Juan Muñoz Oca, a native of Argentina, topped the field of 136 entries from Washington, Oregon and Idaho with his INTRINSIC Wine Co., 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon. His wife, Jessica Munnell, earned the equivalent of three gold medals for her “Outstanding!” work with the 2015 vintage for Mercer Estates, including the judging’s No. 3-ranked Cab.
No. 2 on the list is the Chateau Ste. Michelle 2014 Ethos Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Bob Bertheau.
There were 24 wines to receive an Outstanding! in this tasting. Seven of those were made by products of “the University of Ste. Michelle” — winemakers currently or previously employed by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. That applies to Bertheau, Munnell and Muñoz Oca, the longtime winemaker at Columbia Crest who recently was promoted to vice president of winemaking for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
Muñoz Oca’s innovative approach to fermenting Cab, leaving the grape skins in the fermenting wine juice for nine months rather than the industry standard of 7-10 days, has resonated with consumers and critics.
“I asked around before trying such an extended maceration and got the same answer from almost everyone I talked to: ‘I’ve done it for X days, X weeks and that’s enough, I don’t know why would you leave it on the skins that long,’ ” Muñoz Oca said via email. “Once we tried the technique and realized the reaction tannins have in the spring and early summer, we realized we were onto something. That, and a good amount of social capital I had accumulated over the years at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, made the decision of running with it easy.”
His debut release of INTRINSIC, the 2014 Cab, ranked No. 32 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines of the world for 2016. Production began at 30,000 cases. There will be 148,000 cases produced from the 2017 vintage. So far, the retail price has held steady at $22.
“It’s hard to work for such a big company and be successful in changing the direction of the ship a little bit,” said Munnell, who resigned from Mercer for family reasons prior to the 2017 harvest. “Juan’s been successful introducing new ideas and thinking outside the box a bit. And I’ve enjoyed getting to celebrate that success with him and being his cheerleader.”
The Wine Press Northwest judging panel for Cab included Tim Donahue, director of winemaking for College Cellars and Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology and Viticulture.
“The Intrinsic was really interesting,” Donahue noted. “It was quite tannic, but there was a dash of sweetness that balanced it out perfectly. My favorite part about the wine was that it was so purely fruit focused, there wasn’t any oak - just pure brambly fruit. You could tell the wine was engineered by a master. Juan Muñoz Oca definitely nailed it.”
Another judge, Brad Smith, winemaking instructor for Yakima Valley College’s vineyard and winery technology program, shared his review of the INTRINSIC 2016 Cab.
“Silken grape tannins dominate this wine with chocolate undertones tone and a rich long loganberry finish,” Smith wrote. “A quintessential Washington Cabernet expression with a judicious use of oak. Blueberry on the nose and just a hint of minerality sliding in at the last moment.”
Two vineyards come together for the INTRINSIC Cab — Beverly just north of the Wahluke Slope and Eagle & Plow, one of the Mercer family’s most prized sites in the Horse Heaven Hills.
“I use dusty to describe the tannins in the Horse Heaven Hills, but fine or elegant also translates into the mineral note that you get,” Munnell said.
Munnell, a proud graduate of Washington State University, took over the winemaking at Mercer Estates in 2012. Wine Press Northwest named Mercer Estates its Washington Winery of the Year in 2016 after an impressive string of gold medals.
“While I was at Mercer, people would say that those wines were feminine because of me,” Munnell said with a chuckle. “I would tell them, ‘That’s nice, but that’s not me. That’s the Horse Heaven Hills.’ The wines have those dusty tannins and higher-toned red fruit than warmer areas like Red Mountain or the Wahluke Slope. They tend to be a bit more elegant.
“For Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, a lot of their growth has been in the Horse Heaven Hills, and then there are the Mercers and the Andrews families,” Munnell continued. “You are able to make some really solid wines, even at higher crop levels.”
Indeed, the terroir of the Horse Heaven Hills seemed to appear to varying degrees in a number of the top wines. Over the years, Precept Wine has invested heavily in the Horse Heaven Hills, acquiring Alder Ridge, Canoe Ridge Vineyard and The Benches — the breathtaking site formerly called Wallula Gap Vineyard.
Four brands owned by Precept earned top scores, three of those were made in Walla Walla by John Freeman, whose Waterbrook Winery 2016 Cab is priced within the Best Buy! category.
Sparkman Cellars in Woodinville also impressed the judges, earning a trio of “Outstanding!” ratings.
