Wine Advocate Reviews Quilceda Creek 20 Year Vertical
Undoubtedly, Quilceda Creek is one of the most recognizable Washington State producers making world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m always left with a boggled brain when I think back to the inception of the Estate and what the Washington wine community was like back when Quilceda Creek was established in 1978. Robert M. Parker Jr. once had a chance to sample the blind flight of the 1996 vintages of Quilceda Creek, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. His opinion was that Quilceda Creek was indistinguishable from the Bordeaux first growths. As it so happened, the day I tasted the 2018 Quilceda Creek our Editor in Chief, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, MW, had just sampled the 2018 Chateau Margaux and offered me a sip. It wasn’t my intention to try these particular wines on the same day. It just happened that way. And I agree with Parker when he said that Quilceda Creek could hold its own against the first growths. Personally, knowing Philippe Bascaules, I could clearly see his fingerprint on the 2018 Chateau Margaux; the 2018 Quilceda Creek wasn’t that far behind.
To celebrate the 40th vintage with the release of the 2018 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, soon to be released in spring of 2021, winemakers Paul Golitzin and Alex Stewart submitted an interesting 20-year retrospective, dating back to 1999. As I sipped and sampled the legacy of the wines, I reflected on what makes these wines so impressive and profound. The wines burst with precision, finesse and elegance, no doubt something that Uncle André Tchelistcheff had impressed upon the Golitzin family, as Tchelistcheff offered guidance early on in Quilceda Creek’s story, but my takeaway from these wines is that they have always shown a well-defined purity and excellence.
Vertical tastings are always fun and are a fantastic learning experience to see the evolution of the wine, which tells a story about the people and terroir that have helped the wine become what it is. Not only do you get to see how the wines are progressing and aging, but it also helps to identify when a particular wine will start to shut down and enter its chrysalis stage, very much like our teenage years, changing from a youthful essence where it begins to shed its baby fat and emerging on the other side as a mature expression with the wisdom of adulthood. Pinpointing this exact timeframe for a wine can be challenging, and knowing when not to touch it is the difference between cutting into a steak too early as it bleeds all over your plate or waiting just a bit longer and enjoying a steak cooked to perfection. Currently, the 2010 through 2007 vintages are showing the change. I find most wines enter this stage at 7-10 years of age, if they can age that long. However, like many other world-class wines, Quilceda Creek’s Cabernet enters into the change state by becoming shy and closed down between the ages of 11-14 years, something that consumers should be aware of when deciding to consume a particular bottle.
History and Evolution to Modern-day
Quilceda Creek’s story begins with family. Cofounders Alex and Jeannette Golitzin began the Estate in 1978, with their first vintage the following year. Alex Golitzin’s maternal uncle, André Tchelistcheff, helped guide the Golitzin family in the beginning. Paul Golitzin, who is the son of the cofounders, Alex and Jeannette Golitzin, and the current president & director of winemaking, reflected on when he was a child and how the evolution of Quilceda Creek had solidified and expanded over the years, “Jim Holmes from Ciel du Cheval one day asked my father if he’d like to try some fruit. So, my dad purchased some fruit from Kiona, thus moving from Yakima Valley into the Red Mountain area—as Red Mountain wasn’t officially made an AVA [American Viticultural Area] until 2001. We began working with Cabernet from Red Mountain. and we liked what it added to the wine. Later on, a similar situation happened with the Champoux Vineyard, when, at that time, it was called Mercer Ranch. Once again, we got an offer to try some fruit. We tried it and very much liked it and found it quite a bit different from Red Mountain fruit. Especially at that time, back then, when vintners were growing and cropping 11 to 13 tons an acre. It’s very different now.”
As a teenager, Paul traveled to France, but he didn’t really didn’t care for wine at that time, which is understandably because he was only 15. However, he was bitten by the wine bug while visiting châteaus and walking through vineyards and listening to French winemakers talk about their philosophies and their approach to winemaking. After his firsthand experience and speaking to French winemakers, Paul expressed how amazing and overwhelming yet inspiring that trip was for him, as it was an integral part of what he and Quilceda Creek would become.
