Wautoma Wines’ reds are highly collectible — with plans to quadruple production this year.
JESSICA MUNNELL has made wine around the world and for some of Washington’s biggest producers. Now she has returned home, to the Tri-Cities, where she has teamed up with a top grape grower to produce small amounts of highly collectible reds under the Wautoma Wines label.
She left her post this spring as head winemaker for Mercer Estates, where she helped the Prosser winery double production and raise its national profile for top red wines. The constant travel kept her away from her young family, so she shifted her professional focus to Wautoma Wines, which she started in 2010. She produces her wines at Mercer’s facility.
Munnell has partnered with Tom Merkle, who planted Wautoma Springs Vineyard in 1998 near Cold Creek, one of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s key estate vineyards. It’s now expanded to 52 acres of cabernet sauvignon that is sold to Col Solare, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest. In fact, the now-legendary 1995 reserve cab from Columbia Crest — named best wine in the world by Wine Spectator magazine — relied heavily on Wautoma Springs grapes. “Wautoma” is a Native American word for “good earth,” and it has lived up to that moniker.
Three to try
Distribution of Wautoma Wines in the Seattle area is limited, but they can be found at West Seattle Cellars. If your favorite wine merchant doesn’t carry Wautoma, you can order directly from the winery.
Wautoma Wines 2015 reserve cabernet sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $48: A beautifully balanced cab that reveals elegance and a sense of place, with notes of sweet cherries and hints of vanilla, maple syrup and dusty red plum. Taut tannins provide all the necessary balance.
Wautoma Wines 2014 Stone Tree Vineyard malbec, Wahluke Slope, $48: A classic Washington malbec with notes of violet, black pepper, plum, blackberry and cocoa powder, all backed by approachable tannins and a firm acidity that immediately invites a second sip.
Wautoma Wines 2015 reserve El Prat, Columbia Valley, $28: This blend of cab and malbec is a delicious red that opens with aromas of toast, black olive, spice and plum, followed by ripe flavors of blackberry and dark chocolate, with a foundation of bright acidity and mild tannins.
Munnell graduated with her master’s degree from Washington State University and soon headed Down Under for harvest in Australia’s wine country. She returned to the Columbia Valley and met Merkle in 2003 while working for Ste. Michelle, first as a viticulturalist, later as a winemaker. She met an intriguing co-worker along the way, marrying Juan Muñoz-Oca, now Columbia Crest’s head winemaker, in 2006.
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In an enological twist of fate, Munnell and Muñoz-Oca often make wines from the same vineyard sources, which has to lead to interesting chats over morning coffee.
In addition to cab, Munnell also brings in a bit of malbec from acclaimed Stone Tree Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope.
Wautoma is a small winery looking to grow, planning to quadruple production from 200 cases to 800 cases next year — but with no plans for a tasting room.