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Merlot Missionary: Washington State

Lettie Teague adores Washington State Merlots. But when she travels to the source, she finds winemakers ignoring the grape in favor of Cab or Syrah. What gives?

Why is it that people who become famous for one particular thing so often renounce what first brought them renown? Take teen actress Lindsay Lohan. As a redhead she got lots of money and magazine covers but then she decided to go blonde, thereby annoying movie executives and engendering tabloid scorn. Or John McCain, who had a big following as a Bush foe but turned into a Bush booster instead. Thankfully, winemakers are more consistent than starlets or politicians, though they too can have identities they want to shed—as I discovered during a recent visit with a bunch of top winemakers in Washington State.

I've been a fan of Washington wines for some time; in fact, I even agree with the somewhat immodest claim of the state's wine commission that theirs is a "perfect climate" for wine. Especially Merlot. Thanks to a fairly long, even growing season, the best Washington Merlots combine the ripe, lush fruit of the New World with the structure and acidity of the Old World, resulting in complex, well-balanced wines. So why were so many of the winemakers I met with so unwilling to discuss Merlot at all?

I took note of this reluctance in Red Mountain, the first stop on my self-guided Merlot tour. Red Mountain, a relatively new appellation in eastern Yakima Valley, is the home of two of Washington State's most famous vineyards, Klipsun and Ciel du Cheval, and not far from the Hanford nuclear site.

Klipsun Vineyards is owned by David and Patricia Gelles, a gregarious and easygoing couple who seem remarkably untroubled by their proximity to a nuclear site. (Perhaps because David Gelles goes there each day; he's a Hanford scientist as well as a grape grower.) Purchased in 1982 and measuring roughly 120 acres, Klipsun is planted to several varietals, predominantly Cabernet and Merlot. Some of Washington State's best wineries, including Betz Family Winery, Woodward Canyon and Januik Winery, have bought their grapes from the Gelleses, and there's a long waiting list of would-be clients.

Klipsun's Merlots have garnered high praise from all over the world, even from Bordeaux. "The winemaker of Château Pichon-Longueville visited here a few years ago," Patricia recalled. "He tasted a Klipsun Merlot made by Mike Januik and said it was the best Merlot he'd ever had." (I would be visiting Januik a few days later and hoped to try this vaunted wine.) Despite such tributes, the Gelleses seemed perplexed by my Merlot-centric mission. "Is this some sort of anti-Sideways thing?" asked Patricia, referring to the Academy Award-winning movie and its repeated bashing of Merlot.

This question came up surprisingly often. Why was a year-old film still so fresh in Washington winemakers' minds? Did they get to the cinema that infrequently, or had the movie somehow diminished their own feelings about Merlot? The movie certainly didn't seem to have a fiscal effect: Merlot sales, after all, have gone up.

And yet I encountered similar Merlot apathy at Ciel du Cheval, where vineyard owner Jim Holmes seemed more interested in the Spokane Floods of 10,000 years ago than his current-day crop of Merlot. "Imagine a 200-foot wall of water," he said to me, though I failed to see much more than brown hills. (A more accurate moniker for Red Mountain might be Brown Hill.)

The Ciel du Cheval vineyard was planted in 1975, over 26 years before the official Red Mountain appellation even existed, and it's currently 20 percent Cabernet and 15 percent Merlot, with the balance belonging to grapes such as Syrah and Mourvèdre. The wines it produces are markedly different from those of Klipsun, though the two vineyards are only hundreds of yards apart. Where Klipsun Merlots can be assertive and muscular, almost Cabernet-like, Ciel du Cheval Merlots are more elegant and restrained.

One of Washington's leading wineries, Andrew Will Cellars, has long produced Merlots from both places; in fact the 1998 Andrew Will Cellars Ciel du Cheval Merlot, a perfect balance of intensity and finesse, is one of my favorites. But winemaker Chris Camarda decided to stop producing not only his Ciel du Cheval wine but Merlot altogether. Since the 2003 vintage, Camarda only uses Merlot in a blend with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In fact, according to Holmes, only two producers make a Ciel du Cheval-designate Merlot anymore, though he didn't know why. "But if you have a few minutes, I'd like to show you my new vineyard," Holmes said. It was planted entirely to Syrah.

What had happened to Merlot? I hoped the winemakers of Walla Walla would have something more positive to say. After all, Walla Walla wineries—L'Ecole No 41, Pepper Bridge Winery, Leonetti Cellar and Woodward Canyon Winery—produce some of the state's best Merlots.