The 2017 Washington Wine Grape Harvest Report, compiled by the Washington State Wine Commission, indicates that the price for Cab never has been higher. The average price per ton a year ago stood at $1,536, an increase of nearly 7 percent from the 2016 harvest. That’s not the most expensive variety — by average — that was the somewhat rare Petit Verdot at $1,700, but growers demand more for quality Cab than any other variety.
On Red Mountain, some growers seek $4,500 per ton for Cab. The California Grape Crush Report determined the average price per ton for Cab from the 2017 vintage in Napa Valley was $7,421.
“Cab is king everywhere, but I think that it is just going to continue to be the varietal that shines for us in Washington,” Munnell said. “We’re doing such a good job with it. Of course, there’s California, but ours is unique, and it’s shining and there’s a reason for it.”
That’s natural acidity.
“It’s why a lot of our reds are friendly to drink,” she said. “The cool nights help keep the malic acid sticking around, and it makes a difference when you have natural acidity. That gives it the elegance to age for a bit longer. Beside, you can sometimes taste it when people add a lot of tartaric (acid) to their wines.”
Fortunately for Cab lovers, there is more supply than there is demand. The sense within the Washington wine industry is that growers are over-planted in Cab and the market has become saturated. As a result, there won’t be much in the way of new vineyards planted in Washington state before 2020.
“Overall, the tasting of Washington Cabernet Sauvignon was extraordinary,” Smith wrote. “As we worked our way through the vintages, the earlier vintages are expressing themselves well, and the younger vintages are coming into their own. After the spectacular 2012 vintage, it’s clear that Washington Cabernet continues to build momentum and strength with world-class wines being produced throughout the state’s diverse growing regions.”
And much as U.S. consumers are starting to shy away from oaky Chardonnay, Donahue said he believes there should be less barrel influence upon Cab.
“If I were to make any recommendations, Washington’s fruit is amazing. We don’t need to cover it up!” Donahue wrote. “Pull back on the oak a little. Also we could be a little more diligent about managing volatile acidity.”
As a continuation of its research methods, Wine Press Northwest evaluated these examples of Cab by vintage. Older wines with more mature tannins were judged first.
“It was also interesting to go through and see the differences in the vintages,” Donahue wrote. “Speaking generally, the 2013s were silky smooth and really quite soft with moderate acid — very quaffable. The ‘14s were marked by spectacular color, good body and weight, still quite big, but somehow balanced.
“The ‘15s are absolute powerhouses, massive tannins, alcohol and weight – if you want the biggest wine – buy 2015’s!” Donahue continued. “Then, 2016 took a step back from 2015, the cool rainy fall led to much more subtle tannins and alcohols. I think this combination really led to the perfect storm for the extended maceration that occurs in the INTRINSIC.”
And there are more iterations of INTRINSIC on the way.
“We have worked on a very small batch of INTRINSIC Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain, which will bottle sometime early next year,” Muñoz Oca said. “I can see a future in which we make a small amount of Cabernet Franc from Walla Walla and Malbec from Horse Heaven Hills. Time will tell!”
Ste. Michelle pulled him away from Columbia Crest to further developing INTRINSIC and another new Cab-focused brand called Borne of Fire, which is rooted to a proposed American Viticultural Area downstream from the Horse Heaven Hills called The Burn.
Ste. Michelle’s vineyard partners for that project?
The Mercer family.
The panel of judges and moderators included Kristine Bono, direct-to-consumer manager, Tertulia Cellars, Walla Walla, Wash.; Tim Donahue, director of winemaking, Walla Walla Community College/CEO of College Cellars of Walla Walla; Richard Larsen, research winemaker and enologist, Washington State University, Richland, Wash.; Gregg McConnell, editor, Wine Press Northwest magazine, Kennewick, Wash.; Kate Michaud, winemaker, Double Canyon, West Richland, Wash.; Andy Perdue, wine columnist, The Seattle Times; Mike Rader, panelist, Great Northwest Wine, Kennewick, Wash.; Ken Robertson, columnist, Wine Press Northwest magazine, Kennewick, Wash.; and Brad Smith, instructional technician vineyard and winery technology at Yakima Valley Vintners, Yakima Valley College, Grandview, Wash.
