Many wine lovers have epiphanies in their wine journeys. For Mark McNeilly, founder of Woodinville’s Mark Ryan Winery, his “kick in the head” from Washington Merlot came early.

“I was working for Unique Wine Company [and] making garage wine back in the late 90s,” McNeilly recalls. “I bought a six pack of L’Ecole Merlot from Larry’s Market in North Seattle, and I brought it home and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to start a wine cellar.’”

Things did not turn out as planned.

“We tanked that whole six pack the first weekend!” McNeilly says laughing, as he recalls pouring the wine into a large bowl and then back into the bottle as he didn’t own a decanter.

“I can taste that wine right now. It was so good! It was glorious! It kind of felt like Cabernet but had the softness of this great Merlot fruit.”

When McNeilly launched Mark Ryan winery in 1999, he didn’t start out necessarily intending to put a spotlight on the variety.

“I set out to try and make these great blends that a lot of people were doing,” McNeilly says. “Those were the wines that I fell in love with from Washington. Merlot was always a part of that, but I don’t know if I set out to make Merlot.”

What he did set out to do was focus on fruit from Red Mountain fruit, initially stalwart vineyards Ciel du Cheval and Klipsun, which remain key fruit sources. The two blends McNeilly began with were the Cabernet Sauvignon focused Dead Horse and Merlot dominant Long Haul, two wines that would come to define the winery for Washington wine lovers everywhere. As it turns out, Red Mountain is a special spot for Merlot.

“It’s a windy site, so the grapes are often smaller with thicker skins making them a little bit more tannic,” McNeilly explains. “So what you have is that really soft fruit that Merlot offers, but it’s wrapped in some great structure from Red Mountain. It takes something that could be a little simple and fruity and gives it a lot more complexity and depth.”

Over time, the winery’s Long Haul has evolved.

“Every year, I kept putting more and more Merlot into it,” McNeilly says. In fact, the 2015 through 2017 wines have been varietally designated rather than listed as a red wine as in previous years.

In 2015, the winery also a reserve Merlot, called Little Sister, to its portfolio. 100% varietal, it’s made from a selection of the winery’s top barrels.

“We have access to the very best Merlot planted in Washington state,” McNeilly says. “[Winemaker] Mike [Macmorran] and I go through and we choose very specific vineyards, lots, and barrels and put a small blend of 100% Merlot together.”

The 2017 vintage was my 2020 Washington Merlot Challenge wine for April. Most of the fruit comes from Quintessence Vineyard on Red Mountain, where Mark Ryan partnered with grower Dick Shaw to have vines planted for the winery. The rest comes from esteemed Red Willow. Aromas of Red Vines, dark raspberry, herb and dark chocolate lead to palate coating, textured fruit flavors, showing depth and freshness (Wine Enthusiast 93 points, Cellar Selection). Like the Merlot that inspired Mark McNeilly all those years ago, it too is a glorious wine.

And the name?

“Merlot is the little sister to Cabernet in weight and style,” McNeilly says. “It’s also a pretty killer Queens of the Stone Age song.”

While Merlot has taken its licks in the last 15 years, McNeilly says there is no shame in loving the variety.

“It’s got great structure, but it’s got all that plush dark fruit which is so good. It’s supremely drinkable. People should be proud to be ordering Merlot.”