It's easy to see that David "Merf" Merfeld is one of those guys who never does anything half-assed. From his first car accident at the tender age of 8, Merf has been barreling his way through life, following a fascination with fermentation. A former brewer turned master of Merlot, Merf heads the team at Northstar winery in its goal to create world-class Merlot from Washington's world-class fruit. So what made him trade the keg for the barrel?
That's "Mister" Merlot to you
What did you want to be as a young 'un growing up in Iowa?
I wanted to be away from the farm, I know that! Nothing against farming, but I just knew that wasn't the place for me. So I'll say an astronaut. I'm still all science geeky about space and things like that. When I was young I followed the Viking and all the martian stuff and just recently I paid attention to the Curiosity landing on Mars. I was in San Francisco when it landed and they had one of the replica rovers there so we went to see it. The thing was the size of our car! So, I've always been fascinated with that but had I ever tried to pursue it I probably would have been kicked out of the program but...being an astronaut has always fascinated me.
What was your farm in Iowa like?
In Iowa we grew grain and livestock. We raised corn and soybeans and we also had hogs and dairy cattle until I was 12. And chickens! We were really self-sufficient, never went hungry and the freezer was always full. It took me until about three or four years ago to eat sweet corn again. I love it but we ate it year 'round and it was too much of a good thing. It was good eating but a lot of work.
Did you have one of those farm kid driver's licenses?
I had my first car accident when I was 8. I was driving a '68 Ford pickup truck -- manual so I could barely reach the pedals -- and I just kind of panicked when I was coming in to the yard and hit one of the neighbor's cars. But yeah, you start driving at a very young age because you're driving tractors and cars in the farm. By school age, like 13-14, you could get a school permit. I would drive to school because I needed to get home for work and stuff.
Did you have different school hours during harvest?
Not really. Harvest was part of needing a car but the other part was sports too, because you would miss the bus home if you played any after school sports.
How did you end up on the West coast?
Long story short, I moved to Seattle in 1990. I looked up in "Places Rated" almanac that Seattle was the best place to live that year, and I had a friend that had moved out from Ames ahead of me, so I decided to go. I drove straight out to Seattle, stopped once for a rain storm in North Dakota, met my friend, and went to the Red Door and had a Redhook ESB. Not too many years after that I got into making beer. The beer scene was taking off and I got heavily involved in that and went off to UC Davis for beer school. Dr. Michael Lewis and a couple instructors there branched off and started this American Brewer's Guild in Woodland, CA -- it was similar to what Walla Walla Community College has done with their wine program -- so I went there for about six weeks of intense classwork and then a six week apprenticeship which I did in Denver, CO at Tabernash Brewing Company.
I ended up going back to Seattle and then working at Bert Grant in Yakima, which happened to be owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and that was one of the smartest things I ever did without knowing it. I worked my way up there and when they were getting ready to sell the brewery they asked me if I wanted to make wine. I knew a lot of the winemakers because they'd come to get beer, I knew the winemaker I'd be working for, I knew it was Northstar and I knew it was in Walla Walla. I didn't know much about Walla Walla but all the rest sounded great. 2001 was the first vintage I worked on the wine side and in 2002 my wife Lynn and I moved here.
So you've had your hands in the barrel from almost the beginning?
I'm still here! I moved down here when things were still under construction because I have a background in that, but I was still working with the wine up in Grandview and Mattawa. I started out in the lan and have worked my way up to winemaker over the years.
Was it easy to make the transition from beer to wine?
Yeah, I mean it's fermentation science so there are definitely some similarities. It was almost like going full circle back to farming for me because winemaking is more agricultural based than the beer side -- which is more engineering. Most brewers aren't going out and keeping track of their barley and wheat and how they're doing. In winemaking you're out in the vineyards a lot because the key to great wine is great grapes and great vineyards. The other thing that was great for me, coming from the beer side, is you have to be really, really cautious and aware of sanitation, and wine is more forgiving than beer in that sense, but it was nice to have that background. Any brewer you meet who has gone into wine will be really anal about keeping things clean and sanitary -- this place here is spotless.
