The eating that you've been reading about in Seattle here and here was all just an amuse bouche for the main event. It was a great starter, don't get me wrong. I did after all, discover my new favorite way to dine, but that was all a warm-up for the real purpose of my trip to Washington - wine tasting in Walla Walla.
Walla what? Not a typo. Walla Walla is a wine region in southeastern Washington, near the Oregon border. It's about 4 hours from Portland and 4-1/2 from Seattle. It's fairly new when you compare it to Napa or pretty much anywhere in Europe since things didn't seriously take shape in Walla Walla until the late 70s when Leonetti Cellars came onto the scene. There's over 2,800 acres of vineyards and more than 120 wineries in the area. Their top varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot, in that order, though you'll find many others in the over 90 tasting rooms. And would you believe Washington is the second largest premium wine producer in the US, behind CA? Of course there's quite a large gap between CA and WA, but they're on the map.
There are 4 distinct areas of Walla Walla so with 3 days and 3 friends, we set out to sample the best from each. Grab a glass, here's your tour of the Walla Walla wineries.
Walla Walla's Westside Wineries
If you're driving in from Seattle like we were, you'll hit some of the oldest wineries first. And the first thing you might notice is the lack of vines. Wine country with no green or vineyards? The grapes aren't far, but Walla Walla is in the WA desert so you'll see a sea of gold, which is a stark contrast to most wine producing regions. This area has long, warm summer days with cool nights, making for some intense fruit and nice acidity.
We couldn't have been more excited to begin our Walla Walla wine tasting and we started with Woodward Canyon, the second winery established in the area in 1981. They have a cute house on site where you can have lunch (in season) while sipping some of their cabs, merlots or chards. I have to say that our enthusiasm wasn't returned. The young gal working the room seemed a bit annoyed with us, her job, or just life. That tainted our experience, but I did like their "Artist Series" cab where they've been having different artists design their labels since '01.
Not letting someone's bad day stop us, we popped next door, actually we drove, not realizing L'Ecole was within steps of Woodward. L'Ecole is housed in the Frenchtown schoolhouse that was originally located along the Walla Walla River in 1870. In 1915 it was rebuilt in the present location. The schoolhouse image is iconic and displayed on most of L'Ecole's bottles. L'Ecole has been on Wine & Spirits Magazine Winery of the Year list for 12 consecutive years. The wines ranged from some light whites - Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay to single varietal reds of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Merlot put Walla Walla on the map, but the Syrahs are also becoming hugely popular. The Syrahs have deep berry notes that are jammy and balanced and were my favorite varietal of the trip (sorry, spoiler alert) . Being the same latitude as Burgundy and Bordeaux, you'll also find some nice Bordeaux blends.
My favorite tasting on Walla Walla's westside by far was at Long Shadows. You do need an appointment here, but it's worth it. You step into the tasting room, outfitted with Chihuly blown glass and a view of the outdoors and production facility. We took a corner and then received a great education and tasting of what they're doing at Long Shadows.
Allen Shoup, former CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle has gathered 7 winemakers from across the globe to produce a single wine using local grapes from the area. He's not gathering the interns from the wineries either. The winemakers he's working with are an impressive bunch like Michel Rolland who travels the world, consulting award-winning vintners, and Philippe Melka from Napa who Parker put in his 10 top wine consultants in the world. If you wanted a wine club to join, this would be the one as you get a sampling of how these influential producers from different countries put their touch on a wine using Walla Walla's local grapes. A solid line-up and great idea.
Other noteable wineries on Walla Walla's Westside: Reininger, Foundry, Gramery Cellars and Canoe.
Walla Walla Southside Wineries
The next day we hit Walla Walla's Southside wineries and we did it in style with Bella Fortuna Events and Tours. They can help you coordinate your tour through all areas of Walla Walla, or if you happen to meet a special someone traipsing through the vineyards and are ready to plan a local wedding, Sharon is your gal. In fact, we were driven around by one of Sharon's right hands Carrie who also plans weddings in the area at Without a Hitch.
