Borne by the land

A Valley family with a long agricultural past makes its mark in today’s wine world.

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MILTON-FREEWATER — Cecil Zerba and wife Marilyn have an urge for growing.

His family has had farming in the Walla Walla Valley in its blood since the 1850s, before the Civil War. For their part, the couple started their Zerba Gardens nursery after they married in 1981 and sold all manner of plants.

About 20 years later came the Valley’s wine boom.

“We knew we were selling the nursery,” Marilyn Zerba said. “Then Cecil put in 14 acres of grapes on Winesap (Road).”

Their initial plan was to sell the grapes to wineries. Then, as long as they had the grapes, they decided they might as well start one of their own. It was launched in 2001, with Zerba Cellars first release in 2002.

“It has just blossomed since then,” she said.

What they’ve got growing now is a reputation for making some of the best wines in the Pacific Northwest, not to mention sales growth and vineyard expansion.

The winemaking began with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah as mainstays. That line up has since expanded to cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec, tempranillo, barbera, sangiovese, nebbiollo, dolcetto, reisling, viognier, roussanne, semillon, granache and various blends — even ports and ice wines.

The winery produced 250 cases its first year and now is up to 7,500 cases. At the outset the Zerbas handled everything, then brought in Doug Nierman as chief vintner in 2007, freeing Cecil to focus on the vineyards. A Wenatchee native who holds a master’s in enology and viticulture from the University of California, Davis, Neirman worked at St. Francis Winery in northern California before moving to Walla Walla and working for Long Shadows and Pepper Bridge wineries.

Zerba Cellars primarily uses grapes from its own vineyards and others in the Walla Walla Valley, with 10 percent sourced from Columbia Valley vineyards. Most wines are priced in the $20- to $60-per-bottle range, with some of its more rare library wines fetching $100 and more.

Innovation and experimentation are part of the winery’s recipe for success.

“What’s dangerous is that Cecil likes to grow things. So then we experiment,” said Mariah Donahue, who manages the wine club and Zerba’s Milton-Freewater tasting room.

Through the years Zerba Cellars also has enjoyed a growing recognition, more recently in the forma of a Platinum Award in Wine Press Northwest’s 2012 Best of Best for its 2008 Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley. The Platinum is Zerba’s 10th, the most given to any winery in the 13 years of the competition, according to www.winepressnw.com .

In 2011 the magazines’s editors, Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman, named Zerba the Winery of the Year among the 1,200 wineries operating in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia.

Singling out Zerba “was easier than it would seem, thanks to the stylistic winemaking of Doug Nierman and the progressive business thinking of owners Cecil and Marilyn Zerba,” the editors wrote.

What does it take to make great wine?

“It takes a passionate winemaker,” said Marilyn Zerba.

And what does a passionate winemaker have to say about that?

“You have to start with good grapes,” said Nierman. “Cecil is in charge of the vineyards.”

That we’re-all-in-this-together vibe extends throughout the business and extends from the Zerbas to their sales staff and field crew.

It carries them through stressful times as well.

“Harvest is stressful,” Donahue said. “It’s chaos, but good chaos. If they have to pick it right then, they go in and hand pick it. Whatever we need to do the crew just knuckles down and does it. This is what winemakers live for; it’s fun and that’s why we do it.”

“It’s a real solid team,” Nierman said. “It’s really a family business ... Everyone here is a key employee. Everyone rotates, everyone wears different hats.”

Assistant winemaker Mike Prout, who is also a woodworker, says having more than one ability also keeps things rolling.

“It helps to have different skills,” he said. “I do furniture. Cecil’s an electrician. It’s really handy.”

The Zerbas also are growing geographically from their original tasting room, a small, distinctive log cabin off Highway 11 north of Milton-Freewater. They now operate tasting rooms in Dundee, Ore, and Woodinville, Wash., both in the more populous sides of their respective states.

“It’s where our wine club members live,” said cellar assistant Kris Romary. “They can pick up wines on the other side of the mountains and not have to worry about the pass or the gorge being closed.”

Future plans include continuing to grow and offer a wide variety of French, Italian and Spanish-style wines and using Prout’s woodworking skills to make wine-barrel furniture.

“The wine barrels are a winery’s greatest cost. The furniture is made out of our retired barrels. It helps recoup the cost,” he said. “... These are functional and durable. They are sturdy and built to last a lifetime.”

Much like Marilyn and Cecil Zerba.

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