Northwest Merlot remains memorable in talented hands

By on April 12, 2022
The Abeja winemaking tandem of Amy Alvarez-Wampfler, and her husband, Daniel Wampfler produced the top entry in Great Northwest Wine’s 2022 comparative tasting of Merlot. (Richard Duval Images)

It’s rare for a wine writer to receive gratitude for conducting a judging focused on an already-famous grape, but Merlot could still use a PR agent nearly two decades after being miscast in the Oscar-winning Sideways.

“Thank you for holding a Merlot-focused tasting,” a vintner wrote. “One movie did so much damage to a wonderful varietal.”

Another replied, “Very cool to give Merlot a look in this way!”

At this point, it’s difficult to imagine Cabernet Sauvignon as anything other than the marquee attraction in Washington state. And while Merlot’s star power dimmed some after that movie came out in fall 2004, it’s hanging on as the second-most important red grape in a state that ranks No. 2 in the country for wine production.

And as our comparative tasting showed, some of the region’s most respected producers are doing a marvelous job with Northwest Merlot. There were 114 examples submitted, and Abeja — one of Walla Walla’s iconic brands — finished No. 1 with a delectable bottling from the 2019 vintage that features four historic vineyards across the Columbia Valley.

“No doubt there was a Sideways effect in the broad market, but that phenomenon isn’t something most artisan wineries experienced,” said Amy Alvarez-Wampfler, who shares the winemaking duties with her husband, Daniel. “At Abeja, we have a longstanding, loyal following. The movie did not sway our customers, and our Merlot sales have remained strong.”

A 2009 study at Sonoma State University in California indicated the market for Merlot fell by 2% in the four years following Sideways. In Washington state, the numbers continue to tell a somewhat sad story about the variety. By 2006, Cabernet Sauvignon became king in Washington when it overtook Merlot in tonnage. In 2016, Washington winemakers harvested 48,400 tons of Merlot, well behind the whopping 71,100 tons of Cab.

Granted, overall production in the state’s wine industry has dropped because of economics as well as vintage conditions, however by 2020, tonnage of Merlot in Washington had fallen by more than half from 2016 with 22,775 tons crushed. And if the trend continues, Syrah — at 18,230 tons in 2020 — will likely overtake Merlot in Washington. (The state’s 2021 grape report will be available this spring.)

During the 2020 crush in Oregon, Merlot (1,596 tons) was far behind both Syrah (4,058) and Cabernet Sauvignon (3,881). And while Merlot is not on the radar of most Willamette Valley producers, Southern Oregon vintners deserve credit for crafting some of the Northwest’s best examples.

“People are actively looking for Merlot,” said Patrick Spangler of Spangler Vineyards in Roseburg. “They might still remember what was said about Pinot Noir in Sideways, but when that movie came out, Merlot was already getting dragged down by some of the stuff that was coming out of California, so in some ways (Sideways) did the variety a favor.

“I’d say in the past three years people who come into the tasting room have really been asking for Merlot, so it’s coming back — especially if you give them something good to try,” Spangler added.

The small screen also played a part in some of the “meh” Merlot from California as growers rushed to meet demand after the 60 Minutes segment in 1991 on the so-called “French paradox” linking good health to moderate consumption of red wine.

Merlot shines across Sagemoor, Red Mountain plantings

Lacey Lybeck, vineyard operations manager for Sagemoor Vineyards, inspects a morning harvest from the company’s namesake vineyard during the 2019 vintage. (Richard Duval Images)

Many times throughout our tasting there were repeat performers, especially when it came to vineyard sources and historic plantings.

Allan Brothers-owned Sagemoor Farms played a supporting role in at least six gold medals with fruit from Bacchus and Dionysus — vines along the White Bluffs American Viticultural Area with roots that dig back into the 1970s — and/or Weinbau on the Wahluke Slope.

“Bacchus and Weinbau are both well-suited to Merlot, but the ‘X-factor’ is the grower,” says Daniel Wampfler, hired at Abeja in 2016 after eight years as winemaker at Dunham Cellars. “We have a strong relationship with the Sagemoor team.”

Red Mountain, the second-smallest AVA in Washington, helped at least nine wineries earn a gold medal or better. Among the contributing vineyards are those owned by Jim Holmes, Dick Shaw and the Williams family of Kiona — all having earned induction into the Washington Wine Hall of Fame.

