It was Washington’s first big hit. In 1993, Merlot became our No. 1 red grape and stayed there for the next 13 years.

Share story

THESE ARE EXCITING times in Pacific Northwest wine country. Winemakers and wine lovers are exploring new and interesting grape varieties.

Cabernet sauvignon is king in Washington, but there’s also a yearning for such red varieties as mourvèdre, grenache, tempranillo, cinsault and petite sirah.

It’s so much fun, but lost amid the hoopla over these myriad varieties is merlot. That’s right: We’ve forgotten about the grape that got us here. Merlot brought us to the dance, and now we’re doing the Hustle under the disco ball with the next sexy thing to come along.

Merlots to love

Northstar 2010 Premier merlot, Columbia Valley, $85: This reserve-level wine is rich, dark and intense with complex aromas and flavors of black cherry, cola and black licorice, all backed by elegant structure and a long finish.

L’Ecole No 41 2011 Estate merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $35: Using grapes from the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley, this substantial red wine unveils notes of dark plum, mocha, minerality and toast.

And that just isn’t right.

Merlot was Washington’s first big hit. In 1993, it became our No. 1 red grape and stayed there for the next 13 years, until king cab took the throne. What happened during that time? Washington’s wine industry tripled in size. And it brought attention to our little corner of the wine scene.

There’s a reason merlot is so great in Washington. Left to its own devices, merlot vines will get out of control, growing to prolific levels. This means the resulting fruit will be green and underripe. This is what can happen in many parts of the world where soil is rich.

But in the arid conditions of Washington’s Columbia Valley, our dirt is sandy and nutrient-poor. With almost no water coming from the skies, grape growers have deity-like control over the drip-drip-drip that comes from irrigation hoses.

So, in most parts of the world, merlot is a pain to do right because it wants to send out lots of foliage. Here in Washington, we let Mother Nature do her thing. The result is a powerful red wine — often bolder and more tannic than its big brother, cabernet sauvignon.

Merlot deserves your attention, and the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance is here to make sure that happens. This year’s Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine event, June 18-20, focuses on merlot. And not only merlot from the fascinating soils of that corner of Washington and Oregon, but also from Napa Valley, Tuscany and merlot’s ancestral home: Bordeaux.

The keynote speakers for Celebrate Walla Walla are Fred Dame, America’s most famous master sommelier and star of the documentary “Somm,” as well as wine critic Steve Tanzer. A tasting of merlot from six producers will be led by Seattle’s Sean Sullivan. Sign up at

Come to Walla Walla. Celebrate a grape we’ve forgotten, a grape that deserves our love and admiration.