Since what I know about Walla Walla is less than what I know about crochet (is that a cheese?), I decided to short cut the hours of Google research and vintner comparisons by going straight to the source.
Carrie Simon runs Washington Wine 9 (WAW9), an itinerary planning service for the wine and food lover. Simply provide her with your dates, lodging type preference (hotel efficiency vs. B&B coziness), and the types of food you like to eat and after some discussions and decisions, a folder arrives in the mail. We uncork a bottle and check out what she’s lined up for us. I’m not sure if it was the day by day itineraries, winery appointments, personal recommendations or vintner backgrounds that swung it, but the efficiency and affordability of the service secured me as a future customer and ardent referral.
We headed to the airport with a sense of calm and relaxation – the only struggle was adding the addresses into the GPS and trying to focus on the road, and not the wide rolling expanses of green. While the countryside is less ‘Tuscany’ and more ‘Ireland’, the beauty of the area can’t be avoided and set the tone of serenity that pervaded the weekend. And we hadn’t even tasted anything yet.
Carrie had outlined a two pronged approach to the region, enabling us to taste the differences in taste and complexity within and across neighboring areas. We started in the Red Mountain region; closest to Pasco airport and an area burgeoning with new wine makers. We quickly stopped off to grab a gourmet picnic lunch from Bella Italian Deli (pricey but large portions and delicious) and headed off in search of grapes.
Our first stop was Cooper Wine Company, a fairly new winery housed in a big red barn adjacent to multiple wineries. We were greeted with abounding enthusiasm by Bud, winemaker Neil Coopers faithful chocolate lab, and headed inside his open barn to taste his new vintage. While Neil is a heritage farmer, he’s hoping to raise the first generation of Cooper vintners via his 9 year old son and is passionate about the region and its possibilities for great wines. As at all of our wineries during the weekend, we received strong recommendations from Neil for ‘must taste’ wines and directions to ‘can’t miss’ locations, plus a history of individual fields and plantings. These guys are passionate about their fields!
Scanning the itinerary and with Neil’s recommendation in our ears, we jumped in the car and headed off to Col Solare for a private tasting. Greeted at the door by Kristine, our vivacious host, we gathered on the balcony of the Tuscan villa-like facility to learn about the plantings, the owners, the history of Col Solare and of course, the philosophy behind their wine. Unlike many Walla Walla wineries, Col Solare was built and backed by with a large scale producer Chateau Ste. Michelle and the vision of Marchesi Antinori. It’s clear that the strategy here is extremely long term however the wines they’re producing today don’t hint at the youth of the vines. Complex and deep magenta, the Col Solare red hints at its heritage and explodes in your mouth. While the price point for their wines limit every-day drinking, for special occasion or cellaring, these are extraordinary wines.
We made our goodbyes and headed off to Fidelitis for our next tasting plus the opportunity to sit in the Washington sunshine and enjoy our picnic. Sipping Fidelitis Cabernet with our Bella Deli sandwiches (I highly recommend the roast beef), we sunned ourselves on the patio and took in the 180 degree view of the valley. With a heavy pour and delightful hosts it was tough to stir ourselves and drive to our next tasting, however the promise of L’Ecole beckoned.
Housed in an old school house directly off Lowden School Road, L’Ecole provides a slightly more hectic environment for tasting, undoubtedly driven by their outstanding selection of wines. We were joined by a mass of women who were sampling as part of their ‘mommy wine tasting club’ and a number of couples who we’d bumped into earlier. Apparently 3pm on Friday is wine time in Walla Walla. Luckily L’Ecole boasts a quieter private tasting room for their wine club members and we were able to accompany our wine with a wide selection of cheeses. The creaking floorboards and old photographs of the schoolroom in earlier times were a perfect accompaniment to the large array of tastings and it was only the promise of an afternoon nap that caused us to leave.
