In a glass by themselves

Washington winemakers do themselves proud with a variety of full-bodied cabernet-merlot blends.

Back when I first started dining out in Seattle, the very idea of finding a wine made in Washington on a restaurant menu was material for humor. In those days, most Washington wine was made to sell in supermarkets for less than a buck a bottle, to customers who weren’t too particular about vintage years (and often left the empties on the curb outside).

Today, by stark contrast, Washington wines appear on the list of any good local restaurant (and plenty of restaurants in England, Brazil, and Hong Kong, too), at prices on par with imports from prestigious regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Loire. This is both good news and bad news for the Washington wine industry. Any patriotic wine-bibber has to glow with pride to see the local product achieve such parity with the eminences of the Old World. The economist in all of us, on the other hand, scanning the wine list under the sommelier’s impatient eye, is likely to reason: “Dining out calls for something special. Why spend $25 (or $35 or $50) for a Washington wine when for the same price I can get (fill in well-known European or Californian name here)?”

More than a decade ago, Washington winemakers became aware they had a problem reaching the discriminating but price-conscious local customer. Having established their winemaking cred with top-of-the-line single-grape and/or single-vineyard bottlings, many began to apply their hard-won skill to the task of creating wines both “affordable” and “drinkable.” Their results are found today on supermarket shelves (and wine lists) everywhere: good-quality, flavorful reds and whites produced as second and third labels of major wineries, often selling for well less than the $10 ceiling, which divides, for many of us, “affordable” from “premium.”

In one branch of winemaking, however, a process driven by economics and marketing has unexpectedly produced some remarkable results—all the more remarkable in that the man who set the process in motion had no intention of doing so, had no intention of getting involved in wine or the wine business, and knew a great deal more about bananas and potatoes than he did about grapes.

Though he knew little about wine, Tom Hedges knew a great deal about brokering international agricultural-commodity trades, so when asked to act as US agent for the Swedish national alcohol monopoly back in 1986, he cheerfully agreed. His first assignment: to find samples of Washington red wine available for bulk shipment and send them to the Swedish buyer.

“So I lined up samples in the right price range and labeled them A, B, C, and D and sent them off. He liked A and B, which as it happened were a wine made by Staton Hills from the merlot grape and a cabernet sauvignon from Coventry Vale. So we blended them and sent them off to Sweden to be bottled. They needed a label, so I called it Hedges ’cause I couldn’t think of anything else and sent the labels to them too.”

That might have been it for Hedges and the wine trade if the fortuitous cabernet-merlot blend he shipped hadn’t earned a double-plus rating from Sweden’s top food-and-wine magazine. “We went ahead with the same formula in ’87 and ’94, buying finished wines, blending them, shipping 6,000 cases each time, but I guess I’d got bit by the wine bug,” Hedges says. “I started to think about buying some land, planting it in vines, building my own winery. I asked five winemakers I knew where the best land for vines they knew of was and all five said Red Mountain, outside of Benton City just west of Richland. I was lucky there: We got the last well permit they issued for that site. We pressed and bottled our own first product in ’89, planted our property with one-year-old vines in ’91, bottled wine from our own first crop in ’94. Not that I stopped buying grapes from other growers: In ’95 we shipped over 60,000 cases.”

Hedges says his business plan was simple: “Make a $15 wine I could sell for $10.” With winemaker Brian Car-ter in charge in the early days, he was able to achieve his goal. Hedges’ cabernet-merlot blends even pleased wine drinkers who generally favored white wines over reds. The well-known softness-on-the-tongue of the quick-maturing merlot diminished the harsh, tannic flavor of the cabernet sauvignon, which in turn afforded distinction to the bouquet and mouth-filling substance to the blend.

This would have been an epoch-making discovery for the wine world had the same discovery not been made before—some 150 to 200 years before, in the gravelly, Atlantic-brushed vineyards of the French d鰡rtement of Bordeaux. Already celebrated as among the noblest red wines in the world when officially classified by the French government in 1855, the great Bordeaux reds are today the most sought-after—and priciest—wines in the world.

