“Wine making is a labor of love,” said Juan Muñoz-Oca, Head Winemaker at Columbia Crest. “You don’t do it for the money. You do it because it is your passion.”
Spend a few minutes with Muñoz-Oca and his passion is evident. Unlike the stereotypical wine guy who is snobbish and condescending, Muñoz-Oca is charming, approachable, and willing to share his vast knowledge with anyone who is curious about wine.
A third-generation winemaker, he’s worked at vineyards in Spain, Australia, Chile, and now Washington. When he talks about wine, he becomes animated and excited. Which, in turn, makes you excited and eager to learn from the master.
I got to spend a full day with Muñoz-Oca at the Columbia Crest Winery in Washington, an experience I will treasure for a lifetime.
We started the morning in Columbia Crest’s sprawling vineyard. Muñoz-Oca taught our group about the different varietals and encouraged us to sample the grapes.
“I come here every morning to taste the grapes,” Muñoz-Oca said. “I chew them 15 times on each side of my mouth to make sure that each tasting is exactly the same.”
I grabbed a bunch of grapes off the vine and stuffed a few in my mouth. Eating wine grapes is a much different experience from eating fruit grapes. The skins are tougher, the flavor is stronger, and the grapes have lots of seeds.
“All of those elements are important to the wine’s flavor and color,” said Muñoz-Oca.
While in the vineyard, Muñoz-Oca told us why Washington state and the Columbia Valley are perfect for grape growing.
“The weather and the soil conditions form a combination that is unlike anywhere else in the world,” said Muñoz-Oca. “I was attracted to this region because the outstanding viticulture allows us to make high-quality wines that are true to their varietal character.”
I continued to munch on grapes as Muñoz-Oca started spewing technical terms and going all-out wine geek.
With my short attention span, I would have usually tuned him out, but I couldn’t. His energy and love for winemaking kept me enrapt even though I didn’t understand all of his terminologies.
We spent a few more minutes exploring the different grape varietals before heading to the next stop on our tour. Muñoz-Oca led us down a staircase to a sprawling underground production facility.
My eyes grew wide as I encountered the massive fermentation vats. They looked like something out of a science fiction movie (trivia: scenes from one of the Star Trek films were shot here).
Muñoz-Oca walked up to a vat of Chardonnay, placed a wine glass under one of the spigots, filled it up, and held it a few inches from his face.
“Winemakers love this,” he said. “The flavor is bright and citrusy. It is the essence of Chardonnay.”
Muñoz-Oca encouraged each of us to try it. I filled my glass and stared at the cloudy libation. I swirled it around and took a sniff. It smelled more like a grapefruit than a grape. I took a sip and was greeted by a sweet acidic flavor.
After a few more sips, I decided that I prefer fully fermented wine. Good things come to those who wait.
Muñoz-Oca continued our tour through the cavernous underground lair. I fully expected to see Batman sipping a glass of Cabernet next to a rack of barrels.
But, alas, there was no Batman.
Instead, we stumbled upon the newly crowned Columbia Crest Executive Crowdsourcing Officer or E.C.O. He was unassuming, friendly, and eager to bask in Muñoz-Oca’s knowledge.
To take this Batman imagery further, I’d picture Muñoz-Oca as the suave billionaire Bruce Wayne while the E.C.O. was more like Dick Grayson, his loyal, attentive sidekick.
After showing us how to properly fill and store barrels, Muñoz-Oca took us back upstairs for a wine blending experience. He led us to a long table that had different types of wine at each place setting where we took a seat.
“As you know, the Crowdsourced Cabernet is in the final stages,” Muñoz-Oca. “Now we are ready to mix the final blend.”
I must admit that I was surprised to learn that wines, other than red blends, were mixed with other wines before shipping.
“Sometimes the wine is missing something,” Muñoz-Oca told us. “Blending helps to fill in those gaps.” He encouraged us to create a blend that appealed to our individual tastes.
“I like the Crowdsourced Cabernet just as it is, but the Columbia Crest team will go through the blending process to make sure that it is appealing to a wide variety of tastes,” Muñoz-Oca said. “As you go through the process you must remember one rule. Labeling laws in the United States are such that for a wine to be listed as a single varietal, like Cabernet Sauvignon, a minimum of 75 percent of the wine has to be made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The other 25 percent can be made up of any other combination of grapes.”
With that in mind, I proceeded to mix my concoction.
First I tasted the Crowdsourced Cabernet. It wasn’t as robust as I expected it to be.
To me, it tasted more like a Pinot Noir. I wanted more boldness and richness in the wine so I added 12% Merlot, 8% Grenache, and 5% Cabernet Franc. It was perfect.
I beaconed Muñoz-Oca to my area and asked him to try it.
He took a sip and said, “That’s nice. I like it. We’ll definitely consider your blend when making the final decision.”
I knew that he was stroking my ego, but I was flattered by his kind words. I continued to mix different blends, but nothing came close to my first blend.
I asked one of the Columbia Crest employees if she would bottle my blend and label it – Columbia Crest Special Reserve Mocha Man Style Cabernet.
“We’ll take it into consideration,” she said. More flattery, but I’ll take it.
When our blending lesson was complete, we sauntered into the courtyard for a delicious dinner. During the third course, Muñoz-Oca stood up to make an announcement.
“I have one more surprise for you,” he said with a grin. “Tonight, I brought some 80s vintage Columbia Crest Cabernet for you to sample.”
This was the perfect ending to a wonderful day at Columbia Crest. But before I tried the wine from Muñoz-Oca’s private stash, I had one nagging question that I needed answered.
“I don’t think I’ve kept a bottle of wine for more than a couple of days,” I said. “What is the benefit of storing a bottle for 30 years before drinking it?”
Muñoz-Oca leaned back in his chair and started to wax poetic.
“Drinking a new bottle of wine is like having a conversation at a dinner party. You may or may not remember what you talked about, but the experience is fun, exciting, and fulfilling in that moment. Drinking an aged wine is like having a long conversation with a dear friend or family member. It is deep, complex, and nuanced. These conversations stay with you for a lifetime. Try the 1986 vintage and you’ll see what I mean.”
I made a mad dash to the bartender to taste that wine.
I needed to experience the feeling that Muñoz-Oca just described.
The wine was unlike anything I had tried previously. At that moment, I decided to build a wine cellar in my house and start my own collection of vintage wines.
I think I’ll start with the 2014 Columbia Crest Crowdsourced Cabernet that will be released in Spring.