Quilceda Creek Vinters
Practical Winery & Vineyard, July/August 2000
by Stan Clarke

Consistency of Quilceda Creek Cabernet

Alex Golitzin, Paul Golitzin, Marv Crum
Alex Golitzin fondly remembers trips to St. Helena, CA as a boy, where he observed his Uncle Andre at work. Andre is Andre Tschelistcheff. Alex credits his uncle with instilling in him the basics of making sound wine. From this experience, Golitzin has gone on to establish one of Washington State's most respected wineries, Quilceda Creek Vintners.

Quilceda Creek is dedicated to producing world-class Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The winery is situated on 6.5 acres of densely wooded hillside in Snohomish, just north of Seattle. The compact operation has 3,000 square feet of fermentation and barrel ageing space with an additional 1,300 square feet for case goods storage off-site. The winery was built in stages with the final addition in 1994.

The winery is operated by Alex Golitzin, his wife Jeannette, their son Paul, and son-in-law Marv Crum. Paul and Marv are in charge of operations while Alex and Jeannette run the business side of the winery. Everyone participates in blending trials that determine the composition of each wine.

Alex’s Uncle Andre consulted for Chateau Ste. Michelle in the late 1960’s, about the same time that Alex and his family moved to Washington. Andre encouraged Alex to make some Cabernet Sauvignon in the early 1970s. Alex produced one barrel per year from 1974 through 1977, with Andre acting as consultant.

“Andre really helped by teaching us how to make wine that was technically sound,” says Alex. “He was a little hard to keep up with, since he was often revising his advice based upon current state-of-the-art knowledge. But he instilled in us the desire to continuously push the quality envelope.”

Continuous improvement is the hallmark of Quilceda Creek. Everything Golitzin and his staff do is aimed at giving consumers a wine that rivals the best of those produced in California, Washington, or Bordeaux. A tall order for a winery in an emerging viti-cultural area.

Quilceda Creek wines are designed to reach a maturity plateau at seven to eight years past vintage, and to be capable of cellaring well for 20-plus years.

Paul "punching down the cap"
while Marv takes samples from
Quilceda's 2-ton fermentors.
Production has grown from 150 cases in the 1979 vintage to a projected 4,700 cases in 2000. There are no plans to increase production, since the winery's focus is strictly on quality.

Golitzin produced 150 cases of 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon using grapes from one vineyard recommended by his Uncle Andre. Since that time, he has refined his stylistic goals and passed on most of the winemaking chores to son Paul (in 1992).

Grape selection is a key to success for Quilceda Creek. They source grapes from two areas: the Horse Heaven Hills south of the Yakima Valley in central Washington, and the Red Mountain area at the extreme southeast tip of the Yakima Valley.

Both areas yield fruit of high quality, with ripe flavors and small berries. The Quilceda Creek rule of thumb is to keep production under four tons per acre, which allows achieving full ripeness in even the coolest years.

According to Alex, grapes from the Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hill bring good acidity, color, and a wonderful ripe red fruit character. Grapes from the Red Mountain area (Klipsun Ciel du Cheval, and Tapteil Vineyards) add strength on slightly more assertive tannins and a black fruit character that blends nicely with the Champoux.

Quilceda Creek supplies its own lug boxes for transport of handpicked grapes. Handpicking is an absolute for this winery. The Golitzins cite the mechanical harvester’s non-selectivity and rough handling (leading to bruising) as primary reasons for staying with handpicking. “Machine picking is fine for a $10 bottle of wine, but it just doesn’t work for an ultra-premium product,” explains Alex.

Harvesting of the grapes takes place after Paul, Alex, and the respective vineyard manager walk the vineyard and sample the fruit. “I relay to them my field sampling results, but when it comes down to it, Paul and Alex decide by taste,” state Paul Champoux of Champoux Vineyards.

Fred Artz, vineyard manager of Klipsun Vineyards agrees, adding that the Quilceda Creek staff just glances at the numbers, as they taste. Artz, Champoux and Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval all agree that Quilceda Creek is always one of the last wineries to pick Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Harvest of Merlot occurs in mid-September, and Cabernet Sauvignon in mid-to-late October. “24 degrees Brix is pretty much a minimum for us,” states Alex. Obviously, they are looking for very ripe rich flavor profiles in the grapes.

