Walla Walla college grows, makes top Merlot at TEXSOM competition

By on March 21, 2016
Viticulture instructor Jeff Popick, left, and winemaking instructor Tim Donahue collaborated on the College Cellars 2013 Clarke Vineyard Merlot, which was selected as the best Merlot at the 2016 TEXSOM International Wine Competition in Dallas.

Viticulture instructor Jeff Popick, left, and director of winemaking Tim Donahue collaborated on the College Cellars 2013 Clarke Vineyard Merlot, which was selected as the best Merlot at the 2016 TEXSOM International Wine Awards in Dallas. (Photo courtesy of Walla Walla Community College)

WALLA WALLA, Wash. – College Cellars moved to the head of the class at two international competitions last week, but then high marks are quite common for the winemaking program at Walla Walla Community College.

Tim Donhaue, director of winemaking at College Cellars, and his students won best of class at the 2016 Cascadia Wine Competition in Hood River, Ore., for the rather remarkable 2015 sparkling Muscat ($15). However, there’s even more pride behind its 2013 Clarke Vineyard Merlot ($22), which earned a gold medal, best of class and top Washington wine at the 2016 TEXSOM International Wine Awards in Dallas.

“This could shatter some perceptions, but it was grown at 6.6 tons per acre,” Donahue told Great Northwest Wine.

Clarke Vineyard, a living memorial to iconic instructor Stan Clarke, serves as a workhorse vineyard for College Cellars. The planting near the Walla Walla Regional Airport, not far from the WWCC campus, is headed up by Jeff Popick – College Cellars’ viticulture instructor.

“A lot of people have this idea that you have to grow to only 2 tons per acre to make quality red wines, but Jeff and I don’t agree with that at all,” Donahue said. “It’s all about making sure the vine is in balance.”

Students who took the lead on that 2013 estate Merlot – and have since graduated – were Susan Chlarson, assistant winemaker at Lagana Cellars; Mike Collins, cellarmaster at Blue Mountain Cider Co., in Milton-Freewater, Ore., and Fiona Mak, enologist at Artifex.

“That wine reflected some of their practices, which included long time on the lees, developing more aromatics and using bigger barrel,” said Donahue, who also lauded the introduction of a Key Technology optical sorter in time for that 2013 crush.

“In hindsight, we didn’t do anything fancy at all with that wine,” he said. “It was a relatively hot vintage, and we used standard protocols. I’m pretty sure we never racked it – just filtered and bottled it. When the winemaking is that simple, you’ve got to give all of the credit to the grape grower.”

Strong start to judging season for College Cellars

College Cellars continues to earn top awards in international competitions for its wines, and its graduates go on to work at some of the Pacific Northwest's top wineries and vineyards. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

College Cellars continues to earn top awards in international competitions for its wines, and its graduates go on to work at some of the Pacific Northwest’s top wineries and vineyards. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

The 2016 competition season opened with a bang for College Cellars as its 2013 Scholarship Red earned a gold medal and best of class at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition – a wine that received a healthy dose of Clarke Vineyard Merlot. The 2013 Clarke Vineyard Petit Verdot and 2014 Anderson Vineyard Tempranillo also grabbed gold at that California judging.

“Our students have fun, and I think that carries through to the wine when everyone has got the good vibes going,” Donahue said. “We just try to keep the good mojo going.”

College Cellars also earned a gold medal in Texas for its 2013 Summit View Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. A year ago, the 2012 Clarke Vineyard Merlot earned a gold medal at TEXSOM, so the performance of College Cellars wines in front of these panels of sommeliers and critics is no fluke.

“It’s a pretty good place to be when you see who else is on that list of award winners, which sometimes surprises me,” Donahue said.  “This time, I’m really surprised.”

Some of Donahue’s award-winning juice goes into bottles beyond College Cellars – sold on the bulk market.

“We make about 5,000 cases each year, but I don’t have the space and I have no desire to bottle all of that. There is a limit to my capabilities,” he chuckled. “I don’t tell people where it goes, but we sell to about 10 different wineries each year.”

Faculty works on 30 labels each vintage

Colorado native Tim Donahue joined the College Cellars program as a winemaking instructor in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Walla Walla Community College).

Colorado native Tim Donahue joined the College Cellars program as a winemaking instructor in 2010. The school recently promoted him to director of winemaking. (Photo courtesy of Walla Walla Community College).

Donahue arrived at the Walla Walla campus in 2010, a year ahead of Popick and enologist Sabrina Lueck. They team up with students to produce about 30 different wines each year.

“Jeff and I totally ying and yang,” Donahue said. “I’m the high-strung Jack Russell terrier-type, and Jeff is this laid-back St. Bernard-type. He cruises along, and it’s a really good balance.”