Fruit from Joe Hattrup’s Elephant Mountain Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills of the Yakima Valley led to a trio of gold medals. Napa-trained viticulturist Ed Kelly at Stillwater Creek Vineyard in the Frenchman Hills along the Royal Slope also was credited with growing grapes for three gold medals.

As a variety, particularly when grown in the Columbia Valley, Merlot now stands rather tall with broader shoulders. On the tannin scale, Merlot routinely checks in as bolder than Cabernet Sauvignon and plays so well in proprietary reds with Syrah, the fleshy and ripe Rhône used to build midpalate texture.

“It’s true that Merlot has more muscle than it once did,” said Daniel Wampfler, whose three years at Columbia Crest included work on the team credited with the 2005 Reserve Cab that Wine Spectator ranked No. 1 in the world in 2009. “We often blend Merlot into our Cabernet for structure and Cabernet into Merlot to add a touch of softness.”

Last fall, Team Wampfler’s 2020 Washington State Chardonnay won best of show at the Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, an event judged by some of the Northwest’s leading wine buyers. This winter, Abeja stood out again — this time for Merlot. The same bottling also merited a glowing review in Forbes magazine alongside other examples of Merlot from famous Washington brands.

“Abeja is known as a Cabernet Sauvignon house, and that’s been the focus of our large-format programming,” Daniel Wampfler said, “but we recently released a magnum of the 2020 Washington State Chardonnay for the first time, and that’s been popular, so who knows? A big bottle of Merlot may be next!”

Our judges for this tasting were Roger Cockerline, winemaker, Neher Family Wines, Milton-Freewater, Ore.; Philippe Michel, founder, Oak Tradition, associate, Metis Northwest, Walla Walla; Mike Rader, Great Northwest Wine panelist, Kennewick, Wash.; April Reddout, Reddout Wine Consulting, Kennewick, Wash.; Ken Robertson, Great Northwest Wine columnist, Kennewick, Wash.; and Gordy Venneri, winery consultant, Neher Family Wines, Milton-Freewater, Ore. The socially distanced judging was staged Feb. 18 at the Clover Island Inn overlooking the Columbia River in historic downtown Kennewick.

Editor’s note: Neither Cockerline, who gained fame for his work with Bunchgrass Winery, nor Venneri — co-founder of Walla Walla Vintners — evaluated their own entry during our tasting.

Below links to reviews for the top entries into this comparative tasting:

Abeja 2019 Merlot, Columbia Valley $50.00

Château Ste. Michelle 2017 Canoe Ridge Estate Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills $24.00

Owen Roe 2019 DuBrul Vineyard Merlot, Yakima Valley $56.00

Tamarack Cellars 2017 Merlot, Columbia Valley $30.00

Neher Family Wines 2019 Principal Red, Columbia Valley $32.00

Welcome Road Winery 2019 Merlot, Rattlesnake Hills $30.00

Mellisoni Vineyards 2018 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Barrel Select Reserve Merlot, Royal Slope $150.00

The Miscreant Project 2018 The Right Bastard, Columbia Valley $19.00

Abacela Winery 2018 Estate Merlot, Umpqua Valley $26.00

Coyote Canyon Winery 2018 Coyote Canyon Vineyard Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills $33.00

Brian Carter Cellars 2016 Willard Family Vineyard 1 Merlot, Yakima Valley $65.00

Five Star Cellars 2016 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley $42.00

Seven Hills Winery 2019 SHW Founding Vineyard Merlot, Walla Walla Valley $50.00

Yakima Valley Vintners 2016 Austin Sharpe Vineyard Dean’s List Merlot, Columbia Valley $30.00

Sherman Winery 2017 Merlot Reserve, Horse Heaven Hills $38.00

Basalt Cellars 2018 Merlot, Washington State $32.00

Growers Guild Wine Co. 2019 Merlot, Columbia Valley $16.00

Be Human 2019 Merlot, Columbia Valley $17.00

Auclair Winery 2018 Right Blend Red Wine, Red Mountain $40.00

Spangler Vineyards 2016 Merlot, Oregon $29.00

Baer Winery 2017 Star Merlot, Columbia Valley $36.00

Cloudlift Cellars 2017 Panorama Merlot, Columbia Valley $30.00

14 Hands Winery 2018 The Reserve Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills $40.00

Sherman Winery 2018 Merlot Reserve, Horse Heaven Hills $38.00

Barrister Winery 2018 Bacchus Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley $33.00

