Reds dominate at Zerba Cellars, NW winery of year

Milton-Freewater: All of this Oregon vineyard's offerings rise to the top - but don't look for pinot

March 23, 2011 

A question we are regularly asked is, "What is the best winery?" And this time of year, we can answer that definitely.

Wine Press Northwest has just published its spring issue, in which we feature our annual wineries of the year. This year, our Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year is Zerba Cellars in Milton-Freewater, Ore.

How do we come to such a conclusion? How do we sort out the finest amid more than 1,200 wineries in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho? This year, it 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.

Since releasing its inaugural 2002 vintage, Zerba has proven to be a creator of remarkable wines, first with Cecil Zerba as grower, winemaker, salesman, carpenter and chief bottle washer and then with the arrival of Nierman in 2007. Zerba’s wines – in particular its reds – have shown a remarkable ability to rise to the top in nearly every one of our blind judgings, as well as other professional wine competitions. And last year, Zerba added two satellite tasting rooms in Washington and Oregon as a way to reach out directly to consumers.

And to think the Zerbas wondered if the wine business was going to be worth the effort.

Cecil Zerba’s ancestral roots in the Walla Walla Valley stretch back to before the Civil War. Soon after he and Marilyn married in the 1980s, they started a plant nursery and produce business. It became wildly successful – so much so that they got out of it because it was too much work. In 2000, they planted wine grapes on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley and launched their winery two years later. In January 2004, a freeze knocked down most of the vines in the valley, including the Zerbas’, forcing them to stop construction on their winery and buy grapes from other sources.

“It all went back to being about the vineyard and the wine,” said Cecil Zerba. “I didn’t want to borrow any more money.”

But they persevered, expanding their vineyards to 76 acres and production to 7,500 cases. When Nierman arrived in 2007, the Wenatchee native brought expertise from a decade of making wine in California and Washington. His first vintage for Zerba was spectacular, with three 2007 reds earning Platinum awards last year in Wine Press Northwest’s best-of-the-best competition. Most of the grapes come from the estate vineyards, which Cecil Zerba tends.

For a few years, Zerba was the only Walla Walla Valley winery in Oregon, and the winery was caught in a bit of a vortex because it didn’t exactly fit in with the Washington wine industry (because it was in Oregon) or the Oregon wine industry (which focuses on its wine regions along the Interstate 5 corridor). To solve that and market directly to consumers during the recession, Zerba opened tasting rooms in the Puget Sound area (Woodinville) and Willamette Valley (Dundee). Both tasting rooms, which opened last year, have been highly successful, particularly in reaching Zerba’s growing wine club members, who now number more than 700. Just as importantly, the additional locations provide Zerba access to the two large population centers in Seattle and Portland. The Woodinville location is just up the street from Chateau Ste. Michelle, while the Dundee tasting room is right on Highway 99 West, a stretch of road through Oregon’s Yamhill County that is at a perpetual standstill.

“We weren’t sure how the pinot guys were going to feel about us coming in there,” Zerba said. “But they are great about sending people our way.”

One of the few wines Zerba doesn’t make is pinot noir, and he has no inclination to start.

“We could put up a sign that says, ‘Everything but pinot,’ ” he said with a chuckle.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman are the editors of Wine Press Northwest magazine. For more information, go to

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