When Americans think of wine country, they picture Northern California, particularly those vacation destinations that are famous for their winery tasting rooms and tours, such as Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Both Napa and Sonoma are located within an easy drive of San Francisco and fall within the exurbs of the Bay Area, which is the country’s most expensive real estate market.
Washington’s wine country is farther off the beaten track, located in a sparsely populated zone of central and eastern Washington. Here, vines thrive on a broad, arid plateau that is loosely framed by cow towns like Walla Walla, Yakima, and Spokane. The cost difference of the vineyard real estate alone helps explain why wines from Washington offer such terrific value for the dollar compared to those from coastal California. Most of Washington’s wine comes from the Columbia Valley, where a broad range of wine grapes can thrive, from Riesling and chardonnay to cabernet sauvignon and Syrah.
But the unsung hero is certainly merlot, in part because the region’s climate and terrain give this grape a longer growing season. Longer hangtime before harvest gives the vine a chance to develop more flavor and color compounds that boost concentration and add substance even at entry-level price points. Wines like this delightful bargain don’t just deliver merlot’s delicious black cherry and cocoa flavors, but feature more of the food-friendly components, such as tartness and velvety tannins, that so many of California’s affordable merlots lack.
Columbia Crest “Grand Estates” Merlot; Columbia Valley, Washington; $9.99 (regularly priced at $13.99, sale price through Aug. 25); PCLB #5870; 13.5% alcohol.