Unlike some colleges, Donahue’s program focuses on estate wines and purchased fruit rather than donated fruit.

“College Cellars is very much an entrepreneurial business,” Donahue said. “We incur all the costs of growing the fruit. I want the students to look at the balance sheet, see that this is a legitimate business and show them what’s involved with running a winery and a vineyard. That’s why there is only a little bit of donated fruit. And I think we’re different than most instructors in that a portion of our salaries rely on the success of our business.”

News of the TEXSOM awards trickled out during spring break for College Cellars, so word of last week’s honors continues to spread among students and alumni. Commercially, the news couldn’t arrive at a better time with the 2013 Clarke Vineyard Merlot ready for release in its tasting room. There are 106 cases available of the wine Great Northwest Wine has learned was an unanimous choice for a gold medal by its panel.

College Cellars operates its tasting room on Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. It also is open by appointment.

25 countries, 25 states enter TEXSOM competition

Bob Betz loves Washington Grenache.

Bob Betz, the only winemaking Master of Wine in the U.S., pours a red wine at Betz Family Winery in Woodinville, Wash. He is a regular member of the judging panel at the TEXSOM International Wine Awards. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

The 2016 TEXSOM International Wine Awards reported more than 3,100 entries, representing 25 states and 25 countries. The panel of 67 judges from 10 countries awarded 2,133 medals. Among the judges were Bob Betz, founding winemaker for Betz Family Winery in Woodinville and Sacramento (Calif.) Bee columnist Mike Dunne. Betz was one of 17 Masters of Wine to serve on the panel, which also included 18 master sommeliers.

Wines from the Pacific Northwest accounted for 175 medals, including the Columbia Crest 2013 H3 Merlot as the best Merlot less than $18 and the Rainstorm 2014 Pinot Noir as the top Oregon wine.

Cardwell Hill Cellars in Philomath, Ore., merited two gold medals for Pinot Noir from the 2013 vintage.

Pacific Northwest award winners

College Cellars 2013 Clarke Vineyard Merlot first earned a gold medal before being awarded best Merlot and best Washington wine at the 2016 TEXSOM International Wine Competition in Dallas.

College Cellars 2013 Clarke Vineyard Merlot first earned a gold medal before being awarded best Merlot and best Washington wine at the 2016 TEXSOM International Wine Competition in Dallas. (Photo courtesy of Walla Walla Community College)

Best of class, best of Washington

College Cellars 2013 Clarke Vineyard Merlot, Walla Walla Valley

Best of Oregon

Rainstorm 2012 Pinot Noir, Oregon

Best under $18 Merlot

Columbia Crest 2013 H3 Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills

Gold medal

Cardwell Hill Cellars 2013 Estate Pommard Block Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Cardwell Hill Cellars 2013 Old Vines Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Chateau Ste Michelle 2012 Cold Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
College Cellars 2013 Summit View Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley
Columbia Crest 2013 H3 Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills
Dusted Valley Vintners 2013 Stoney Vine Vineyard Tall Tales Syrah, Walla Walla Valley
J. Bookwalter 2013 Conner-Lee Vineyard Conflict, Columbia Valley
L’Ecole No. 41 2013 Estate Ferguson Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley
Lemelson Vineyards 2013 Reserve Chardonnay, Willamette Valley
Marchesi Vineyards 2013 Holiday Pace, Columbia Valley
Mercer Estates 2013 Sharp Sisters Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills
R. Stuart and Co., 2014 Love Pinot Noir, Oregon
Sokol Blosser 2014 Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley

