Quilceda Creek Vinters
The Best Cabernet in America.
A Scientist with a mad passion for wine crafts a brilliant red in a lonely corner of the country.
By Bruce Schoenfeld, Golf Connoisseur, Fall 2005

WINE TIPS ARE AS UBIQUITOUS AS STOCK TIPS — and they’re usually worth about as much. Open up the food section of any American newspaper and you’re bound to find some writer telling you about an oaky $6 Chardonnay that tastes like an oaky $9 Chardonnay. That’s fine, but I’m not inclined to drink that kind of wine at any price. But here’s a tip I wish someone had given me long ago. In 15 years of writing about wine for magazines such as Gourmet, Saveur, and Wine Spectator, I’ve now come to believe that the best Cabernet Sauvignon in America is not one of the famous Napa names such as Caymus or Chateau Montelena, or even one of the extraordinarily expensive California cult wines such as Harlan Estate, Bryant Family, Colgin, or Araujo. In fact, it isn’t even made in California.

Unfamiliar with Washington’s Quilceda Creek? So are most consumers, whose experience with Washington wine begins and ends with high-volume producers Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle. They find it difficult to fathom that a state known for precipitation, sweet onions, and table fruit also can make a wine that outperforms those exalted Napa Cabernets, let alone competes with the best of Bordeaux.

Quilceda Creek is made inside a winery disguised as a McMansion in a Snohomish, Washington, housing development about 30 miles north of Seattle. The winemakers are a retired chemical engineer named Alex Golitzin and his son, Paul. The first vintage of the wine that I tried, the 1983, had the seriousness of purpose of great Bordeaux, but with that brightness that makes Washington’s fruit—its cherries and apples, but also its wine grapes—so pleasurable to consume. That was nearly a decade ago.

The geniuses behind Quilceda Creek, Alex and Paul Golitzin (above), produce their wine out of an unassuming office (below) in a housing development just north of Seattle.
Since then, I’ve dedicated a corner of my own cellar to Quilceda Creek, and I buy older vintages when I encounter them on restaurant wine lists. After tasting some of the recent releases, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no American Cabernet Sauvignon I’d rather drink.

I’m not the only one. Wine Spectator has awarded Quilceda Creek scores of 94, 94, 93, and 94 (out of 100) over the past four vintages, from 1998 through 2001. That ranks favorably with Bordeaux’s Mouton Rothschild and Margaux and less than a point, on average, behind Latour and Haut-Brion. It exceeds the averages of Araujo, Bryant Family, and Colgin. (Though I’m a contributor to Wine Spectator, I’m not involved in scoring wines.)

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate rates it even better. It scores the wine 96, 98, 94, 98, and—for the just-released 2002—a preliminary score of 97-100. That average of 96.9 exceeds all five Bordeaux firstgrowths and the entire spectrum of Napa Cabernets.Yet its cost on release is less than half of the others.

QUILCEDA CREEK PRODUCES serious Cabernets that unfold in the glass over the course of a meal, and its history is nearly as surprising as its wine. The son of a Russian nobleman, Alex Golitzin was born in France’s Loire Valley, but spent his later childhood in San Francisco—not far from where his mother’s brother, Andre Tchelistcheff, was recasting the American wine industry.

Tchelistcheff had emigrated from France to Napa’s Beaulieu Vineyards in 1938, charged by BV’s Georges de Latour with creating a world-class wine for a troubled industry just emerging from prohibition. He made BV’s classic Cabernets of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and, later, Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon; mentored Robert Mondavi; and consulted with dozens of wineries.

Golitzin moved from San Francisco to Washington in 1967 to work at Scott Paper. In the mid-1970s, when he told his uncle that the biggest hardship of living near the Canadian border was finding something decent to drink, Tchelistcheff urged him to make his own wine. He’d teach Golitzin how, even find him grape sources to get him started. Soon Golitzin had fermentation tanks in his garage and a level of obsession that is uncommon among home winemakers.

French oak barrels (right) help ensure a Bordeaux-like quality.
The 1979 vintage, the first he released commercially, won a gold medal and grand prize at a Seattle fair.

Golitzin is both a relentless promoter of his own wines and an inveterate number-cruncher. Every year, he mails a comparison of scores to wine writers and other interested parties. He doesn’t do it to generate sales: Quilceda Creek swiftly disposes of every bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon it produces, some 45,000 of the 2002. The majority goes to mailing-list customers, the rest to stores and restaurants. This year, the Cabernet sold out in three weeks at $83 a bottle (only to reappear at double the price on the secondary market). The winery also sells out the small quantity of Merlot it makes, and a declassified red wine that the Golitzins deem unworthy of the flagship Cabernet-dominated blend.

Yet despite brisk sales and the celestial scores, Golitzin’s Cabernet doesn’t have the fame of its rivals. It doesn’t help that the winery is located in one of the strangest wine regions of the world, a landscape marked by an utter absence of wine grapes. Out the Golitzins’ picture window, where the vines should be, a herd of cows stand munching grass. "Nobody can put us in context," complains Golitzin. When it comes to wine, "We’re kind of a one-off in Washington, and Washington is a one-off in terms of the rest of the country, which is focused on California. We don’t get the recognition we deserve, that’s why."

