On a recent journey to Washington State wine county, I discovered two outstanding Tri-City wineries Muret-Gaston and Terra Blanca. I learned the language of wine by tasting the wines at both vineyards. These two outstanding wineries each have a similar wine experience but both do it in their own way.
One of the most enjoyable things about attending a Tbex conference, wherever it may be, is the tours of the area and the attendees’ experience before and after the conference. During the gathering in Kennewick, Washington, many tours featured wine, one of the region’s mainstays. Tri-Cities is surrounded by some of the most fertile wine-growing acreages in the county, the region produces outstanding wines in Washington State. If you go, Tri-Cities is about a three and half hour drive from Seattle or Portland. Amtrak’s Empire Builder is also a good option for travel to the area.
Starting your day with Cabernet at Muret-Gaston Winery
TC Black with owner David McClain at the wheel provided transportation to Muret-Gaston winery just off exit 69 in Benton City, WA. During the half-hour ride from the Tri-Cities Conference Center, Amy Johnson, co-owner of Muret-Gaston, was our guide. She related some of the area’s history and pointed out landmarks as we traveled the north on Interstate 82.
Muret-Gaston is a family-run enterprise with four employees and a dose of good humor. Amy’s husband, Kyle, is the winemaker. The Muret-Gaston label combines both Amy’s and Kyles’ mother’s, maiden names in a tribute to their mothers.
We toured the facility, consisting of the pressing room/tasting area, an event room/secondary fermentation area, and the barrel room. We were treated to a barrel tasting, not something everyone gets to do. The Muret-Gaston is open year round, except for Mondays and the major holidays.
The seated tasting has become their impressive experience. It has become a big hit because you can engage more with the tasting. Visitors can sit in the production area surrounded by machines and tanks or enjoy sitting outside.
Our red flight consisted of:
- 2021 Purple Star Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted in the barrel room). It will probably be bottled in 2023
- 2016 Purple Star Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2017 Purple Vine Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2016 Muret-Gaston Cabernet Sauvignon
Flights range from $25-$45, depending on the wine selection
The white flight consisted of:
- 2021 Muret-Gaston Picpoul, a popular pick
- 2020 Muret-Gaston Chardonnay made with Red Mountain grapes and fermented in concrete
- 2021 Purple Star Sauvignon Blanc, a fruit drive Washington style wine
- 2021 Purple Star Rose, from the micro vineyard in front of the property, they pick those grapes by hand.
The Muret-Gaston labels carry a higher price point of around $80. Purple Star starts at about $20.
When asked about what makes a good tasting, Amy said, “with wine, you have to be an opportunist, either drink or dump it.” Her philosophy about what makes a good wine: “if you want to pick the glass back up.”
At the entrance to the winery is a small area of grape vines. These are the vines that produce Purple Star Rose. While not a large area, it still takes a good deal of time to hand pick the grapes that become the tasty Rose.
Amy and Kyle’s daughter drew the label at the age of four. They tweaked it a bit, but the original drawing is at its heart. The label can confuse consumers because Purple Star labels all have a similar look, but each style of wine is just a bit different. That way, the label stands out in the vast Washington State selection in the store.
When asked if they were concerned with the saturation of wineries in Washington, Kyle said no because they believe that a balance will be found in time. In the 1980s, there were only five bonded wineries in Washington State; now, there are 1200. Most wineries now follow a direct-to-consumer model for sales.
Local food truck Fastandcurryous catered our group a tasty lunch after our tasting. David and Kavita founded the truck in 2017. They don’t have a lot of competition serving vegan Indian cuisine. Several selections were available: a Tikka Taco with Lamb, Shrimp and Asparagus curry, Chicken Tikka Marsala, Cilantro chutney, and Tamarind chutney with Nan and waffle. Each dish was simply delicious. Fastandcurryous will be found most days, serving dishes to hungry guests at a selection of breweries and wineries in the local area.
A visit to Muret Gaston is a fun wine-tasting adventure. it’s a delightful way to spend an afternoon learning about the features of each of their wines.
Massive doors open into its charming tasting room. Inside, our group met Keith Pilgrim, owner and winemaker. Keith, a trained geologist, had several careers before he dove into the wine business in 1993 when he and his wife, ReNae brought the property for what would become Terra Blanca. Thirty years on, they have a magnificent winery, producing some of the best wine Red Mountain offers. The stunning views make it a sought after wedding venue. The tasting room is open 362 days of the year. There is no more standing at the bar and tasting.
Art and Science
We toured a large portion of the one hundred thousand square foot, mostly underground facility, from the grapes in the fields to the bottling room. We learned winemaking is a physical business. During harvest time, usually between August and September, they run a 24/7 operation. There is a finite time to get the grapes to begin their journey from the stem to the bottle.
Winemaking is a combination of art and science. Keith said as we walked, “his education at UC Davis didn’t teach him how to make a great bottle of wine; it taught him how to not make a bad bottle of wine.” He described the process as “letting Mother Nature do her thing but in a monitored state.” He continued, “if they saw something happening in the tank or barrel they didn’t like, they could correct it before it became a problem.”
The rows of stainless steel tanks are quiet now, but at harvest time, the open tanks have to be punched daily, meaning that the skins, seeds, and berries that form at the top of the tank will need to be punched down into the tank, so the fermentation process continues. That is a job that will build your upper body strength quickly.
Wine Caves and Barrels
More grand doors guard the caves. They weigh some twenty thousand pounds. Behind these doors sit the heart and soul of Terra Blanca. French oak barrels line the caves and contain Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet, to name a few. The barrels are built to Keith’s specification for a particular block of grapes.
Paired Tasting, learning the language of wine
A paired tasting of six of the winery’s finest vintages awaited our group. Executive Chef Jim Berg created a delightful food pairing that showed off the flavors of each wine. Terra Blanca hopes to begin food paired seated tastings in late May.
- 2020 Signature Series Albarino
Smoked salmon on pita (the wine loves seafood)
- 2017 Signature Series Merlot
Wisconsin parmesan cheese
- 2017 Signature Series Cabernet Sauvignon
Chocolate truffle (a classic combination)
- 2017 Signature Series Titan
Duck Confit, a savory bite
- 2018 Onyx
- 2017 Signature Series Block 8 Syrah
Chef Berg served a delicious salmon and asparagus meal for lunch, followed by sinful chocolate cake. They have a full service restaurant that serves lunch, Friday-Sunday. They also hold many events throughout the year.
One positive of the epidemic was their creation of virtual tastings. The tastings have taken on a life of their own. The winery ship a case of the wines selected for the tasting to those participating guests. Everyone gets together on zoom to experience the tasting. Daryl Baker is the master of the zoom tastings on Friday afternoons. Some participants meet up to do the tastings together; some cook but all share the experience.
Keith summed up what he does for a living. “I make a beverage that brings people together.” He went on to say, “if you can get the cork out of the bottle, you can decide if you like it or not, it’s that simple. If you want to know more, there is a lifetime of learning out there.”
Are you looking for another wine region to explore? Then make sure to explore the wineries of Washington State. If you find a bottle or case that you love, here’s a tip, wines fly free on Alaska Airlines from their thirty-two wine destinations.
Looking for more information on another wine region to explore, you might consider Texas. Read my article about wine in Fredericksburg.