John Freeman loves to ferment stuff, and he caught the bug at an early age. “My friends and I would ferment apple juice by adding extra sugar and baker’s yeast from the pantry,” says Freeman of his younger years, now vice president of winemaking at Waterbrook Winery in Walla Walla, Washington. “It was really cool to see these ferments and to sneak a taste when they finished.”

His early love of fermentation turned into a career when he started working at Mount Veeder Winery in Napa Valley when he was 20. “I learned quickly that you get free wine when working at a winery so that was some serious motivation,” he laughs, adding he honed his craft later working at a custom crush facility in Napa. “That job cemented my commitment to be a winemaker and I still use some lessons I learned back then to this day.”

After joining Waterbrook in 2003, Freeman quickly climbed the ladder to lead winemaker within two years and since then, he has had more than 80 “100 Best Buy” and 90+ scoring wines under his belt. With harvest now in full swing, he talks the 2018 vintage, the winery’s support of the Pacific Northwest Salmon Center and his favorite pairings.

1) With harvest season upon us, how are the grapes looking for the 2018 vintage? Is there any particular variety standing out this year?

So far this is a great year for grapes. There is a natural, higher-than-normal TA [titratable acidity] and lower than normal pH so grapes are easy to work with. Standouts have been our aromatic whites; Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc are particularly special this year. The first few lots of Merlot brought in are outstanding.

2) Can you share the inspiration for Al’s Run and Waterbrook’s support of the Pacific Northwest Salmon Center?

Our owner met the artist, Al Adams, who carved the wooden salmon on display here [at the Walla Walla tasting room] and both of them being avid fishermen in the Northwest got to talking about the salmon runs. One thing lead to another and Al graciously agreed to display his artwork at our tasting room. Part of the proceeds for Al’s Run wines are donated to Pacific Northwest Salmon Center to honor Al’s vision of improving the population of salmon for future generations to enjoy as he did

3) Do you have a favorite wine pairing? Are there any local products you like to pair with your wine?

Wow, I guess I have lots of favorite wines but this time of year I break out the crockpot, dust it off, fill it up and come home to a great hot meal. I do a lot of beef stews and really enjoy [our] red blends like Mélange Noir or Tribute Red. I think red blends are very complementary with many different types of food and can be relied on to be food-friendly.

4) The crush can be a pretty stressful time of year, what is your favorite libation to unwind with?

I am a sucker for a Manhattan. I love to try get a good Manhattan when I’m out at a bar or restaurant lounge. I admittedly do not make them at home so it’s a treat when I get to have one.