INTRINSIC Wine Co., 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $22Juan Muñoz Oca turned a unique approach to red-wine fermentation into one of the country’s fastest growing brands. The results are remarkable. The theme redolent of cassis, black cherry and dark plum, and the distinctive tannin structure is both assertive yet beveled. One winemaker on the panel who marveled at the wine noted, “There’s not a single winemaker’s mistake here.” (130,000 cases, 14.5% alc.)
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2014 Ethos Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $48Leave it to Chateau Ste. Michelle to create a reserve Cab program on such a large scale, but the combination of Bob Bertheau and vineyards such as Cold Creek - a site suggested to Ste. Michelle by the late Walter Clore - makes it so deliciously achievable. Toasty oak from 22 months in 35% new barrels from France lead to dark cherry, blackberry and minty aromas. Dark and sweet brambleberries combine with red currant and more cherries and cocoa powder for a remarkably dense, opulent and well-crafted Cab. (3,600 cases, 14.5% alc.)
Mercer Estates 2015 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills $40The Mercer family and its previous winemaker — Jessica Munnell — had this wine from a record-hot vintage in barrel when Wine Press Northwest named Mercer Estates its 2016 Washington Winery of the Year. Dusty minerality, so often a fingerprint of the Horse Heaven Hills, emerges on first whiff with dark strawberry, cassis and tobacco leaf. There’s a prettiness to the interplay of the cassis and cherry-skin tannins as the abundance of President plum and blueberry acidity make for a silky finish. (360 cases, 14.1% alc.)
Spangler Vineyards 2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Oregon $60Many Southern Oregon growers don’t devote much real estate to Cabernet Sauvignon, so Pat Spangler focuses that part of his program in Roseburg on Cab from the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley and the Zerba family. Wine Press Northwest’s reigning Oregon Winery of the Year worked with these eight prized barrels for a Cab with nice complexity as cherries and creamy blueberries are joined by smoked meat, baking spices and age-worthy tannins. (199 cases, 14.5% alc.)
Sparkman Cellars 2014 Kingpin Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain $65Considering the people and pedigree, it’s no surprise that Christian Sparkman and Linn Scott produced three “Outstanding!” Cabs, led by this melange of Klipsun, Kiona and Obelisco vineyards. The nose of sweet black currant and blackberry leads to a core of complexity on the palate as an injection of Petit Verdot (6%) from Olsen Family Vineyards adds concentration while staying in balance. It’s full of solid flavors hinting at blackberry, plum and dark cherry. Klipsun has served as the foundation for the Kingpin since 2006, and those first vintages show no sign of fading. (419 cases, 14.5% alc.)
Waterbrook Winery 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $13Best Buy! One of the Walla Walla Valley’s oldest wineries, sold by Eric Rindal to Precept in 2006, produces award-winning results at various price points, and this young Cab by veteran winemaker John Freeman ranks as the biggest bargain of our tasting. Blackberry, black cherry, fresh mint and charcuterie set the stage for blueberry acidity and well-managed integration of youthful tannins. (9,673 cases, 13.4% alc.)
4 Cellars by Little Big Town 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $20Seattle-based Precept Wine has tasked John Freeman to make the wine for CEO Andrew Browne’s unique collaboration with Grammy Award-winning Little Big Town. The country group’s four members — Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet, Kimberly Schlapman and Jimi Westbrook — agreed to name it 4 Cellars. Their latest Cab belts out powerful notes of blueberry and blackberry that carry onto the palate with harmonious tannins and a hedonistic finish that borders on buttery. Thanks to Freeman and the chart-topping band’s fans, 4 Cellars has gone from concept to a 10,000-case brand in less than two years. While most of the 4 Cellars bottlings are limited to their wine club and Tennessee restaurants, this Cab is available through Total Wine & More stores. (1,198 cases, 13.9% alc.)
Long Shadows Vintners 2015 Feather Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $65It’s no shock to see Napa Valley’s Randy Dunn and his Feather project for Long Shadows Vintners rank among the Northwest’s elite expressions of Cab. His barrel program of 90% new French oak for 22 months reveals notes of caramel corn and toast with Bing cherry and moist earth. Marvelous tannin management overseen by his collaborator in Walla Walla - Gilles Nicault — allows for layers of strawberry, red currant and plum from front to back as super-fine tannins are swept up in the finish of blueberry compote. (2,520 cases, 14.8% alc.)