Not having to worry about sipping, sampling and driving is a big plus, and if you're not as fortunate as we were with having 3 days to hit all the areas, then you definitely want a driver to cover some ground, worry-free. You also get insider info since they're locals and have a lot of intel about everyone and everything, so you better behave winemakers :-)
The southside includes some Oregon wineries and is towards "the rocks," ie., great rocky soil and beautiful green vines. We found the vines! Our first stop in the south was at Va Piano, a Tuscan-inspired winery. The winemaker Justin Wylie is a fourth generation Walla Walla native who spent time in Florence where he met Bruno Segatta, an artist, scholar and humanitarian. Segatta inspired Wylie to start his winery and Va Piano now features Bruno's art on a special Bruno's Blend wine. You can also find Italian artwork for sale throughout the tasting room.
He's barely been at this for 10 years, but he's already making really well balanced Cabs, Syrahs (my fav), Merlots, Cab Francs and Petit Verdot with grapes all grown on the property. Va Piano even sells some of their grapes to big name locals like L'Ecole, Gramercy and Kerloo. What I love about the family run operation is that the winemaker Justin is right there, in the middle of harvest, willing to take us through his operation and encouraging us to put our hands in the grapes. He's even teaching his daughter the business and she already seemed like a natural. So our initial un-friendly Walla Walla greeting quickly vanished as everyone else in the tasting rooms was nothing but warm and hospitable.
As soon as we walked into Sleight of Hand, our tasting server said ok, the most important question first. We assumed that was number of tastings, reserve, etc...No, it's pick your music. Thousands of albums - yes albums - line the walls, along with with music and magic posters. Neil Patrick Harris is quite the magician and you'll see his mug in a few places and even on a varietal that's poured locally here in LA at the Magic Castle.
These grapes are all sourced and play with the magic theme with names like the Illusionist Cab or the Levitation Syrah. You can feel the fun they're having making and pouring their wine.
Saviah grows their own grapes and also works with a few partners. They produce 18,000 cases annually and have received some nice accolades like One of the Top 100 Wineries and Top Value Brands by Wine & Spirits Magazine. Their Walla Walla 2011 Syrah was a winner in my book.
They're the only one's in the area producing a Pinot Noir. The heat makes it difficult to protect the delicate grape, but these come from a vineyard at 1900 feet in elevation. They're also one of the few in the country using an electronic sorting machine that runs lasers through the grapes to help differentiate the good from the bad. Pretty high tech equipment for Walla Walla!
Driving up to Northstar, it reminded me of the ski resort by the same name in Lake Tahoe. In fact, it looks a lot like a chalet inside with its vaulted pine ceiling and stone fireplace, but they use the name more as a directional guide in the production of top notch Merlots. They do have some solid Merlot, but I was equally impressed with the Syrahs and Cabs. They've all received high marks from Wine Enthusiast and Wine Advocate, and with good reason.
This is also the only place in the area where you can do your own wine blending session. They'll give you an overview of the WA wine growing region before launching you in your own winemaker-for-a-day session. Next time!
Flying Trout is run by the affable Ashley Trout who spends time every year in Argentina and brings back her winemaking knowledge and sometimes a special bottle shipment to Walla Walla. She sold her brand to Tero Estates in 2010 and has been making her wine under their name ever since. Tero also owns the Waters label.
You can see and taste the Argentinian influence with peppery Malbecs to more delicate, fruit forward Medoza-like blends. As was the case most places we went in Walla Walla, the winemaker was there pouring for us, and winery dogs were there to greet us. And also like a lot of the winemakers, the owner is young, enthusiastic and ready to take on the world. I asked Ashley about her goals and dreams and she didn't hesitate before replying, "Dreams are not my deficit." She has many dreams and is working hard to make them all a reality. Judging by her wines, I'd say many of her dreams are coming true.
Other notable wineries in the South: Amavi, Dusted Valley, Balboa, Pepper Bridge, Watermill.
Walla Walla Eastside Wineries
On our third day, we hit the wineries to the east of Walla Walla. To give you an idea of distance, it's only 12 miles to àMaurice from the downtown area. It's not far and the streets are wide open. Wine and Spirits Magazine recently gave àMaurice the distinction of Winery of the Year. It's a family run operation and they're big on giving back. That's what the à stands for in their name, meaning to or for. They also focus on having an organic and sustainable operation. I was happy to return to the lush green vines. They have a beautiful property that encourages lingering.
