In his new role as vineyard manager at Gamache Vineyard, this rising star builds on decades of experience.
MIGUEL CONTRERAS was born in Mexico, coming to the United States at age 11. America has become his land of opportunity, and he is now one of the rising stars of Washington viticulture.
Like many migrant farmworkers, Contreras, 34, took to the orchards and vineyards of Washington’s Columbia Valley. He ultimately landed at Weinbau, an old, classic vineyard on the eastern end of the Wahluke Slope, a dozen miles east of the town of Mattawa.
The vineyard is owned by the Sagemoor group, an operation that stands amid the most important in Washington. It started in the early 1960s with the planting of three vineyards: Sagemoor, Dionysus and Bacchus. Their importance must be underscored: This was the state’s first large-scale vineyard and was in a position to feed a growing wine industry at a key moment. Today, nearly 10 percent of the state’s 900 wineries brings in grapes from one of the Sagemoor vineyards. (In 2014, Sagemoor changed hands, as the original investors from the 1970s sold the farming operation to Allan Brothers, an apple grower.)
Three from Gamache
Here are three reds from Gamache Vintners, made by winemaking consultant Charlie Hoppes with grapes from Gamache Vineyard, now managed by Miguel Contreras.
Gamache Vintners 2012 malbec, Columbia Valley, $30: Classic aromas of black pepper, black olive and a sprinkling of cocoa powder set the stage for bright flavors of blackberry jam. It’s all backed by perfectly balanced acidity.
Gamache Vintners 2015 syrah, Columbia Valley, $30: Luscious aromas of huckleberry pie and boysenberry jam are followed by flavors of big, jammy, ripe plum; blackberry; and dark chocolate. A big, plush, drink-now wine.
Gamache Vintners 2012 cabernet sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $30: Bright aromas of dark-roasted coffee and a hint of sweet herbs, with bold, ripe flavors of ripe dark fruit, plum, boysenberry and a hint of vanilla. A foundation of firm tannins doesn’t overwhelm the fruit.
Weinbau was planted in 1981 and was acquired by Sagemoor a few years later. When Contreras arrived, his talent quickly caught the eye of Kent Waliser, Sagemoor’s general manager, who noted that Contreras picked up techniques quickly; winemakers liked working with him; and he has a special touch managing the vines.
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In 2016, after Sagemoor added Gamache Vineyard to its portfolio, Waliser moved Contreras from Weinbau to Gamache to be vineyard manager. The vineyard north of Pasco was planted in 1982, and grapes from its 180-acre vineyard go to more than 35 wineries — including the original owners, Gamache Vintners in Prosser.
Ron Coleman, owner of Tamarack Cellars in Walla Walla, loves getting merlot and chardonnay from Gamache, and says he sees a difference in quality under Contreras.
Now in his second season in that position, Contreras has learned more about the site — it is cooler, allowing for longer hang time, and he has gained a better understanding of what his client winemakers want to make their best wines. Contreras says his fluency in Spanish and a shared cultural background help him work more closely with his crews, most of whom are full-time employees.
As he learns these vines and waits for his first vintage to be released, Contreras is tweaking farming practices, building on experience that comes from a lifetime of working in the vines of the Columbia Valley.