FOCUS ON WINE: Great wine and the stories behind them.

By: Doug Cook,


2013 Pepper Bridge Trine

pepper-bridge-winery-trine-nv-labelDoes wine get better the more we understand it? It’s a great topic of conversation for anyone who enjoys wine. Taste is individual, but there’s a fair argument that our favorite wines somehow become even better when we learn that there is more to them than good grapes and a fortunate terroir.

Recently, I was fortunate to return to Walla Walla for a 4-day weekend of wine tasting. (Pace and a designated driver are critical.) No trip to Walla Walla is complete without visiting Pepper Bridge Winery, home of Washington’s 2015 Winemaker of the Year. As we sat on the deck, overlooking acres of vineyards on a spectacular September afternoon, my appreciation for the fine wine in hand was about to be elevated.

Norm McKibben, the youthful 80-year old co-owner of Pepper Bridge, approached and asked if we would like a personal tour of the winemaking facility. Just our group of four guided by the man who has dedicated the latter 25+ years of his life to founding and developing one of my favorite wineries? Of course!

Most everything at Pepper Bridge is done by hand. The grapes are 100% hand-picked. It was the first gravity-flow winery in Washington. From the sorting process to the barrel, the pulp and juice flow down through the hillside facility, avoiding seed-shearing and bitter tannins that can occur with pumps.

There is one fascinating exception to the manual processes at Pepper Bridge, and that is in the sorting process. The grapes at Pepper Bridge were once sorted by several people standing over a conveyor belt picking out grapes that were not of ideal size or color, as well as leaves, stems, etc., cleverly called MOG (material other than grapes). The process was terribly inefficient, slow and inaccurate.

pepperbridge_imageNorm’s award-winning, winemaking co-owner, Jean-Francois Pellet, is a third-generation winemaker who came to Pepper Bridge after developing his talent in Switzerland (his home country), Spain and Napa. A few years ago, Jean-Francois helped develop a machine that uses tiny cameras to scan THOUSANDS OF GRAPES PER SECOND as they drop from the conveyor belt into a collection bin. The cameras instantaneously send a signal to air jets that shoot a precise blast of air, sending any grapes that aren’t perfect into a discard bin.

So, why have this mechanical intervention in the process? The most talented winemakers, like Jean-Francois, consider only the perfect size grapes for making wine, with the ideal ratio of skin to pulp. This sci-fi machine results in wine that is consistently made from “right size” grapes that, after sorting, are about 98% uniform.

The 2013 Pepper Bridge Trine is a perfect representation of the stunning wines of Pepper Bridge. A smooth, Bordeaux-style meritage, the 2013 Trine is 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Cabernet Franc, 15% Merlot, 9% Malbec and 5% Petit Verdot. Expect flavors of ripe, red fruit, plum and savory notes of leather and dried herbs.

Tiny cameras? Jets of air? Maybe you’re thinking this isn’t your grandfather’s red wine. But, it most certainly is a classic Bordeaux, just made better by technology. Like when your grandfather learned to use a cell phone.


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