Quilceda Creek Vinters
Quilceda Creek Vintners Cabernet Sauvignon
International Wine Cellar, September/October 2001, Issue 98

The Quilceda Creek
1998 Cabernet Sauvignon
Quilceda Creek Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon has been transformed in virtually every way in the 25 years since Alex Golitzin began his venture in Washington State. Vineyard Sources have continually evolved over the years, and since the mid- ‘90s a growing percentage of the wine has been from Champoux Vineyard, in the hills rising from the Columbia River, south of the Yakima Valley appellation. Barrel treatment has changed radically, from old, mostly American barrels in the early ‘80s to all new French oak beginning in 1993. The tannins have been refined, partly through later harvesting; vine yields have been cut; and in recent years a increasing percentage of the wine has been declassified to protect the quality of the winery’s flagship cabernet bottling. And Alex’s son Paul took over as winemaker with the 1993 vintage.

Along with wines from Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Winery and Leonetti Cellar, Quilceda Creek was one of the first Washington State cabernets to garner acclaim outside the Pacific Northwest. Golitzin’s uncle Andre Tchelistcheff, the legendary winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards from the late ‘30s through the early ‘70s who is often referred to as the father of modern Napa Valley wine, came to Washington State in the late ‘60s to consult with Chateau Ste. Michelle. In the early ‘70s, he told his nephew that the Columbia Valley was an interesting place for growing cabernet. Golitzin began experimenting with Otis Vineyard cabernet in the mid- ‘70s, and after building a garage winery behind his new house in Snohomish, north of Seattle, in 1977, Golitzin made his first commercial wine in 1979. In the early ‘80s, the Otis fruit was blended with and then replaced by fruit from Kiona Vineyard. Through the ‘90s, Quilceda has incorporated additional vineyard sources into the blend, including Mercer Ranch, which Golitzin purchased in ’97 with a number of partners and renamed Champoux.

For the first decade, Quilceda Creek offered only a single cabernet bottling. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there were four limited releases of reserve wines. But then, beginning with the ’93, Golitzin chose instead to make all of his cabernet in what he calls “the reserve style” (a style that included, among other elements, the use of 100% new French barrels for aging the wine), and discontinued the special bottlings. The wines prior to 1995 were virtually 100% cabernet sauvignon; since then, the cabernet has tended to incorporate small percentages of merlot and /or cabernet franc.

From the outset, the Quilceda Creek cabernets have been deeply colored, dense, tannic and built for aging. In recent hears, as Golitzin has moved to all new French oak, become more actively involved in viticultural practices in the vineyards he buys from, and purchased his own vineyard, the wines have become suaver and more pliant, without any loss of strength. Happily for fans of Quilceda Creek, since the early ‘90s, annual production has increased from barely 1,000 cases to 2,700 cases in the ’99 vintage. This increase reflects the much greater supply of fruit, especially from Champoux; selection today is stricter than every before, and since ’97 a good percentage of each year’s crop has been declassified into a second wine.

I recently had the opportunity to conduct a vertical tasting of the Quilceda Creek cabernet, with owner Golitzin, in the splendid Georgian Room of the Four Seasons Olympic in Seattle. At this event, the wines were poured beginning with the oldest vintage, for two reasons: To complement the progression of dishes created by Four Seasons chef Gavin Stephenson (this was the single finest meal I’ve had in Seattle in recent years), and, more important, to show how the Quilceda Creek cabernet has evolved over time. The opportunity to taste these wines together (I actually sample the ’79 at dinner the night before the tasting, and the ’85 the next morning at Quilceda Creek) pointed up the fact that no Washington State cabernet so successfully combines strength of character, refinement and balance of fruit, acidity and tannins. It is something of a clich√© to say that Washington State’s best cabernets are midway between Bordeaux and California in style. But today’s Quilceda Creek cabernet does indeed combine the flamboyant ripeness of fruit of Napa Valley cabernet with the elegance, complexity and structure of warm-year claret.