Thursday-Sunday
Directions: The tasting room is across the street from the Hollywood Schoolhouse. If you are at Chateau Ste. Michelle, turn right and head up the hill. At the second roundabout, take the third right. Turn left at the first driveway. The tasting room is on the lower level.
810 Highway 99W
Dundee, OR 97115
Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
Directions: If you are driving south through Dundee, the tasting room is on the right side, across from Argyle Winery.
For more information on Zerba Cellars, go to www.zerbacellars.com.
How the Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year is chosen
The Winery of the Year is selected by the editors of Wine Press Northwest and is based on a set of criteria, including longevity, quality, reputation, industry involvement, facilities and other considerations. A winery may win the award only once.
Past Pacific Northwest Wineries of the Year
2010: Vin du Lac, Chelan, Wash.
2009: Wild Goose Vineyards, Okanagan Falls, B.C.
2008: Dunham Cellars, Walla Walla, Wash.
2007: Elk Cove Vineyards, Gaston, Ore.
2006: Barnard Griffin, Richland, Wash.
2005: Ken Wright Cellars, Carlton, Ore.
2004: L'Ecole No. 41, Lowden, Wash.
2003: Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, Summerland, B.C.
2002: Columbia Crest, Paterson, Wash.
How the regional wineries of the year are chosen
Regional wineries of the year are selected by the editors of Wine Press Northwest based on blind tastings, visits, accolades and other considerations. Wineries of the Year must have completed at least five vintages, while Wineries to Watch must have been in business no more than five vintages.
Washington Winery of the Year: Dusted Valley Vintners, Walla Walla
Washington Winery to Watch: Airfield Estates, Prosser
Oregon Winery of the Year: Sineann, Newberg
Oregon Winery to Watch: Watermill Winery, Milton-Freewater
British Columbia Winery of the Year: JoieFarm, Naramata
British Columbia Winery to Watch: Stoneboat Vineyards, Oliver
Idaho Winery of the Year: Coeur d'Alene Cellars, Coeur d'Alene
Idaho Winery to Watch: Davis Creek Cellars, Caldwell