But according to Rick Small, Woodward Canyon's owner and winemaker, "Merlot isn't an easy sell." We sat at a picnic table in back of his winery, tasting Merlots, including a polished 2001 Columbia Valley wine with notes of spice and red fruit that Small admitted had been well received by both customers and the press. (His second-label Merlot, the 2003 Nelms Road, won an F&W American Wine Award.) Small went on to say that while Merlot wasn't "done any better than in Washington State," he too believed it was best in a blend. Was that oxymoronic—to proclaim Merlot a star yet cast it in a supporting role? Small smiled disarmingly. "I really don't know," he said. "I'm still playing around. I've only been making wine for 30 years."

John Abbott, one of the most heralded Merlot winemakers in Washington State during his nine-year tenure at Canoe Ridge Vineyard, no longer makes a Merlot at all. He produces Syrah and Cabernet at his new winery, Abeja. "I felt to be taken seriously I had to make a Cabernet," Abbott explained.

Gary and Chris Figgins, the father-son team who run cult winery Leonetti, said much the same thing in more-absolute terms. "Cabernet is king," offered Chris. And yet the Figginses make some of Washington's most sought-after Merlots, notably their Columbia Valley bottling.

Chris suggested we taste both Merlots and Cabernets from barrel and led the way down to the cellar. We tried wines from several different vineyard sources, including the relatively new Mill Creek Upland, whose Merlot impressed me even more than the Cabernet. Massive in structure (as Washington Merlot can often be; some winemakers told me they blend Cabernet with Merlot to make the Merlot more approachable), the Upland Merlot was gorgeously rich and dense. But it too would be part of a blend. "Can't you just bottle this by itself, to show how great Washington Merlot can be?" I asked.

Chris pretended to consider the idea then politely demurred. We went upstairs to taste a few wines in bottle, including the 2002 Leonetti Reserve, a supple blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Gary joined us and even opened a bottle of his 1994 Leonetti Merlot; he seemed surprised by how well it had aged. "I always tell people to drink our Merlot, not to save it," he said. In fact, the wine had a lovely dried-cherry aroma, and though it no longer had the trademark Leonetti lushness, it was still quite impressive.

Ten years ago, said Gary, Washington State's climate was different than it is today. The problem, he opined, was that many of the old vineyards were now too warm and the Merlot was ripening too fast. Either growers had to find new vineyard sites or "we need a global freezing for Merlot to come back," he said. But even if that were to happen, Cabernet Sauvignon, he contended, was the future of Washington. "We're on the verge of setting the world on fire with our Cabernet," he said. "Napa doesn't own Cabernet."

So was it the climate or was it something else that was driving Washington State winemakers away from Merlot? Was it the feeling that if they didn't make Cabernet, like Napa, they would be settling for a second-class varietal? (Never mind that few winemakers in Napa can make great Merlot.)

A few days later when I saw Chris Camarda in downtown Seattle, I told him what the other winemakers had said to me about their preference for Cabernet over Merlot. "That's ridiculous," he replied. "It's not like God came down and said, 'I'll give some of you Cabernet and I'll give all the twits and idiots Merlot.' " But hadn't Camarda implied as much when he decided to stop making a varietal Merlot? No, he insisted, he simply preferred his blends.

Alex Golitzin, whose Quilceda Creek winery is located in a Seattle suburb, didn't put Merlot in the province of the twits but clearly he considered it an also-ran. Then again, the fame of Quilceda is built on its Cabernets. "Merlot is always slightly inferior," Golitzin insisted as we tasted several vintages of both his Cabernets and Merlots. I couldn't agree with him. Although the Cabs were unquestionably monumental—the 2002 in particular was stunning—I also loved the fleshy and utterly hedonistic 2002 Quilceda Merlot.

One of the last visits on my Washington State tour was with Mike Januik. Januik had been head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle for almost 10 years, during which time he'd made so many award- winning Merlots he'd been deemed a "Merlot Master." He still creates Merlot under both his own name and the Novelty Hill label. He brought out bottles from both wineries, including the 2000 Januik Klipsun Merlot that had so wowed the winemaker from Pichon-Longueville. It was beautifully balanced, with excellent structure and good acidity, but when he poured his 2002, I found I loved it even more. As I admired it, Januik uttered the words I'd been waiting all week to hear: "I just can't imagine not making Merlot."

And despite what everybody said, neither, it seemed, could anyone else. Maybe some Washington winemakers considered Cabernet their star. Maybe some were putting their faith in a blend or were dazzled by a new varietal like Syrah. But every one of them was still making some sort of Merlot. Every one, that is, but John Abbott.

A few months after I returned home, I gave Abbott a call. Would he ever consider making Merlot again? I asked. My timing was good, Abbott replied. He'd just been checking out a potential vineyard source for Merlot. If it turned out to be good, well, he might consider making a predominantly Merlot wine. But, he warned me, the vineyard would have to be really, really good.

I told him that I understood. After all, a winemaker is entitled to change his mind—especially when the goal is a great wine.

Published November 2005
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