If you want a quick snapshot of the furnace of viniferous creativity that is the rapidly evolving Washington State wine industry these days, you need look no further than the impressive story of the Milbrandt brothers, Butch and Jerry.
They are fourth-generation farmers whose parents grew up on farms in Minnesota and Nebraska, moved to Oregon during the dust bowl days, and eventually settled in the early 1950s in Eastern Washington, where they farmed a variety of crops, most recently potatoes. It was a struggle, and it's safe to say no one got rich. Butch recalls, "I remember it as barren and desolate. Mostly sagebrush and sand. No roads ran past our farm in the first year. As we worked the land and loosened the soil, the wind would create dust storms and make it impossible to see for periods of time. It was a struggle to hold the land and nurture a crop."
Fast-forward to 1997, when the Milbrandts learned that the state's largest wine producer, Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, was looking to offer more contracts for grapes. At the time Eastern Washington was beginning to emerge as a fine wine region, so the brothers thought, why not?
Unlike several of their fellow farmers, who were content to plant vines on land they already owned and paid a high price for their mistake, the Milbrandts hired consulting viticulturist James McFerran to advise them on what land to lease. The move paid off, in spades.
a cut above
Their grape-growing experiment has proved to be such a success, and so profitable, that in 2006 the brothers began making their own wine. They also built a new visitor center and tasting room to showcase it.
They make a wide variety of wines, but for me the standout is the Milbrandt Vineyards The Estates Merlot 2006 ($26). It's packed with rich, dark fruit flavors, blackberries, cassis, and dark chocolate, and has a lot more backbone and structure—thanks to the addition of small amounts of cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot—than its all too often flabby New World competitors. It's an elegant, easy-drinking wine, and most definitely a cut above other merlots at this price point.
And as for Butch and Jerry, making world-quality, critically acclaimed, and profitable wine sure beats potato farming.
To find the Milbrandt The Estates Merlot 2006 near you try www.wine-searcher.com.
When to Drink: Now
Breathing/Decanting: Half an hour helps but is not necessary.
Food Pairing: Red meats, red pasta sauces, grilled foods.
Grapes: 77% merlot, 15% cabernet sauvignon, 8% petit verdot.
Appellation: Wahluke Slope
Region: Washington State
Web Site: www.milbrandtvineyards.com