If anybody orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any f**ing Merlot!"
Why does Paul Giamatti's lovable, loserly Miles angrily shout this in the film Sideways? Because he's a self-styled purist, rebuking the decades-long Merlot boom in the United States.
At last century's close, California producers flooded the market with inexpensive, simple, smooth and fruity Merlots that often served as gateway glasses for many who became regular red-wine drinkers. But these are not the only Merlots in the world. Merlot is present in almost every Bordeaux blend, including the 1961 Cheval Blanc that Miles treasures as the jewel of his cellar.
So what's his deal? More than grape varietal, Miles' complaint tells us, place makes the wine. Climate determines both sugar and acidity, and any wine's particular character also depends on soil composition, drainage and rainfall. Consequently, we might understand Miles' Merlot gripe as geographically informed.
Bordeaux, France, sits on the 46th parallel, considerably north of California. But California is far from the only wine-producing place in the States. A small valley in Washington State's southeast corner, right on the 46th parallel, is nurturing a wine revolution, built partially on the strength of some Merlots that Miles really might like.
"Walla Walla" is a Native American phrase that translates to "many waters," and the waters that rush down from the Blue Mountains create the valley's pebbly soil. With minimal rainfall, sloped hills, warm days, cool nights and long growing season, it's a perfect place to make great wine.
Italian immigrants first crafted wine here in the 1800s, but modern winemaking did not begin until the late 1970s. As recently as 1990, there were only six wineries in the valley, tending a measly 100 acres of grapes.
Then those hundred acres produced some head-turning wines. With global growth in wine's popularity, the region boomed. Acreage jumped to 450 in 1999 and 1,200 by 2005, with more than 60 wineries reaping the harvest.
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, frequently blended in the French fashion, have dominated Walla Walla's offerings. Premier Syrahs have recently joined the fray, and quality has remained solid, thanks to minuscule production.
Often expensive and difficult to find, Walla Walla's boutique wines evince an ideal combination of ripe fruit and mouth-watering acidity. To this balance, local soils impart additional characteristics of cedar and tobacco. Low-yielding vines allow all this to come together with layers of fruit and aromatics.
Several producers have earned enthusiastic reviews for their high-end offerings, adding prestige to scarcity and elevating many bottles to cult status. Anxious consumers, lured by scores in the mid-'90s, snatch up the entire output from producers like Cayuse, Abeja, Long Shadows and Pepper Bridge within weeks of release, despite prices that start at $40.
On March 10 and 11, winemakers from several of these houses will be in Colorado Springs, sharing their coveted treasures at the Fine Arts Center's annual Wine Festival. This is a rare chance to discover cult Walla Walla wines with the folks who know them best: their makers. With luck, some of these bottles will find their way onto shelves in area stores, giving the Mileses among us something to cheer about.
I recently gathered with six friends to taste five locally available (and affordable) Walla Walla wines. They revealed a consistent level of quality and expressed the region's terroir, even if some disappointed. Bergevin Lane, the overall favorite, will be at the Wine Festival.
Sagelands Merlot ($14): Mild red fruit aromas, especially raspberry, with hints of cocoa, black pepper and herbs. Medium body and pleasant texture, with bright acidity and a pure bing-cherry flavor. Finish is slightly sharp, but a generally nice, balanced effort, especially at this price. One taster's favorite.
Canoe Ridge Merlot ($20): Ripe, round nose with blackberry and stone fruits. Cherries and raspberries dominate the flavor, and the firm tannins push it through very quickly. Smooth throughout, with almost no finish. A Merlot's Merlot.
L'Ecole No. 41 Merlot ($32): Lovely dark color and a powerful nose sporting earth, tobacco, cocoa and vanilla. Plush core of plum and black cherry, with smoke and meat accents. Excellent acidity, balance and structure. Firm tannins suggest a year or two of bottle age, or decanting/breathing if consumed now.
Tamarack Cellars, Firehouse Red ($20): Kitchen-sink blend. Potent note of canned tuna on the nose, with crushed strawberry undertones. Awkward, out of balance, and generally confused. With each re-taste, the tuna aroma and, unfortunately, flavor, became more pronounced. Considering the favorable press this wine has received, it is possible that we had a spoiled bottle.
Bergevin Lane, Calico Red ($20): Old World nose with musty earth, tobacco, bacon and a little bit of wet stone joining the dark fruit. Layers of red and black fruits separated by hints of coffee and cedar. Offers good balance, structure and texture, with a lingering, spicy finish. Some found it compelling, bold and luscious. Favored as best in show by most tasters.
15th annual Wine Festival Grand Tasting & Wine Market Auction to benefit the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center
Colorado Hall at The Broadmoor, 1 Lake Circle
Friday, March 10, 7 p.m.
Call 477-4371 or visit csfineartscenter.org for tickets or more information.