A leisurely weekend of sipping with friends begs for a relaxed and secluded B&B; room to breathe but a warm welcome and overstocked fridge is essential. Add in plenty of reading/ games for those few hours between tastings and you have the Areus B&B. Highly recommended by Carrie, we overcame our initial reservations about its locale (it seems like it’s in the middle of nowhere) when we were warmly welcomed by our host, Dave.
10 miles from downtown Walla Walla, Areus sits among rolling hills of wheat and offers seclusion plus an outdoor lap pool for those adventurous enough to brave the Washington spring temperatures. With just 5 bedrooms, one of which is detached from the main house, Areus avoids that claustrophobic ‘B&B’ atmosphere you sometimes encounter by offering up a number of gathering areas, a sauna, pool, outdoor veranda with bed sized loungers and a dining room that offers a wide view of vines and rolling fields. Dave was present enough to welcome us, but invisible enough to allow us to settle in and feel at home. Standing in front of the fridge on my return from a tasting and hungry for snacks, I sometimes forgot I was in someone else’s house. Breakfast was laid out each morning in the dining room, but with kitchen adjacent, we were able to help ourselves to additional fruit, coffee, yoghurt and pastries as we needed.
Observing our San Francisco palates, Carrie had waited listed us for reservations at Saffron, a desirable local hotspot however after a long day of tasting, we opted for an easier table at T. Maccarone’s. Half block off the main street in downtown Walla Walla, and off the ground floor of an office building, we entered the warmly lit restaurant to a hubbub of conversation and enticing aromas. We enjoyed a Woodwood Canyon 06 Cabernet while we waited for service and struck up conversation with some locals that were sitting at the table next to us. Walla Walla doesn’t stand on formality and we picked up some tips for our weekend as we waited for our steaks to arrive. Sated and slightly rolling towards our car, our designated driver was much lauded for her patience, especially during the pitch black drive through the wheatfields with some highly opinionated companions who claimed superior knowledge over the GPS. What did we do before GPS?
We eased into day 2 with gallons of coffee and a filling continental breakfast, taking in the views and perusing the WAW9 itinerary to learn about the day’s wineries and the helpful back-stories Carrie had given alongside each one.
Our day kicked off at Buty Winery, a small operation located in an even smaller building, apparently collocated in an industrial park. What the site lacked in grandure, the wines compensated with big bold flavors – maybe too bold for 9am? The husband and wife team of Nina and Caleb, welcomed us and talked through their philosophy, history in the business and the passion behind their label.
While Buty’s red’s were bold for early morning, Carrie’s itinerary took us up to a new level of pizzazz at Charles Smith’s tasting room. Located in a warehouse on Spokane Street between Main & Alder, the airy and contemporary feel reflects on the wines, their labels and the individuality of the winemaker Charles. Part local rockstar, party host and graphic artist, his wines include both the K Vintners and Charles Smith labels, with names reflecting his distinctly non-traditional approach ‘Think Upon’ and ‘Kung Fu Girl’ were both spectacular. At 11am the tasting bar was crowded and the vibe was distinctly urban. Sipping to the sounds of 50’s and 60’s Rockabilly Garage music, the wines were approachable and very affordable (my futures arrive in the fall). After discovering a shared passion for sea urchin with his lovely Italian wife Ginevra we were invited to the evening party, with a promise of paella, and of course, more wine.
Our next stop was Seven Hills Winery. Located just four blocks from the rocking scene at Charles Smith, the pristine white walls of the tasting room and stained glass felt church-like and as the only occupants we were tempted to whisper. Luckily the break in tasting traffic meant we were offered a full tour of the facility, including a private tasting of the 2009 Riesling direct from the stainless tank it was aging in. The informed host poured generously and shared his stories of 1am rotations and where to find a drink when the crush is done. The tour was the most informal and most informative, we peaked into what it is to live and breathe (literally) wine, plus the wine was highly drinkable and pleased our friend with the least developed palate.