Silver medal

Acrobat 2014 Pinot Noir, Oregon
Adelsheim Vineyard 2014 Caitlin’s Reserve Chardonnay, Willamette Valley
Alder Ridge 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills
Alder Ridge Winery 2013 Six Prong Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills
Archery Summit 2013 Arcus Estate Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills
Browne Family Vineyards 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
Browne Family Vineyards 2013 Tribute, Columbia Valley
Canoe Ridge Vineyard 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills
Chateau Ste Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2014 Eroica Riesling, Columbia Valley
Chateau Ste Michelle 2013 Ethos Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
Chateau Ste Michelle 2013 Mimi Chardonnay, Horse Heaven Hills
Col Solare 2012 Red Mountain
College Cellars 2013 Scholarship Red, Walla Walla Valley
Columbia Crest 2013 H3 Les Chevaux, Horse Heaven Hills
Cornerstone Oregon 2012 Chardonnay, Willamette Valley
DeLille Cellars 2013 D2, Columbia Valley
DeLille Cellars 2014 Chaleur Estate Blanc, Columbia Valley
Diversion Wine Co., 2014 Majestic Red, Washington
Dunham Cellars 2012 Trutina, Columbia Valley
Dunham Cellars, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon XVIII, Columbia Valley
Dusted Valley Vintners 2013 Petite Sirah, Wahluke Slope
Elizabeth Chambers Cellar 2014 Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley
For a Song 2012 Petit Verdot, Washington
14 Hands Winery 2013 The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills
14 Hands Winery 2013 The Reserve Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills
14 Hands Winery 2013 The Reserve Red, Horse Heaven Hills
Iris Vineyards 2014 Chalice Estate C Block Pinot Noir, Oregon
Iris Vineyards 2014 Chalice Estate Chardonnay, Oregon
Iris Vineyards 2014 Pinot Gris, Oregon
J. Bookwalter Winery 2013 Conner-Lee Vineyard Suspense, Columbia Valley
J. Bookwalter Winery 2013 Foreshadow Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
J. Bookwalter Winery 2013 Protagonist Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
J. Christopher 2013 Unfiltered Cuvée Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills
Jones of Washington 2014 Pinot Gris, Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley
Ken Wright Cellars 2014 Guadalupe Vineyard Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
King Estate 2013 Backbone Pinot Noir, Oregon
King Estate 2013 Domaine Pinot Noir, Oregon
King Estate 2014 Domaine Pinot Gris, Oregon
King Estate Winery 2014 Pinot Gris, Oregon
King Estate Winery 2014 Pinot Noir, Oregon
L’Ecole No 41 2013 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Perigee, Walla Walla Valley
L’Ecole No. 41 2013 Estate Seven Hills Vineyard Ferguson Vineyard Merlot, Walla Walla Valley
L’Ecole No. 41 2013 Pepper Bridge Vineyard Apogee, Walla Walla Valley
Left Coast Cellars 2014 The Orchards Estate Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley
Left Coast Cellars 2014 Truffle Hill Estate Chardonnay, Willamette Valley
Lumos Wine Co. 2013 Temperance Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills
Marchesi Vineyards 2013 Uvaggio, Columbia Valley
Mercer Estates 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills
Mercer Estates 2013 Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills
Milbrandt Vineyards 2012 Northridge Vineyard Sentinel, Wahluke Slope
Northstar 2013 Red, Walla Walla Valley
Pacific Rim 2014 Twin Vineyards Gewurztraminer, Yakima Valley
Panther Creek 2013 Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills
Pepper Bridge, 2013 Estate Merlot, Walla Walla Valley
Primarius 2014 Pinot Noir, Oregon
Revelry Vintners 2012 Dionysus Vineyard Block 11 Clone 8 D11 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
Revelry Vintners 2012 Range, Grenache-Syrah, Columbia Valley
Revelry Vintners 2013 Weinbau Vineyard Block 13 Clone 2 Cabernet Franc, Wahluke Slope
Rex Hill 2013 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Serra Vineyard 2012 Syrah, Applegate Valley
Tenet Wines 2013 The Pundit Syrah, Columbia Valley
Waitsburg Cellars 2014 The Aromatics Chevray Old Vine Chenin Blanc, Columbia Valley
Winderlea Vineyard & Winery 2014 Chardonnay, Willamette Valley
Wine by Joe 2014 Pinot Noir, Oregon
Woodward Canyon 2012 Estate Reserve, Walla Walla Valley
Woodward Canyon 2013 Old Vines Dedication Series Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington
Woodward Canyon 203 Merlot, Columbia Valley

