it’s time to take the handcuffs off merlot!

Monday, December 12, 2011

As I wrote in this week’s Seattle Times Wine Adviser column, merlot has received little or no respect as a wine category in recent years. Yet despite its dramatic fall from favor following the release of the film ‘Sideways’, it has remained among the leaders in terms of plantings and production. It remains the number three most planted grape (tied with zinfandel) in California, behind cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. In fact, there is more merlot acreage in California than all the wine grape acreage in Washington combined.

Yet California winemakers can’t seem to find a handle on what merlot is, or even what it should taste like, unless it is treated (and priced) like the very best cabernet sauvignon. In lineup after lineup of widely-available, under $10 California wine brands, the merlot is predictably the worst of the reds. The zinfandels and cabernets are always better – always. And generally, if the wines are line priced, as most of these corporate brands are, the reds will all cost about the same – at most a buck or so apart. In other words, you don’t pay a premium for better quality.

In Washington, on the other hand, it is really not that difficult to find a merlot priced at $6 or $8 that is real wine, rather than just watery plonk. I try to avoid generalizations (honest, I do!) but this is one you can take to the bank. Washington merlots are the best, in every price range, in the country, in the hemisphere, and in the entire New World.

Washington state has had outstanding varietal merlots for decades. Among the first to excel with the grape were Leonetti Cellar, L’Ecole, Hogue Cellars, and Waterbrook. The ranks of great merlot producers expanded throughout the 1990s, with numerous successes from Andrew Will, Canoe Ridge, Columbia Crest, Quilceda Creek and Northstar (founded specifically as a merlot specialist). Since that time the number of truly world-class Washington merlots has grown exponentially.

Which has led me to ask, why does Washington merlot taste like real wine, when only the priciest bottles from elsewhere can ever reach the same heights? How is it that merlot grapes grown in the Columbia basin, the Yakima valley, the Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain, Walla Walla and elsewhere, can produce these muscular, powerful, supple, complex and riveting red wines?

L’Ecole’s Marty Clubb memorably once opined that “the key to Washington doing merlot right is that it’s the thinner skin varietal, and like sémillon it tends to plump up with rain at harvest. We don’t have that problem. In my mind that is a key reason why we can make such extracted, aromatic, spicy, nicely balanced merlots. We control the water.”

Add that to the long list of other factors that make Washington merlots unique – the desert climate, the huge diurnal temperature swings, the relentless wind that toughens grape skins and amplifies tannins, the basalt-rich soils – and you start to see that it is no one thing, but all these things together, that makes these wines special.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve tried a Washington merlot, now’s the time. Among the best buys are the 2008 Waterbrook ($11), the 2009 and 2010 StoneCap ($8), the 2008 Washington Hills ($9), and the 2008 Hogue ($8).

At the higher end of the price scale are these recent releases, in order of preference (all are excellent): the 2007 Ch. Ste. Michelle ‘Cold Creek Vineyard’ ($28), the 2009 Leonetti Cellar ($70), the 2009 Sineann ‘Champoux Vineyard’ ($35), the 2007 Tulpen Cellars ($28), the 2008 Seven Hills ‘Seven Hills Vineyard’ ($28), the 2008 L’Ecole ‘Seven Hills Vineyard’ ($37), the 2008 Northstar ‘Walla Walla Valley’ ($50), the 2008 J.Bookwalter ‘Foreshadow’ ($40), the 2008 Obelisco Estate ($30), the 2008 Alexandria Nicole ($24), the 2007 Ch. Ste. Michelle Ethos Reserve ($31), the 2008 Market Vineyards ‘Benchmark’ ($35), the 2008 L’Ecole ‘Columbia Valley’ ($25), the 2008 Tamarack Cellars ($28), the 2006 Basalt Cellars ($24), the 2008 Fidélitas ($45), the 2007 Ch. Ste. Michelle ‘Canoe Ridge Estate’ ($22), the 2009 Arbor Crest ‘Four Vineyards’ ($16), the 2008 Long Shadows ‘Pedestal’ ($55), the 2008 Va Piano ($48), the 2008 Northstar ‘Columbia Valley’ ($40) – all these wines rate 91 points or higher – and another 16 (my fingers are tired!) that hit the 90 point mark.

All these wines were reviewed in the past year, and all reviews are published in full on the Wine Enthusiast database. Note that the prices, even for the high scoring wines, range between a low of $16 and a high of $70. I doubt you can match the price and quality anywhere in the world. So Bravo Washington merlot!


Troy said...

