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
to year. The emphasis is always on the bright cherry fruit that
gives Washington Merlot its immediate appeal. Special fermentation and
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
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,
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
In 2002, a new winery facility was built for Northstar in 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
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
“Northstar Brings Back Gordon Hill
to Produce Merlot ”
By Christina Kelly
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
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
“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,
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
“Northstar has captured my excitement unlike any other wine,” he
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
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
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.
thanks to Northstar for permission
to reprint information contained on this page