Washington = Merlot

How the wine craze of the century started, right in our own backyard.

Used to be California was the place to look for the Next Big Thing. But then there was Starbucks, and then there was grunge, and now there is merlot, and California can eat our dust. Merlot, for those who don't dine out at all, is the grape of the millennium, the little grape that could, overtaking even the ubiquitous chardonnay on restaurant wine lists. For the first time since Prohibition, a red tops the charts with everyday wine consumers. And its popularity drives wine snobs crazy. Even a wine democrat like Josh Wesson of New York's Best Cellars, which specializes in inexpensive wines like merlots, crabs the varietal that accounts for four of his top best-selling bottles. "It's easy to pronounce," he told Wine Spectator's West Coast editor Jeff Morgan. "The only thing you could do wrong is possibly say the 't' at the end. Cabernet sauvignon is a minefield by comparison." Indeed, Morgan's long end-of-summer Spectator article about merlot's triumphant 10-year march from obscurity to top of the charts is riddled with faint praise, put-downs, and outright sarcasm, a lot of it from growers and vintners who are scrambling for enough merlot grapes to keep up with demand. But it's Californians doing most of the bitching, for one simple reason: For the second time (the first time was when Oregon managed to identify itself as the place to grow Burgundy's noble pinot noir) someone has challenged California's dominance of the US wine market and done it in classic California fashion: by smart, persistent marketing. California growers may have 10 times the acreage of merlot that Washington does (37,734 vs. 3,873) and planting more as fast as they can find the rootstock, but that doesn't mean they have to approve. According to Morgan, the Machiavelli of the merlot boom is Simon Siegl. A Seattleite of impeccable lineage (son of ex­Seattle Symphony concertmaster Henry and brother of founding Starbucks partner Zev, himself former managing director of Intiman Theater), Siegl was executive director of the Washington Wine Commission back in 1989 when the group was looking for "something different, something new" to help put the state's still fledgling wine industry on the national and international map. Siegl, currently president of the American Vintners Association in Washington, DC, declines the mantle of Machiavelli. "It was really the wineries who defined the campaign. Merlot is a grape which doesn't like cold [Eastern Washington] winters, but once it's established it does very well in the high desert of the Columbia basin, where the need for irrigation actually allows you to manage the water it gets for maximum fruit flavor and good acidity." In 1989 Siegl and his colleagues, recognizing that the journalists who make and break wine reputations weren't going to visit out-of-the-way Washington on their own, started taking their own show on the road, serving Washington wine—and featuring merlot—in tastings hosted by top-of-the-line restaurants around the country. With that familiarity base established, the commission really laid it on the line in 1991 by hosting a world wine-grape symposium in Seattle, with merlot the featured varietal. The growers, vintners, and wine writers who attended the '91 symposium went home talking about Washington merlot: its roundness, agreeable acidity and fruit, its lack of the tough, tannic edge that mars many cabernets that sell for twice or three times the modest price of a merlot. The wine started turning up on wine lists, getting recommended by sommeliers as the economical and agreeable red. The rest is history. The growls accompanying merlot's rise to stardom aren't entirely motivated by envy. Merlot, like any other grape variety, can produce lousy wine if not grown and fermented with sensitivity. If the clusters of maturing grapes get too much shade, the resulting wine can taste and smell like grass-clippings on a humid day. If they get too much sun (and too much water at the same time) they bloat, producing a watery juice that the best winemaker can't turn into something worth drinking. But every other varietal has its quirks, as well. And the worst merlots hail from the same state as the biggest complainers: California's central valley, with its warm winters and hot summers, is the worst possible place for merlot, but that's where most of the state's new acreage is being planted. You can buy a fine California merlot, for a price, but you can get a fine Washington merlot for the same price or cheaper. On the lower rungs of the ladder, odds are a Washington bottle will outdrink the Californian at the same price point at least three times out of four. The merlot boom has brought the latent snobbery of many serious wine drinkers into the open. Theoretically, they approve the notion that wine should be as much a fixture of the everyday American table as the saltshaker; in practice, they can barely restrain their sneers. How dare barbarians who can't tell a cabernet from a zinfandel, who don't know from vintage years or mouthfeel or terroirs, presume to order red table wine? That's our turf! As for the California winemakers, they'd better keep an eye peeled if they don't want to be flanked again. In the last couple of years, the national wine press has begun to wake up to the remarkable merits of Washington wines based on the syrah grape, one of the principal contributors to the hefty mouth- and nose-filling wines of the south of France. There are already Eastern Washington reds that recall if not challenge the classic wines of the Rhône, back in fashion again after their long eclipse by the cabernets of Bordeaux. Château-neuf-du-Pape's reputation is safe, but California may be about to lose another round to its upstart neighbor to the north.

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