In a sense, the bizarre location is helpful. Wineries surrounded by vineyards are tied to their fruit in good years and bad, but the Golitzins get their grapes from several of Washington’s finest sites on the far side of the Cascade Mountains and can reject an entire crop if necessary. They take an active role in the viticulture, advising vineyard managers how to prune their vines, when to thin the crop, and precisely when to harvest.

Many wineries do the same, of course — and several even utilize the same fruit sources. Golitzin’s ambition seems to be what distances Quilceda Creek from the rest. His goal is to produce the finest Cabernet Sauvignon in the world, reminiscent of "Bordeaux in a ripe year, 1982 or 1990," he says, but with the unique sense of place that suffuses nearly all of the world’s classic bottlings. As part of the process, he is a tireless consumer of great wine. "We taste the world’s finest wines, and we’re very good at cause-and-effect," says Paul Golitzin, 34, who has emerged as a talented winemaker. "We know just what we want in a wine and what to do to get it."

Unlike many of the California cult wines, Quilceda Creek’s Cabernets are available for purchase by ordinary consumers. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap, but it can be done.

Three-quarters of Quilceda Creek’s production is sold to its mail-order customers, and the list is still open to new applicants. Call 360.568.2389 or visit www.quilcedacreek.com.

Quilceda Creek distributes wine to 43 states and "about 11 countries," Golitzin says. Only a few cases are allocated to each state, but check with wine shops in your area and you might get lucky.

Quilceda Creek can be found on some of the better restaurant wine lists in America, from Aureole in Las Vegas to Veritas in New York. The markup can be severe—the 1994 Cabernet, originally released at $42, is $325 at Seattle’s Canlis—but it’s a chance for a Quilceda neophyte to get a first taste.

Like all coveted wines, cases of Quilceda Creek often change hands at auctions run by reputable firms such as Acker Merrall & Condit and Hart Davis Hart. Check www.ackerwines.com or www.hdhwine.com.

Yet they rarely show their own wines at wine fairs or trade shows, or leave the area to stage dinners for consumers or writers, or travel much at all. The Golitzins have a long-distance familiarity with the wine world, much like Eastern Europeans who’ve never left Warsaw or Bratislava but understand America from sitcoms and movies. This is partially because, until his recent retirement, Alex Golitzin remained a full-time chemical engineer and only a part-time winery owner. But it is also by predilection. Golitzin isn’t a mixer; he voices his opinions too quickly and self-assuredly for that. "Alex is Alex, and he believes the things that he says — and in a lot of cases, he’s probably right," says Woodward Canyon’s Rick Small, who owns another of Washington’s premier wineries.

Golitzin also remains convinced that the best way to sell his wine is to stay home and figure out how to make it better. Certainly, he hasn’t been afraid to tinker with success. In 1993, prodded by Paul, he turned his back on Tchelistcheff’s conviction that old barrels were just as good as new ones for aging wine. He also shifted from barrels made from American oak to French oak. "We went to a tasting, tasted the same wines in American and French oak, said,‘That’s it,’cancelled our U.S. contracts, and immediately ordered French barrels," Golitzin says. "It cost a tremendous amount of money, but once we understood the difference, we had to do it."

More recently, he pulled the vast majority of Merlot out of the blend of his Cabernet — by U.S. law, a wine labeled as one grape can contain as much as 25 percent of other grapes—because he believes Merlot doesn’t age as well. "Why do they use Merlot in Bordeaux?" he asks. "Because they can’t get Cabernet ripe enough. We get our Cabernet ripe."

Most important, perhaps, was his establishment of a second label, called Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Red Wine. That gives him an outlet for all the perfectly good grapes that don’t quite reach his standard. It’s a question of small, but noticeable, differences in quality, the differences that separate great wine from the merely excellent. "The grapes are sourced from the same places," he says. "But if those two wines taste the same, it means I’m not doing my job."

IT SHOULDN’T BE SURPRISING to learn that there are no Quilceda Creek golf shirts on the market, nor are there likely to ever be. The winery is open to the public, but just barely: only one weekend a year, when consumers who have purchased wine from the mailing list are allowed to come pick it up. Lunches for VIPs are cooked by Alex’s wife, Jeannette, and served in the family dining nook in their house beside the winery.

But in the service of proselytizing his wine, Golitzin spares no expense. For a recent dinner I had with him and Paul at a restaurant near the winery, he brought a bottle of that 1983 Quilceda Creek Cabernet, his 2001 Cabernet, and a 2001 Harlan Estate, rated 100 points by Parker. He then bought a bottle each of two top Barbarescos off the wine list for further comparison.

One by one, the Golitzins poured the wines, sipped, shook their heads, pronounced a judgment. The Harlan was impossibly tannic, the Barbarescos overly acidic, the 1983 Quilceda Creek good but past its prime. After keeping each in front of him for as short a time as decency would allow, Golitzin returned to his 2001. He gave his glass a brief swirl, paused for a momentary sniff, raised it to his lips, and came up smiling.

Then he told a story about a blind tasting pitting Quilceda Creek against the Bordeaux first-growths Margaux and Mouton, all from 1996. Golitzin tasted one of the wines and found it elegantly silky, a paragon of old-world Cabernet. "I thought,‘Damn, I wish we knew how to make wine like that,’" he said. "I vowed to do whatever it took to get there. In the end, the wine turned out to be ours."

Though he's just 34 years old and lives miles from California, Paul Golitzin is considered to be an extremely talented winemaker.