Hamilton Cellars 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $31Two of Washington state’s top vineyards - young Discovery and venerable Weinbau come together beautifully in the hands of Charlie “Wine Boss” Hoppes. The Fidelitas winemaker produced this for his Red Mountain neighbors, filling it with cherries, chocolate and white pepper. The burst of ripe Marionberry keeps acidity flowing over the tannins, and this well-made 2013 Cab still tastes young and fresh. (99 cases, 14.8% alc.)
Saviah Cellars 2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $45Cab makes up more than a third of all grapes grown in the Walla Walla Valley, and Richard Funk’s reserve program ranks alongside the best. His years of work with nearby Anna Marie and McClellan vineyards shows with this classic Cab. Its theme of cassis, blackberry, vanilla and tobacco includes bittersweet chocolate tannins that make for a long and juicy farewell. “This says Cabernet to me,” according to one judge. (249 cases, 14.9% alc.)
Sparkman Cellars 2014 Evermore Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $100Evermore represents the “old vine Cab” project for Woodinville’s Chris Sparkman and Linn Scott, and this marks their third vintage of working with Sagemoor vines, headlined by the historic Dionysus Block 16 Cab that was planted in 1972. All six of these barrels were new French oak, which showcase aromas and flavors of black cherry, blackberry and baking spice as the elegant mouth feel brings a vibrant finish of raspberry jam. (144 cases, 14.5% alc.)
TERO Estates 2012 Windrow Vineyards Plateau Block Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $55As part of the original Seven Hills planting in 1981, Doug Roskelley’s Windrow Vineyard ranks as the Walla Walla Valley’s oldest commercial vineyard. These four barrels hail from a bench planted in 1996, and they are the product of one of the most balanced vintages in this century. Here is precision and concentration with blueberry, black cherry and blackberry dominating, backed by pipe tobacco, dark toast and Baker’s chocolate. (96 cases 15.3% alc.)
Airfield Estates 2015 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Yakima Valley $30The Miller family established its vineyard at historic Airport Ranch in 1968, and Cab was among those first plantings near Prosser, Wash. This vintage marks the 10th anniversary of the Airfield Estates brand, and Marcus Miller shows the benefits of grape-to-glass control. The use of 61% new French oak brings out the dusting of cocoa powder that joins the sweet purple fruit tones of black cherry and plum, backed by violets and baking spice. (3,288 cases, 14.7% alc.)
Six Prong by Alder Ridge Winery 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills $17 Cabs from Precept properties showed well in the peer judging, and veteran winemaker Jon Zimmerman allowed these lots from Alder Ridge Vineyard and The Benches to show off an “old school” Cab, as described by one panelist. Attractive oak, plum and blackberry are joined by a bit of bell pepper and a finishing pinch of baking spice. While not quite a Best Buy! it’s a delicious bargain. (2,229 cases, 13.9% alc.)
Goose Ridge Vineyards 2015 Estate 20th Anniversary Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley $45The ability to sort through blocks at one of Washington state’s largest contiguous family-owned vineyards gives Georgia Tech product Andrew Wilson more ways to showcase his time spent at vaunted Long Shadows Vintners and rubbing elbows with Napa Valley maverick Randy Dunn. Aromas of black cherry, violet, clove and saddle leather lead to a cellar-worthy Cab that uses flavors of blackberry, plum and pomegranate to surround the firmness of black tea tannins. Baker’s chocolate, pomegranate and sweet herbs make this one of the more complex and long-finishing wines of the field. (381 cases, 14.9% alc.)
Mercer Estates 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills $20The entry-level Cabs that Jessica Munnell produced from her penultimate vintage for the Mercer family is a reflection of her approach that allows for the gracefulness of Horse Heaven Hills fruit. This bottling represents a collection of Eagle & Plow, Spice Cabinet, BigTeePee, Cavalie and Zephyr Ridge vineyards — and her use of Syrah (9%) creates a silkiness to the tannins. Classic HHH dust shows in the nose alongside black cherry, blueberry and smoke. On the palate, it is hugely quaffable as cherry, vanilla and spice box flavors all work together in a rich fashion that makes for a full package. (1,875 cases, 14.1% alc.)
Amelia Wynn Winery 2015 Kiona Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain $38Bainbridge Island winemaker Paul Bianchi pays tribute to his twin granddaughters on every bottle, and here he works with the renowned Williams family at Kiona Vineyards for the three barrels of Cab that also merited gold medals this year at the San Francisco Chronicle and Washington State wine competitions. The theme of blackberry, ripe plum and cherry picks up shaved chocolate and sage before the scrape of slate in the finish. Craftsmanship shows as the deft touch with the oak and spot-on tannins make this a very pleasant Cab. (72 cases, 14.5% alc.)
