The recent rise of the Hispanic winemaker in the Pacific Northwest provides appropriate depth to the circle that begins in the vineyard and ends with wines that earn acclaim and promote tourism to our region.
During the course of four weeks, from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, the U.S. will toast Hispanic Heritage Month, a celebration and sign of respect that began with President Lyndon B. Johnson as a week and was expanded two decades later by Ronald Reagan in 1988.
In our corner of the country, it syncs up with the harvest of grapes by vineyard workers and the crushing of grapes by winemakers. In a growing number of scenarios, the important decisions, starting with when to bring in the fruit, are being made in the cellar by Hispanic winemakers.
No one in the region is responsible for more wine than Juan Muñoz-Oca, executive vice-president of winemaking, vineyards and operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. The native of Argentina, whose resume includes a business degree from Columbia University in New York, began his career in Washington state as a viticulturist in 2001 at Columbia Crest. The team he was on produced the vaunted Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that was Wine Spectator’s No. 1 wine in the world for 2009.
A decade later, Wine Press Northwest magazine selected Palencia Wine Co., led by Mexican-born Victor Palencia, as the 2019 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year. Palencia grew up in the Yakima Valley, inspired by his father who tended vines.
Another thing that several of these winemakers have in common is their alma mater — Walla Walla Community College and its highly decorated Institute of Enology & Viticulture program. The list of products includes Palencia, Amy Alvarez-Wampfler of Abeja in Walla Walla, Christopher Castillo of Castillo de Feliciana Vineyard & Winery in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, and Victor De la Luz of Gordon Estate/De la Luz Wine.
Below are a few of the wines produced by these winemakers that have earned a gold medal in a recent judging. Ask for these wines at your favorite wine shop or contact the wineries directly.
Abeja 2018 Chardonnay, Washington State, $45: Alvarez-Wampler met her husband, Daniel, while they were working at Columbia Crest, where Amy’s focus was on the chardonnay program. At Abeja, where she and Daniel Wampfler share the winemaking duties, her touch with chardonnay remains on display. This blend of grapes from select cooler sites across the state such as Celilo, Conner Lee and Abeja’s plantings along Mill Creek in the Walla Walla Valley offers finesse with notes of light butterscotch, dusty Bosc Pear, lemon bar and vanilla. Delicious acidity emerges from the nine months in 40% new oak barrels with the finish of crushed pineapple and apricot compote.
De la Luz Wine 2018 Carmen Rosé, Columbia Valley, $20: By day, De la Luz is the head winemaker for Gordon Estate, home to one of the oldest family-owned vineyards in Washington. At night, he works on micro-lots of his young brand, and this project with grenache won Best Rosé at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition, thanks to its tropical undertones behind the crushed raspberry and creamy strawberry approach.
Valcan Cellars 2015 Syrah, Rogue Valley, $30: J.P. Valot, longtime winemaker for Silvan Ridge in Eugene, Oregon, recently opened a tasting room in Corvallis for his own label. Earthy notes and wild berries lead to a brilliant palate that brims with Bing cherries, red and purple huckleberries and freshly crushed herbs. Roasted meat notes add complexity on the lingering finale.
Martinez & Martinez Winery 2018 Tudor Hills Vineyard Viognier, Yakima Valley, $18: Andrew Martinez’s father, Sergio, has been managing vineyards in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills for decades, and their own site produces stellar red wines. Andrew’s wife, Monica, also is part of the Tudor family, and their work in the Yakima Valley is earning high scores for white wines such as this viognier. Beautiful aromatics of honeysuckle, apricot and melon are matched on the palate, where the structure is rich, complex and balanced. This earned best of class at the 2020 Washington State Wine Competition.
Beacon Hill Winery & Vineyard 2018 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $28: This entry-level pinot noir for Oregon producers George Hillberry and Carla Rodríguez includes their estate vines, which were established in 1989 by acclaimed Tony Soter. Aromas of boysenberry jam, cranberry sauce, light caramel and white pepper don’t disappoint in this deliciously approachable drink that’s capped by golden raspberry.
Castillo de Feliciana Vineyard & Winery 2018 Brillanté Sparkling Albariño, Columbia Valley, $41: It seems natural that Christopher Castillo would focus on the fascinating Spanish white grape albarino for this bubble project for his family. It’s a fresh, frothy and fun presentation of angel food cake, pineapple and white peach. Finishing notes of Key lime and Asian pear make this a nice ride to the finish, helping it to earn the award for Best Sparkling Wine at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition.
Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.