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March 2006 Newsletter

Here it comes:

Our Luxurious 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon

Don't miss out on our sensational 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, which we will unveil on May 6 for Spring Release Weekend. This elegant wine offers intense aromas of dark berry and chocolate with the right hint of mineral and a spicy, smokey, cedar character. It is full-bodied with a smooth and silky mouthfeel, saturated with bright flavors of dried cherries, boysenberries and black plums. A touch of thyme and cassis adds to the complexity. The wonderful texture lingers gracefully and begs you to take another sip.


Horacio and Concepcion

We are pleased to announce the marriage of Cellar Master Horacio Enriquez to longtime girlfriend Concepcion Herrera. They wed in December in their hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico. We welcome Concepcion into the Pepper Bridge Winery family.

What Makes Wine Fine?

A question of quality

Quality is about doing things right the first time, about not cutting corners. Often it is easier to recognize quality than to define it, especially in regard to wine. At Pepper Bridge Winery, we pride ourselves on making superior-quality wine. But what exactly does that mean? For us, it means having both style and substance. In order to create complex, elegant wines, we are painstakingly careful and thoughtful throughout the wine-growing and winemaking process.

Underneath the photo below, Wine Grower Norm McKibben and Winemaker Jean-François Pellet discuss some of the factors that contribute to the quality of our wine.

Wine Grower Norm McKibben (left) and Winemaker Jean-François Pellet enjoy a glass of our 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. This is our sixth release. Thank you for your continued support of our winery!

Quality in the vineyards

Norm: I often say that 80 percent of a good wine is made in the vineyard. But that also can mean that 80 percent of a bad wine is made in the vineyard. It all depends on where you choose to plant (terroir) and how you plan and manage your vineyards and harvest. It is also important to plant grapes that are well suited to the terroir. We have planted experimental plots of different varietals and clones in our Walla Walla Valley estate vineyards to see which vines show the best varietal quality. At Pepper Bridge Winery, we focus on two varietals that are perfect for our growing region: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In our vineyards, these two varietals produce well-balanced, ripe flavors complemented by appropriate acid levels.

Proper pruning is also important in terms of canopy management and crop control. Our goal in canopy management is to get enough direct sunlight to ripen the grapes evenly without sunburn, while still having long enough shoots to generate the leaf surface needed for timely ripening. Each year, we experiment with crop size to determine the optimal crop load to balance the vine and produce the highest-quality fruit. Because of Mother Nature, this varies from year to year.

We winter prune the vines to reduce significantly the amount of clusters that flower in the spring. After the fruit sets, we count the number of clusters on each vine and make a thinning pass to bring the number of remaining clusters down close to our goal. We make another thinning pass as the grapes are going through veraison (developing sugar content and changing color) to drop the slower-ripening clusters. This type of pruning allows the vines to focus their energy on a smaller quantity of fruit and makes it more likely that all grapes in the block will ripen at the same time. Although our vines are willing to produce ten or more tons of grapes per acre, only about 2 1?2 to 3 tons per acre make it to the crush pad at Pepper Bridge Winery. The grapes that make the cut are fully and evenly ripened with concentrated flavors.

Jean-François: Quality in the vineyard means understanding the individual characteristics of your vineyard blocks and making appropriate farming choices. We believe our grapes are higher quality because of the way we farm. We are devoted to creating a diverse ecosystem in our vineyards, which allows us to keep our vines healthy while reducing dependence on synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Healthier vines produce more potent, expressive grapes.

We are also in a very good position because our vineyards (Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills) are estate vineyards, meaning we have full control of them. Vineyards require constant tending and timing is essential. For instance, when our grapes are ready to harvest, we can send our crews out immediately. This is important because I look for a very precise balance of sugar and acid when I make my wine, and these levels tend to fluctuate during the growing season. If you have to wait a day, you may be working with completely different grapes than what you tasted the day before. 

We started a database several years ago to track variables that impact the ultimate quality of our grapes. Each year, we record data on each of our vineyard blocks. We track canopy management, soil amendment and berry weight, among many other items. We are building this knowledge base so we can make farming decisions that will improve the quality of our grapes. As the vineyards grow older, and I get to know them even better, the quality of our wines will only increase. 

At harvest, we place a huge emphasis on handling the grapes as gently as possible. Clusters are hand harvested to ensure the berries stay intact and then are hand sorted to remove damaged berries and bitter stems and leaves. This attention to detail carries through into the winery, which we will talk about in the next section. The important thing to remember is that all of these elements are like pieces of a puzzle. Each piece is necessary to understand the full picture. Our commitment to quality is seamless, and we believe it shows when you taste our wine.

Quality in the Winery

Norm: When my partners and I designed Pepper Bridge Winery, we were determined to create a world-class facility. Many wineries make a good wine, but it is quite difficult to make a superior wine. There are so many variables that can deteriorate the quality of your wine, no matter how good the grapes are. We sought to control all possible variables. This included having enough tanks, making the winery a gravity-flow facility, choosing the appropriate barrels and having patience. 

