“I quit working in 1996,” says master winemaker David “Merf” Merfeld ’13. That was the year he got a job at Bert Grant’s Brewery in Yakima—one of the early craft breweries in the region.
Merf’s passion for fermentation started in his kitchen a few years earlier. He’d driven west to Seattle from the family farm in Iowa. “Thirty, thirty-one hours straight through,” he says, with maybe an “hour stop for a rain storm in South Dakota.” He was in the ’79 Park Avenue his dad gave him: “a great ride, and everything I owned fit in that car.” The first thing he and the buddy he’d come to visit did was go to the Red Door, a craft brew bar in Fremont. “I had a Redhook ESB that changed my life,” he says.
Back then, Grant’s was owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. When, in the early 2000s, Ste. Michelle decided to get out of beer and focus on their core wine business, they kept Merf on as a winemaker for Northstar, an ultra-premium maker of Bordeaux style wines, especially noted for its magnificent merlots.
“I knew the Northstar winemaker at the time, Gordy Hill ’80. All the winemakers would come down and pick up beer to drink, and would leave wine for me.” He and Hill would “geek out” on fermentation science.
Nestled in the Walla Walla Valley, Northstar was one of about thirty wineries when Merf moved there in 2002. “Now there’s 150,” he says with justifiable pride; he’s ridden the wave of Washington wine. Time was, he says, he’d travel around to promote Northstar wines and nobody knew where eastern Washington was. “Does it rain there a lot?” No, and you can’t see the Space Needle from downtown Walla Walla either. “Now,” he says, “people know Washington state and Columbia Valley and Walla Walla.”
Encouraged by the education-prizing culture of Ste. Michelle, Merf got a degree from WSU Tri-Cities in viticulture and enology. Merf and his assistant winemaker, Karin (Dinger) Gasparotti ’09, are both paying it forward. Northstar wines will be featured at the Dad’s Weekend ’18 Feast of the Arts. And they’ll be mentoring current students in the student-made winemaking program, Blended Learning.
“Wine’s a marriage of art and science,” Merf says. “You’ve got to have the science, especially for troubleshooting and to replicate the things that worked.”
Read about the art of wine label design, including Merf’s eponymous wine’s Camaro-inspired label, in “Designer labels.”