It’s not often one gets to meet someone whose job promotion is covered by Reuters. And so, this is how I spent last Tuesday evening, meeting with Columbia Crest Head Winemaker Juan Muñoz Oca while attempting to not embarrass myself with heavy drool or staring too long with a vacant and unending smile stretched across my I-could-just-die-now contorted face. Too much?

Juan Muñoz Oca makes wine for a living. This already smacks of fairytale fodder. Catapulting this genesis story into the rafters is that he grew up around wine with a grandfather who made wine in Spain and a father who made wine in Argentina. Can you imagine this? Before he was tall enough to ride a roller coaster, he was sipping the nectar of gods, scrubbing out barrels, wine-soaked oak under his nails and associating the kaleidoscopic bouquet of wine with not just the objects of its scent but with the memory of his childhood. I grew up on a farm. When I smell manure, I think of home. For Muñoz Oca? It’s Malbec. That lucky bastard.

Of course — and this is the truth — many folks grow up around wine. Very few actually go on to become one of the most celebrated winemakers in the world. Situational luck, then, plays only a small part of Muñoz Oca’s story. A quick online search churns up mention of an impressive education including graduating with honors with degrees in agricultural engineering and winemaking. Internships and jobs working all over the world flesh out this story even more.

Juan Muñoz Oca is in his mid 30’s and was sporting a black bowtie when we met for questions, answers and wine. Before the interrogation could begin, Juan started talking about his family:

“I think about my parents a lot. My dad is in the industry. He gets into wines. He loves wines. He wants to taste, pair with food. My mom could care less. She likes it if it’s white or red. She likes it, or she doesn’t. That’s it. And I think it’s important to us to keep that in mind….We try to make wines that are appealing to both ends. Mom: ‘Oh, it’s great. I drink Cabernet, and it’s great.’ I try to make wine with character and layers enough to be entertaining to someone who knows about wine and enjoys wine.”

It was a wonderful preamble that reasserted itself over and over in our conversation. And then, the questions began.

***

Columbia Crest. Over 2 million cases a year. How do you face the challenge of making wines that will please the majority of consumers who like more sugar in their wine while sating the palates of the more discerning drinkers who enjoy the stinky, oily, not-a-dessert-in-a-glass, brooding wines? And I’m using hyperbole here to sharpen the point—

“Yes!”

What transpired was Juan jumping out of his chair while describing the climate and soils of Washington and how they allow grape growers to rely more on those growing conditions and the overall terroir than rely on manipulating the juice after crush.

“I’m a third generation wine guy. I had two generations before me in two very different places. My grandpa grew grapes in central Spain in La Rioja region. My dad grows grapes in Mendoza, Argentina. Both of them were and are at the mercy of the elements, Mother Nature. If it’s a hot vintage, the wine is alcoholic and extracted. If it’s a cooler vintage, the wines are more elegant. If they had water, if they had rain, you have a greener canopy. This means greener flavors in the wine. If they didn’t have any, the wine suffers a little bit. And so, grandpa would pray for rain when he wanted rain. He would pray for sun when he didn’t want rain.”

And so, you’re saying that in the States, you have the power to manipulate the juice, to oxygenate…

“Not only that! Here’s the thing, the freedom: If you want to make Chardonnay or Cabernet, go for it. But in Washington state, the growing season is consistent. Every year, it’s the same. On the east side of the state, you have 300+ days of cloud-free skies. The temperature is perfect; hot during the day, very cold at night. It’s very easy for us to have a 90 degree day and a 54 degree night. More importantly, there’s never any rain during the growing season. And so, the growers are irrigating, are having tremendous control over how much the canopy grows or how fast or when to stress the vines.

The grapes we get have this fantastic balance between natural acidity (keeping the wines fresh and sharp and able to pair very well with food), but the heat of the day and lack of rain keeps the wines concentrated and sweet enough for complicated flavor profile with a fat and silky texture. Very appealing to the consumer here in the US. That’s Washington.

You put that together with a winery that has a fair amount of sourcing – we have about 5,000 acres of grapes. And so now, the vintners are everywhere. Cooler and warmer growing conditions. And so, now we have hot, over-ripe fruit with very delicate, under-ripe fruit, and we can bring it all together and walk the fine line between fruitier wines as well as more acidic wines. Does that make sense?”

I sat there thinking that here’s a guy who still has to defend Washington wine. And it’s true; most people think of California when they think of wine. Washington state isn’t there yet…at least as far as the general public is concerned.

