America’s Bordeaux: 100-PT Quilceda Creek
a conversation with Alex Golitzin
by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
In the U.S., rare 100-point Cabernet wines are found only in Napa and at one singular winery in Washington State. Quilceda Creek Vintners, founded by Alex Golitzin, has produced four vintages that have scored 100-point ratings from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate: 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2007. Their 2004, 2006 and 2008, 2013 vintages were rated 99.
In his recent book, The World’s Greatest Wine Estates, Parker ranks Quilceda Creek alongside such old world estates as Châteaux Lafite, Latour and Pétrus, writing: “(Quilceda Creek) is turning out compelling wines of irrefutable richness and complexity…These are prodigious, world-class wines.”
How does Quilceda Creek manage to consistently produce such highly rated wine? Good genes is the short answer! Both for the grapes and the winemakers.
The Golitzin family wine legacy traces back over a century and is justifiably a tremendous source of pride. “A distant cousin was one of the first winemakers in Russia,” explains Alex Golitzin, as he shows me the family crest. “Prince Lev Sergeyevich used grapes from his estate in Crimea to produce champagne. In 1898, he won a gold medal in a blind tasting in Paris. It was very similar to the Paris judgment in 1976, when California wines beat out the French,” Golitzin continues.
But, the Golitzin family (then known as Galitzine) was forced to flee Russia during the Revolution of 1917. They resettled in France, where Alex Golitzin was born in the Loire Valley in 1939. As destiny would have it, his mother’s brother was non other than wine legend André Tchelistcheff. Prior to Golitzin’s birth, Tchelistcheff (pronounced CHEL-uh-cheff), who was born in Moscow, had studied oenology at both the Institut Pasteur and the Institut National Agronomique in Paris. When, Tchelistcheff moved to California in 1936, he famously revolutionized U.S. winemaking, by introducing procedures, such as aging wine in oak barrels, malolactic fermentation and frost prevention.
“André encouraged me to make wine,” says Golitzin. “His counsel was invaluable. We spoke almost daily.”
“What was the best piece of advice your uncle gave you?” I ask.
“He told me to focus on one varietal. And he knew the conditions in Washington were ideal for Cabernet. I took his advice. We try to do one thing extremely well.”
“And certainly the climate here in Washington is incredibly consistent,” he adds. “We’ve had some hot summers recently when Red Mountain hit 108 degrees, but generally, we have superb conditions. We can compensate with irrigation if the weather becomes too dry and hot.”
Golitzin is astonishingly humble when discussing his perfect ratings and highly-prized wines. (Buyers wait over a year to simply make it on the mailing list for Quilceda Creek Cabernet releases!) An engineer for much of his life, working for Scott Paper, Golitzin consistently experimented with winemaking before finally succumbing to the family DNA and changing careers. He continued to produce batches of wine under the guidance and encouragement of Tchelistcheff. Finally in 1978, Golitzin officially launched Quilceda Creek in Snohomish, Washington, a few minutes outside Seattle.
The Quilceda Creek vineyards – Champoux, Golitzine and Palengat – are located in Washington’s great agricultural region between the Yakima and Walla Walla Valleys. In addition to acre upon acre of Cabernet, the vineyards are planted with Red Bordeaux varieties: Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. A few acres of Syrah are also maintained. The grapes are hand harvested and aged in new French oak. Total annual production is between 10-12,000 cases.
We discuss flavor profiles of Washington wines relative to the juicy-sweet Napa styles and austere, ultra-lean Bordeaux. “Our wines are somewhere in between the two – a perfect balance – in my opinion.” says Golitzin. “That’s the beauty of Washington Cabernet and, of course, that’s the distinction André visualized as well.”
As we tour his beautifully-designed, spotlessly clean 11,500 square-foot winery in Snohomish, Golitzin points out the efficiencies of his tanks, which he developed and produced.
“Your engineering background has been an instrumental part of your success, hasn’t it?” I ask.
“You know, “he says, smiling, in an unusually animated moment, “one of the things I love the most about winemaking is that it’s a mix of everything I enjoy, from engineering and cultivation, to aesthetics and the arts. It’s truly a little of everything.”
“Were you surprised when you received your first 100-point rating?”
“Not really. We’d come very close on several occasions. But it was great, no denying that.” Golitzin smiles again at the recollection.
“And what are your expectations of a 100-point wine?”
Golitzin ponders a second, then responds, “Obviously the wine should reflect the flavor profiles for the varietal it represents. It should have good structure, integration, silky texture and finesse. I also believe that a 100-point wine should be able to stand on its own. It doesn’t depend on food.”
“And what are a few of your favorite wines, 100-point or otherwise?”
“The ’82 Château Pichon Lalande really opened my eyes. It was an epiphany,” Golitzin says emphatically. “The ’90 Château Montrose is another favorite. In general, I love Bordeaux. It’s just, as I always say, that at my age I can’t wait for some of the younger vintages to mature.”
“One of my favorite grapes is Grenache,” he adds. “It’s what I enjoy the most about Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”
“What about your own wines? Which of the Quilceda Creek are your favorites?”
“2002 because it was the first to get a 100-point rating. But I also think it’s a fantastic vintage. I’m fond of 2005 and 2007 as well.”
“Any other favorite wineries here in the states?”
“Definitely! Our neighbor DeLille makes exceptional wines. I always order Chaleur Blanc – a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
“You mentioned the fact that you can’t wait for Bordeaux wines to age. What about Quilceda Creek?”
“Our earliest wines, dating from the Seventies, are still quite alive and doing well. Our wines can age for 20-30 years with no problem. Certainly they’re enjoyable now.”
As proof – not that there was any doubt – Golitzin pours the 2011 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon. The nose is a heady mix of berries, anise, black walnut and forest floor. The taste is silky and rich with a long, lingering finish.
The Wine Advocate gave the 2011 a 96 rating, saying there is “…uncommon concentration and depth in the vintage, as well as a broad, structured profile that will allow it to age gracefully. Loaded with sweet creme de cassis, exotic spice, licorice and graphite, it’s a full-bodied, elegant and classically styled effort that has nothing out of place, fine, building tannin and a rock star finish. It will be approachable at an earlier stage than most vintages, yet still have two decades of longevity.”
“This 2011 is 100% Cabernet, with 95% from your Champoux Vineyard and 5% from your Palengat Vineyard. How do you determine that kind of mix?”
“Paul uses the Palengat grapes to add something exotic,” Golitzin responds, referring to his son, who assumed winemaking responsibilities in 1992. Golitzin is effusive in his praise of Paul. “He’s brilliant and he has an incredible palate. I’m lucky he loves winemaking.” He tilts the bottle to show off the striking Quilceda Creek label – a moonlit landscape. “Paul also designed our logo. The bottles are etched in gold.”
“Having the family involved in the business is ideal.” Golitzin says, gazing out at his winery. “We have six granddaughters. I have no idea at this point what they will do. But my hope is that 600 years from now, someone from the family is still managing the company.”
Given the family history and winemaking DNA, that would be a formidable legacy indeed. Here’s to a Golitzin dynasty at Quilceda Creek!