"I would probably be making beer if I wasn't making wine," Merfeld said.
Merfeld grew up on an Iowa farm before following a friend to Seattle in 1990, where he became enchanted by the emerging craft beer environment.
So Merfeld studied at the beer-producing program at the University of California-Davis, then received 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 Grant's Brewery Pub in Yakima, which Stimson Lane (now Ste. Michelle Wine Estates), had purchased in 1995. Grant's long had been a 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 Merfeld's personality and fermentation background. 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.
Merfeld uses grapes from throughout the vast Columbia Valley, though he has focused 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 weren't as balanced, and you couldn't get a sense for the vineyard. Now, we're at 50 to 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 whose roots run back into 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, I'll be in my rockin' chair still enjoying it."
Merfeld, a family man rarely seen without his signature sports eyewear, has created a life in Walla Walla that also affords him the opportunity to pursue the game of golf and develop as an endurance athlete.
Staying active helps him stay close to his first professional passion, beer, though Grant's closed for good in 2005.
"The No. 1 beer I'm drinking is Black Butte Porter, but I love all beer," Merfeld said. "I'm fortunate that I travel to the East Coast a fair bit, and I still have a lot of friends in the beer industry."
Merfeld makes several wines under the Northstar label, including a red and white blend and 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 the first week of January in California.
The Columbia Valley Merlot sells for $41, while the Walla Walla Valley Merlot retails for $50. Look for them at 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 site. For more information, go to www.greatnorthwestwine.com.
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