Hightower Cellars 2018 Merlot, Red Mountain $33.00

King Estate Winery 2015 Weinbau Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley $50.00

Winescape Wines 2017 Merlot, Columbia Valley $30.00

Cathedral Ridge Winery 2018 Merlot, Columbia Valley $34.00

Januik Winery 2018 Merlot, Red Mountain $35.00

Winescape Wines 2018 Merlot, Columbia Valley $32.00

Northstar Winery 2019 Merlot, Columbia Valley $41.00

Cougar Crest Estate Winery 2017 Estate Merlot, Walla Walla Valley $34.00

Westport Winery Garden Resort 2019 Mermaid Merlot, Rattlesnake Hills $31.00

Schultz Wines 2017 Steelhead Run Vineyard Blessed Merlot, Applegate Valley $32.00

Yakima Valley Vintners 2018 Dean’s List Merlot, Columbia Valley $30.00

Fortuity Cellars 2019 Merlot, Yakima Valley $32.00

Palouse Winery 2018 Dineen Vineyard Mirage Merlot, Rattlesnake Hills $42.00

Washington Hills Winery 2018 Merlot, Washington State, $9.99

Silver medal
Columbia Crest 2018 Grand Estates Merlot, Columbia Valley, $12.00
Basalt Cellars 2017 Estate Merlot, Lewis-Clark Valley, $40.00
Huston Vineyards 2019 Merlot, Snake River Valley, $29.00
Ridge Crest 2019 White Bluffs Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley, $14.99
Sleeping Dog Wines 2008 Buoy Vineyards Merlot, Yakima Valley, $36.00
Zerba Cellars 2019 Cockburn Vineyard Estate Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $40.00
Airfield Estates Winery 2019 Merlot, Yakima Valley, $18.00
Browne Family Vineyards 2019 Browne Family Estate Vineyard Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $60.00
Columbia Winery 2018 Weinbau Vineyard Single Vineyard Collection Merlot, Wahluke Slope, $45.00
14 Hands Winery 2018 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $12.00
Mellisoni Vineyards 2019 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Merlot, Royal Slope, $60.00
Mt. Hood Winery 2018 Dry Hollow Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley, $34.00
Seven Hills Winery 2019 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $30.00
Snake River Winery 2018 Estate Merlot, Snake River Valley, $17.00
Spangler Vineyards 2018 Claret Red Wine, Southern Oregon, $30.00
Sol Stone Winery 2018 Gemstone Red Wine, Washington, $32.00
Two Mountain Winery 2019 Schmidt Vineyard and Copeland Vineyard Merlot, Yakima Valley, $24.00
Westport Winery Garden Resort 2018 Mermaid Merlot, Yakima Valley, $31.00
Awen Winecraft 2019 Merlot, Rogue Valley, $45.00
Burnt Bridge Cellars 2017 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $30.00
Chasing Rain Wines 2019 Merlot, Red Mountain, $25.00
Coyote Canyon Winery 2019 Coyote Canyon Vineyard Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills, $33.00
Eight Bells Winery 2017 Red Willow Vineyard Merlot, Yakima Valley, $30.00
Elevation Cellars 2015 Elevation Cellars Merlot, Columbia Valley, $29.00
Lagrioth Winery 2019 Beverly Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley, $38.00
Long Shadows Vintners 2018 Pedestal Merlot, Columbia Valley, $65.00
Luke Wines 2018 Merlot, Wahluke Slope, $25.00
Nine Hats Wines 2017 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $25.00
Nota Bene Cellars 2018 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Merlot, Red Mountain, $40.00
Northwest Cellars Winery 2016 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $28.00
Palencia Wine Co. 2016 Vino la Monarcha Merlot, Columbia Valley, $22.00
Spring Valley Vineyard 2018 Estate Mule Skinner Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $50.00
VanArnam Vineyards 2018 Estate Reserve Merlot, Yakima Valley, $35.00
Waterbrook Winery 2018 Reserve Merlot, Columbia Valley, $19.99
DeLille Cellars 2019 Le Colosse Red Wine, Yakima Valley, $65.00
Sigillo Cellars 2019 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $34.00
Woodward Canyon Winery 2019 Estate Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $52.00
Waterbrook Winery 2019 Icon Estate Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $45.00
Cathedral Ridge Winery 2019 Merlot Columbia Valley, $34.00
Château Ste. Michelle 2018 Indian Wells Contemporary Winemaking Series Merlot, Columbia Valley, $18.00
DeLille Cellars 2018 Le Colosse Red Wine, Yakima Valley, $60.00
Eleganté Cellars 2017 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $42.00
Fortuity Cellars 2018 Merlot, Yakima Valley, $32.00
Januik Winery 2019 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $25.00
Locus Wines 2017 Noel Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley, $30.00
Nota Bene Cellars 2016 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Merlot, Red Mountain, $38.00
Novelty Hill 2018 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley, $28.00
Rivaura 2019 Estate Vineyards Merlot, Lewis-Clark Valley, $36.00
Waterbrook Winery 2019 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $13.99
Browne Family Vineyards 2018 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $49.99
Canoe Ridge Vineyards 2017 Explorer Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills, $23.99
Rook 2019 Merlot, Washington State, $15.00
3 Horse Ranch Vineyards 2018 Single Vineyard Merlot 80% Cabernet Franc 20%, Eagle Foothills, $40.00
Winescape 2017 Merlot, Red Mountain, $31.00
Appaloosa 2018 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $17.99
Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2019 Merlot, Lewis-Clark Valley, $28.00
EFESTE 2018 Estate Upright Merlot, Red Mountain, $50.00
Hamilton Cellars 2017 Ciel du Cheval Merlot, Red Mountain, $38.00
H3 2018 Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills, $14.00
Latah Creek Wine Cellars 2019 Familigia Vineyard Merlot, Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley, $17.00
Northstar Winery 2017 Premier Merlot, Columbia Valley, $85.00
Nota Bene Cellars 2017 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Merlot, Red Mountain, $38.00
Airfield Estates Winery 2018 Reserve Merlot, Yakima Valley, $35.00
Canoe Ridge Vineyards 2020 Expedition Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills, $15.99
Free Dog Wines 2018 Merlot, Snake River Valley, $26.00
Gärd Vintners 2018 Lawrence Estate Merlot, Royal Slope, $45.00
Harbinger Winery 2015 Bacchus Vineyard Block 4 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $35.00
Hood Crest Winery and Distillers 2017 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $36.00
Coyote Canyon Winery 2017 Coyote Canyon Vineyard Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills, $26.00
Januik Winery 2018 Champoux Vineyard Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills, $40.00

