How a beer brewer became a leading NW winemaker

Winemakers often say, “It takes a lot of beer to make good wine.” In the case of David “Merf” Merfeld, he was helping to make a lot of good beer for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates before he started making great wine for Northstar Winery, the Woodinville company’s upscale Merlot brand.

“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.”

The wines

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.

More in Life

Using a rod to assist in running wiring through an attic space, Don Thomas, of R&D Handyman Service, works on installing a ceiling fan at a home in SE Everett on Monday, July 24, 2017 in Everett, Wa. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
                                Don Thomas of R&D Handyman Service installs a ceiling fan at a home in southeast Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
When fall chores loom, just hand them to the handyman

Here are three local businesses that can help you prepare your home for the rainy season.

And this year’s winners of Everett’s Monte Cristo Awards are…

The awards recognize local homeowners and businesses that take special care of their properties.

‘Happy Death Day’ applies ‘Groundhog Day’ premise on horror genre

Smart writing and Jessica Rothe’s performance make this worth seeing.

Adventurer 1st to finish Race to Alaska on stand-up paddleboard

Karl Kruger will speak about his trip at the Everett Mountaineers Banquet on Nov. 4 in Lynnwood.

Therapy helped ease debilitating pain after injury

Columnist Jennifer Bardsley shares her experiences with complex regional pain syndrome.

How to prune a hydrangea: An exception to the pruning rule

It helps to think of a growing blackberry vine when you’re about to cut back this blooming shrub.

Visiting Germany’s Lutherland, birthplace of Reformation

The sights include the church where the first Protestant service took place in 1521.

Can you top ‘Hamilton’? Author Ron Chernow is about to find out

The notable writer’s latest book, published Oct. 10, is a lengthy biography on Ulysses S. Grant.

Most Read