Quilceda Cabernet Sauvignon was usually 100% Cabernet Sauvignon until 1995, when Merlot was included in the blend. In 1996, Cabernet Franc became a small, but regular contributor to the blend. With the 1997 vintage, Quilceda Creek made the commitment to bottle a Merlot on a regular basis. The quest for complexity has resulted in the use of grapes from many blocks (eleven lots in 1999).

In the Winery
After picking, grapes are transported by truck 200 miles from the vineyards to the winery, ready for processing the next morning. The grapes are destemmed, sulfited, and crushed into two-ton fermentors. These jacketed and mobile portatank fermentors were jointly designed by both the fabricator and the winery. The winery now has 32 of them.

In 1998, the winery added a new Rauch destemmer/crusher, a new DeFranceschi slotted-drum bladder press, and a semi-automatic pneumatic punch down device. A similar punch down device was first seen at the Willakenzie Winery in Oregon. The Quilceda Creek punch-down device was designed by the winery staff and FM Sheet Metal of Eugene Oregon. This device fastens to the side of each fermentor and can be moved to any position over the cap, where the 16-inch square punch-down surface mixes grape skins with the fermenting must.

Three different yeasts are used. Yeast supplements are added to the must, with the amount depending upon the variety and the history of the vineyards.

When asked his thoughts on natural yeast fermentation, Alex quickly responds, “I have been trained as a chemical engineer and I really believe in process control. The use of natural yeast just doesn’t fit that mold.” The must is punched down at least twice daily with the punch-down device, and the jacketed fermentors enable temperature control during fermentation.

The wine is pressed at dryness and sent directly to a combination of 100% new Seguin Moreau, Sansaud, and Saury French Oak barrels of a wide range of toasts. A malolactic bacteria culture is added to each barrel, and the winery is heated to achieve a quick, complete malolactic fermentation by the end of the calendar year. Racking is done as needed.

Cabernet Sauvignon stays in new oak barrels for about 22 months, with Merlot coming out at about 18 months. The staff has spent many vintages experimenting with styles of barrels, trying to match the attributes of the barrels with their wine lots. In 1993, after more than a decade of such experimentation, Quilceda Creek made a commitment to use 100% new French oak barrels with each vintage.

After intensive blending trials by the entire staff, the final blends are put together, sulfur levels adjusted, and bottling occurs. This year, a 12-spout rotary filler replaced a stationary six-spout filler used in prior bottlings. After bottling, the wine is bottle-aged off-site for eight to 12 months before release.

Ongoing experimentation
Although the Golitzins are pleased with past releases, they are driven to continue searching for better winemaking methods. The staff conducts regular trials on everything from yeast to cooperage to grape sources. This spirit of constant inquiry not only led them to decide on French oak barrels, but also spawned the varietal bottling of Merlot. (They discovered a source of grapes that would stand on its own as a varietal.)

Another example of this ongoing analysis is the ending of a reserve program (which they bottled in 1988, 1989, 1990, and 1992). The winery staff felt that based on the experiments that lead to the reserve bottlings, it could upgrade everything to a reserve style.

Next came the declassification of some wine and the birth of a second red wine labeled Quilceda Creek Red Wine. This program was started in 1997, when 38% of that vintage did not meet the winery’s increasingly stringent quality standards.

With the 1997 vintage, they also added a vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignon from the Champoux Vineyard (in which they are now minority partners). This vineyard was previously known as the “Mercer Ranch Vineyard,” after founder Don Mercer, but with the new partnership came the new name. A Merlot was also bottled from grapes sourced from Red Mountain Vineyards.

Wine sales
With 3,200 cases of 1997 red wine to sell, there is not enough to fill demand. The 1996 was released at $55 per bottle and immediately sold out from the winery. All of the wine is allocated. The winery is open only by appointment, and it seldom has any wine for sale to the public. An exclusive group of mail order customers usually gets first opportunity at the new vintages, with the remainders going to both on- and off-premise retail accounts. Quilceda Creek wines are currently sold in 36 states and seven countries.