I feel like you’re pitching to me why Washington wines are so great as well as talking to me about the eternal battle winemakers face concerning manipulation. I guess what I’d really like to know is how do you see yourself impacting Columbia Crest? What is the signature Juan M. Muñoz Oca’s flavor profile, and will anyone be able to discern that during your time as Head Winemaker of Columbia Crest?

Juan dodged a bit. He reminded me that Columbia Crest is the largest winery in the Northwest. “It’s very well-known and regarded. In 27 years, I am the third winemaker. The two previous winemakers still work for the company and with me every day. And so, I felt compelled to follow the style of the winery. The Columbia Crest brand and what people expect of that label are more important than the passing of a new winemaker. Like the heritage of the wine and the importance that the wine has for the region. In a few years, someone else will be making the wine. I need to be very careful about drastic changes. Now, that said, the wines will carry the signature of the people making the wines. We are the ones taking the wine away from the skins when it’s ready, we are the ones making the picking decisions – those have a huge impact on the style of the wine. I think wines that are elegant, that don’t say everything up front— You said how we in America like things that are sweet and easy to understand—I think taking the wines to a place where they are not so upfront—it’s a goal for our team. Making the wines more interesting and layered and not as obvious—that’s the challenge. But not making them too obtuse.”

Again, I’m reminded of Juan’s mother and father and grandfather.

You referred to your place as Head Winemaker as something sounding very finite. Does that mean just a couple of years?

“Oh, no. I mean, I don’t know. But again, let’s say 10 years, 15, who knows. But in the life of the winery, it’s a snapshot. And so, I want to be respectful of that. But because our winery is just 30 years old, I think we build a tradition and continue that. Tradition trumps style.”

Okay. But you speak a lot about passion. Passionate people are…passionate! They’re pissed off about things, they’re full of joy. They emote. They see potential in what’s around them and are empowered and driven by the motivation and plans for changing those things for the better. I guess what I’m asking: What keeps you up at night?

“Two things: what people want to drink and where and how much of it that the 450 people that it takes to make the wine can continue to do what they do. And so, the success of the company. It’s larger than making the wine but changing the landscape of the area where we are, that area where we grow the 2,700 acres of grapes in Columbia Valley, and we employ 300+ families. That’s big.  

The second is that I truly believe that the experience of having wine as a part of a meal is coming. We’re drinking more wine than ever before. People are buying more expensive wines than ever before. It’s coming. And I want to take the brand and move up. I don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, do you remember? We used to drink Columbia Crest when we started drinking wines. Now we drink…’ Yeah. We truly need to evolve with everyone. When your palate is ready to move to the next level, we want to be there as well.”

What about glasses. Do they make a difference?

“In my everyday drinking, I’m not too crazy about it. But my crazy father, when he goes out, he takes a carrier with him with four glasses.”

No way!

Juan is laughing and shaking his head. “He takes his own stemware. He did it to me not long ago.”

Can you talk about acidity and its importance in wine and food pairing?

“It’s balance. Harmony. Acidity is very important, but so is sugar, alcohol, extraction, tannin. And it may actually be the most important thing when you’re pairing with food, but it can’t work by itself. And acidity and sweetness work together. They cancel each other out. And the sweetness comes from the alcohol. And so, I think that needs to be in balance. And no one likes astringent, tannic wine. That’s the third layer that’s a part of the balance.”

What advice do you have for new wine drinkers?

“If you don’t have a good memory, write it down. Write it down! I know it sounds silly, but you write it down, and at some point, you’ll find your groove. Was it a Merlot or a Cab. Was it a $20 bottle or a $30 bottle? These things make a difference and are hard to remember, but this is how you discover your groove.”

One last question [it so wasn’t the last]: What varietals are you obsessing over right now?

Without hesitation, Juan erupted: “I obsess over Grenache Blanc. It’s the greatest white variety. And it’s in southern France in a little appellation called Corbieres. There’s a little Grenache Blanc in Washington, and it’s incredibly fantastic. I am in love with it. It’s a weird mix between Bourgogne Chardonnay and Rhone Viognier-Marsanne. It’s the tropical fruit and the weight of the Viognier-Marsanne and a little bit more crisp than Chardonnay. And it doesn’t need oak. It speaks to me.”

Are you bottling any?

“We will soon.”

