The dialog box on Facebook always says, “What’s on your mind, Stephen?”
THAT is what’s on my mind.
THAT…almost never happens…not for literal decades. I was having a glass of wine, one day, about nine years ago, in Bellevoid, WA, at a restaurant bar. Sitting behind the bar, conspicuously, was a bottle of Newton Vineyards Epic Merlot, which, so their website reads, isn’t even made anymore. I was drinking what I usually drank: nearly any red wine that’s not Merlot and is of any merit. And I looked at that bottle and thought, “Uh…why do you never drink Merlot, anymore?“
Back in the Great Merlot Scare of the Mid 1990s, it was THE hip and groovy grape among most younger, aspiring wine fans, and was constantly flogged by my distributors’ reps who came into the restaurants I ran. They pushed the new Merlots with an almost evangelical fervor. Because they were selling. Newton Vineyards’ was made by its founder, an Englishman named Peter Newton, and by his understudy, soon-to-be genius John Kongsgaard, who crafted their first legendary Merlot, the Newton Unfiltered. This wine was sorta, by acclaim, the benchmark but there were lots of others. LOTS of others.
And then…this THING happened: Merlot had become chic…marred only by continued observations that it was not going to challenge Cabernet as the Grape of Choice because Merlot wasn’t rich and robust enough. It wasn’t luxurious, like a Napa Cab. It seemed a bit less…SERIOUS. SO… certain California wineries decided that, well, Merlot is a red grape and it does have a little body to it, so…how about we make it more like Cabernet?
Which was the death knell for American (or, at least, Californian) Merlot.
The problem is that Merlot is not really much like Cabernet. The depth and richness that is an inherent virtue of Cab is not at all a part of the natural character of Merlot. Merlot, when ripened and crushed and pressed and vinified and barreled with no tweaking, is just about a medium, maybe medium-to-full bodied wine. Getting it to “more like Cabernet” involves extra ripening time to raise sugars, destemming the grape clusters, aggressive crushing that extracts every molecule of the red color and flavor contained in that shag-carpet pulp that lines grape skins (and bruises the wine, in the bargain), new barrels for exaggerated oak flavors – the “oaky/smoky” that was so common in CA Chardonnays – and extended barrel time. In short, over-driving the character of what is a genuinely delightful grape. All that relentless extraction can produce some notable off-flavors in any grape and, in those fat-ass Merlots, it produced plenty. Normally vinified, Merlot shows flavors that Cab seldom does and they all come naturally: cocoa, black olives, bay leaf, blueberries, Sweet herbs, pencil lead, and a weird and wonderful tendency to make an oak aging result in some background flavor almost like cedar. The flavors are definite but not screamed and shouted, as in big Cabs. In that original Newton, they all lined up in orderly fashion, like the Queen’s Grenadiers, and practically marched past for inspection.
That Newton – along with half a dozen other, finer CA examples – were DELIGHTFUL, different, LIVELY on the tongue. No cloying, persistent finish, just a happy intimation of what came before. At that time, we didn’t have much, if any, Malbec or US Tempranillo or even a bunch of West Coast Sangiovese. Merlot was Different and exciting.
And, on the basis of “Uh, if folks like Cabernet that much, they’d like Merlot better if it was, uh, LIKE Cabernet!“…a bunch of bean-countin’ asshats at some CA wineries KILLED it.
Remember this scene in “Sideways”, in which Miles gets up in Jack’s face and SCREAMS, “I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!!“? Good times, eh? (The Impact upon the wine industry of “Sideways” cannot be overstated. It launched Pinot Noir and ran a sword through Merlot, for both of which I could choke Alexander Payne until the piss runs out his ears.) Miles’ declaration is how loads of wine aficionados came to feel about it. The condemnation of it, among the trades people, when I started working in wine, was near universal. Many shops didn’t carry more than two. Some put it on the very bottom shelves. Nobody sat and drank it. It still sold and, honestly, what saved Merlot in the US was when Washington wineries started to make it and generally (for mostly economic reasons) ignored the California model. Guys like Mike Januik and Bob Betz and Mike Dunham understood the true nature of the grape and produced it as naturally as possible. Yeah, they did age it in oak but oak barrels are EXPENSIVE, so a lot went into second-use or neutral barrels, so that there was not the lavish, vanilla-drenched overkill of wealthier California wineries’ all new French oak obscuring the grape’s virtues.
