Pathbreakers: Alex Golitzin

The Washington icon who established Quilceda Creek

Excerpted from the Dec. 15, 2010, issue

One day in 1974, André Tchelistcheff, at the time the most revered winemaker in California, paid a visit to his nephew, Alex Golitzin. Golitzin, a young chemical engineer, and his wife, Jeannette, had moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Seattle in 1967 so he could work at Scott Paper Co.

“I told him I had to go all the way to Portland, Ore., to buy fine wine,” recalls Golitzin. “The local stores just didn’t have much we liked. He told me I needed to make my own wine, and he would teach me how.”

So Golitzin tried making his first home wine: a Merlot from Otis Vineyard in Yakima Valley. Tchelistcheff stopped by the following year (he consulted at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Wash., from 1967 to 1990). “We tasted the wine and dumped about 90 percent in the planter,” Golitzin says.

Undeterred, he kept trying, and finally got encouragement from Uncle André on a Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1979 Golitzin decided to go commercial. “I wanted to get the hell out of corporate America,” he says. “I wanted something I could do myself. André advised us to do one thing, and do it well, so we stuck with Cabernet.”

Five years later, Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1979, made in Golitzin’s suburban Seattle garage and priced at $10, won the grand prize from the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest. Angelo Gaja was a visiting judge. “That launched us,” Golitzin says. He raised the price to $25, and Quilceda Creek quickly became the fledgling wine region’s iconic Cabernet Sauvignon. On the auction market, it still appreciates faster and to higher levels than any other Washington wine.

It wasn’t until 1992, when his son Paul was old enough to work at the winery part-time, that Golitzin finally left his engineering job. Paul, who became the full-time winemaker in 1998, has had a profound effect on the wines. The early wines were powerful and tannic, with a grip like a lumberjack’s handshake, but they also brimmed with pure, joyful fruit character and impressive length.

Paul has gradually nudged the style closer to Tchelistcheff’s, whose Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernets were elegant, supple and beguiling. To increase the suppleness, Paul shifted vineyard sources, using more grapes from the family’s holdings at Champoux Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills. Red Mountain, notorious for its fierce tannins, once made up 40 percent to 50 percent of the blend. It’s down to 12 now.

“Paul has a fantastic palate,” says Golitzin. “I’m not a great winemaker. I had aspirations and I worked hard, but we were successful in the beginning because the grapes are so darn good here that you could crush them, ferment them, and it would come out pretty good. He took it up to a different level.”

Read the complete “Washington Pathbreakers” article here.