When Jessica Munnell of Wautoma Springs had her first child, she did what any winemaker would do. She started a winery.
“I decided this was my opportunity to start my own thing as a way to keep myself involved in the wine industry while I was staying home,” Munnell explains.
Munnell got her start in the industry early in life, receiving a B.S. in horticultural science from Washington State University and continuing on to get a master’s degree there. After finishing her degree, she was hired by Stimson Lane (now Ste Michelle Wine Estates) as a viticulturalist.
Munnell’s time at the company would prove to be fateful. It was there that she met Juan Muñoz Oca, currently chief winemaker at Ste Michelle Wine Estates, who would become her husband. It was also there that she met Tom Merkle, whom she would eventually partner with to start her winery.
“I met him at his Wautoma Springs Vineyard in the middle of nowhere,” Munnell recalls of Merkle.
From there, she worked a harvest in Australia and then travelled to Europe. While there, a position for an enologist at Snoqualmie, a winery in the Ste Michelle portfolio, came open.
“I did a middle of the night phone interview from Spain,” Munnell recalls.
She was hired by Snoqualmie and eventually moved over to Chateau Ste Michelle as assistant winemaker. It was at that point in her career that she stepped away from industry, in part, to focus on her family. It was also when she started the winery.
Merkle, who owns Wautoma Springs Vineyard and is a partner in a number of other sites, was also looking to start a winery. In 2010, the two joined forces to launch Wautoma Springs. The winery made approximately 250 cases that year.
In 2012, Munnell went back to working full-time, first working a harvest at Artifex, a custom crush facility in Walla Walla, and then working as winemaker at Mercer Estates for five and a half years. From there she worked for Vintage Wine Estates, a large, California-based winery, as consulting winemaker.
All along, wherever Munnell worked, she kept making a small quantity of Wautoma wines on the side. She says taking that approach was pivotal to getting the winery off the ground.
‘Instead of having to invest in equipment, I was able to make wine wherever I happened to be. That’s a huge benefit.”
In 2019, Munnell and Merkle decided to take the plunge, increasing production, adding white wines, and opening a tasting room in Prosser. A critical part of that decision was adding Rachel Mercer to the partnership.
“She’s the piece of the puzzle that we were missing,” Munnell says. “Tom grows the grapes. I was making the wine, then the next step is getting it to people.” Mercer now runs the tasting room in Prosser.
Fruit for the wines comes either from Wautoma Springs or sites where Merkle is a partner. Located nearby Ste Michelle’s Cold Creek Vineyard, Wautoma Springs was first planted in 1999. Initially, the focus at the vineyard was Cabernet Sauvignon, and this remains the most planted variety. Plantings have subsequently expanded to include Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and other varieties. The site is approximately 120 acres, with much of the fruit going to Ste Michelle. Munnell says Wautoma Springs is special, growing particularly small Cabernet Sauvignon berries.
“There’s a little banana belt there in between the Yakima Valley and the Wahluke Slope,” she says. “It gets really hot. There’s not any water nearby, moderating the temperature. The soil gets very dry.”
Munnell also has a strong emotional attachment to the area.
“I was a viticulturalist at Cold Creek at the beginning my career, and then when I was assistant winemaker at Chateau St. Michelle, we got all of the Cold Creek fruit,” she says. “So that area is very near and dear to my heart.”
Since its inception, Wautoma Springs has made a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Malbec, and a Red Blend called El Prat. In 2019, the winery added white wines and also has a series of reserve wines. Labels are made by two artists, with the red wines block prints and the white wines sketches of native plants.
Munnell says her goal as a winemaker is crafting wines that people want to drink and that are not overpriced. The winery also focuses on making wines that go well with food. Mercer crafts food and wine pairings at the Wautoma tasting room.
“Coming up with food pairings is her superpower,” Munnell says.
In addition to its wine and food pairings, the winery’s tasting room boasts a 27-foot long vine that Tom Merkle’s father Doug planted at Indian Wells Vineyard in 1984. (The winery’s Long Vine wine is a callout to this.) They recently added a vine from Block 1 at Champoux Vineyard (previously Mercer Ranch), planted in 1972 by Don and Linda Mercer, making the tasting room a spot with some important Washington viticultural history.
