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Chapter 6

February 1, 2011

When telling any compelling story, it’s natural to recap the action about halfway through. Readers get a chance to reconnect with the plot and the characters. The fires are stoked in anticipation for a thrilling conclusion.

That’s about where we are in the tale of The Big Dipper, the Merlot with a lofty mission: to showcase the superstar power of the Bordeaux varietal in Washington state. 

Returning to the seed that started it all requires turning back the clock to the inception of the winery. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates CEO Ted Baseler had the vision to build an operation dedicated to Merlot and Northstar released its first wine in 1994. 

In the vintages that have followed, the winemaking crew has added to the original mission, bottling limited amounts of Merlot blending varietals including Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

Still, the heart of Northstar remains its acclaimed Merlot, and the project with the working title of “The Big Dipper” aims to take the winery’s signature varietal up a notch. One of winemaker David “Merf” Merfeld’s goals for the project is to one day have this Washington wine rank among the finest Merlots in the world.

The inaugural Big Dipper effort couldn’t have happened at a better time. 2009 was an ideal growing season, with those warm days and cool nights for which the state has become rightly well regarded.

Freshly picked Merlot grapes at Anna Marie Vineyard, September 2009

Merf  worked closely with Ste. Michelle’s viticulture team – as he does each harvest – to ensure the small lots destined for Big Dipper from selected vineyards were picked at their peak. In one instance, that meant harvesting early (on 9-9-09 at Beverly Vineyards near the Wahluke Slope) to capture the vibrant acidity Merf is looking for in creating a wine for collector’s cellars.

During the busy days of the 2009 harvest, Merf utilized various winemaking tools and techniques in his efforts to build layers of flavor that could be considered both Old World and new wave. The new small basket press, the oak barrel fermentation and the use of a custom-made concrete fermenter known as C-4 all demonstrate the intense, hands-on nature of the Big Dipper project.

Merf testing wine from Northstar's new basket press, Harvest 2009

“It’s true this wine gets extra attention,” Merf said.

Judging by the buzz it has already created, the extremely limited amount of 2009 Big Dipper is on track to sell out as soon as it hits the market. “I’ve had people wanting to buy the whole lot,” said Merf, who has been talking about the wine to excited trade, media, and wine lovers during his frequent trips around the country.

But that’s still a long way down the road. In the meantime, Merf and his winemaking team will tackle the task of blending in February.

“We’ll be pulling samples and tasting to put together our base blend of the Big Dipper,” he said.

The blended wine will go back in oak barrels for additional aging. By the time it’s ready to be bottled, the wine will have spent nearly two years in oak, a time-honored technique for adding complexity and character, allowing components to integrate.

So far, Merf is pleased with how the wine is progressing.

“When we started this project, we were really exploring uncharted territory,” he said. “We didn’t really know what we were going to get adding barrel fermentation and the concrete fermenter. Those have really added some unique characteristics to the wine.”

Barrel fermentation in the Northstar cellar

Northstar fans are going to have to be patient, though.

Even when it makes its debut – possibly during fall release in 2012 – the wine currently known as the Big Dipper, which Merf is crafting to age as well as the renowned Merlot wines of Bordeaux, will reach its peak after after at least 10 years in the cellar. 

Meanwhile, Merf’s other prized Merlots, Northstar’s Columbia Valley and Walla Walla bottling, received stellar acclaim in 2010, including the winery’s highest ever scores from the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, who both ranked the 2007 Walla Walla Merlot 94 points. As all eyes turn towards the Big Dipper, the future looks bright at Northstar.

Continue to Chapter 7