It’s been 13 years since the movie Sideways told filmgoers to not drink Merlot. It’s time to get over it. Merlot, especially in the Pacific Northwest, is delicious, one of the best and most prolific red wines we make. The numbers bear out the fact that Washington grape growers and winemakers didn’t pay much attention to Sideways. In 2003, the year before Sideways, Washington winemakers crushed 20,900 tons of Merlot. While production certainly leveled off for a few years, it has steadily grown for the past half-decade. Last fall, Washington crushed 34,600 tons of Merlot.
Cabernet Sauvignon has emerged in the past decade as Washington’s signature grape, but that has not been at the expense of Merlot, whose acreage continues to expand, partly because it’s a good blender with Cab, and partly because it’s a darn good grape to grow in the Columbia Valley. As it turns out, left to its own devices, Merlot will grow wildly well under most conditions, resulting in wines that are simple. But in Eastern Washington’s sandy soils which naturally temper the vine, then can be further controlled by irrigation, it can result in wines that are simply gorgeous.
If you have been avoiding Merlot because of a throwaway line in a movie 13 years ago, now is the perfect time to embrace a grape that deserves better. Here are a few delicious examples of Merlot we’ve tasted in recent weeks. Ask for them at your favorite wine shop or contact the wineries directly.
Columbia Winery 2014 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $16: E. & J. Gallo Winery purchased this historic Washington winery in 2012, and this bottling represents Sean Hails’ third vintage with Merlot in the Evergreen State. The Canadian creates a theme of cherry jam, fresh cranberry and strawberry-rhubarb compote. Juicy and lingering tannins lead to a finish of Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger tea and blackberry. Enjoy it with lamb chops, braised meats, pork loin with cherry sauce or Blue Cheese Burgers. Through Aug. 31, Columbia Winery will donate $4 per case of wine sold in Oregon and Washington to Seattle Children’s Hospital as part of its fundraising for the Auction of Washington Wines. (13.7 percent alcohol)
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Milbrandt Vineyards 2014 Traditions Merlot, Columbia Valley, $17: The breadbasket that is the Wahluke Slope creates the platform for this rather stylish Merlot from Milbrandt. There’s toastiness to the aromas, joined by milk chocolate, raspberry and chokecherry. Its flavors are smooth with a long stream of plum, cherries and chocolate, a scrape of vanilla bean and finished by espresso ground tannins. As part of its 20th anniversary, Milbrandt Vineyards will donate a portion of sales during Washington Wine Month in August to Seattle Children’s Hospital. If ordering online, enter “dream” at checkout. (13.5 percent alcohol)
L’Ecole No. 41 2014 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $24: Some of the Northwest’s most storied vineyards for Bordeaux varieties — Klipsun, Bacchus and Dionysus at Sagemoor, Weinbau, StoneTree, Pepper Bridge and the estate Seven Hills — contribute to this big, full-bodied expression of Washington Merlot. Aromas of coconut and cocoa with black cherry and blackberry. Inside, it’s akin to a spoonful of cherry cobbler with a mouthfilling blend of huckleberry and pomegranate acidity. Balanced plum-skin tannins allow for a finishing dash of white pepper. In Clubb’s native state of Texas, they’d enjoy this with beef. (14.5 percent alcohol)
Walla Walla Vintners 2014 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $30: Several of the Walla Walla Valley’s top vineyards, including Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills and Walla Walla Vintners’ Cut Bank Estate Vineyard, went into this marvelous Merlot. Elements of fruit, spice, floral and structure mingle for loads of cherry compote and a clove/nutmeg component. Suggested pairings span Mac & Cheese or Pot de crème. This earned a double gold medal at the 2017 Cascadia Wine Competition. (14.2 percent alcohol)
Plaisance Ranch 2014 Merlot, Applegate Valley, $25: Joe Ginet’s roots in Southern Oregon reach back to the late 19th century with his French-born grandfather resurrecting an old orchard near Jacksonville. After decades as a dairyman, Ginet transformed his ranch into a vineyard. Ripeness is not a problem in the Applegate, which shows in aromas of black currant and plum with cherry cola, milk chocolate and vanilla bean. On the attack, juicy Bing cherry and Marionberry flavors make for a rather pleasant and fruity drink that picks up a bit tension with chalky tannins. (14.1 percent alcohol)
Boomtown by Dusted Valley 2014 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $19: Walla Walla winemakers Chad Johnson, Corey Braunel and Griffin Frey team up with Wahluke Wine Co., on the Boomtown program. Dark purple tones of blueberry, black cherry and pomegranate are joined by aromatic hints of lavender, brown sugar and chalkboard dust. On the pour, there’s brightness that leads with pomegranate, backed by Montmorency cherry and Craisin skins amid enjoyable tannins and a bold yet pleasing finish.(14.2 percent alcohol)
San Juan Vineyards 2013 Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills, $20: Grapes for some of the Pacific Northwest’s top aromatic wines have been grown on Yvonne Sandberg’s property near Friday Harbor since 1996, but she and her new winemaker, Chris Lawler, rely on Eastern Washington vineyards for their red program. This juicy and bright Merlot brings aromas and flavors of Marionberry taffy, sweet black cherry and anise with underpinnings of bittersweet chocolate tannins, raspberry acidity and toast. (13.8 percent alcohol)
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company; greatnorthwestwine.com