[Me, writing in agony] Ah! Not now!

Juan laughs.

The longer I’m drinking wines, the more I’m drinking whites. I love oily and unctuous, minerally—

“That’s it! We have two whites we are bottling. Two Sauvignon Blancs we’re bottling soon at the end of June. I think. They’re like ying and yang or good and evil. Like a battle between the winemaker messing with the fruit or letting it be. It’s the same fruit, but one of them will be stainless steel fermented where we just chill the juice and ferment. As is, it will go into the bottle. It will be green, grassy, sharp, crazy cool!

The other one—half fermented in oak and other half stainless steel with the wine kept on the lees, a little lactic acid fermentation. It will still taste like Sauvignon Blanc but tropical, juicy, fat and oily, and you won’t believe it’s Sauvignon Blanc, but then it will finish with the sharp, green character.

We’ll pour them side-by-side at the winery and try to sell them in a pack. It’s going to be fantastic. I love that!”

***

After all the questions, I think this is the answer I was looking for: Maintaining the course with experimentation and creative play along the edges. If you look back to the major milestones of US winemaking, you’ll see as watershed the Judgment of Paris in 1976 and an episode of 60 Minutes in 1991. I think we’re about due for something new and different. Perhaps this argument between ying and yang, good and evil and messing with or letting be portends something bigger than wine, more like a movement.

This conversation happened before even a drop was poured at a wine dinner hosted by Urban Union (1421 West Taylor Street, Chicago, IL 60607(312) 929-4302) located just a 10-minute walk from the Blue Line stop at Racine in Little Italy.

Chef Michael Shrader helmed the kitchen that evening ensuring the menu he put together was well-executed. The very difficult research and work he put into the menu – which entailed strenuous thought and lots of sampling of the wines – paid off.

Oysters flown in from Nova Scotia, prepared in the wood-burning oven with smoky bacon, bitter arugula and parmesan mouse seemed like a lot for the Chardonnay and not to mention the delicate sweetness of the oysters. Fortunately, there was balance, and the pairing was everything I wanted it to be. This 2010 Columbia Crest Chardonnay, 30% aged in American and French oak, fumed with a nice balance of buttery oak as well as tropical fruits. But once it met the food, the oak and butter subsided and the fruitier, greener elements came forth, all at once and accompanied with a gentle tickle of acid. Brilliant.

The second course involving pairing Columbia Crest’s (2010) H3 Series. This one is referred to as Les Chevaux (Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) and was paired with a BBQ’d pulled pork shoulder brimming with fresh and dried chile spice. My main concern was that the heat in the BBQ would flair out of control once it met the wine. What happened was akin to a controlled blaze, the heat in the BBQ and the black pepper spice in the wine igniting with a low and adequate ceiling for which to subtly burn. Again, a nice way to cleanse the palate, especially given that it was burning off the sugary sweetness in both the wine and the BBQ exposing depth that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

The third wine to be paired was the 2010 H3 Cabernet Sauvignon blended with a tiny bit of Merlot to complicate the tannins with velvety texture and an even smaller amount of Cabernet Franc for a little herbal greening — a typical Bordeaux blending. This time Chef chose flank steak sauce au poivre with a ginormous shallot prepared in that same wood burning oven with an herbed compound butter nestled and melted on top. The richness of the sauce reminded me of the power of umami. It was so rich! The shallot was caramelized and woodsy enough to play both foil and cohesive element to the pairing. Without tasting this, I knew it would be marvelous. It’s quite a safe pairing, but you never know what can happen.

In an appropriate denouement for the evening, chef prepared four wonderful desserts to pair with a Moscato. I was surprised by how little carbonation bubbled in the Moscato and then, how much “wine” flavor came out. Not to be crass about the description, but I was expecting more carbonation. And like almost everything else about the evening, I was pleasantly surprised. Juan commented that this style of Moscato is a more elegant rendering of Moscato. The shock, however slight, allowed me to savor the wine a bit more as the brisk bubbles weren’t there to cover things up, no matter how fun they are.

When you read about someone’s job promotion in an article covered by Reuters, you freak out a little at the idea of meeting that person. Juan M. Muñoz Oca couldn’t have been more disarming, more humble, or more passionate. And I was able to keep myself from asking for an autograph. Chalk one up for the ol’ Cor as I meet yet another wine superstar while I’m able to keep myself together enough to not embarrass myself too much.

In vino veritas!

 

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