“The No. 1 source right now for good American merlot is Washington State.”
— Eric Asimov, New York Times
“There is no argument that Washington state wines have become world-class in a relatively short period of time. Merlot was its first major success … rich, ripe, seductive merlot remains Washington’s signature wine.”
— Linda Murphy, San Francisco Chronicle
“I even agree with the somewhat immodest claim of the state’s wine commission that theirs is ‘a perfect climate’ for wine. Especially merlot.”
— Lettie Teague, Food & Wine
A long growing season with warm daytime and cool nighttime temperatures gives Washington merlots from both banks of the Columbia River a certain advantage over Bordeaux, with its notoriously fickle weather — though the two regions are located at the same latitude. Add to that an influx of French winemakers eager to make a name for themselves more quickly than would be possible under France’s more restrictive wine culture, and we have “Little Bordeaux,” as the region is sometimes called. The nickname can’t hoit, as the cognoscenti might say.
And a large region it is. The Columbia Valley appellation, from which most of Omniboire’s selections for this tasting came, comprises almost 11 million acres, but the most sought-after wines naturally come from the much smaller appellations within the larger whole. Horse Heaven Hills, Rattlesnake Hills, and Red Mountain are names that conjure a rough and ready land, but the wines are anything but rustic and quasi-couth.
Of the 10 wines that comprised our October tasting lineup, eight made the necessary 13/20 blind scoring cutoff. The tasting panel, composed of wine educator, salesperson, and sometime sommelier Janet Easterling, Glazer’s Wholesale Distributing powerhouse Sarah Verheyen, and myself, remarked frequently on their overall quality. (The tasting was hosted by Perny Shea of Biga on the Banks, who was unable to participate at the last moment, but we did recruit Bronson the Broker and Biga Bartender for a brief cameo appearance.)
Three wines were excluded from the tasting for lack of room (10 is about our usual limit). The Helix Columbia Valley Merlot is a second label of Reininger, and has been well-reviewed (and it was stunning at a recent holiday wine tasting). Columbia Winery’s 2003 Columbia Valley Merlot and the value-priced Boomtown from Dusted Valley Vintners might also be sought out, and one good opportunity to do just that will be at the New World Wine & Food Festival, November 4-9, at various locations around town. The Pacific Northwest is this year’s festival focus, seminars on Washington cabernets and Oregon pinot noirs are on the agenda, and the region’s whites (riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot blanc, and chardonnay among them) and reds will be featured at the Grand Tasting on November 8 and at numerous winemaker dinners and lunches. For information, call (210) 822-9555 or log onto nwwff.org.
2005 L’Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Merlot, $30-$32
Black fruits, earth, and sandalwood-spiciness
A veteran in the Washington wine industry, L’Ecole No. 41 has been producing wine since 1983, and this 2005 Columbia Valley Merlot is a blend of 80-percent merlot with cabernet franc, petit verdot, and cabernet sauvignon. “I remember this from my waitress days,” recalled Verheyen, adding, “I first thought it a little over-the-top, but it had more finesse on retaste.” To her credit, Easterling detected cabernet, though there was only three percent in the blend, and noted “rich, deep black cherry, earth, and spice.”
2006 Gordon Brothers Family Vineyards Columbia Valley Merlot, $20-$23
Intense ripe fruit, good structure, long finish
“It has everything you see in an older wine — integrated spices … more structure than jam,” said Verheyen, while Easterling countered with “silky, elegant, bright cherry flavors.” Two of us, myself included, pegged it as the older wine in the lineup (I had announced the presence of a 2003), suggesting either amazing precociousness or the need to drink now. Or both.
2005 J Bookwalter Columbia Valley Merlot, $38
Floral nose with chocolate, licorice and spice on palate
Hot on Gordon Brothers’ heels was the J. Bookwalter 2005 Merlot Columbia Valley, a wine Omniboire found “pretty” in all its aspects — a term that’s not the kiss of death you might be imagining. “It’s subtle, velvety, plush, and chocolately,” enthused Easterling, while Verheyen found it more “easygoing,” but loved the look of the bottle. (Omniboire also suggests that if you’re ever in a fight in a bar classy enough to serve Bookwalter, grab this bottle; its weight would make it a formidable weapon.)
2005 Cougar Crest Walla Walla Valley Estate Grown Merlot, $30
Cherry-vanilla nose, with chocolate, sweet fruit and caramel
Poor Cougar Crest: both the name and the label came in for a beating. “The worst name ever; it sounds like a bad subdivision,” sniffed Verheyen. “I gave it maximum points except for the label,” (which was revealed at the end of the tasting) seconded Easterling. (Fans of Washington State University, as many in the region, feel much more kindly toward the cougar, it must be noted.) Yet the Cougar Crest 2005 Walla Walla Valley Estate Grown Merlot had “sweet fruits with chocolate and cherry,” said Verheyen, and scored with “strawberry, cherry, and vanilla” in Easterling’s estimation. (She also called it “yummy,” which I guess was for publication.) Omniboire found more caramel and vanilla than fruit, but did agree on the chocolate front. No ferociously feline qualities were noted, however.
2005 Pepperbridge Walla Walla Valley Merlot, $35
Restrained aromas, balanced fruit, lingering finish
The 2005 Pepperbridge Walla Walla Valley Merlot was “earthy and dark, with nice weight, said Easterling, adding that it was a little closed up but finished “pretty.” (There; I’m not the only one.) “This tastes like typical Washington merlot, if there is such a thing,” opined Verheyen, who found it well-balanced if “jammier” than some. Omniboire found the nose faint but loved the ripe fruit and the lingering finish.
2003 Reininger Walla Walla Valley Merlot, $34
Pretty but closed nose, deep fruit mixed with dried herbs
Walla Walla Valley also produced the 2003 Reininger Merlot, the actual old man of the tasting. There was some lively disagreement in the evaluation of this wine. Easterling detected “lots of fruit” and called it “silky, very spicy, and nice.” Verheyen, on the other hand, claimed “hard to find fruit” and a nuttier quality with dried herbs such as oregano — neither of which is necessarily bad. “Nice fruit — but what?” noted Omniboire, straddling the fence on this one.
2005 Andrew Will Cuvée Lucia Washington State Merlot, $32
Mocha, tobacco and cedary spice, short finish
The Andrew Will 2005 Cuvée Lucia Merlot, a Washington State wine made near Seattle from grapes grown on the eastern side of the Cascades, was my highest-scoring wine (I found cedar, cassis, and blackberry — qualities that persisted even after a week in the refrigerator), but it was sunk by another panelist’s lowest score. Something about horse races and politics might be inserted here.
2005 Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot, $40
Light to medium body with silky cedar, blackberry and vanilla
Northstar, part of the Château Ste. Michelle stable, showed beautifully at a tasting about a month ago at Bin 555, but on this day Verheyen deemed it “a little light” and “silky, not grippy.” The wine’s 17-percent cabernet-sauvignon component (along with 3-percent petit verdot) puts it in the Bordeaux Right Bank camp, and Easterling opined that “the big cab gives it big concentration.” •