The Pacific Northwest, and Creeping Merlot…by Don Clemens
Over the decades that I have enjoyed being involved in the wine industry, it’s been apparent that the vines are telling us something about the warming climate in the United States. In the 1970’s, the Merlots that were appearing were mainly from north of San Francisco Bay, in such unsurprising areas as Napa and Sonoma Counties. The impact of maritime breezes and varied altitudes on the vineyards of those areas were powerful drivers for deciding which vines to plant, and where to plant them. And there was ample available and reasonably affordable agricultural land to make such decisions economically sensible.
On May 26, 1976, the very influential British wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, held a landmark wine tasting. As the famous wine writer, Oz Clarke, relates the story in his New Wine Atlas, printed in 2002, “… that day has had a more far-reaching effect on the world’s perception of fine wine than any other in the modern era. … a tasting in Paris for the most finely turned French palates of the day. Ostensibly a Bordeaux and Burgundy tasting, it also included a few California wines, which the French judges then proceeded to denigrate in pretty condescending terms. Except that this was a blind tasting. The wines that they were denigrating turned out to be French, some of the top names in Bordeaux and Burgundy. The wines that they were praising as typical examples of great French wines … weren’t. The top white was Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 from California’s Napa Valley, which trounced wines from vineyards in Burgundy planted a thousand years before. The top red was Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon – only the second vintage of this Napa Valley wine – which beat off the challenges of wines like Bordeaux’s Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau Latour which had the benefit of being rooted in hundreds of years of history.”
This groundbreaking tasting demonstrated to the winemakers of the world that they COULD compete, if they were serious about what they planted, and where they planted, and of course what they did with their harvest inside the winery.
In the ‘70’s, Chardonnay led the field for white wines, and Cabernet was emerging as king of the red wines. Pinot Noir was demonstrating its requirements for cooler climates and well-drained soils. California wines were getting better, and American appreciation for fine wine was also improving. As more and more people got involved with vineyard development, more and more new brands appeared in the marketplace. Consumers flocked to wine tastings in their local retail stores as they tried to learn more about these vinous newcomers and see how they tasted.
There were, of course, other wines that had followers in this period. For white wines, there was Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Moscato, and several others – but Chardonnay ruled the roost. For red wines, Zinfandel, Sangiovese (Chianti), Merlot, and Petite Sirah led the way for the “also rans”, but people seemed to really prefer Cabernet Sauvignon. These parameters have mostly changed for the red wines as the decades moved on, and more and more excellent winemaking around the world provided more examples of their fine wines.
One variety in particular, Merlot, really exploded in popularity in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Wineries such as Ridge, Robert Mondavi, Charles Krug, Beringer, and Rutherford Hill were putting sincere effort into making a rich, fruity, intensely flavored, and deeply colored style of Merlot. Their success with this variety has been important to their reputations (of course), but also to the development of a “fan base” for Merlot among wine drinkers. Other viticultural areas on the West Coast certainly took notice. The very popular movie, “Sideways” (released in 2004) referenced the notable explosion of Merlot consumption, particularly in one scene featuring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, where Mr. Giamatti’s character shouts out, “I am not drinking any f**king Merlot!” The theater audience certainly appreciated it!
By this time, Oregon’s Willamette Valley was establishing the importance of Pinot Noir in its vineyards. There has not been a great deal of energy expended on other highly regarded red varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, and popular Italian varietals such as Sangiovese, and Nebbiolo. There is a surge in warmer areas south of Willamette, such as the Umpqua, Rogue, and Applegate Valleys. Mediterranean and Rhone varieties are becoming more common there.
Merlot seems to have largely jumped over Oregon and landed in Washington State’s four appellations, where the climate has moderated enough to reliably produce Merlots that were just what the consumer wanted: juicy, more forward in its youth, a bit rounder, softer and more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. It’s usually higher in sugar, lower in tannins and acid than Cabernet. In 1999, Steve Burns, then executive director of both the Washington Wine Commission and the Washington Wine Institute, noted that, “Since I came to Washington, it has changed from a white-wine state to a red-wine state.”
Washington State has definitely become a wine-lover’s destination. With four major American Viticultural Appellations (Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Walla Walla Valley, and Puget Sound), as well as several subregions (Red Mountain, Canoe Ridge, Alder Ridge, Zephyr Ridge, Wahluke Slope, and Lower Snake River), it has a huge variety of grapes planted – more than 300(!), with Merlot vying for the top of the hill when it comes to red wine production.