Funny you should mention Merlot today. Last night I had a huge craving for Merlot, so I went to the cellar, grabbed a Merlot which I had tasted once, bought and forgot about in my cellar. It was the 2005 Portait Cellars Merlot (Red Mountain). It was absolutely fantastic! It had everything that I love about Merlot. Ironically, after my wife found out we were drinking Merlot with dinner, she decided our Sunday night movie would be "Sideways". Go figure.
I totally agree with you that Washington makes the best new world Merlot out there. I've tried Merlot from California, Oregon, even Argentina and Australia, but nothing I've found can hold a candle to the quality of the Washington Merlots, at any price level.

James Stripes said...

Bravo Paul for highlighting these quality wines. Thanks for the shopping list.

As long as I've been paying attention to the wine I drink, Washington Merlot has been my "go to" wine. I suspect this preference stems from a dinner at L'Ecole No. 41 that was part of a scholarly conference in 1989 where I was offered a choice of red or white wine, and was given my introduction to those marvelous stuffed grape leaves appetizers. I don't remember the dinner, but recall liking the wine and buying a lot of Washington Merlot over the next ten years, while cultivating more of an appreciation of bourbon than of fine wines.

The past year or so, I have begun tasting wines. Rather than simply downing it like water, I am sniffing, swirling, sipping, and occasionally spitting (usually to maintain sobriety). My pilgrimage into wine appreciation included an early summer trip to Walla Walla, where we tasted at Waterbrook, L'Ecole No. 41, and Woodward Canyon. This fall we have been discovering the wineries right here in Spokane. The sale price we found on a case of 2001 Caterina Merlot at the tasting room gave us a supply of very nice wine at its peak. Meanwhile, the most expensive wine at the Fred Meyer a few blocks down the street continues to be 2007 L'Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Merlot (old label). The larger Freddie's a few miles north has a larger selection of wine in the $20-$50 range, including 2008 L'Ecole No. 41 Merlot. I've found that both the 2007 and the 2008 pair quite well with maple chipotle chicken wings (recipe in Food and Wine Annual 2011).

Friday evening, we tasted Whitestone's 2007 and 2008 Merlot. The 2007 is marvelous, and we're cellaring a few bottles of the 2008 because it needs a bit more time.

At a party with coworkers yesterday, 2008 Columbia Crest H3 Merlot was my choice among the wines offered.

Rand Sealey said...

I've always believed Washington Merlot deserves a lot more respect than it gets. Brian Rudin and I put together a Merlot tasting a few months ago. An expensive Napa Valley bottling lacked complexity. The top two Washington Merlots outshone a Vieux Chateau Certan from Pomerol.

Paul, your excellent list of is one that should get more people trying world class Washington Merlot. Let's get the Merlot bandwagon rolling!

Catie said...

Thanks Paul. Good stuff. I love that little grape from Washington State and even better, merlot grown in Walla Walla. It is so distinctive.

Finally someone said it, "California winemakers can’t seem to find a handle on what merlot is ..." also, may I say it has been my experience that many a California wine drinker can't either.

To back up my comment, I can share my personal experiences of this grape regarding the California wine drinker. For over 12 years I've been a member of one of the first "virtual" communities, The Well. It's based out of the bay area, San Francisco. Started by the Whole Earth Review and now run by So, my point is the majority of the members are well-traveled and very savvy group of journalists, editors, authors and musicians (forgive my name dropping:David Crosby is one of the original members).

The Well is a private subscription only forum. Often good info about wine, however when discussing the virtues of merlot in the wine conferences (forums) I was alone - surprisingly. I was seriously scoffed at and made fun of because I was drinking merlot. Even ridiculed and asked "if I was pairing Jello and Tater Tots with my merlot." What was I doing drinking a "blending" grape? "Where is this Walla Walla and do they make wine out of Concords?" They would go out of their way to make merlot equivalent to boxed white zin.

Many a California wine lover from that specific population just did not get it. However, they also were quick to scoff at the production of any wine from Washington state, as well. Frankly, they didn't see out of the realm of Napa and a few old world wines.

A few years later I noticed they finally stopped making fun of my love for merlot when the SF Chron started compiling Washington merlot on some of their "Best" lists and reviewing WA merlot. And now, when I go back to visit the conferences, there are even some California members who are imbiding in this Washington grape - and even shockingly applause for Columbia Crest. Finally! Many have seen the Washington merlot light!

Also, thanks for pointing out that one can't match the price and quality anywhere in the world. Washington has some beautiful high-end merlot, but some of those $8 bottles can be tasty, too.

See - once in awhile, I can agree with you.

Anonymous said...

