Winemakers often say, It takes a lot of beer to make good wine. And David Merf Merfeld should know. He made a lot of good beer for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates before he started making great wine for Northstar Winery the Woodinville, Wash., companys upscale Merlot brand.
I would (still) probably be making beer if I wasnt making wine, Merfeld said.
Merfeld grew up in Iowa on his familys farm. Then he followed a friend to Seattle in 1990, where he became enchanted by the emerging craft beer scene. That inspired him to study at the beer-producing program at the University of California-Davis, then more instruction at the American Brewers Guild in Woodland, Calif.
Armed with that knowledge, Merfeld returned to Washington and worked his way up the ranks at Grants Brewery Pub in Yakima, which Stimson Lane (now Ste. Michelle Wine Estates) purchased in 1995. Grants had been a long-time watering hole for Ste. Michelle winemakers and staff.
Ste. Michelle launched the Merlot-focused Northstar with the 1994 vintage and it was looking for someone with Merfelds personality and fermentation background to run it. So in 2001, Merfeld worked his first crush for Northstar, assisting winemaker Gordy Hill and famed California consulting winemaker Jed Steele. A year later, Ste. Michelle built Northstar a permanent home in Walla Walla and Merfeld took over as head winemaker in 2005.
He uses grapes from throughout the Columbia Valley, though he focuses on select vineyards for his various Merlots and other wines, and he has reduced his dependence on oak barrels and the flavors they impart.
The wines used to be 75 percent new oak, Merfeld said. I love oak, but the wines werent as balanced, and you couldnt get a sense for the vineyard. Now, were at 50-60 percent new oak. You are picking up more subtleties.
This fall, Merfeld will release his 2009 Premier, a 190-case lot of 100 percent Merlot, which is the debut bottling from a project that Ste. Michelle has dubbed, The Big Dipper Chronicles. Lots from several vineyards throughout the Columbia Valley were in the running, but the 2009 Premier is all from Cold Creek Vineyard, an estate site north of the Yakima Valley that dates back to the 1970s.
My goal was to create a wine that had more acidity in it and was balanced with alcohol, Merfeld said. And 20 to 30 years from now, Ill be in my rockin chair still enjoying it.
Merfeld, a family man, stays close to his first passion beer through Grants.
The No. 1 beer Im drinking is Black Butte Porter, but I love all beer, Merfeld said. Im fortunate that I still have a lot of friends in the beer industry.
Merfeld makes several wines under the Northstar label, including red and white blends, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Malbec. But the two of greatest importance are his Merlots, one using Columbia Valley grapes and the other with Walla Walla Valley fruit.
From the 2008 vintage, we rated both Merlots our top Outstanding rating.
And the 2009s each won gold medals at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in January.
The Columbia Valley Merlot sells for $41, while the Walla Walla Valley Merlot retails for $50. Look for them in your favorite wine shop or order directly from the winery by calling (509) 525-6100 or going to www.northstarwinery.com.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run the Great Northwest Wine news website, GreatNorthwestWine.com.