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by Fred McMillin
for January 18, 1999

 

Cold Climate, Hot Wine


Prologue

Merlot Harvest
Melot Harvest in Washington by the State Wine Commission.
1975—"I'm afraid that we'll remember this as Chateau Pneumonia if our luncheon isn't moved inside." Those are the words of critic Robert Lawrence Balzer as with chattering teeth, he was inspecting the budding Washington wine industry.

1996 - The entire state of Washington is blanketed with the worst freeze in its history, causing losses averaging 30%.

...Dennis Johns, winemaker for the Napa Valley's St. Clement Winery.


The Rest of the Story

OK. So Washington provided a mighty chilly reception for viticulture, by why does a Napa Valley winemaker care? The New York Times gives the answer, saying, "Without question, some of America's best Merlots come from Washington vines." Consequently, St. Clement's parent company, Sapporo USA, acquired tracts to provide Dennis some of those best grapes, and he surely knows what to do with them. In his words...

"In the difficult year of 1996 I traveled to our vineyards often to monitor their development. By choosing the ripest areas, we were able to accent the mature ripe raspberry, wild bramble berry fruit flavors...[resulting in a wine that's] rich, nicely-textured, with a good length to the finish." My panel was impressed, giving the wine a HIGHLY RECOMMENDED rating.


The Wine

1996 Washington Merlot, Yakima Valley
St. Clement Vineyards, Napa Valley
Winemaker—Dennis Johns
Aging - 12 months, first in American and then in French oak.
Production—1,500 cases
Rating—HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Price - $22 range


Postscript

Back to Balzer—In that early tour of "what had been thought of as a wasteland for sagebrush and rattlesnakes," during the lunch at Chateau Pneumonia he spotted the merits of Washington Merlot right away. His notes: "Rich, rich, rich and already velvety, well before its scheduled release." Sounds like Dennis' 1996.

 
About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

 

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