Taste of Washington is one of the best events in the state because there are so many interesting people in the wine industry that visit the event. One of the highlights of Taste was the vineyard showcases, where different vineyards displayed their new release wines. Vineyard manager, Joe Cotta, poured wine from the Cold Creek Vineyard and talked about the vineyard and its history. The Cold Creek Vineyard is one of the historic Washington vineyards. Planted in 1972, the vineyard typically is a warm to very warm vineyard site with virtually no cooling effect from the Columbia River. Usually harvest is early at this site.
The vines at Cold Creek Vineyard are set in weak loamy sand and gravel soils with low water holding capacity. This “silty loam” produces moderate crops and concentrated grapes, resulting in intense flavors in all varietals and deep color in the red fruit. The combination of the Columbia Valley's desert dryness in the summer and deep winter chill makes Cold Creek vines more resistant to pests and molds. None of the rootstocks are grafted at Cold Creek which also makes the vines more resistant to disease. The Cold Creek vineyard has Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and Riesling planted. Vineyard manager Joe Cotta has served this vineyard since 2009. He has a longstanding history in the wine industry and grew up in a large vineyard in Lodi, California. He possesses a master’s degree in horticulture from UC Davis and has worked as a vineyard manager for many years prior to coming to St. Michelle. I found him to be incredibly knowledgeable and thoughtful as he has followed his passion and is now at one of the great vineyards on the West coast. Joe talked about what it is like following the vines to the glass. I can’t imagine how exciting it must be for him to see his hard work in the vineyard pay off by enjoying a glass of Cold Creek Cabernet or Chardonnay that was literally the fruits of his labor. Here is my interview with Joe Cotta, vineyard manager at the Cold Creek Vineyard.
WWB: Can you talk about how you first became interested in vineyard management? How did you decide to come to Cold Creek?
JC: I am a 3rd generation grape grower. My grandfather, who was born in Portugal, started planting grapevines in CA in the 1970s. I grew up on my family’s 600 acre vineyard near Lodi, CA. I obtained a B.S in plant science at CA State University Fresno, then an MS in Horticulture from UC Davis. I worked in the CA north coast as a viticulturist and grower relations representative before spending 5 years in St. Louis, Missouri owning and managing a niche market vineyard management and consulting company. While in the midst of relocating to Long Island to expand the company, my wife requested something closer to our family in CA. That was where Ste Michelle Wine Estates entered the picture. I’ve been the vineyard manager at Cold Creek Vineyard, since 2009. It’s been a perfect fit.
WWB: The Cold Creek Vineyard has gained a reputation for producing some of the best Chardonnay and Cabernet in the state? What varietals do you feel grow best at Cold Creek? What are some of the challenges with working with everything from Riesling to Merlot?
JC: Our Cabernet Sauvignon does very well here. Typical styles are rich, concentrated, very structured. Other varietals that perform well at cold creek tend to be those from the Rhone region of France - Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache. However, when farmed to their maximum potential, all of our varieties here do very well (we have several).
Challenging varieties: Hard to say, but large clustered varieties tend to make predicting crop load a bit difficult – Mourvedre, Grenache. Some varietals have taken a bit longer to learn how to manage, but I feel good about our management techniques for each varietal. As long as we limit direct sun exposure to Chardonnay and Riesling, they tend to perform, very well, despite being on a warm site.
WWB: The 2012 and 2013 vintages have already been heralded by winemakers and the Washington wine community as landmark vintages. What made these vintages so special and what was it like having these vintages, coming out of 2010 and 2011 being so cold and challenging?
JC: Cold Creek is an amazing site, so I actually don’t have anything bad to say about 2010 or 2011. However, 2012 and 2013 did provide more warmth and a subsequent mild effect on berry size. Smaller berry size is thought to be preferable, as it increases the skin to pulp ratio, creating more surface area for extraction with less juice (more concentration of flavor). Cold Creek vineyard expresses so much intensity, that we actually avoid some practices that decrease berry size, as the wines can actually be too rich and concentrated for most wine consumers. Also, despite more rain in 2010 and 2011, we still received very little. The vineyard soils drain well and we did not have enough rain to create problems managing vineyard canopies or botrytis from later rains in the late summer and fall.
WWB: What was the most difficult part of managing your crop last year (2015)? How did the heat affect the vines and the grapes?
JC: The most challenging part of 2015 was the record heat. The vines felt it. They required much more water than the previous 2014 season. Much more attention was required to keep vines moderately stressed without over doing it. What was phenomenally odd, was that the berries retained their acidity, which we typically don’t expect in warmer years. They fruit maintained its flavor and structure across the state, which is another demonstration of Washington’s amazing versatility as a premier wine growing region.
WWB: What is it like managing a vineyard and then having Chateau St. Michelle Cold Creek Vineyard wine in your glass? What are some of your favorite all-time wines from the Cold Creek Vineyard?
JC: We make vineyard designated wines from Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, and Merlot. We also occasionally produce a Syrah, Cabernet Franc, or red blend. If I had to pick one varietal and vintage, I really enjoyed the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. However, the 2013 vintage, recently released, also expresses the vineyard well. We have also been creating a $100 bottle of Cold Creek Cabernet Sauvignon for the last 3 years, utilizing a small lot of the best fruit from the vineyard. The wine has been very well received. Being a vineyard manager is amazing. To be able to grow fruit from soil where the plant can be manipulated in a way where the subtle changes in care can be tasted in a glass of wine, is truly unique.