The power couple of Washington wine
Jessica Munnell and Juan Muñoz-Oca, combined, make more wine than anyone else in the state.
Special to The Seattle Times
WINES TO TRY
Wautoma Wines 2010 El Prat, Columbia Valley, $28. The first release from Wautoma is a stunning blend of cabernet sauvignon and malbec, an alluring red with plush flavors of dark fruit and layers of complexity.
Columbia Crest 2010 H3 Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills, $15. Juan Muñoz-Oca leads the state’s largest winery by crafting high-quality, big-production, value-minded wines. This red is richly structured with bold dark fruit. Perfect for Tuesday-night meals.
Mercer Estates 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, Yakima Valley, $15. This white wine from a cool vintage leads toward aromas and bone-dry flavors of grapefruit and racy lime. Pair this with seafood, especially ceviche.
WINE IS NOT always romantic. Not when you have grapes to harvest at the same time your first-grader needs help with homework and the preschooler needs another wardrobe change.
This is life for Jessica Munnell and Juan Muñoz-Oca, the power couple of the Washington wine industry. Combined, they make more wine than anyone else in the state.
Muñoz-Oca, a native of Argentina, came to Washington in 2001 as an intern for Columbia Crest in Paterson, Benton County. Munnell had recently graduated from Washington State University and was a viticulturist for the company. Soon enough they met, and love followed.
In 2003, Munnell had the itch to switch to winemaking. She spent a season in Australia, and Muñoz-Oca went, too. He rejoined Columbia Crest as a winemaker, and Munnell got on with Snoqualmie Winery in Prosser. She soon moved to Chateau Ste. Michelle as assistant red winemaker, just down the road from Columbia Crest.
In 2006, they married, and their daughter was born after the 2007 harvest. Munnell left Ste. Michelle to stay at home, and their son arrived in 2009. Still feeling the itch to make wine, she launched Wautoma Wines, a boutique winery that released its first bottling this summer to high acclaim. Last spring, Mercer Estates, a 40,000-case winery in Prosser, hired her as head winemaker.
Meanwhile, Muñoz-Oca rose through the ranks at Columbia Crest, being promoted to head winemaker in 2011, where he now oversees production of 2 million cases.
Through the years, the two have learned to balance work and family.
“We spent a few harvests where we didn’t see each other except on Sundays,” Muñoz-Oca says.
These days, it’s much better. They have a full-time nanny, and Munnell’s parents help when needed.
“It takes a village during harvest,” she says. “Thank goodness for iPhones. We live by our calendars.”
Inevitably, dinner discussions turn to vineyards, and pillow talk can drift into questions about malolactic fermentation.
The biggest challenge?
“Making wine as good as hers,” Muñoz-Oca says of his wife. “There is no competition. She has the better palate.”
Munnell says Juan isn’t giving himself enough credit. “Even though Columbia Crest is the giant in the state, all of its wines are amazing.”
While each is gifted at making reds and whites, they’d agree their children are their best, most satisfying product — homework and wardrobe changes included.
Andy Perdue is a wine journalist, author and international judge. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.