Walla Walla Vintners had pumpkins growing near their vines and a small, sparse tasting room. It was enough to taste their well-made, well-priced reds. I should say that most of the wine in Walla Walla was fairy priced and the tasting fees were usually $5-10 - waived with bottle purchases. You listening Napa? All of the wine we tasted at Walla Walla Vintners was under $40. Their Columbia Valley Sangiovese was a steal at $25, but I didn't steal it. I purchased it and look forward to opening it soon. Their Malbec and Estate Syrah were also delightful with deep jammy notes and a good kick of pepper in the Malbec. The other point of note about Walla Walla Vintners is that one of the owners/winemakers Myles Anderson is responsible for creating the Institute for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College. He believes in giving back and became the school's first director. It's now a hugely popular program.
Other wineries to look for on the Eastside: K Vintners and Abeja.
Walla Walla Airport Tasting Rooms
The area around the Walla Walla airport is filled with old World War II buildings that have been turned into tasting rooms. Make wine, not war I say. Buty is here making some nice red and white blends, in addition to a single varietal, vineyard-designated Chardonnay. It's a small, family run operation that uses little to no new oak in many of their wines. They pick earlier to preserve the clean taste and purity.
Just around the corner from Buty is the delightful tasting room from Adamant, where one of the owners was there pouring and entertaining us. Debra is part of yet another young couple who started making wine in their apartment and then decided to give it a real go and came to Walla Walla. Adamant has a nice range of wine, but I was most excited about the sparkling tempranillo. It was the first sparkling I had in the area and just her second year producing it, but judging by the taste, it should be here to stay.
Other wineries to look for near the airport: Dunham Cellars, Five Star and Tamarack.
Walla Walla Incubators
In case you haven't figure out how cool Walla Walla is yet, listen to this. The State Capital gave money to construct some buildings near the airport that could serve as a launch pad for young, aspiring winemakers, many who were graduating from the Community College's Viticulture program. Chosen start-ups are allowed to stay up to 6 years and ideally by then, they're ready for their own free-standing business. J&J Vinters and Palencia are already both producing solid wine and receiving awards. In fact, Palencia's 2012 Syrah received 90 points from Wine Spectator this year and their 2012 Grenache received 92 points. It's a really interesting project that can only help Walla Walla grown in the wine and tourism business.
Walla Walla's Downtown Tasting Rooms
If you don't feel like driving anywhere, you can stay in downtown Walla Walla and hoof it around and taste from over 25 local winemakers. The tasting rooms are chock 'o block and get more festive as the day goes on, for many reasons, but some host live music and serve food for a full service experience. A few highlights.
Mark Ryan was named winemaker of the year in 2011 by Seattle Magazine and Wine & Spirits put the winery in their top 100 wineries in the world for 3 consecutive years. Not only are the wines amazing, but they're also serving them in a lovely space. You don't know whether to park yourself for the afternoon on the patio or throw a dinner party indoors at the big long dining table. I'm guessing the former would be more welcome.
This is a good spot to end your day. The vibe here is fun and playful. You might think you're in a frat house basement with the cement floor and unique decor, but the young winemaker here knows what he's doing with the grapes. He's also highly entertaining in the tasting room, interacting with everyone and introducing his dog. He's producing single vineyard, single varietals like Viognier, Carmenere, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.
Other Downtown Tasting Rooms To Look For: Cadaretta, Seven Hills, Corliss, Doubleback, Rotie, Spring Valley.
You wish you could get into Leonetti, but if you ever see it on a menu, grab it, assuming your credit card has a high limit. Chris Figgins also has his own brand by the same name. Again, see & grab. Much of the prized wine from the region doesn't leave Walla Walla, because it doesn't have to. They sell it to their wine club and some wine clubs have waitlists to get in. So enjoy the wine you can get, or get thee to Walla Walla for some really well balanced wine at great prices.
Need more info on Walla Walla (seriously, did I not give you enough?), check out the Walla Walla Visitors Site. And of course you're going to need some food, so check out my top recommendations for restaurants in Walla Walla.
Bella Fortuna provided the car service, but all my opinions are always my own.