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At my monthly tasting group, someone recently brought an interesting bottle. We taste the wines blind and talk through them before revealing what they are. This wine clearly had a good amount of age on it, throwing lots of sediment and brickish in color. The nose had lots of aged fruit aromas along with some Old World styling. The taste on the other hand was decidedly New World with abundant, albeit fading, fruit. Overall the wine was drinking beautifully. What was it?

The bottle turned out to be a 1997 Merlot from St. Clement. St. Clement is a Napa Valley producer with a long winemaking history. The winery focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. All of the current offerings are designated Napa Valley. This bottle however was designated
Columbia Valley, Washington. How does a Napa Valley winery end up making a Columbia Valley designated wine in 1997?

I contacted the winery to find out about the wine. Unfortunately, this was before the winery kept electronic records (this began in 1999), and paper records could not be found. St. Clement was sold to Beringer Wine Estates in 1999. The winemaker has changed since 1997. While long-time employees and wine club members remember the wine, they do not recall the details of how it came to be. They can simply say that it existed. Were the grapes transported from Washington down to Napa? Was the wine made in Washington and then sold in California? Either way, what made a Napa Valley winery produce a Washington State wine? The answers may be lost to the sands of time.

This is a shame as the story is no doubt a good one, and the wine is worthy of being remembered. I am always struck when I have Washington wines from ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago how well they are drinking. The styles were much different then with considerably lower alcohol (13% for this wine). I look forward to trying today's wines in ten and twenty years and seeing how they are holding up.

I often wonder what people thought of some of these wines at the time. Did people enjoy them or find them a bit austere which perhaps is why they are drinking so well now? Wine Spectator gave the 1997 St. Clement Columbia Valley Merlot an 87 point rating in its July 31, 2000 issue saying of the wine "Firm and polished in texture, with a nice core of anise-scented black cherry, rosemary and cedar aromas and flavors that last on the solid finish. Best from 2001 through 2005. HS." The magazine also lists reviews for a Columbia Valley Merlot from St. Clement from 1995 to 1997. Other than that, I haven't found additional information about the wine although someone, somewhere has the answers.

St. Clement Merlot Columbia Valley 1997 $22
Rating: * (Excellent) Throwing lots of sediment. Color shows a lot of browning. On the nose, very pretty aromatics with lots of aged fruit - raisin and prune - along with some sweet, caramel notes. The taste is dry and plush with aged fruit. While clearly on the way down, the wine is drinking beautifully. 13.0% alcohol. 1,200 cases produced.

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4 comments

  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. What I can say is that period was dominated by Paul Thomas and Hogue Cellars at the restaurants. Nothing remarkable but nothing squinty. There was no buzz about Washington State wines back then. The wine stewards never recommended riesling from Chateau Ste. Michelle. If anything, pinot gris from Oregon was the "in" thing. Deep, dark uterine-encased days back then. ~WAwineman

     
  3. PaulG Says:
  4. As I understand the rules, had the grapes been shipped down to CA and the wine made there, the appellation would have to be "American" – as with the famous 1996 Leonetti cab that came from California. So I would assume that this was finished wine that was purchased, who knows why. There was certainly plenty of interest in WA merlot at the time (this was only a decade ago – pre Sideways and long after the French Paradox.

     
  5. Paul, very good point regarding the labeling. Must have been made here. Would love to know who's fruit it is.

     
  6. WWM, thanks for the thoughts. Had to imagine it was just 13 years ago.

     

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