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Northstar Merlot:
Longstanding Success,
New Horizons

Northstar Winery is located in Walla Walla, Washington, a community of quality-minded winemakers that is quickly gaining significant recognition for its red wines. Walla Walla is culturally the “anti-Napa” – it’s cozy and familiar – with an amazing camaraderie among the growers and winemakers.

Northstar Winery makes only Washington Merlot. It’s new (2002) state-of-the-art winery was built solely for the purpose of making world class Merlot.

Merlot is the best selling red grape variety in America. Merlot-based wines from Bordeaux’s Pomerol region are generally the most expensive and sought-after wines in the world. In fact, Northstar’s winemaking style is more comparable to Bordeaux’s “right bank” than to New World Merlot.

Gordy Hill is a true veteran of Washington state winemaking, and has been Northstar’s winemaker since the inaugural 1994 vintage. Gordy is especially well familiar with Washington’s best red grape vineyards, and growers respect and appreciate his direction.

Jed Steele is Northstar’s consulting winemaker. This famous California winemaker has also been involved with Northstar since its first vintage. Jed brings a hedonistic, outside-of-the-box attitude to Northstar that is a perfect foil to Gordy’s more traditional practices.

Vineyard diversity is one of the keys to Northstar’s success. For any given vintage, almost 20 unique vineyard blocks from around the Columbia Valley are sourced, with a dozen or so making it through the rigorous selection process into the final blend. The majority of these vineyards are over 15 years old (vine maturity is important for Merlot and Cabernet grapes) and are farmed to Gordy ’s specifications.

Northstar Washington Winery produces three wines. The flagship is the Columbia Valley Merlot. Also made is an extremely limited amount of Walla Walla Merlot, which showcases local vineyards. Wines made for Northstar but ultimately not selected for the final blend due to stylistic considerations are used to make Stella Maris, a Columbia Valley Red Wine.

 


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Northstar's Wines

Starting in the mid-1980's, Washington's Columbia Valley began to be recognized as one of the most special places on Earth to grow and make Merlot. Northstar Winery was created with the sole purpose of determining how good this grape variety can ultimately be. From the inaugural 1994 vintage, the Northstar winemaking team has sought to capture the pure fruit essence of the Merlot grape, and endowing it with a balance of power and finesse that is rarely achieved by any grape variety.

Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot draws from numerous vineyards and individual vineyard blocks from around the entire appellation. This provides winemaker Gordy Hill a broad pallette of flavors and textures, and helps ensure a consistency in style despite variation in growing season from year to year. The emphasis is always on the bright cherry fruit that gives Washington Merlot its immediate appeal. Special fermentation and barrel aging regimes help provide the wine with a mouthfilling texture, and the ability to age gracefully for years to come.

Northstar Walla Walla Valley Merlot is made from a few selected local vineyards that Gordy thinks best reflect Walla Walla's unique terroir. This wine is distinct from the Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot, having more of a malted chocolate character surrounding the fruit, and has a velvety tannin structure that typically makes it more accessible in its youth.

Stella Maris is a blend of the same Bordeaux grape varieties that are harvested and fermented for the Northstar program, but for stylistic reasons are not ultimately selected for either Northstar Merlot blend. The wine shows a greater influence from Cabernet Sauvignon, which many people are surprised to learn can often be a "softer" wine than Merlot when grown in Washington state. "Stella" (as the wine is affectionately called) is a fitting home for these wonderful grapes and wine lots.


Gordon Hill, Winemaker

One Spring afternoon in 1980, while tasting a wine variety he had never heard of, Gordon, (“Gordy”) Hill discovered his passion for wine. He was captivated by this wine that tasted like fresh fruit, just picked from the vineyard. That wine turned out to be a varietal that would guide Gordy in his career – it was Merlot.

That same Spring, when Gordy graduated from Washington State University, he heard of an opening for a lab position making experimental wines at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville. Even though the position was part-time, he jumped at the chance to make wine.

For 20 years, Gordy has been making red wines from Washington State grapes. In 1983, Gordy was instrumental in producing Chateau Ste. Michelle’s first vintage of Reserve Merlot. In 1987, he moved to the winery’s Grandview facility in eastern Washington to oversee red wine production, joining the Columbia Crest red winemaking team. He was later promoted to winemaker. In 1994, Gordy’s winemaking responsibilities were expanded to include Northstar, an ultra-premium Bordeaux-style Merlot, that he makes in conjuction with renowned California winemaker Jed Steele. In 2002, a new winery facility was built for Northstar in Walla Walla.

Gordy’s vision for Northstar Merlot is to make an intensely powerful and elegant wine. To achieve this goal Gordy constantly works hands-on to understand the grapes from vineyard to bottle. Most of the vineyards he selects for Northstar’s Merlot are vineyards he has been working with since 1987. This long relationship with specific vineyards has given Gordy intimate knowledge of how each will perform under varying seasonal circumstances. He hand selects rows within vineyard blocks that he knows will give him the characteristics he is looking for and then allows the grapes to express themselves as they ripen. In the winery, he strives to extend that expression into the bottle by fermenting and aging individual small lots before creating the final blend.

Experience has also given Gordy the ability to predict outcomes from different fermentation regimes. Gordy keeps a careful eye on the positive and negative outcomes of each decision he makes, and constantly uses these to build on his winemaking knowledge. His philosophy is to, “try new things and to learn from your mistakes. Winemaking is all about learning and adapting to what’s going on in the vineyards, in order to create a better wine.”

Today Gordy’s passion is still with Merlot, and each day he strives to create a wine that will captivate those that taste it.


Here is an older article from Avalon that tells of Gordon Hill's return
to Northstar after a break to work at other wineries.

