Cougar Crest Winery was founded by Deborah and David Hansen in 2001. Natives of the Northwest, the Hansens had been living in San Francisco for twenty years when they began purchasing farms and apple orchards in Walla Walla in the mid-1990s. The goal was to move back to Washington and raise their family on a farm. After moving home in 1996 and finding the apple market plummeting, the Hansen’s decided to replace some of the orchards with vineyards. It would be an auspicious decision as Walla Walla was on the edge of a boom in viticulture and enology that continues to the present day.

After spending several years selling grapes to others, Deborah decided to try her hand at winemaking. With a degree in pharmacy from Washington State University, she brought a science background that lent itself well to the discipline. After supplementing her background with coursework at UC Davis, she made her first wine for Cougar Crest in 2001.

From the beginning, Cougar Crest has focused on its estate vineyards – Cougar Hills, Stellar, and Golden’s Legacy. The latter is named for a doctor who lived in Walla Walla in the early 1900s, built the home the Hansen’s live in, and made wine throughout Prohibition. Cougar Crests’ decision to focus on estate vineyards was prescient with many Washington wineries now looking to make the shift from sourcing grapes to owning their own vineyards.

Cougar Crest produced 900 cases in 2001, rapidly expanded to 4,000 cases the following year, and now has an annual production of approximately 12,000 cases. This makes the winery relatively large by Washington standards. Originally located in the airport region, Cougar Crest moved to a new facility on the way in to Walla Walla in spring of 2008. That same year the winery also launched a second label, Walla Walla River Winery, at its former airport location.
Cougar Crest has received critical praise since its inception with Wine Spectator giving their inaugural 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon a 91 point rating. Three 90-plus point ratings came from Spectator for the 2002 wines and five for the 2003 vintage.

Cougar Crest favors a rich, oak-driven, palate-coating style. In 2006 I rated all four of the 2003 vintage wines sampled below as double star wines. While each has dropped off to some degree since, the Syrah has changed the most radically. This was originally an opulent wine chock full of spice and birthday cake aromas with substantial amounts of fruit on the palate. I recall my surprise in 2006 when Wine Spectator gave this wine a more-than-mediocre 81 point rating writing:

Gamy barnyard flavors get more intrusive than they should in this broad, generous Syrah. Drink now. 1,232 cases made. –HS

This description seemed to be about a completely different wine. However, three years later, it seems like Harvey Steiman was picking up on elements that have since become dominant. A little over a year ago this wine took a turn for the worse taking on medicinal and Brettanomyces-associated aromas.

I would list the Cabernet and Syrah as ‘drink now’ with the Merlot and Anniversary Cuvee having a good two to three years in front of them. Look for a comparison of the Cabernet and Syrah with their reserve counterparts in about a year’s time (Note: The 2003 Reserve Syrah was a wine Gary Vaynerchuck of Wine Library TV raved about in 2007 bringing the winery a great deal of attention outside the state).







Cougar Crest Cabernet Sauvignon 2003

Fairly aged in color. A peppery nose with funk, spice, chocolate. There is also a medicinal quality to the nose. On the taste, lots of cherry along with aged fruit on a wine that lightly coats the palate with oak. After time, the wine shows tobacco and herbs. On the downslope. 96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot. 950 cases produced.



Cougar Crest Merlot Walla Walla Valley 2003

Lots of black licorice along with dark cherries, sweet oak spices, and espresso on a pleasing nose. Beautifully smooth with oak adding texture to the palate. After time, aromas of potting soil, dry earth, and black pepper emerge. Doesn’t stay together completely on the finish but otherwise drinking beautifully with time ahead of it. 80% Merlot; 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Stellar and Cougar Hills Estate Vineyards. 890 cases produced.



Cougar Crest Anniversary Cuvee Walla Walla Valley 2003

Looks a bit more aged than I would expect for its six years. The nose is initially all over the place with cooked tomatoes, popcorn, and fresh berries. After time, it settles down to a classic Cougar Crest nose of spice, chocolate shavings, bright cherries, and earth. Sweet, rich, and palate coating with just a touch of tartness. Lots of oak aromas and tastes although it largely works. 60% Cabernet, 37% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot. Cougar Hills Estate Vineyards. 573 cases produced.



Cougar Crest Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2003

Medicinal aromas mix with fruit and a touch of Brett. Rich with fruit that carries across the palate. Still an enjoyable wine but the nose is markedly different and considerably less enjoyable than several years ago. 98% Syrah, 2% Viognier. Stellar, Cougar Hills, and Golden Legacy Estate Vineyards. 1,232 cases produced.