Hedges and Carter hadn’t set out to emulate the incomparable Bordelais, but their success was a reminder to their colleagues in the trade that when something’s been done traditionally for centuries, there’s often a good, practical reason for it. Serious American winemakers began producing wines from single grape varieties to break away from the bad old practice of sticking names of familiar European wine regions—Burgundy, Chablis, Rhine—on American wines that often bore little or no resemblance to the originals. First in California, later across the country, producing wines described strictly by the grape variety used in their making became both a badge of seriousness and quality, and proud declaration of independence from old ways.

By 1990, with American wines routinely winning prizes at international competitions, it was no longer necessary to protest quite so much, and Hedges’ success selling “cab-merlot”—essentially a “Bordeaux-style wine” without being labeled as such—was quickly noticed and emulated by the competition. Steve Burns, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission estimates that as many as 25 of the state’s 60-plus wineries makes a cabernet-merlot blend, though not all attempt to match the $10-or-less price point Hedges originally shot for.

For the men and women who actually make the wine—Hedges’ current winemaker is Steve LeSand, a University of CaliforniaFresno grad formerly of California’s Stag’s Leap and Domaine Chandon—the return of blending as a respectable enterprise has been a godsend. By varying the percentages of each grape in a blend from year to year, they can compensate for the inevitable unpredictability of the weather. Cabernet and merlot, for example, both bud and mature at quite different times. By adjusting the blend between them, a vintner can compensate for the deleterious effect of an early frost or a late rainfall.

But blending offers the vintner creative opportunities as well. Instead of wrestling with the natural propensities of a given grape variety—with cabernet’s legendary “hardness,” for example, which with age lends wines dominated by it great character—they can do what illustrious predecessors back to the times of the Romans did: balance the virtues and drawbacks of each variety to produce a wine finer than any variety could have produced on its own.

This fact is clearly manifested by tasting half a dozen cab-merlot blends by Washington makers from the 1996 and ’97 vintage years, all to be had for between $8 and $11 retail (and, during the periodic “post-offs” allowed by the State Liquor Commission, sometimes a good deal less). Some are lighter in character, some more robust, but all exhibit the solidity, full flavor, bouquet, and finish one would expect from wines costing twice as much. There’s nothing that gives quite such an edge to the drinker’s palate as the knowledge that the substance being savored is not only a treat but a bargain. For diners-out, the pleasure’s just as great or greater. For a price little greater than a couple of quaffs by-the-glass, they can enjoy a full bottle of a first-rate wine equal to the challenges of substantial, strongly seasoned dishes. And a quiet sense of parochial pride to boot.

Cab fare

The list below by no means exhausts the notable cabernet-merlot blends produced by Washington winemakers. All prices are approximate.

Barnard Griffin non-vintage Cabernet-Merlot $12

Rob Griffin’s blend (55/45 cab/merlot and aged in both French and American oak) is “limited release,” available only at the Richland winery and selected wine-shops, but it’s well worth seeking out: a noble wine of deep character.

Columbia Winery 96 Cabernet Sauvignon- Merlot $12

David Lake’s 76/24 cab-merlot blend is aged 12 months in small oak barrels. It’s a little lighter-bodied than many of its peers, but for that very reason more agreeable to many tastes.

Covey Run 97 Cabernet- Merlot $10

Incorporating 16 percent of the traditional Bordeaux varietal cabernet franc along with its 50/34 proportions of cab and merlot, Dave Crippen’s blend has a tangy edge that sets it apart.

Hedges Cellars 97 Cabernet- Merlot $10

The most tannic of the current crop, likely to be long-lived but good now with food.

Paul Thomas 97 Cabernet-Merlot $8.50

At the price, this luscious 75/25 cab- merlot blend by Flint Nelson for Columbia Winery’s “budget label” is a major find.

Washington Hills 97 Cabernet Merlot $9

At 64/36 cabernet/merlot, Brian Carter’s blend is notably rich, round, robust and ready, and unbeatable at the price.