What directly prompted this post was the bottle in the photo, Eagle Harbor Reserve Merlot Walla Walla Valley 2017. It was made by a friend of mine, Hugh Remash, winemaker at Eagle Harbor Winery, of Bainbridge Island, Washington, and we bought it more or less because were were buying everything, on our first trip to the winery in about five years. I did taste it there but, among all those other stunning reds, it didn’t really register. On a whim one evening last week, I opened it for our pre-dinner happy hour…and saw stars.
Looking back on The Pour Fool, I found ONE review for any Merlot, in the 16 years this thing has existed: the Velvet Devil Merlot Washington State, from my old acquaintance, Walla Walla winemaker Charles Smith. That was there because it was the holidays and I was laying out good value wines. It is absolutely worth more than the $10-$12 sticker price. And, mostly, because it was one of the precious few Merlots that I could drink without falling asleep. I tried dozens and DOZENS of Merlots from about seven different countries. Velvet Devil was the ONLY one I felt moved to write about. You do the math.
Then…Eagle Harbor. Monday night of this week, to pair with Italian food, I grabbed the Eagle Harbor Reserve and popped it. Gave it about 25 minutes to breathe, poured two glasses. Swirled. Sniffed. Sipped…
In my admittedly freakish sense memory – which will easily cough up descriptions of wines I tasted fifteen, twenty years ago, while remembering my home phone number usually sends me reaching for my phone – it tasted VERY much like the Newton. It was jazzy and lively and complete and wickedly complex, like liquid trigomometry. The hallmark cocoa, black olives, bay leaf, blueberries, sweet herbs, pencil lead, and cedar formed a conga line and macarena-ed across my tongue. As it breathed, it unfolded new flavors, softened, broadened, gained a bit of depth, even. It was an EXCITING wine and I don’t taste that many genuinely exciting wines, lately.
I don’t even know if Hugh made this wine with any past Merlot in mind but his aesthetic North star is solidly French, very much the same as Newton’s, who sent John Kongsgaard over to Burgundy to Get Religion before they crafted the first vintage of Newton’s other landmark wine, the Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay.
Most of all, it SLAM-HAMMERED my long-dormant Merlot button. I would have sworn the damned thing had either fallen off or stopped working. That long parade of frankly revolting, Cab-esque California Merlots of the ’90s and the 00s still looms in my memory as a fat red flag about drinking Merlot at all. Certainly, in terms of gambling my own $$$ on buying a bottle that I have never tasted, it’s a virtual stop sign. And I hate that. I LIKED Merlot, back before the barbarian hordes stormed the walls that define “properly-made Merlot” and made an inky, black mess of a perfectly good grape. I probably DO miss a lot of pretty nice wines from aspiring wineries who have done their best, so now I try Merlot every time I see it being poured. And I’ve found a few good ones. But some of the winemakers, today, grew up with those over-amped Cali oak-bomb Merlots and the residue of that style hangs on like grim death to a sick cat.
It is highly unlikely that you live close enough to Bainbridge Island, Washington, to be able to go find a bottle of this Eagle Harbor Reserve. But the aesthetic behind it – the medium body, the clarity and expression of its component flavors, the friendly drinkability, the surprising food affinity – is making a comeback. There IS one you absolutely should be able to find and it’s from right here in my own ‘hood: The Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot Columbia Valley, pretty much any vintage. You should be able to find or at least order it (they make a lot) and you should NOT have to pay more than maybe $12. It is a bit larger in body than the Eagle Harbor, as it’s a product of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and they have bean-counters, so it’s Built To Sell, but not obnoxiously so. Good fruit, great price.
IF you can find the Eagle Harbor, BUY IT. If not, I promise I will hop off the “Drinking No Fucking Merlot” wagon and review what I find. No idea how long that may take but…Watch This Space.