I recently spent two weeks in the Walla Walla area. Now, before the cracks start coming (“What contest did you lose?” “What, you were there two days and it seemed like two weeks?”), I should note that Walla Walla has become quite the wine hotspot, as geeks based in the Pacific Northwest can testify.
For me, the town’s transformation is remarkable. When I first visited Walla Walla 22 years ago, it seemed to my East Coast-biased eyes to be a podunk wheat farming town whose saving graces were a good liberal arts college that gave it some character and the nearby Blue Mountains. Though a few wineries already existed (L’Ecole, Woodward Canyon, Leonetti . . .), I never imagined the wine boom that would take place, nor could I have predicted how the once-dying downtown would be revitalized. Today, there are upwards of 80 wineries in the “metropolitan area” and it’s a great place to visit.
The wine scene is incredibly vibrant. The quality of wines produced by local vintners is almost uniformly high. And most winemakers remain small, family-owned operations, though there are a few exceptions.
The winemaking style is not normally my favorite — it’s definitely New World with big fruit — but it is exceptionally well-done in that genre, with great complexity, good structure and uncommonly bright acidity. I do have three gripes:
1) Alcohol levels often exceed 14 and even 15 percent, more than I normally prefer.
2) Some winemakers go hog-wild with the new oak, but I tried to focus my tastings on those who use a light touch (many thanks to Bucko, who in a previous post helped point me in the right direction). Still, the fruit is so vibrant that many wines can handle extra alcohol and oak without seeming out of balance or being undrinkable.
3) The pricing — most wines sell for $25 or more — is beyond my normal range, but I am a cheapskate and the quality usually merits it.
Most of the wines I tasted were cabs and syrahs — I’m particularly fond of the job many vintners are doing with the latter — but I also liked some wines made from other grapes, including barbera and sangiovese. There’s a fair amount of experimentation going on, which adds to the enjoyment of exploring the area.
Bottles I drank:
Cougar Crest 2002 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Grown, $28
This has too much oak for my taste. Beyond the oak there are some black currants and a touch of herbs and bitter coffee. It does improve with a little time in the glass as the oak becomes less prominent. Fine match alder-smoked silver salmon with a maple/soy ginger glaze. The next day it is better, mellower, less oaky and more herbal.
Isenhower 2004 Columbia Valley Wild Thyme, $14
This is really nice and the best value I found on my trip. It has a mix of chocolate and lots of, yes, thyme-like herbs (the power of suggestion in the wine’s name?) supported by good cherry fruit on the nose and palate. Good acidity and very food-friendly. It’s a blend of Bordeaux grapes with merlot having the largest percentage.
Zerba Cellars 2002 Columbia Valley Syrah, $23
This has a decent nose of black fruits accented by some red ones, scorched earth, and minor nuances of flowers and pepper. On the palate, I taste mostly black fruits with some red, more scorched earth and some pepper, turning into a rather bitter finish that I’m not so crazy about. A bit heavy-bodied, ponderous and disjointed, though there’s enough acidity for structure. Curiously, the 13.4 percent alcohol, which is low for these wines, seems unusually prominent. It went well enough with rotisserie chicken.
Yellow Hawk Cellars 2004 Columbia Valley Barbera, $19
My first ever Barbera from Washington state and did this vintner ever do a great job with it! This is remarkably like a fruit-forward Piedmontese barbera, with bright and rich cherry fruit and dusty earth on the nose and palate, no trace of oak, and typical barbera acidity. Very food-friendly. Excellent match with pasta primavera. Two days later, it’s just as delightful. If this wine is any indication, the grape holds great potential for the region.
Amavi 2003 Walla Walla Valley Syrah, $24
Excellent. Violets, pepper and chocolate on the nose. On the palate, black cherry and blackberry fruit are supported by good acidity. No noticeable oak. Terrific match with moussaka.
College Cellars of Walla Walla 2003 Columbia Valley Merlot Klipsun Vineyard
This is produced by Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology and Viticulture. It has chocolate, smoke, black cherry, plum and dusty earth on the nose and palate. This is very powerful, reflecting its 15.9 percent alcohol and the vineyard, but amazingly, it doesn’t seem “hot.” It has smooth texture, enough balancing acidity to prevent flabbiness, and reasonably restrained oakiness. Not my type, but impressive for its type.
Tamarack Cellars 2004 Columbia Valley Firehouse Red, $16
Mostly black fruits with some earth, chocolate and spices but marred by some bitterness. Not bad, not great, but a decent match with homemade pizzas. This is a cab-dominated blend.
Glen Fiona 2001 Walla Walla Valley Syrah, $22
This is very restrained and elegant. At first the nose is marred by a touch of VA but that disappears. There are aromas and flavors of black cherry and blackberry fruit accented by a light touch of herbs and pepper. Balanced and harmonious with excellent food-friendly acidity. Some tannins remain. This really comes alive with food and is an outstanding match with black bean stew.
Russell Creek 2004 Columbia Valley Sangiovese, $25
This is very oaky, yet I can find some enjoyment nevertheless. The oak is soft and does not prevent the rich bright cherry fruit from shining through. Very smooth and elegant in texture with very good acidity. Excellent match with pesto. Four days later, it’s still very smooth, fruit-forward and enjoyable with the oak less dominant.
