Since the birth of the Washington wine industry, no winery has received more accolades and acclaim than Snohomish’s Quilceda Creek – the standard bearer for Washington wine. In fact, the winery’s four 100-point ratings from The Wine Advocate in the last seven vintages – along with three 99-point ratings – are unparalleled by any winery in the world.
Quilceda Creek was bonded in 1978 as the state’s 12th winery. In its first vintage, 1979, the winery produced a mere 150 cases of its Cabernet Sauvignon, with the fruit coming from Otis Vineyard.
Winery founder Alex Golitzin says that when he first started Quilceda Creek, fine wine was scarce in Washington. “You had to go down to Portland!” he recalls. With the encouragement of his uncle, Napa Valley wine pioneer André Tchelistcheff, Golitzin decided to solve that problem.
In the ensuing 34 years, Quilceda Creek has blossomed and evolved into one of the world’s best wineries. Over this time, production has grown to over 9,000 cases annually, and the Golitzins now own or control more than 100 acres of grapes focused in the Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain.
Quilceda Creek first started using fruit from Champoux Vineyard – then called Mercer Ranch – in the Horse Heaven Hills in 1986. That year, the Golitzins were short on grapes, and a colleague introduced them to Don Mercer who had grapes available. Since that time, this vineyard has become the backbone of the winery’s flagship Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 1997 the Golitzins formed a partnership to purchase the site. The family also recently purchased an additional 30 acres from one of their partners, bringing their total holdings to approximately 60 acres – 40% of the vineyard. The Golitzins are currently in the midst of replanting the new acreage.
In addition to purchasing additional acreage at Champoux Vineyard, the Golitzins also recently completed work on a new production facility. The site, which is adjacent to their existing building, was completed last August, just in time for the 2011 crush. The new building will serve as their production facility, with the other building now used for case production, storage, and release events.
“It’s a box,” Alex Golitzin says of the new building, which the family designed themselves. There are a series of roll top doors along the sides and utility stations all along the walls, so nothing is ever far from hand. There is no fixed equipment providing for a maximum amount of flexibility in using the space. The previous production facility was 3,200 square feet; the new one is 11,000 and represents a desire to have more space rather than an intention to radically expand production.
The building has two large rooms, one for each of the most recent vintages. As with everything about Quilceda Creek, the inside is all about detail with nothing left to chance. Barrels are clamped together in case of an earthquake. The room for the current vintage can be chilled to 40 degrees for cold stabilization during harvest. There is a backup generator, just in case Mother Nature decides to strike at an inopportune time.
38 stainless steel fermenters line one of the rooms, allowing the winery to essentially bring in all of its fruit simultaneously if need be. Paul Golitzin says this was particularly helpful in the cool, 2011 vintage. “I was able to hang my fruit out longer because I could bring it all in in a big chunk,” Golitzin says. “It made harvest run a lot smoother and was huge as far as efficiency was concerned.”
Despite this, as with most Washington wineries, the 2011 vintage presented some challenges for Quilceda Creek. A November 2010 frost hit the Horse Heaven Hills hard, with some vineyards losing the entirety of their 2011 crop. While Quilceda Creek did manage to bring in some fruit from Champoux Vineyard, it was a fraction of their normal amount.
Subsequently, the winery sought out alternative fruit sources from the Horse Heaven Hills and elsewhere in 2011. While Paul Golitzin says he originally wondered whether this might lead to stylistic differences for the winery’s iconic Cabernet, he says that the distinctiveness of the Champoux Vineyard fruit still shines through. “Overall we were able to maintain the Quilceda Creek style,” he says of the vintage.
However, production for the 2011 Cabernet will be down significantly for the winery as it will be elsewhere. Indeed, statewide Cabernet Sauvignon production was down 28% in 2011 due to the freeze and cool growing season. Alex Golitzin says that they will be installing wind machines at Champoux just in case the 2010 conditions come again. “We’re not going to have a repeat of that,” he says.
The winery’s current release is the 2009 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Paul Golitzin describes the vintage as having low yields with tiny berries. All of the fruit came in early for the winery. Golitzin chuckles at this noting that a number of wineries monitor Quilceda Creek’s picking decisions to gauge their own.
“Everyone was freaking out because we had already picked!” he recalls. Golitzin says that the 2009 wine gives, “the impression of warmth and ripe fruits.” Indeed this wine is more immediately approachable than some of the recent vintages have been upon release. However, as always, it still has the stuffing to go the distance and is yet another jewel in the winery’s crown.
While Quilceda Creek has reached higher heights than any other Washington winery and indeed most other wineries in the world, with its new vineyard holdings and new facility, it is hard not to feel that its best days still lie ahead. Indeed, part of what makes the winery excel is its continual quest for improvement, the constant pursuit of perfection.
“I never feel like we’ve made our finest bottle of wine yet,” Paul Golitzin says. With so many fine wines in its past, this search for its finest bottle is something for us all to look forward to.
Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2009 $135
(Exceptional) Dark in color. As usual almost 100% varietal, Quilceda Creek’s 2009 flagship Cabernet Sauvignon contains aromas of black berry, dark chocolate, cassis, floral notes and a potpourri of spices. The palate is rich, ripe, and concentrated with plush fruit flavors and textured, incredibly refined tannins. A long, vibrant finish. Among the more immediately approachable of the recent releases with a very pretty understateness, this wine still has the stuffing to lay down in the cellar for decades to come. 98% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Merlot. Champoux, Klipsun, Palengat, and Tapteil vineyards. Aged 22 months in French oak (100% new). 15.2% alcohol. Sampled at 67 degrees.
Please note, my rating system was revised at the beginning of 2012 as follows. Read additional details here.
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This post, along with the Baer post from yesterday, are two of your best written articles I've seen on this site in a long, long time. Very informative, very well put together and best of all, fun to read. More of this! More of this!
Also, QC rocks. I had the pleasure of going to my first release there back in March and was amazed at how well the 2009 Cab was drinking right out of the bottle. Won't be touching my bottles for many years, though.
Agreed. Great article! I though the 2009 cabernet very approachable at the release as well. Looking forward to seeing what it does with time!
Thanks Anon and Kyle N!
Another great Focus Report, Sean. Just a point of curiosity, I have noticed that over the years, Quilceda has usually blended just 2 or 3% Merlot with their Cab. Hardly enough to make any difference, I would have thought. Did they talk at all about that blending decision in any of your interviews with them?
Thanks Chris! I kicked myself after I left the winery for not discussing blending with the Golitzins. Next time!