DeLille Cellars 2014 Grand Ciel Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain $160The winemaking duo of Chris Upchurch and Jason Gorski work with the Woodinville winery’s own vineyard in the center of Red Mountain, 15-acre Grand Ciel, for one of the region’s benchmark Cabs. Bright plum, black cherry, cranberry and rose petal aromas are mirrored on the palate as tannins akin to shaved chocolate are followed out by fresh herbs and pomegranate juice. (435 cases, 14.2% alc.)
Drum Roll Wine 2013 Cabernet Manet, Columbia Valley $18Seattle-area négociants Matt Frazier and Dave Hill Jr. pulled Cab from Art denHoed Vineyard in the Yakima Valley and blended it with Merlot (25%) off Sundance Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope for this opulent, smooth and medium-bodied wine that can legally be labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon because that variety accounts for 75% of the final blend. One of Washington’s top winemaking talents, another Ste. Michelle product who declines to be identified, helped Frazier to develop a deep core of black fruit, black licorice and clove. “It’s what you hope for in a Cab,” according to one judge. This bargain is available at PCC Community Markets. (185 cases, 13.8% alc.)
Mercer Estates 2015 Cavalie Vineyard Block 93 Eagle and Plow Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills $100The Mercers use this 1-acre parcel to honor the memory of Richard Guadagno, a biologist dedicated to a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who perished Sept. 11, 2001, on Flight 93. The Rutgers grad was the best friend of Mercer vineyard manager John Derrick. He and Rob Mercer, a captain in the U.S. Marines who served in Iraq, donate 100 percent of the proceeds of Eagle & Plow Cab to agencies such as Children of Fallen Patriots and Friends of Flight 93. The nose of dark berries, plum, baking spice and mint leads to black cherry and blueberry flavors. Smooth tannins and lengthy acidity combine to make it extra special. Sales of the 2015 vintage will go on top of the $71,000 raised through the previous Eagle & Plow releases. (299 cases, 14.5% alc.)
Woodward Canyon 2014 Artist Series #23 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $59Year after year, Kevin Mott produces a classic example of Washington Cab. This vintage features a painting of birds in flight by Gig Harbor artist Lynda Lowe entitled Release, and the wine reflects a palette of vineyards such as famed Champoux, Sagemoor, Summit View and the Small family’s Woodward Canyon Estate. Here’s another suave Cab, redolent of black cherry, black plum, boysenberry and chocolate. The use of Cabernet Franc (6%) brings a pinch of sweet herbs, and the medium body displays finesse when compared to other entries from the 2014 vintage. (3,597 cases, 14.8% alc.)
Browne Family Vineyards 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $45Precept CEO Andrew Browne tapped on the shoulder of veteran Waterbrook winemaker John Freeman to oversee the Walla Walla brand that pays homage to Browne’s storied grandfather, a Harvard law grad and an intelligence officer in World War II and Korea. Freeman’s fruit sources for this include those owned by stalwarts of the Washington wine industry — the Quintessence and Shaw plantings on Red Mountain as well as Mike Corliss’ Blue Mountain Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley. This Cab won a gold medal at the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle for its intense dark fruit profile, smooth plum-skin tannins and an extended finish of dark chocolate, chai spices and cassis. (3,572 cases, 14.5% alc.)
Sparkman Cellars 2016 Holler Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $32Last year’s Honorary Vintner for the Auction of Washington Wines earned a spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2016 with the 2013 Holler. This new release of Chris Sparkman’s flagship wine seems to be on a similar trajectory. Lovely aromas of plum and blackberry include violet and leather. It’s very cherry, jammy and chocolaty on the palate, making it an easy drinker with enough structure to keep it a serious Cab. (2,441 cases, 14.5% alc.)
Cana’s Feast Winery 2014 Slide Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $45Carlton, Ore., winemaker Patrick Taylor shines with Italian varieties, but for this Cab he pulls from little-known Slide Mountain Vineyard in the eastern foothills of Washington’s Mount Adams. It’s floral with notes of cedar and sage backed by black cherry and currant. The smooth finish of mocha is a legacy of its 20 months in 75% new oak. (122 cases, 14% alc.)
ERIC DEGERMAN is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greathorthwestwine.com.
This story was originally published September 13, 2018 12:00 AM.