Bronze medal

A to Z 2014 Pinot Gris, Oregon
A to Z 2014 Unoaked Chardonnay, Oregon
Acrobat 2014 Pinot Gris, Oregon
Amavi Cellars 2013 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley
Amavi Cellars 2013 Estate Syrah, Walla Walla Valley
Boomtown by Dusted Valley 2013 Merlot, Columbia Valley
Boomtown by Dusted Valley 2014 Pinot Gris, Columbia Valley
Canoe Ridge Vineyard 2014 The Expedition Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills
Cardwell Hill Cellars 2013 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Cardwell Hill Cellars 2013 Reserve Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Cavatappi 2013 San Pietro Tuscan Style Red, Columbia Valley
Charles & Charles Post No. 35 Blend Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah, Columbia Valley
Chateau Ste Michelle 2012 Artist Series Red, Columbia Valley
Citation 2004 Pinot Noir, Oregon
College Cellars 2013 Clarke Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley
College Cellars 2013 Clarke Vineyard Petit Verdot, Walla Walla Valley
College Cellars 2014 Clarke Vineyard Carmenere, Walla Walla Valley
College Cellars 2015 Inland Desert Vineyard Muscat, Yakima Valley
Columbia Crest 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
Columbia Crest 2012 Walter Clore Private Reserve, Columbia Valley
Columbia Winery 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
Columbia Winery 2013 Merlot, Columbia Valley
Columbia Winery NV Composition, Columbia Valley
Del Rio Vineyards 2013 Estate Pinot Noir, Rogue Valley
Dobbes Family Estate 2014 Grand Assemblage, Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Dunham Cellars 2012 Syrah, Columbia Valley
Dusted Valley Vintners 2013 Stained Tooth Syrah, Columbia Valley
Erath 2014 Willakia Vineyard Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills
14 Hands Winery 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
14 Hands Winery 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Washington
Gard Vintners 2012 Lawrence Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
Gard Vintners 2013 Lawrence Vineyards Vaucluse, Columbia Valley
Hedges Family Estate 2011 Estate Red, Red Mountain
Iris Vineyards 2014 Pinot Noir, Oregon
J. Bookwalter Winery 2013 Foreshadow, Merlot, Columbia Valley
Jones of Washington 2012 Estate Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Wahluke Slope
Jones of Washington 2012 Estate Vineyards Merlot, Wahluke Slope
Jones of Washington 2014 Estate Vineyards Chardonnay, Wahluke Slope
Jones of Washington 2014 Riesling, Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley
Ken Wright Cellars 204 Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills
Knudsen Vineyards 2014 Chardonnay, Dundee Hills
L’Ecole No 41 2014 Semillon, Columbia Valley
L’Ecole No. 41 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley
Lake Roosevelt Wine Co., 2012 Lake Roosevelt Shores Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley
Lake Roosevelt Wine Co., Lake Roosevelt Shores Vineyard NV Pieces of Red, Columbia Valley
Lemelson Vineyards 2013 Jerome Reserve Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Locus 2013 Red, 68% Syrah-32% Grenache, Yakima Valley
Maison L’Envoyé 2014 Two Messengers Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Marchesi Vineyards 2013 Achille Riserva Barbera, Columbia Valley
Mercer Estates 2013 Reserve Cavalie, Horse Heaven Hills
Mercer Estates 202 Ode to Brothers Reserve Red, Horse Heaven Hills
Milbrandt Vineyards 2013 Northridge Vineyard The Estates Syrah, Wahluke Slope
Milbrandt Vineyards 2014 Traditions Riesling, Columbia Valley
Milbrandt Vineyards, 2013 Clifton Hill Vineyard The Estates Syrah, Wahluke Slope
Nelms Road 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington
Northstar 2012 Merlot, Columbia Valley
Pacific Rim 2013 Selenium Vineyard Ice Wine Riesling, Yakima Valley
Pacific Rim 2014 Hahn Hill Vineyard Chenin Blanc, Yakima Valley
Pacific Rim 2014 Wallua Vineyard Dry Riesling, Horse Heaven Hills
Panther Creek 2013 Schindler Vineyard Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills
R. Stuart and Co. 2014 Big Fire Pinot Gris, Oregon
R. Stuart and Co., 2012 Vignette Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
R. Stuart and Co., 2013 Autograph Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Revelry Vintners 2013 Weinbau Vineyard Block 18 Syrah, Wahluke Slope
Rex Hill 2013 Jacob-Hart Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Serra Vineyards 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Applegate Valley
Seven Falls Cellars 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Wahluke Slope
Siduri 2014 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Silvan Ridge Winery 2014 Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley
Silver Totem 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
Skyfall Vineyard 2014 Pinot Gris, Columbia Valley
Sleight of Hand Cellars 2013 The Conjurer Red, Columbia Valley
Sokol Blosser 2012 Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills
Spicewood Vineyards 2013 Tandem, Columbia Valley
Spring Valley Vineyard 2012 Estate Frederick, Walla Walla Valley
Spring Valley Vineyard 2012 Katherine Corkrum Estate Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley
Spring Valley Vineyard 2012 Nina Lee Estate Syrah, Walla Walla Valley
Stoller Family Estate 2014 Chardonnay, Dundee Hills
Tendril Wine Cellars 2012 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Tendril Wine Cellars 2012 Tightrope Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Tenor Wines 2012 Syrah, Columbia Valley
Va Piano 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
Va Piano 2012 OX Red, Columbia Valley
Waitsburg Cellars 2014 The Aromatics Cheninieres Old Vine Chenin Blanc, Columbia Valley
Walt 2014 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir, Oregon
Waterbrook 2013 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley
William Hatcher 2013 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Winderlea Vineyard & Winery 2012 Winderlea Vineyard Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills
Wine by Joe 2014 Pinot Gris, Oregon
Winter’s Hill Estate 2014 Watershed Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills
Woodward Canyon 2013 Chardonnay, Washington

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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