Stopped into Lost River's Pike Place Market tasting room a couple days ago. Have to admit I liked their merlot, even complimented them on it. But as a rule, I prefer the merlots from St. Emilion.

Rand Sealey said...

Anonymous - St. Emilion is mainly Cabernet Franc, not Merlot. In putting together our Merlot tasting, Brian and I searched for Merlot dominated St. Emilion and found none that were over 50% Merlot. We ended up putting in a Pomerol which is, indeed, predominately Merlot.

Anonymous said...

Plenty of Merlot in St Emilion! It is planted 50 pct. to Merlot. For ex. Ch. Barde Haut is 90 pct. and Ch. Beau-Sejour Becot 2009 is 70 pct. - love 'em! Washington should graft some of the Cabernet Sauvignon that shows green to Merlot - put it in blends until labels with Merlot sell again.

Chris Wallace said...

Paul - thanks for the interesting and informative article. I particularly liked your quote from Marty Clubb on howcome WA has uniquely been able to produce quality North American Merlot. I'd also point out that while Merlot may be known for its softer more approachable profile (than say Cabernet Sauvignon) what does not seem to be known is that the better Merlots from WA are ageworthy as well. We recently had a 2001 Woodward Canyon Merlot that had gained considerable complexity and still possessed plenty of vibrant fruit, and was delicious.

VancDarkstar said...

Paul, I very much agree with your statements about Merlot being 'a real wine' in Washington. Whereas I find California Merlot's to be a bit wimpy for my tastes, Washington Merlot's tend to be big, bold and complex. Ironically, I find the opposite to be true of Cabernet.
But here we are again with Washington needing to separate its product from California so that consumers will take notice. Will Washington ever be able to put its stamp on a varietal in order to distinguish itself? Maybe we do to many things well to make one thing stand out as great!

PaulG said...

Vanc, you said it yourself, Washington has put its stamp on Merlot. I would also suggest that Washington Syrahs and Washington Rieslings are not only exceptionally good, but also (at best) bear the stamp of unique terroir. Too soon to tell about others, but I think eventually as vineyard sites sort themselves out and vines age, there will be more.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Paul for giving props to a chronically under-appreciated varietal. Washington merlot was the wine that got me interested in wine about a dozen years ago and, thusly, led to my involvement in the wine industry. I still prefer Washington merlot over cab sauv (with syrah right behind merlot). I don't quite get our obsession with cabernet sauvignon. I might add that riesling is my favorite varietal no matter where it comes from. The best merlot I've tasted this year is the 2008 Olsen Estates Merlot.

Rand Sealey said...

To anonymous, poster on 12/12: You are right, there are plenty of predominately Merlot St. Emilions. But why are they so special? Your posts seem rather dismissive of Washington Merlot. Like, why do you suggest grafting Merlot on to Cabernet to make blends until "labels with Merlot sell again."

Jeff G said...


Keep up the Merlove!

I would take your question of "why does Washington Merlot taste like real wine?" in a slightly different direction: Why is Washington continuing to put Merlot in the back seat while it takes Cab Sav to the prom??? Especially since WA Merlot is what put WA on the wine world map... It just seems like everyone is chasing the latest California cult cab, while failing to realize Merlot is Washington's cult wine. I think there's a reason why cab in CA is king and why Merlot is mediocre at best... and conversly why Merlot is generally better in WA than cab. Climate rules all. Yet time and time again WA Merlot plays second fiddle to WA cab.

I'll be honest, I think WA cab has too much acidity compared to CA cab because, with few exceptions, I think its a challenge to get cab ripe enough due to its thick skin. (CA is generally hotter compared to WA). But Merlot and its thinner skin, coupled with the extra hour plus of gentle sun WA gets in the summer, plus being on the same parallelle with Bordeaux.... its simply the perfect recipe for marvelous Merlot! (Except France doesn't have our desert climates - even better!)

At the end of the day, I guess I'm glad most people want to drink CA cab... forgive me for being selfish but I'm in no hurry to pay CA cult cab prices for WA Merlot...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, although I personally would prefer for WA merlot to continue flying under the radar. WA often does merlot really well, and at reasonable alcohol levels, and also at a reasonable price, for now.

But what about Barnard Griffin? I recently opened a 2003 merlot, basic bottling, and--wow, I was shocked. Well preserved, and unbelievably complex.

I'm afraid if too much attention gets paid to WA merlot, it will become super merlot, with high alcohol levels, high prices, and a smashmouth aesthetic, like so much WA cab and syrah. Can't we leave it alone?

(And there's no sense in smashing CA merlot, especially if you've recently tasted a Duckhorn. If only they could bring it in at 13.5!)

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