A full morning of wine tasting deserved a full afternoon of eating and we joined the throngs heading for the Feast of Walla Walla. With an admission price of $45, we sampled wines and food from local restaurants and wineries, ranging from Curry Halibut, Roast Beef, Pork Tacos and Cassoulet to hand-made chocolates and candy. A lot of the smaller wineries were represented and we were able to taste at least 5 or 6 more wines in addition to our morning hit list. For $45 the event kept numbers reasonable the tents from being overcrowded, and our group ate and drank their fill.
Two more wineries featured in the afternoon and despite our fading palettes we motivated ourselves into the car and headed out with our trusty GPS. First up was Reynvaan Family Vineyards followed thereafter by Rasa Winery. The wines at both were worth the effort and once again, we found ourselves standing in the sun with glass in hand. It was turning out to be one tough weekend.
The co-owner and winemaker at Rasa, Billo Naravane brings a unique sensibility to his wine making informed not only by extensive education but a desire to do something different. With a plethora of labels under their belt, Rasa shone with several Rieslings and some punchy blends. As the last stop of the day, we might not have been the freshest palates but we surely won points for capacity.
After retiring to Areus to sleep off a few glasses, we headed off to the hamlet of Waitsburg for appetizers and cocktails at JimGermanBar. Known locally as ‘the’ place to enjoy old world cocktails in a ‘Soho’ type atmosphere, we enjoyed some Gin Rickeys and chatted with the owner about his paella method. Cooking for the Charles Smith party, we hoped to get the inside scoop on what to expect, but decided instead to hop in the car to get an informed verdict. Our appetizers failed to materialize and we needed something to soak up the cocktails.
Sadly we arrived at the Charles Smith party along with most of the Walla Walla valley – too late to sample the paella, but ready to dance and enjoy the big band music the DJ was playing. The room was packed and the dancing old school. Despite empty stomachs we were laughing as we left and considered the day a solid 10.
Day three began with a private tasting at dMaurice’s tasting room and winery. Head winemaker Anna Schafer, poured and chatted with passion about her wines, from her years in Argentina to her current place in Walla Walla. From her first bottle landing on French Laundry’s menu to the wines we sampled, it’s clear that Anna is a future star of the Walla Walla valley and one whose experience and ‘at the vine’ learning has prepped her for a stellar career. As with all of our Walla Walla winery hosts, we were amazed at the open and friendly attitude and lack of pretention that Anna sold along with her delicious wines.
Lunch was calling – apparently you can’t live on wine alone, and after skipping dinner we headed off the itinerary (which listed Olive Marketplace, gourmet breads and sandwiches) and headed to a local diner (the Internet Café) for a more traditional brunch. Big mistake! While the eggs and bacon were much appreciated and the locals filled the place, the hour long wait reaffirmed our trust in Carrie and WAW9.
Sated with cholesterol we consulted our itinerary and headed off for our afternoon wineries,
Bookwalter Winery and Barnard Griffin. As a nationally recognized tasting room, Barnard Griffin boasted great wines and relaxed lounge seating, a great place to wind up our tasting and rehash the wines and foods we loved the most (Tacos? Rasa? Charles Smith?). After chatting with locals we learned that Walla Walla repeats the Feast type event several times each year: once featuring current vintage (“Feast”), once featuring prior heritage vintages (“Vintage”) and finally one which features brand new releases (“Taste”). Definitely worth a return visit we all agreed…. We just needed to detoxify a little first.
Our sincere thanks are again extended to Carrie Simon of Washington Wine 9. An excellent wine country planner and one who made our trip easy, stress free and eliminated the need to argue about which and where and who. Readers may notice we gave very little direct comments on the wines themselves and instead choose to focus on the events we experienced and in describing the wineries we went to. That’s because everyone will taste wine differently and should. Visit Washington, it is a strong part of the North American wine industry and go taste and enjoy for yourself.