Northstar’s Vision art meets Science
Galileo knew that the most wondrous things in life can be appreciated as both art and science. That insight has been our inspiration at Northstar since our inception in 1994. Merlot is widely recognized as one of Washington’s star varietals and Northstar was established in the Walla Walla Valley with a singular focus on this noble grape variety.
From the outset, we’ve strived to reach one goal: to make Merlots considered among the world’s best, utilizing the unique terroir of the Walla Walla and Columbia Valleys. Our winemaker works tirelessly to achieve this goal and to craft elegant, complex wines designed to enhance any occasion and always age gracefully. Northstar is a guiding light attracting wine seekers to the marvel of Washington state Merlot: an astonishing example of varietal expression Galileo himself would admire.
History of Northstar
From the early days of the Columbia Valley, it was recognized that Washington Merlot has some very distinctive characteristics. Legendary winemaker and mentor André Tchelistcheff spoke often of the absolute clarity of varietal expression that Washington’s Merlot grapes have. In more recent years, Washington state has garnered acclaim and recognition as a premier ne wine region, producing some of the nest Merlots in the New World.
Conceived in the early 1990s to focus on the potential of Washington’s Merlot, Northstar has since produced some of the nest Merlots coming from the state. The 1998 vintage was a milestone, scoring 92 points in Wine Advocate and helping to solidify Northstar’s “house style.”
In its earliest years, Northstar was guided by celebrated California winemaker Jed Steele, who worked extensively with our current winemaker, David “Merf” Merfeld. Now leading the way, and with access to the top 2% of the Columbia Valley’s nest Merlot grapes, Merf is creating wines stylistically similar to the world-renowned Merlot- based wines of France’s Bordeaux region’s Right Bank districts of Pomerol and St. Emilion, with a unique touch of Washington’s personality.
Grape Growing in Washington
Washington state is America’s second largest wine-producing region, with over 31,000 vine acres and 580 wineries, 90% of them east of the Cascade Mountain range in the Columbia Valley of eastern Washington, a high-plains region in which the Snake, Yakima and Columbia rivers converge. The Columbia Valley encompasses seven American Viticultural Areas: Walla Walla Valley, Yakima Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills, Wahluke Slope, and Columbia Gorge. In this semi-arid climate, vines are planted on south-facing slopes to enhance sun exposure in the summer and air drainage in winter. The Cascades block the harsh storms coming in from the Pacific Ocean and so Eastern Washington receives only 6 to 8” inches of rainfall annually. This creates an ideal environment for wine grapes to thrive year after year. The Columbia Valley’s warm, sunny days and extended sunlight hours (17.5 during the summer growing season) help develop intense flavors while its cool nights ensure high levels of acidity in the Merlot grapes.
As Merf explains: “The sparse rainfall we receive, coupled with our free-draining soils, allows us to control the size of the vines’ canopy, which in turn affects berry size. Smaller berries lead to more concentrated color and flavors in the grapes, and our cool nights ensure superb balance in our wines. We’re on the same latitude as the Bordeaux region of France but we have a larger ripening window, so our Merlots are full-bodied, fresh and more vividly varietal than those from other wine regions of the world.”
Old World Traditions, New World Innovation
At Northstar, we embrace the traditions and techniques that winemakers from the renowned winegrowing regions of France have practiced for centuries, guided by the same underlying principles of respect for the land and reverence for the art and science of fermentation. As a New World wine producer, we’re eager to experiment and innovate with the same goal in mind.
It all begins in our state-of-the-art estate winery in the heart of the Walla Walla Valley. Completed in 2002, Northstar’s winery was designed and custom-built with the passion and desire to produce world-class Merlot. The continuous advancement of wine in the New World provides us with the tools to do just that, including innovative methods for grape sorting, three different kinds of fermentation tanks, in-tank pneumatic punchdown devices to maximize color and flavor extraction and a constantly rotating collection of new French and American oak barrels.
The Art of Blending
Always keeping the Northstar philosophy of world-class merlot in mind, the blending of Northstar wines reveals the artistry of our winemaker. Merf tailors the barrel regimen for each vineyard lot based on his deep knowledge of that vineyard’s character and history. He evaluates each lot frequently, a practice ne-tuned by his years of experience, before assembling an array of trial blends that aim for a perfect balance of varietal purity, fruit intensity and ripe, harmonious tannins.
Merf regards the two dozen or more wine lots he works with each year as “a spice rack.” The use of other traditional Bordeaux varietals allows Merf to add just the right amount of texture and complexity to the Merlots, always with a touch of Washington’s New World personality. Adding Cabernet Sauvignon to Washington Merlot softens the wine with bright cherry and raspberry fruit flavors. Petit Verdot adds color and structure, while Cabernet Franc brings softness and an olive herbal tone. After Merf creates the final blends, the Merlots are bottled and aged for up to 18 months to ensure they are enjoyable upon release and still capable of aging gracefully in bottle for 10-15 years.
With the lots that don’t make our Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Merlots, Merf follows the Bordeaux tradition of making a ‘declassified’ wine, and creates Stella Maris (Latin for “Star of the Sea”). A vehicle for innovation, recent ‘Stella’ vintages have included Syrah, a varietal of increasing importance and acclaim in the Walla Walla Valley.
The Future Of Northstar
In Today’s global wine industry, winemaking has become a science and modern technology makes possible the production of reliably good wine. But truly ‘great’ wine requires more. It requires heart and soul – the heart of an artisan winemaker passionately committed to creating a masterpiece and the soul of a place formed by eons of geological, environmental and social transformation. In Merf, Northstar has such a winemaker and in the Walla Walla and Columbia Valleys, we have such a place. No matter the vintage, the goal remains the same – luxurious, ultra-premium Washington state Merlot perfectly marrying the art and science of winemaking.