Merlot by the numbers
Here are a few statistics involving Great Northwest Wine’s comparative tasting of Merlot:
• Total entries: 114
• Double gold medals: 10 (9%)
• Gold medals: 29 (25%)
• Silver medal: 70 (61%)
• Bronze medal: 5 (4%)
• Average price per bottle: $34.68
• Mean price: $33
• Average price for gold medalist wines: $37.23
• Total cases represented in this judging: 477,392
• Average production: 4,187 cases
• Average production of gold medal winner: 588 cases
• Mean production of gold medal winner: 186 cases
• Average alcohol by volume: 14.36%
• Average alcohol by volume among gold medals: 14.39%
• What it would cost to buy one bottle of each wine judged: $3,979
American Viticultural Areas represented: 19
Columbia Valley (42), Yakima Valley (14), Walla Walla Valley (11), Red Mountain (10), Horse Heaven Hills (8), Lewis-Clark Valley (3), Rattlesnake Hills (3), Royal Slope (3), Snake River Valley (3), Wash- ington State (3), Applegate Valley (2), Umpqua Valley (2) Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley (1), Eagle Foothills (1), Oregon (1), Rogue Valley (1), Southern Oregon (1), Wahluke Slope (1), White Bluffs (1).
Gold medals won by AVA
Columbia Valley (17), Horse Heaven Hills (5), Rattlesnake Hills (3), Red Mountain (3), Walla Walla Valley (3), Yakima Valley (3), Applegate Valley (1), Oregon (1), Royal Slope (1), Umpqua Valley (1), Washington State (1)

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the President and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for a decade. He is a frequent wine judge at international wine competitions throughout North America and orchestrates 10 Northwest competitions each year.

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