A key player in the Washington State wine region is Columbia Crest Winery and Winemaker Juan Muñoz Oca is the force majeure behind this brand known for producing big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon. While this association may seem surprising to most because when we think of Washington, we think of rainy Oregon being nearby.
But the Washington State climate and geography vastly differ from one area of the state to another, and the result is wine growing regions that take advantage of a drier, desert-like climate.
Columbia Crest is pushing the conventional boundaries of winemaking, and doing it with pizzazz! Not to mention with the pizzazz that is simply Juan’s laid back “really cool” style. Yes, he has the boyishly good looks of a model and the sheer number of times he says “really cool” makes it decidedly so that, he is just that – really cool! He’s a Taurus, his favourite colour is red, and yes, I asked all these silly questions because he let me. When I asked for an iYellow exclusive, he tells me that he actually isn’t sure if he likes white wine – talk about a #WineSecret (wait, is that a thing?)
Columbia Crest and Juan are doing wicked wine things, they recently launched and completed the Crowdsourced™ Cabernet Sauvignon project. The first wine project of its kind, all decisions, from vineyard management to winemaking were made via a crowdsourced campaign! How inventive! These are the cool things that have been fuelling the #WAwine movement. Ok – it’s more like a Washington wine fixation, cause here at iYellow we have decided that we are #wild4WAwine (Yes, this will be a thing and you heard it here first!)
The world is becoming fascinated with Washington State wine and Columbia Crest has put the Pacific Northwest on the map for producing high-quality wines from this region. I briefly caught up with Juan and asked him a few more serious questions over a glass of Columbia Crest Chardonnay – of which I definitely had a couple of glasses of as it is my new favourite sipper (emoji tasting note post coming soon!)
We start with the serious stuff and when asked what trade related accomplishments he is proudest of, he tells me that receiving 90+ scores from respected publications like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and The Wine Advocate is what, in part, makes his job most rewarding. Like getting an A+ in school, it is that validation and credentials that propel Columbia Crest as a leader for producing acclaimed wines!
Juan tells me that he has been a Winemaker in 5 different countries on 4 different continents. He started with Columbia Crest in 2003 and has been the Head Winemaker since 2011. One of the biggest challenges he faces is eloquently describing how to grow in Washington State. In his experience, he says that there is no other place in the world where there is this much control. He has virtually no rain to deal with and an ideal warm growing climate. Through this consistency in the weather from vintage to vintage, he gets to control every aspect of the viti and vini of his wines!
He tells me about a new wine brand he is crafting, separate from Columbia Crest. It is called Intrinsic and hopefully, it will be in Canada by this time next year. A Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington’s Columbia Valley, it is a wine that Juan describes as “wild, and a little bit crazy.” It has remained on the skins in maceration for 9 months, where most wines remain on the skins for only 1 month. ‘Rebel heart, urban soul’ is the tagline of the wine and Juan hopes that this wine can express the sensitivities of the varietal.
What prompted you to get started in Winemaking?
“I’ve been involved with grapes since I was a little boy – my grandfather was in the industry and his father was in the industry – it’s all I’ve known.” For him, there was never a thought of anything else. “Winemaking has been in my family, it’s in my blood, it’s what I do, and it’s who I am.”
How did it feel to win Wine Spectator #1 Wine of the Year in 2009?
“It felt really cool this was great for Washington state to get that recognition out of any wine region in the world.” This was the first time a Washington wine had received this ranking and wine was selected from more than 17,000 wines and tasted by editors throughout the year.
Favourite Grape to Work With:
“Cabernet because it expresses the differences in terroir and the gracefulness of Washington State wines.”
Most Memorable Wine (or Vintage):
2010 was the coldest record vintage ever until 2011 which was record breaking to have been even colder. But this was memorable in crafting unique wines, as it represented an outlier in a portfolio of vintages that have been relatively even-keeled up until that point.
If you were talking to someone who didn’t know anything about WA wine, what would be the key thing you would want to tell them?
“I would want to tell them that Washington State wines at the $17.95 price-point, should be in the $35 price point as they perform at this price range.”