Well we've done a little bit of whites and we have five or six different varietals here so it's not like I'm doing just Merlot. But I am "Mr. Merlot" and if you look at any of our wineries, the winemakers end up at the ones that make the wine they like. I like Merlot. In my mind you don't want a guy who loves Syrah making your Merlot. I love Merlot it's what I drink and it's why I'm here. But I also do all the Bordeaux varietals like Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon so I do get to play around a bit.
What's your favorite part of the winemaking process?
Obviously the production and I've always just been fascinated by the process of fermentation. It blows me away that you can put something in a tank and a few weeks later it comes out as something completely different that tastes great, makes you feel good, and is completely enjoyable. It's on a different scale here but when you go past the tanks and see them churning and chugging and the yeast creation...I mean, I understand the science of it but it still blows me away what's taking place! It's amazing that this organism is creating something for us that's safe and preserved. A lot of the reason some of these alcoholic beverages popped up is because they preserved fruit. Back in the beer days, we talked why monks made beer and that's because it was safer to drink than the water. And you had to drink something so...If I didn't have to live on a little water I probably wouldn't drink any either!
Do you geek out on the yeasts?
I used to really geek out on the yeasts when I was at Grants and doing product development. I probably played around with 100 -150 different yeast strains. I was just always the mad scientist doing fermentation after fermentation side by side, in small batches, and doing blind tastings and analysis. There definitely were more differences in the yeast strains with beer than I'm seeing with wine. I play around with some yeast strains here but you don't see as much difference in reds, they are very subtle, in white wine there are huge differences. But we have three or four that I use. I think one of the things that's catching on is going back to the native yeast fermentations and we've played around with that a little too, but the science geek in me is always like, "you need to be a little careful because there's a reason we've developed these strains that work over time that are safe and work well".
So if you use something native you're losing a little of that control?
Yeah, I mean you're taking a risk. We've fermented native here and I'm going to ferment a couple lots, five or six tons this year, native. It's just, for me, I like to be able to monitor things and make sure it's bringing something positive to the product you're making or why do it? You've got to be careful with some of those that can throw out biogenic amines that people are allergic to -- I don't want to ever send anything out that's going to give a person a headache. But basically, there needs to be some science behind it. It's not magic land anymore. We should take advantage of and embrace the knowledge we have. I'm not saying let's forget about the past but there's a reason things have developed to the point they have.
The Premiere! I just had it and it was tasting amazing. That's going to be released in October for our 20 year anniversary of the winery. Ted Baseler and Jed Steele will be coming up and we'll be having a big party for the original stakeholders and members. It's a fun wine, small case production -- I like being able to do that each year and I'm looking forward to trying it 5,10,15, 20, 30 years down the road from now. The hardest part is going to be stashing it away and forgetting about it. So I am going to have to be putting it at different people's houses and telling them not to let me open it.
What else do you spend your time doing?
Golf, going to school, and training for triathlons. I golf as much as I can and I have quite a few winemaker friends I golf with. This is a great pace to do any outdoor activity. I am just getting back into training and plan on doing a couple triathlons next year. My wife Lynn doesn't like me doing the Ironman or half-Ironman's because they take too much time, but I want to do one more of those because I want to do a faster time! So, I am getting ready to start biking, running, and swimming a little through harvest and then come January on I'll start hitting it a little harder so that I am ready by summer.
What do you think of the growth of Washington's wine industry over the past 10 years you've been in it?
I love it. I think it validates our region -- which is inevitable because we're one of the best growing regions in the world. We have nice quality and everybody still gets a long -- we're not strangling each other yet. It's certainly appreciated that restaurants have followed the wine and we certainly now have some restaurants in town that have not helped my waistline at all. When we moved here there were only 30 wineries and now there's something like 150 -- that says something about the region. And, let's be honest, the people that come to make wine have a certain type of personality and style and interests -- and probably we all have big egos -- but it's a fun group to hang out with. We like food, we like wine, and this is one of the best places for both.