Having enough tanks ensures that we won't have grapes sitting around in picking bins continuing to ripen as they await space. Having a gravity-flow facility reduces the introduction of bitter tannins into the wine. Having the appropriate type of barrels allows us to add style and structure to our wine. And lastly, having patience is invaluable. 

Of course, everyone says "no wine before its time." However, we take this rhyme very seriously. We age our wine in barrels for a long time (about 18 months for Merlot and 22 months for Cabernet Sauvignon) and at least eight months in bottles after that. The time in barrels gives the wine ample opportunity to develop its personality and gives us better options when it comes to making a final blend of wine from the different vineyard blocks. The time in bottles lets the wine fully recover from bottle shock. 

All of these details add up quickly in terms of quality and the ultimate outcome of your wine. Winemaking is a science and an art, and we pay close attention to both aspects.

Jean-François: Quality comes from knowing your grapes, your blocks, your vineyard and your barrels. All of our efforts in the vineyard carry through to the winery. The wines made from different vineyard blocks are segregated until blending time, when I choose which barrels make the cut and which do not. As in the vineyard, we continue to babysit these individual blocks and monitor their progress. The different blocks show unique characteristics that often change as they mature, so it would be a mistake to mix them all together early on. By letting the wine mature in this fashion, I keep an array of options open. 

My options are further expanded by our complex barreling program. We use very tight-grained, high-quality French oak barrels because this type of barrel does not impart strong oak flavors on the wine. The wine really becomes married with the oak. However, even though I use exclusively French oak, these barrels are not all alike. We use seven coopers, all of whom produce slightly different barrels. Understanding how these different barrels affect your wine is essential. I use different types of barrels to build the approach, middle and finish on the wine. Each year, I track the barrels we use very intensely to find which types of barrels to work with in the next vintage. I monitor them with a database, much like I do with my grapes in the vineyard. Every vintage I learn more about how different types of barrels complement different types of grapes. You never stop learning, which is one of the things that makes winemaking such an exciting vocation. 

Blending is when the art of winemaking really comes into play, and it is my favorite part of winemaking. It is my opportunity to put my signature on the wine. Not only am I choosing between different blocks and barrels, I am also determining what percentages of different types of wines will make the final blend. I often use a touch of Merlot in my Cabernet Sauvignon and a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon in my Merlot. I'm also growing quite fond of adding small amounts other Bordeaux varietals, such as Malbec (2001-2003 vintages), Cab Franc (2004 vintage) Petit Verdot (2005 vintage). Using these additional grapes helps me add layers to the wine, make it more interesting.

At Pepper Bridge Winery, we pay attention to details and use all available tools. Some people close to me say this attention to detail is maddening. However, to ensure quality, you can't ignore any of the necessary building blocks. Everything is interdependent. It's like the alphabet. You can't take out five letters and expect to understand a language.

It is my job as a winemaker to capitalize upon what the vineyard provides me and to maximize the quality of the wine. My goal is to make wines with the perfect amount of complexity, softness, color and body. Our style is and will remain very traditional: Our wines will continue to be consistent from year to year, while still allowing the nuances of each vintage to shine through. I will continue to challenge myself, and I am confident that the quality of our wines will continue to increase every year as our vineyards grow older and I grow wiser!

Pepper Bridge Winery's 2002 Vintage

You, our valued friends and customers, have been telling us for months how much you love our 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon. Now, the word is finally out! Wine and Spirits magazine just gave the vintage a score of 94 points and described it as follows:
"Jean-François' Pellet's graceful 2002 Cabernet is like a piece of classical sculpture in its symmetry. Lean and sinewy at first, the plum and black cherry aromas are held in check by a beguiling soil and cedar scent. With a little time, the aromas integrate, broaden and allow the fruit to come center stage, grounded by gentle tannins and a pulse-quickening acidity." We still have this exciting wine available through our tasting room. To order, contact us at 509-525-6502 or visit our online wine store.

Bridge Club Events: Bridge Club Day

It's that time of year again... Bridge Club members, are you ready to drink some fantastic wine and play some Petanque? How could you resist a sport that doesn't require you to put your wine glass down? Come join us at the winery on Friday, May 5 for our third annual Bridge Club Day and Petanque Tournament.

In May, Bridge Club members flocked to the winery to compete in our second annual Pentanque Tournament. This tournament is a key part of our Bridge Club Day activities and provides opportunities for both the casual and serious competitor to play. Above, Tasting Room Manager Lisa Schmidt (left) shares a laugh with winners Peggy and Mike "Trouble" Sundine. 

If you would like more information about this event or about the Bridge Club (our private wine club), please contact Lisa Schmidt at 509-525-6502 or There is no cost to join the Bridge Club, and membership entitles you to a 20% discount on current vintages, including large-format bottles. In addition, members receive wines not available to the general public and invitations to exclusive events, such as the Holiday Hors d'Oeuvres and the annual Bridge Club Day and Petanque Tournament.