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Table Rock is Willamette Valley Vineyards' second label for declassified juice from the Quail Run- Griffin Creek Vineyards. The wines are excellent values, particularly the super bargain priced Merlot.

"Given Table Rock Merlot's Popularity,
Oregon Wins With Taste, Affordability"
By Christina Kelly
Avalon Staff Writer

For 20 years, I've held an annual competition for the best Merlot under $20. This year's winner is barely on the market.

And the winner is Table Rock's 1999 Merlot. Table Rock is a new subsidiary of Willamette Valley Vineyards. Winemaker Joe Dobbes produces the sweetly-seductive wine-the first time on the market.

The idea of having a Merlot competition emerged from my basement apartment near the University of Washington when I was a sophomore, just beginning to taste wine for the first time. To this day, I can't recall the name of the first good bottle of Merlot that set it off, but it wasn't American. It was French.

I was told that Merlot was used mostly as a blending wine to mellow some of the harsh tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon.

But somebody, somewhere, gave me a bottle of French Merlot for a dinner party, and the blending of the dinner and the wine gave me an idea to search for more.

It really began as an excuse to gather friends who shared an interest in good wine and fresh food. Why Merlot? I don't know. When you are just entering into adulthood and get a wild bug, something happens. My learning curve was young and I later discovered affection for other red wines. In fact, I prefer many other wines to Merlot.

But the ball was rolling and I started it. In 20 years of holding the annual event, if I wasn't available, it was held anyway.

Merlot found its own niche in the last decade, other than a blending agent. I'd like to say I had such insight, but the truth is, the event snowballed because it was a way for us to stay connected. I don't think the wine was the original reason, but the event took on a life of its own.

Competition in the past five years has been tight, hotly contested, and satisfying as we struggle to find really good Merlot at an affordable price. The winner has boasting rights for the next year.

In 20 years, I've had the winning Merlot five times. Table Rock was my contribution to this year's contest.

Everyone brings three bottles of the same Merlot. The bottles are covered in brown paper bags and all markings removed from the neck. The only clue, written on the bags, is the price range, and it has to be under $20. (Great sales and discounted prices are not included.) The wine has to be easily accessible to the public. No ringers are allowed.

The contestants, lined up like a Miss America swimsuit competition, included a 1997 Sabastiani ($16), a 1999 Nelms Road ($19), (second label for Woodward Canyon), a 1998 Rodney Strong ($17) , a 1998 Chateau Souverain ($17), a 1999 Benziger ($19), a 1999 Ste. Michelle ($18) and a 1998 Louis Martini Russian Valley Merlot at $17.

In all, there were 14 different varieties of Merlot. The rest were inconsequential. But the debate raged for several hours for the top six Merlots.

In between each tasting, we had a chance to visit, catch up on old times, births, deaths, and our country's state of affairs. The ambience helped soothe the anxiety many of us were feeling, still reeling from frightening terrorist events in the world. This was a comfortable group. Many of us grew up together. Although it changes from year to year, the core remains the same. When I started this thing in my basement apartment, there were six of us.

This year, 26 people participated-the largest ever. It was a joy to see such friends again in the background of September 11. Although the mood began somber, many of us, needing to embrace some positive aspect of our lives, lightened up and began to talk about life, movies, health fads and of course, food.

Table Rock was declared the winner after much debate. It was not the number one taste choice at first. In fact, the original winner was the 1998 Louis Martini Russian Valley Merlot. After we factored in the price, and most of us agreed that Table Rock Merlot was indeed a great value, sliding in between $14 and $16 a bottle.

I tasted this wine before, when winemaker Joe Dobbes provided a sample. It is filled with lots of fruit, big cherry flavors and toasty oak. Some of the grapes used in Table Rock are used in Willamette Valley Vineyard's high-end label, Griffin Creek. There is about 5 percent of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon in each bottle.

My friend, Ron, a physician in Bend, OR., said it was an extraordinary wine for the price. That is what convinced him to vote for Table Rock.

"I actually selected two other wines ahead of it, but when I looked at the price, I had to admit that the value was there and it tasted far above the price range," Ron said. "That, to me, is the whole idea. Find a good, hearty Merlot that you can serve at the dinner table without having to spend $30 to $50. It's a great value."

Annie, a Seattle writer, said she placed Table Rock in the top five.

"It wasn't until we got done to the nitty-gritty of selecting the best value that I realized Table Rock really gave the best bang for the buck," she said. "Some of the Merlots I tasted were a little bit better, but cost more.

"I think Table Rock is a great bargain and I commend the winery for keeping it affordable."

Dona and Traute Moore, partners with Willamette Valley Vineyards, say that making Merlot affordable is their mission.

By the way, first place in this irreverent competition receives nothing but bragging rights. We usually end up buying several cases of the wine, and give it as Christmas presents. Next year, the person who brings the first-place winner will get a case of it.

In the long run, it doesn't really matter about who wins. It's about friendship, sustainability and hope. I've watched all of my friends growing older. I've shared in their triumphs and held their hands in tragedy. I see younger versions of friends in the faces of their children.

It floored me the first time one of those children, who turned 21, showed up at the tasting in lieu of his parents.

"Mom says to say hello and sent me in her place," said the freckle-face boy who didn't look more than 16-years-old.

For some reason, the Merlot gathering took on special meaning this year. We tasted wine, began mock debates, feigned more passion about a wine than we really felt and laughed loud and long for the first time in what seemed like ages. It's like a scene out of the movie "The Big Chill."

My friend Valerie says it best:

"I can't tell you how good it is to be with you today," she announced before leaving. "I've felt like a rudderless ship. Being with you guys makes me feel a little more settled than I've been in recent months. It's good to know that some things don't change."

Congratulations to Table Rock and winemaker Joe Dobbes. Thanks to him, I am queen of the world until next year.

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