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Merlot Proves Its Skin Is Thicker Than We Think


Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine sheds light on the noble grape’s resilience and omnipresence despite recent pop culture perils

WALLA WALLA, WACelebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine, a social and educational global wine event welcomed its sixth year with open arms and a formidable special guest. Rex Pickett, author of the wine-centric novel Sideways, which was later adapted into the Oscar-winning film of the same name, joined the Walla Walla Valley wine industry along with winemakers from California and Bordeaux to navigate guests through an immersive, no holds barred Merlot experience.

Visitors from more than 20 states and provinces throughout the United States and Canada took full advantage of the wide spectrum of Celebrate events ranging from special tastings of rare vintage wines, educational seminars and talks, and one-of-a-kind winemaker dinners during the weekend’s three event-filled days (June 14-16, 2018). Approximately 175 wines were poured by 58 wineries, most of which were Merlots that embodied the expressive terroir of the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA).

The Friday morning World of Merlot: Kick-Off Event opened with a lively salon celebrating Merlot’s global significance and importance in the Walla Walla Valley presented through scientific fact and laugh out loud dialogue by Tim Donahue, Director of Winemaking at Walla Walla Community College Institute for Enology and Viticulture. Donahue left Merlot on the stage as an elegant, superhero willing to “do it all, and do it all without complaint.” Pickett entered stage left to set the record straight on the varietal, sharing the series of personal and professional events that led to the unintentional destruction of the Merlot market triggered by the Sideways film, known as the Sideways Effect. Pickett expressed his admiration for Walla Walla Valley Merlots and their purity before he asked for clemency from the sold-out crowd, which in turn evoked a shout of forgiveness from the audience and a bond that can only be attributed to sharing emotion and the human experience. All in all, the crowd left the Gesa Power House Theatre fully enlightened with a better understanding of the quiet strength of Merlot.

Guests delved deeper into Merlot during the Saturday morning Wine Panel Presentations & Tastings hosted by local winemaker, Ashley Trout of Brook & Bull Cellars and Vital Wines at the Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center. Trout led a frank discussion with six winemaker & winegrower panelists from the Walla Walla Valley, Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley and Bordeaux region of France as guests listened in and sampled wines.

Attributed to the Sideways Effect, consumer interest in Merlot still carries a stigma over a decade later. Trout opened with thanking the crowd for attending and “helping kick Merlot out of its underdog status.”  Throughout the morning, as panelists fielded questions ranging from their personal experiences with growing the varietal to engaging with customers in the tasting room that refuse to sample “the Merlot,” one thing was resoundingly clear – the panelists hold Merlot in the highest regard.

Walla Walla Valley winegrower Sadie Drury of Seven Hills Vineyard expressed sound optimism in Merlot’s “bright future” by seeing a “consumer shift towards more balanced wines, Merlot is that perfect approachable wine.” Additional highlights from the celebration include Emmanuelle d’Aligny Fulchi, Technical Director with Château Angelus/Château Bellevue reminding the crowd that in the Bordeaux region of France, there is no Sideways Effect and Jeff Bundschu of Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma Valley wisely concluding that “good wines always win, no matter the varietal.” When asked her greatest Merlot epiphany, Sally Johnson, winemaker from Napa Valley’s Pride Mountain Vineyards stated, “This trip to Walla Walla has been an eye opener for me. The wines here are so good … beautiful, stunning, world-class – they’re amazing.”

We recommend trying the Merlot, you’ll most likely be surprised.

Celebrate focuses on a different wine varietal each year (a rotation of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah), comparing and sharing the similarities and differences of the Walla Walla Valley with the world’s leading wine regions. Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine – The World of Cabernet will be held June 13-15, 2019. Tickets and more information will be posted next Fall at www.CelebrateWallaWalla.com.

Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine – The World of Merlot was made possible by the following sponsors:


  • Banner Bank
  • Trysk Print Solutions
  • Wine & Spirits Magazine


  • Moss Adams


  • Andrae’s Kitchen
  • Black Tie Wine Tours
  • Columbia REA
  • Gesa Power House Theatre
  • Olive Catering
  • The Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center


  • KXLY
  • Sip Northwest Magazine
  • The Seattle Times
  • Walla Walla Union-Bulletin


  • City of Walla Walla
  • Port of Walla Walla
  • Walla Walla County


  • WCP Solutions

About Celebrate Walla Walla Valley

Formed by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance in 2013, Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine is the region’s signature wine event held annually in June. The event series is structured to showcase a different wine varietal each year, historically focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot. Over the course of three days, the events demonstrate how wines can vary among the world’s leading regions resulting from different growing conditions, winemaking styles, and vineyards through special tastings of rare vintage wines, educational seminars, and one-of-a-kind winemaker dinners. 

About the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance

The Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance is a non-profit wine industry membership organization whose primary mission is to build an internationally acclaimed Walla Walla Valley wine brand among consumers, media, and trade by providing marketing programs on behalf of member wineries, vineyards, and partners.  The Wine Alliance functions as the leading informational resource for consumers, media and trade interested in learning more about the Valley’s wine industry

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