A few years ago, merlot hit a bit of a rut with consumers. Prompted more by the realization that what they were drinking wasn't very good than by a certain movie, many imbibers abandoned the varietal, or at least the cheaper renditions.

This would not have happened had they stuck strictly to Washington merlot, I say. Unlike their California peers, winemakers in the Evergreen State didn't overreact to the rise of merlot and overproduce it, or more precisely overplant it.

"There are fewer places in California suited for growing merlot than there are for pinot noir," said Villa San-Juliette's Adam LaZarre, perhaps California's most accomplished maker of inexpensive reds while at Rex Goliath and Cycles Gladiator.

So while California growers pulled up merlot vines and planted pinot noir, Washingtonians have stayed the course, continuing to produce tasty merlots at every price point.

Unlike their counterparts to the south, many of which were fat and jammy or thin and insipid, Washington merlots tend to have "structure -- really nice grip, depth and spice," said Ray Zemke, wine buyer for the Cellars chain.

In other words, they have the traits that have brought renown to merlot-based wines from Bordeaux's Pomerol and Saint Émilion regions. Some Washington merlots are even "bigger" than the same winery's cabernet sauvignon and thus are served after them at tastings.

Next month will offer Twin Citians several chances to see/taste for themselves. The March 3-4 Minnesota Monthly Food & Wine Experience (www.foodwineshow.com) will feature a huge Washington space and panel presentations with visiting vintners (and -- full disclosure -- yours truly). Meanwhile, an array of local eateries will be running Washington specials all month.

Those who prefer not to wait until then have a lot of stellar options to try. The Columbia Crest "Two Vines" has always been a nice "starter" merlot for $8, but it's a significant step up in quality to the same winery's dark, gripping Horse Heaven Hills H3, the ripe, vibrant Boomtown and the lush, lusty Charles Smith "The Velvet Devil," all at around $15.

Delving into the $20 to $25 range, Gordon Brothers, Mercer and L'Ecole No. 41 put out consistently fine Columbia Valley bottlings, and Chateau Ste. Michelle's Canoe Ridge is supple and sublime.

For truly profound merlots, check out Northstar's deep and hearty Columbia Valley ($42) and the multi-layered, satiny, endless Long Shadows Pedestal ($58).

All of this is not to rain on California's parade, for a lot of good-to-fabulous merlot is made there, and there's a lot less of the plonk on the shelves than a decade ago. But Washington's offerings hit the heights throughout the price spectrum and vie with Oregon's pinot noirs as America's most reliable pairing of place and grape.

Bill Ward • bill.ward@startribune.com