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A view from the top of the hill of one of Woodward Canyon's vineyards. (Image: Frank Guanco)
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Washington is having a Merlot Moment

If you haven’t been paying attention, Merlot is having a moment. That’s right, the varietal that was maligned in the early aughts is roaring back to life (truly, it never went anywhere) and Washington Merlot is at the forefront. Cheers to that.

Last month, I attended the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance’s Celebrate Walla Walla - Merlot. This is their annual event, celebrating the varietals of renown that the Washington wine industry hangs its hat on; Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon (the subject of Celebrate Walla Walla 2019), and Merlot. And this year, Merlot was lauded (and rightly so) at Celebrate. Now is the time to dive in to this delightfully delicious grape and the wines of renown it produces.

In our winemaking corner of the globe, Merlot grows triumphantly with verve and a point of view. This was the rough takeaway from a presentation by Tim Donahue, director of winemaking at College Cellars and instructor of enology at Walla Walla Community College. Based on data and analytics that Donahue and his cohorts discovered, the Merlot grapes grown throughout Walla Walla Valley exhibit similar flavor profiles to the Merlot grown in Napa Valley and France’s famed Right Bank of Bordeaux. Esteemed company for the winegrowers and winemakers of Walla Walla.

As part of Celebrate Walla Walla Merlot, Rex Pickett, author of "Sideways", was the special guest of the event and he was taken by Washington Merlot and appreciated its pound-for-pound strength. Ah, "Sideways". Or more specifically, the "Sideways Effect". After the movie come out in 2004, the lead character Miles uttered a line about Merlot that sent shockwaves through the wine industry.

*Note: The below clip contains profanity*

Merlot felt the brunt of this and sales of the varietal plummeted, while Pinot Noir sales skyrocketed. Global wine sales also rose since the movie. If anything, Pickett could be considered persona non grata in Walla Walla and the area’s proclivity with Merlot, but that wasn’t the cause. Grape growers and winemakers of Walla Walla provided a warm welcome to Pickett as they were proud to show what Washington Merlot can be.

While Merlot got a bad rap in the early aughts with the Sideways Effect, I’d attribute this more to the cheaper bunk wine that didn’t have the craft and care that today’s Merlot exhibits. Those wines from the late-90s and early-00’s were made for mass production and did not exhibit the refinement, elegance, and finesse that proper Merlot should display. If anything, those less than stellar Merlots have gone by the wayside and the cream has steadily risen to the top. Think of "Sideways" from that angle and the Miles character and Merlot start to make sense.

There are wineries throughout Washington that pour a delicious Merlot, utilizing fruit from our vineyards to craft a wine that can convert any Merlot hater. Throughout Walla Walla, there are venerable stalwarts like Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, and Seven Hills that are leaders in Merlot. But it’s not just the old guard that are producing Merlot of note. Figgins, Otis Kenyon, The Walls, and Northstar craft delicious wines with ageability, style, and grace. In fact, one of the events during Celebrate was called Vintage Pour, featuring wines from the 2011 vintage and earlier. Woodward Canyon had a 1999 Columbia Valley Merlot that still exhibited energy and was a highlight of the evening. Sleight of Hand Cellars were pouring their 2007 and 2009 Archimage; they're wines that are often Merlot dominant and both wines were fresh and would be welcome to any wine dinner. These are but a handful of examples of the ageability and longevity of Washington Merlot.

We’re in a golden era for Washington wine. Across the board, amongst all the AVAs, and throughout the state, wines of distinction and notoriety are catching the attention of wine drinkers worldwide. Merlot is a part of this charge and now is the time to reacquaint yourself with this wine and to start stalking up in your cellar.

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