Merlot was a shining star among the Northwest’s red wines 25 years ago when the core staff of Great Northwest Wine magazine launched the first issue of a wine magazine — Wine Press Northwest — aimed at serving the wine lovers, winemakers and grape growers of our region.
More by chance than design, our second issue of Great Northwest Wine magazine takes another in-depth look at Northwest Merlot. It was a fortuitous choice. After evaluating 114 Northwest Merlots, two panels of judges came away impressed by the Merlot grown in our region during vintages 2016 through 2020. I would add, as a judge at both tastings, our region’s Merlot makers are more skilled than ever. (Our report on this newest set of wines begins on Page 54.)
That judging earlier this year prompted me to look back at the quarter-century-old report in the first issue of the now-defunct Wine Press Northwest by the late Bob Woehler — the Northwest’s second wine writer to have a regular daily newspaper column. At the time, we managed to assemble 45 Merlots drawn from 35 wineries — all in Washington.
Considering there were roughly 70 wineries in Washington at the time — contemporary reports don’t always agree on the number — it was certainly a fair representation of Washington Merlot, which was then by far the majority of Merlot produced in the Northwest.
The wines were ranked on a 100-point scale popularized by both Robert Parker and Wine Spectator, with the equivalent of gold-medal wines scoring 90 points and above, silver medal wines 83-89 points and bronze medal wines 75-82 points. All but one of the entries would have earned a medal, and the laggard missed out by only one point.
The six wines rated above 90 points all are names any longtime wine buff is likely to be familiar with, although Preston Wine Cellars of Pasco, the state’s third bonded winery, has closed permanently and its vineyards have been removed. But their 1993 Reserve — then a $30 wine — topped those ratings at 92 points.
Another six wineries were clustered at 90 points and all became industry stalwarts:
Walla Walla Vintners 1995 Washington, $22, (partly Spring Valley Vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area, part likely from Pleasant Vineyards in the Yakima Valley near Prosser).
L’Ecole No. 41 1995 Columbia Valley, $29
Chateau Ste. Michelle 1995 Canoe Ridge Vineyards (now in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA), $29-$30
Columbia Crest 1994 Estate Series, Columbia Valley (also now Horse Heaven Hills AVA), $21
Columbia Winery 1995 Red Willow Vineyard Milestone Merlot, Yakima Valley, $21-$22
Kiona Vineyards Winery 1995 Merlot (now Red Mountain AVA), $16
As one of the judges for that competition, there are a few scores that puzzle me, but that often follows the results of blind tastings. The 1995 vintages of Leonetti Cellar, Woodward Canyon, Barnard Griffin Reserve, Barnard Griffin (tulip label) and Washington Hills all were rated 88.
They represent four of the state’s most talented then, and now most experienced winemakers: Gary Figgins of Leonetti, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon, Rob Griffin of Barnard Griffin and Brian Carter, then the winemaker at Washington Hills and now owner of his own highly regarded winery, Brian Carter Cellars.
Those four already were recognized as some of the Northwest’s finest winemakers, and in the years since have burnished an unmatched record as regional rock stars in their industry.
Figgins is legendary in Washington and beyond for his brilliant red wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Arguably the Northwest’s premier spring tasting weekend in the Walla Walla Valley is informally dubbed “Leonetti Weekend” because the region’s wine lovers who hold a place on his coveted list, which allows them to buy his limited release bottlings, flock to Walla Walla to pick them up.
Along the way, these wine enthusiasts also stop at wineries throughout the Yakima Valley, Red Mountain and the Tri-Cities to restock their wine cellars depleted over the previous winter.
Small’s “Old Vines” Cabernets and stellar Chardonnays regularly rate among the Northwest’s best and are coveted for their exceptional and consistent quality.
Griffin has exhibited an incredible touch for making just about every grape variety grown in Washington into an award winner. For nearly two decades, his Rosé of Sangiovese has sold out annually to the Northwest’s appreciative wine drinkers. From the 2006 to 2021 vintages, eight times it has won the sweepstakes award as the best rosé at the nation’s largest judging – the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
As a result, he’s been credited with helping to spark the Northwest’s recent “Rosé Revolution,” a resurgence among consumers in the dry rosé made in the style popular in France’s Rhône region.
Carter has since established himself as one of the Northwest’s finest makers of red and white wine blends. His white Rhône-inspired blend (Oriana) and his red blends, made from grape varietals originally from Bordeaux (Solesce), Rhône (Byzance), Spain (Corrida) and Tuscany (Tuttorosso), all are perennial award winners.
WINE WORD: Puncheon
There are at least four definitions, depending whether it is used to describe winemaking, carpentry or tools. To a winemaker, it’s generally a type of wine barrel, “commonly found in Australia and New Zealand,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson. A puncheon’s capacity is 119 gallons, or 450 liters, although other sources say it can vary between 72 to 120 gallons. The word sometimes is used to describe the amount of wine such a cask contains.
It can also be a form of punch or a stamping tool. A carpenter might tell you it’s a short, upright piece of wood used in framing, as in over the top of a door or window, reaching to the ceiling level. But it’s also the term for a heavy slab of timber, usually used for flooring, with a rough-hewn face.
Once again, toast the French as the source of the word’s origin.