Later at the tender age of 18, Paul Golitzin began introducing some of the practices he learned about in France with some experimental projects, aging the Kiona fruit from Red Mountain for 36 months. Later in 1989, that became a blend of half Kiona and half Mercer Ranch fruit (now known as Champoux vineyard). Ultimately, Paul fanatically enjoyed the fruit from Mercer Ranch and always wanted to make the best wine possible. Consistency is part of that equation. Over time, Quilceda would continue to purchase as much of the Champoux vineyard fruit it could get when it came up for sale.
Located in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA of Washington state, the modern-day blend of Quilceda Creeks Cabernet has seen some changes over the years. With the 1997 vintage of Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, it was about 60% Champoux vineyard and 40% Red Mountain. By 2001 and 2002, the blend had shifted to roughly 90% Champoux vineyard and 10% Red Mountain. After that, it stayed relatively the same until 2011, when they suffered a massive freeze event late in the winter of 2010 and lost a significant portion of Cabernet Sauvignon in their Circle Block of Champoux vineyard. Ultimately, Paul ended up having to outsource his fruit for the first time. A seriously challenging year for Quilceda Creek left them scrambling to find the best quality fruit to purchase. Paul Golitzin connected with Dan Nickolaus and the Wallula vineyard, which was untouched by the freeze, to create the 2011 vintage. The unexpected positive outcome was that when Golitzin and Nickolaus worked with one another, they understood each other’s drive and motivation for quality-obsessed grape growing. And since 2017, Dan Nickolaus has been Quilceda Creek’s vineyard manager and oversees all remaining vineyard holdings. He also helped plant the newest project, the Mach One vineyard.
Legacy and the Future
When I asked Paul where he sees Quilceda Creek in 20 years, he responded with a forward-thinking and thoughtful reply, saying he wished Washington State would receive worldwide acknowledgment as a premier growing area, which is still not fully established yet. I personally see this coming over the next few decades, as Washington State is currently America’s second-leading state for quality wines. Still, that fact hasn’t stopped Quilceda Creek from making world-class and highly collectible wines. Yet the Columbia Valley remains a dry region with water concerns, as climate change continues to be a major concern for the planet. The Quilceda Creek team is taking climate change very seriously and is installing cooling systems at every block, just in case they need to use them. Luckily, they haven’t had to use them yet, but if they need to, the cooling systems can reduce the temperature of the vineyards by eight degrees Fahrenheit on a hot day. Paul added, “We don’t want to change the vintage characteristics with the use of a cooling system, because we still want the vintage characteristics to shine through, but we do want the option if we need to use the cooling systems in the future.”
Expanding on Paul’s philosophies, Alex Stewart, winemaker for Quilceda Creek, added what he has learned from Paul. “Being mentored by Paul, I’ve come to appreciate many things. He’s a crazy perfectionist, and it shows through in the wines. Every vintage has to be the best it can be. To see that evolution in this vertical was really impressive. Some of the knowledge and wisdom that got passed down from Uncle André Tchelistcheff to Paul was to focus on one thing and do it well. Focus, but have fun doing it.”
Paul added, “We grade things by tanks, not barrel. If a tank doesn’t make the cut, then we will declassify the entire tank. Sometimes, this means not using juice destined for the Grand Vin, which could potentially make a 96-point wine, to seek our best juice, to make the wine so it may shine on an international level.” A sentiment that the Estate has captured with the saying, “The best Quilceda Creek will be the next one!”
My takeaway from this 20-year vertical is that while some bottles may show vintage variance, there is a sense of place and time with these wines that remained a constant theme throughout the tasting, acting as a megaphone, shouting out to the world: Quilceda Creeks stands for quality.
Paul Golitzin and the team continues with the family tradition of being a relentless perfectionist. They are committed to making the best wine they possibly can, and they stand behind these four words: No compromises, not ever.