Northstar Winery offers blending trials for customers

By on December 1, 2013

Northstar winemaker David Merfeld samples from barrels at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates' Merlot-focused winery in Walla Walla, Wash.

Northstar winemaker David Merfeld samples from barrels at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ Merlot-focused winery in Walla Walla, Wash. (Photo courtesy of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates)

WALLA WALLA, Wash. — All jokes aside, former beermaker David Merfeld knows Merlot in Washington state perhaps better than anyone — and now most anyone can get some insight into how the Walla Walla winemaker works his craft.

Earlier this fall, Northstar Winery announced it will begin offering blending classes to the public, and each pupil will be sent home with a bottle of their creation.

The Northstar Blending Experience offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity spend as much as 90 minutes with the team that Merfeld began to assemble when Ste. Michelle Wine Estates tasked him in 2005 to create some of the world’s top Merlot.

“Our company’s mission is to provide our customers with memorable experiences from world-class wine estates,” Ted Baseler, President and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said in a news release. “The Northstar Blending Experience delivers on this promise.”

Cost is $85 per person or $65 per person for members of the Northstar Wine Club. When the patron considers a bottle of Northstar 2009 Merlot from the Columbia Valley retails for $41, that may seems like a deal — and an ideal Christmas gift for that wine lover.

Northstar Blending Experience classes are available once a day — starting at 1:30 p.m. — on Thursday through Monday. Reservations are required.

It’s a scaled-down version of the Grand Cru Estates personal barrel program — Pinot Noir from more than a dozen Willamette Valley vineyards to choose from — that Oregon winemaker Laurent Montalieu launched in conjunction with Solena Estates.

“Even as a Merlot specialist, everything we do at Northstar is about blending to some degree – blending vineyards, blending barrels and blending varietals,” Merfeld said. “The Northstar Blending Experience gives people a taste of what goes on behind the scenes here every day.”

The classes focus on four barrels of Merlot from four of the American Viticultural Areas that Merfeld works with, along with a barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon and a barrel of Petit Verdot.

There’s no barrel of Cabernet Franc to work with, so there’s no chance of replicating a Cheval Blanc. If you don’t let the percentage of  Merlot drop below 75 percent, then you could label it as such, otherwise it make take on a pedigree similar to Merfeld’s award-winning Stella Maris red blend.

Each barrel includes by a description of the vineyard characteristics, aroma and flavor profiles of the wine and others components that into the base wine.

David "Merf" Merfeld is the winemaker at Northstar, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates' Merlot-focused winery in Walla Walla, Wash.

David “Merf” Merfeld is the winemaker at Northstar, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ Merlot-minded winery in Walla Walla, Wash. (Photo courtesy of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates)

The Northstar staff then offers a presentation on the AVAs and explains the fundamentals of tasting and blending techniques. Guests evaluate each barrel, develop tasting notes, then sit down to compose their blend. The process involves trial and error with beakers, graduated cylinders and other blending tools that Merfeld and his team use.

When the guest arrives at their final blend, they measure out a full 750-milliliter bottle of their wine, insert a cork in their bottle using a manual corking machine, and affix their custom-designed Northstar label to the bottle.

Along the way, the student also gets to sample all of Northstar’s current releases.

Ste. Michelle has made a commitment to this hands-on class by creating a dedicated area at Merfeld’s winery for the Northstar Blending Experience. In addition to allocating six full 59-gallon (225-liter) barrels to the program, the winery has installed interactive audiovisual equipment and a customized table for up to 12 guests.

Appointments are available by calling the winery at 866-486-7828 or at northstarwinery.com/visiting/northstar-blending-experience. The winery is south of Walla Walla at 1736 J.B. George Road.

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the president and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for 15 years. He is a frequent wine judge along the West Coast and contributor to Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine, the region's longest-running golf publication.

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