While having a full-fledged winery and tasting room was nearly 10 years in the making, Munnell credits the winery’s slow ramp-up with allowing them to fully launch the project now. She also says that’s something that is distinctly Washington.
“If we were in California, I don’t think I would be having this conversation,” Munnell says. “I wouldn’t have my own brand.”
At Northwest Wine Report, all scores come from blind tastings in varietal/style sets. Read more about this site’s process for rating and reviewing wines. Read about the Northwest Wine Report rating system and special designations. Read about how to interpret scores.
Wautoma Springs Albariño Columbia Valley 2021 $25
91 points, Critic’s Choice
Fermented and aged in stainless steel with the fruit coming from JMST Vineyard, the aromas are bright, with notes of lime, peach, and honeysuckle – almost Riesling-esque. The palate is medium-bodied and flavorful, exquisitely balanced, with the flavors accented by a vibrant zing of acidity. The aromas aren’t classic Albariño, but with a wine this delicious, who cares? 12.5% alcohol. 135 cases produced. Screwcap.
Wautoma Springs Lil Inky Malbec Conner Lee Vineyard Columbia Valley 2019 $30
Coming from a cooler site, the aromas bring notes of cedar, mint, vanilla, and dark plum. On the palate, the fruit and barrel intermingle, with lightly creamy feeling flavors and vanilla accents. 14.8% alcohol. 165 cases produced. TCA-free microagglomerative cork.
Wautoma Springs Professor Wautoma Springs Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2019 $30
91 points, Critic’s Choice
All of the fruit for this wine is Clone 338 from vines first harvested in 2016. Aged entirely in used oak, aromas of whole poblano pepper, dark cherry, and dried herb identify this immediately as Cabernet. The plum and cherry flavors are polished and sophisticated, with a lightly creamy feel. It lingers on the finish. 14.8% alcohol. 190 cases produced. TCA-free microagglomerative cork.
Wautoma Springs El Prat Red Blend Columbia Valley 2019 $30
92 points, Critic’s Choice
Cabernet Sauvignon makes up two-thirds of this wine, with the rest Malbec. It’s a one wine charm offensive, with aromas of spice cabinet, fresh herb, dark plum, showing pleasing delineation and detail. The palate has impressive midpalate density and weight, while keeping its balance well in check. Tasty stuff. 14.8% alcohol. 191 cases produced. TCA-free microagglomerative cork.
Wautoma Springs Fork + Spoon Wautoma Springs Vineyard Cabernet Franc Columbia Valley 2019 $50
The aromas offer pleasing notes of barrel spice, milk chocolate, herb, and purple fruit. Plush feeling flavors follow, with lightly grainy tannins backing it up. Vanilla notes linger on the finish. Decant. 14.8% alcohol. 43 cases produced. TCA-free microagglomerative cork.
Wautoma Springs Inky Malbec Conner Lee Vineyard Columbia Valley 2019 $50
This was aged in a mixture of French and American oak. Dried flower and leaf aromas are in the lead, followed by notes of herb and plum. The palate is medium bodied and center-focused. A long finish caps it off. 14.8% alcohol. 70 cases produced. TCA-free microagglomerative cork.
Wautoma Springs Behemoth Cabernet Sauvignon Wautoma Springs Vineyard Columbia Valley 2019 $50
Fruit for this wine comes from vines planted in 1999. The aromas bring notes of mocha, dried flower, vanilla, dried herb, and dark cherry. Medium-bodied, creamy feeling, sophisticated flavors follow. It’s a pretty offering of Cabernet, mixing fruit and barrel. 14.8% alcohol. 120 cases produced. TCA-free microagglomerative cork.
Wautoma Springs Long Vine Columbia Valley 2019 $100
93 points, Cellar Stocker
This wine is equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc, and it shows the best of each. The aromas boast appealing notes of plum, cocoa, and dried herb. Lush, textured, high thread count cherry and plum flavors follow, showing polish, detail, and sophistication. A long finish caps it off. It shows a lot of class. Best after 2025. 14.8% alcohol. 136 cases produced. TCA-free microagglomerative cork.
Image of Jessica Munnell by Richard Duval.