Sunday, June 24, 2012

Meeting Juan Muñoz Oca: Head Winemaker - Columbia Crest Wineries

With Juan Muñoz Oca - Head Winemaker Columbia Crest Winery
People often ask me why do I bother to have a blog and why do I love it so much. Well, last Tuesday was the perfect example of a day that shows everybody some of the reasons why I love blogging. I was cordially invited by Columbia Crest Wineries to have a wine tasting at Urban Union in Chicago and to meet their Head Winemaker: Juan Muñoz Oca. See? that is how lucky I am and why it is so cool to have a blog!

I am not going to fool anybody here by pretending to know a thing about wine. I know that I like sweet wines, my favorites are Rieslings and Moscatos, and I have been to quite a few Winery tours to understand the wine making process from a very high level. However, it is one of my life's desires to become more knowledgeable about wine, so when I got the invitation to dine and meet Juan Muñoz Oca, the Head Winemaker of Columbia Crest - one of the largest wineries in the Northwest, I did not hesitate for a second.

I got to my dinner a little bit late, thanks to the wonderful street parking system in Chicago. I was so embarrassed, but Juan made me feel at home straight away. I was seated next to him and immediately started talking like we have known each other for a while - It must be a Latino thing!

I quickly got caught up with the wine tasting and the fantastic food that was served, and as the first wine was poured into my glass, my conversation with Juan took a very interesting tone. I have learned so much in one evening about wines - I am so grateful.

Juan was born in Argentina and when he speaks Spanish you can hear that wonderful accent. I told him about my first ever memories of grapes at my uncle Guillermo's house in Venezuela. In his backyard, he had the most amazing gazebo with four amazing grape vines climbing up to it, forming a canopy that  shaded the space and made it the coolest place to hang out in the Terracotta patio. When in season, huge    bundles of purple grapes will hang from the roof, and we could just picked them with our bare hands and eat them right there and then. Juan explained to me how those grapes were most likely Red Globe grapes and how he also shares memories of grape covered gazebos at his grandfather's house. He grew up visiting his grandfather who was also on the wine industry - he was the cellar master of a winery in Argentina.

Another thing in common we have is that we are both married to English speaking partners and have 2 American kids. We struggle to get them to learn Spanish, so we spent some time sharing stories and ideas on how to ensure our kids grow up bilingual! But, let's go back to wine!

The most amazing thing I learned last Tuesday was about the experience of tasting wine. Juan explained to me how I should grab my wine glass, give it a little twirl, close my eyes, put the glass close to my nose and inhale the wonderful aroma. He told me to keep my mind open and let the wine aroma form an image in my mind. The experience was amazing. I could smell the sweetness and tartness, the wood, the smokiness... so many different scents that I never knew I could experienced. Once you have formed that wonderful image in your mind, you can then taste the wine to complete the picture. I have never experienced wine just quite like this. Thank you Juan!

I asked Juan to let me know, in simple language about what his job is like and what does a Head Winemaker do? Let me tell you, it ranks out there as one of the most wonderful jobs I have ever heard of. You are in close contact with nature and you get to play with wine! He is in charge of tending the vineyards,  choosing how to best take care of the grapes, from watering to fertilizing, to the most important decision, when to harvest the grapes so they are at the right point of ripeness to make delicious wines. Then, he takes care of the fermenting process and making the wines themselves. Finally, he makes the magic happen by finding the perfect combination of different grape wines to make amazing Merlot, Chardonnay and so on. It is like making your own wine cocktails. It is a big responsibility, the winery's reputation rests in his hands, and in his mastery and knowledge of wine to make the next award winning combination.

Juan started working at Columbia Crest about 10 years ago and was made Head Winemaker last year -  a wonderful accomplishment for such a young guy. Columbia Crest is an outstanding winery on Washington State. They are recognized for crafting wines that are approachable, affordable and consistently over deliver in quality. I got the chance to try 4 of their wines and can tell you that for a sweet wine lover like me, I actually enjoyed every single one of them!

Wine #1:  Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay - 2010

We tried this wine paired with two Nova Scotia oysters baked to perfection with bacon, arugula and a Parmesan sauce. If you know me, you will know I love oysters, so this was heaven on two little shells for me. The wine was magnificent, the aromas were fruity and slightly sweet, something I did not expect from my preconceived image of a chardonnay -I think I may expand my white wine repertoire!

Wine #2: Horse Heaven Hills - Le Chevaux Red Wine - 2010

We tried this wine paired with a delicate and slightly spicy BBQ pulled pork with a mustard sauce. This wine from the 3H series was so delicious. It was slightly woody and sweet but not too much. I love smelling the red wine, it had so much more to offer that the white - somehow I realized I have been missing so much by sticking with whites and not trying some good red wines out there. Juan recommended I try 14 Hands - Hot to Trot Red Blend - I can't wait! Le Chevaux is a blend of different types of red.

Wine #3: Horse Heaven Hills - Cabernet Sauvignon - 2010

We tried this wine paired with a flank steak au poivre and a caramelized baked shallot that was to die for. That shallot was one of the most enjoyable bites of the whole dinner for me. This wine scared me at first - just when I heard the name, I immediately went to my "this is the dry red wine I will not like" state of mind. How wrong was I?  Very! The smell of this wine exploded in my head and gave me a sense of warmth that was very enjoyable. It was more woody than wine #2 but richer and more delicious to taste.

Wine #4: Columbia Crest - Moscato - 2011

We tried this wine paired with the most delicious and unique selection of desserts! I knew this was going to be my favorite wine and so did Juan. The moscato was brilliantly sweet, just perfect, not too acidic, not too sticky and wonderfully made with no carbonation. I was hooked on this - I honestly wanted to finish that bottle all by myself -no sharing on this one. I will be buying this Moscato regularly!

I know you are curious about the desserts, so here is what they were:

Sticky Date Pudding

Goat Cheese Cake

Smore's with salted caramel ice cream (best ice cream I have tasted in a long time)

Chocolate Hazelnut delight! that tasted like a Ferrero Rocher and so much more.

All in all, I hope you are convinced blogging is not a bad idea after all!

I wanted to thank Columbia Crest, their wonderful PR agency and most of all Juan Muñoz Oca for a fantastic evening!

Salud! or as they will say around here: Cheers!

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