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 theyre usually worth
about as much. Open up the food section of any American newspaper and youre bound to
find some writer telling you about an oaky $6 Chardonnay that tastes like an oaky $9
Chardonnay. Thats fine, but Im not inclined to drink that kind of wine at any price.
But heres 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, Ive 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 isnt even made in California.
Unfamiliar with Washingtons 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 Washingtons fruitits cherries and apples, but also its wine grapesso
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, Ive 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,
Ive come to the conclusion that theres no American Cabernet
Sauvignon Id rather drink.
Im 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 Bordeauxs
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 Im a contributor to
Wine Spectator, Im not involved in scoring wines.)
Robert Parkers Wine Advocate rates it even better. It scores the
wine 96, 98, 94, 98, andfor the just-released 2002a 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 Frances Loire Valley, but spent his later childhood in
San Francisconot far from where his mothers brother, Andre
Tchelistcheff, was recasting the American wine industry.
Tchelistcheff had emigrated from France to Napas Beaulieu
Vineyards in 1938, charged by BVs Georges de Latour with creating
a world-class wine for a troubled industry just emerging from prohibition.
He made BVs classic Cabernets of the 1940s, 1950s, and
1960s, and, later, Francis Ford Coppolas 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. Hed 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 doesnt 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, Golitzins
Cabernet doesnt have the fame of its rivals. It doesnt 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, "Were 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 dont
get the recognition we deserve, thats 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 Washingtons 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. Golitzins 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 worlds classic bottlings. As part
of the process, he is a tireless consumer of great wine. "We taste the
worlds finest wines, and were 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."
HOW TO GET IT
Unlike many of the California cult wines,
Quilceda Creeks Cabernets are available
for purchase by ordinary consumers. It
wont be easy, and it wont be cheap, but
it can be done.
Three-quarters of Quilceda
Creeks 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.
SELECTED RETAIL OUTLETS
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
severethe 1994 Cabernet, originally released at $42, is
$325 at Seattles Canlisbut its 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 whove 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 isnt 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, hes probably
right," says Woodward Canyons Rick Small, who owns another of
Washingtons 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 hasnt been afraid to tinker with success. In 1993, prodded by Paul,
he turned his back on Tchelistcheffs 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,Thats 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 grapesbecause he believes
Merlot doesnt age as well. "Why do they use Merlot in Bordeaux?"
he asks. "Because they cant get Cabernet ripe enough. We get our
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 dont quite reach
his standard. Its 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 Im not doing my job."
IT SHOULDNT 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 Alexs 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.