“Northstar Brings Back Gordon Hill
to Produce Merlot ”

By Christina Kelly
Avalon Editor/Writer
May 25, 03

In a surprise move, Stimson-Lane Vineyards and Estates announced Gordon Hill’s return to Northstar as head winemaker for the Walla Walla-based winery, just nine months after he left to work on other Stimson-Lane projects.

Hill spent eight consecutive years as winemaker at Northstar before leaving last summer. Rusty Figgins, winemaker for Glen Fiona, took over the Northstar helm in September at the dedication of the new winery building.

When contacted recently, Figgins said he was happy at Northstar, but wanted to pursue other opportunities with a little more flexibility and freedom.

“I will assume a position at an as yet unnamed wine estate in the Walla Walla Valley,” Figgins said. “I am still under an agreement with Northstar until July and I want to honor it. I do not want to breech that agreement.”

Ted Baseler, CEO of Stimson-Lane, owners of nearly a dozen Washington State wineries, was quoted in a Walla Walla newspaper as saying that Figgins is “phasing out” at Northstar because he had other interests to pursue. In a press release from Stimson Lane, Baseler, who helped conceive the Northstar Merlot Project in the early 1990s, said he was happy to bring Gordon Hill back.

“The Northstar vision is to create a Merlot to rival those from the world’s best wineries,” Baseler said. “Gordon has the talent and the passion to fulfill this mission and we are pleased to rededicate his complete focus to Northstar.”

Hill was on vacation and unavailable for comment. However, in a released statement, he said he was “thrilled” to resume his old position after working at Snoqualmie Winery and several red wine projects for Stimson Lane.

“Northstar has captured my excitement unlike any other wine,” he added.

Doug Gore, the Stimson-Lane winemaker who oversees all winemaking for the company said he is pleased to have Hill back at Northstar.

“That’s him stamped all over the new winery,” said Gore, who has worked with Hill for the past eight years. “He built that winery and the wines. I am sorry it didn’t work out for Rusty. I wish him well.”

Hill and consulting winemaker Jed Steele collaborated on a succession of acclaimed vintages, including ten 90+ scores in the past three years. The current vintage, 1999, received a 94-point rating. The 2000 vintage is scheduled for release in August.

The news was a surprise to many in Walla Walla. Figgins is a native of the area and comes from a winemaking family (Gary and Chris Figgins at Leonetti). With new wineries popping up and dotting the countryside throughout the Walla Walla region, some thought Figgins would bring a community tie to Northstar, whose parent company, Stimson-Lane, is located in Woodinville, WA.

However, Figgins may not have fit the model of Stimson-Lane winemakers. He has worked independently in the past. Stimson-Lane has a hierarchy within the corporation and a proven formula for producing Northstar Merlot.

“Gordon is intimately familiar with our Merlot vineyard sites, and he believes in our mission to produce wines of distinction, wines that meet the quality pedigree …” Baseler said in a press release.

Before construction of the new winery, Hill was producing Northstar at Stimson-Lane’s Prosser facility, more than two hours away from Walla Walla. Many thought Hill wanted to remain in the Prosser area rather than relocate his family.

Figgins said he found his short experience at Northstar to be “greatly enriching and a valuable experience.” He said during his stint he introduced a few innovative techniques and practices at the winery. Figgins oversaw the crush and fermentation of the 2002 vintage, due to be released in 2005.

“There’s a lot of opportunities and adventures along the wine road,” Figgins said. “There are many more choices now than ever before.”

Figgins is the second winemaker in the Stimson-Lane organization to leave in the last two weeks. White winemaker Erik Olsen, who helped produce Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Eroica Riesling with German winemaker Ernst Loosen, announced he was leaving Ste. Michelle to work for Clos du Bois Winery in Healdsburg, CA. Olsen was named Vice President/Winemaker for the Sonoma Valley winery.

In his four years at Chateau Ste. Michelle, Olsen produced such award-winning wines as Eroica, Cold Creek Vineyard Chardonnay and the rare Artist Series collection. Prior to working at Ste. Michelle, Olsen worked at Simi Winery in Sonoma County.

Stimson-Lane plans a nation-wide search to replace Olsen. With Northstar, insiders say Hill was ready to return and move to the area, thus preventing another search to replace Figgins. It also provides continuity, since Hill and consultant Jed Steele began with Northstar in 1994.



 

 

 

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Northstar's Gordon Hill

 

 

 

 

 


Northstar's Location in Washington State

 

 

Northstar's Vineyards

Indian Wells Vineyard
Indian Wells Vineyard Merlot is expressive and generous with its intense, fruit-forward aromas and flavors. Vintage after vintage, Indian Wells Merlot is a dominant player in the Northstar blend giving the wine plenty of ripe, fruity character.

Provides Aromas and Flavors
Location: Wahluke Slope
Soils/site: Fine sand, gentle south-facing slope
Planted: 1984
Typical harvest: Early season

Cold Creek Vineyard
Cold Creek Cabernet Sauvignon gives Northstar Merlot its muscle. This is a big wine with plenty of structure and appealing currant and dark, ripe cherry aromas and flavors. Most vintages, it is a dominant Cabernet in the blend.

Provides Structure and Tannins
Location: South of Wahluke Slope
Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon
Soils/site: Shallow, silt loam; 5% south slope
Planted: 1980
Typical harvest: Early season

Andrews Vineyard
Andrews Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon floods the senses. Its tannins are well integrated with dark, bright fruit aromas and flavors resulting in a complete wine across the full range of the palate.

Provides Structure and Tannins
Location: Horse Heaven Hills
Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon
Soils/site: Silt loam; gentle, south slope
Planted: 1980 Typical harvest: Early season