Forgeron 2001 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Quite nice. Good cassis fruit accented by dark chocolate, some herbs, gravel and earth on the nose and palate. True to the grape and to the place. Decent acidity and structure. The oak is well-integrated. Excellent match with chicken. Two days later, it’s just as good.
Fort Walla Walla Cellars 2003 Walla Walla Valley Syrah, $27
A mix of bright and rich black cherry, raspberry and blackberry fruit with pepper, herb and light chocolate accents. Excellent acidity, good structure, no oak, but marred by a very slight touch of heat. Went fine with Mexican food.
Wines I tasted, bought and schlepped home with me:
Note: I did not take notes as I tasted, so what’s here are general impressions of minimal value rather than detailed analysis:
Morrison Lane 2003 Walla Walla Valley Carmenère, $26
Morrison Lane 2003 Walla Walla Valley Nebbiolo, $35
My visit to their beautiful downtown tasting room was a highlight of my trip. Dean Morrison, one of the owners, was there pouring seven wines. In addition to the two I bought, he had a sangiovese, barbera, counoise and two syrahs on hand. Morrison Lane is a rarity for Walla Walla, not only because of the varietals they use but because they grew grapes before they made wine. Every wine they sell comes from Morrison Lane Vineyard. I asked Dean why they focused on non-traditional grapes, expecting to get an answer about how the climate, soil and terroir were somehow well-suited to each grape, but he said he just wanted to do something different from the other Walla Walla winemakers. I complimented him on the fact that he does not appear to use new oak in his wines (I couldn’t taste any), expecting to get a recitation about how lumber ruins wines, but instead he said it was because he couldn’t afford new oak barrels. Anyway, he seemed like a delightful guy and I appreciated his candor. I liked all of the wines tasted, which were fruit-forward, varietally correct (as far as I could tell), fairly powerful and quite tannic, yet with good balance and acidity. I bought the nebbiolo because I’ve never had one from outside Italy before, though I couldn’t taste a whole lot beyond the considerable tannins. He said that in the first three vintages he grew nebbiolo, the 2003 was the only one he bottled because the others were too acidic. I bought the carmenère because I’ve never had one and I loved the herbal nose. I’d had the counoise before, which I liked very much, and I also particularly enjoyed the barbera.
Bradenview Cellars 2002 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $25
This is a tiny, family-run winery owned by a former local school principal and her husband. Like Morrison Lane, they started with their own vineyard and only later got into vinification. Caleb Foster from Buty is the consulting winemaker and I really like his style. Consistent with that, this has no evident oak. It’s smooth, complex and balanced, with bright Cab fruit. Excellent.
Stephenson 2003 Washington State Syrah, $28
This is a tiny winery on the outskirts of the airport area and it appeared I might have been the only visitor of the day. The winemaker, who seemed like a nice guy, was kind enough to open a merlot and this bottle just for me (I made it clear I would understand if he chose not to). Though this syrah only says “Washington State,” the grapes come from either the Willow Crest or Red Willow Vineyard (I know Willow’s in the name anyway) which is at 1300 feet in the Columbia Valley, the elevation giving it bright acidity which was quite evident. This is made with little, if any, new oak, it’s vibrant, and already drinking very well.
Amavi 2004 Columbia Valley Syrah, $28
This winery, a bit west of downtown, seems to be a larger operation than most. The grapes for this wine usually come from Walla Walla Valley vineyards but a freeze in 2004 forced many local winemakers to get their grapes from Columbia Valley. This had very pleasant syrah fruit, decent acidity, little evident oak, and seemed to be ageworthy.
Seven Hills 2002 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Seven Hills Vineyard, $30
They have a very stylish tasting room downtown, sharing the same building with the highly-regarded Whitehouse-Crawford restaurant. I have long enjoyed their Seven Hills Vineyard cab bottling, which has always had an elegant, restrained, European style to it, and this was no exception. I also tasted a tempranillo which seemed a decent rendition of the grape though it tasted a bit on the oaky side for me.
Other wineries I visited included Syzygy (which only had one bottling left to sell), Ash Hollow and Patrick Paul, all of which had pleasant wines to taste but none that jumped out and rang my chimes. I tried to go to Buty but they were closed, being sold out of all their wines at the present time.
Wines I tasted:
I had the good fortune to be able to attend a tasting and book party (for the publication of Washington: the State of Wine, a coffee table picture book by Sara Matthews) at L’Ecole No. 41's striking tasting room. I didn’t take notes, so these are perfunctory, fairly useless observations:
Local celebrity winemaker (in the context of Walla Walla, at any rate) Christophe Baron of Cayuse was there pouring wines but much to my disappointment, be didn’t bring any reds. He did pour a rosé, made from grenache, which he says he makes just for his personal enjoyment and does not sell. It was very light-colored and light-bodied, pleasant, refreshing on a hot day, reasonably dry but a bit non-descript IMHO. His viognier was really good, though I have little experience with the grape and, thus, no reference point. It had a great flowery nose and some complexity, and was very dry and harmonious.
Woodward Canyon 2002 Walla Walla Valley Estate Red — this was the WOTN for me. Produced entirely from their own vineyard from cab franc, merlot and cab sauvignon, it was really complex, smooth and elegant. However, it sells for $55, a price justified by the quality but beyond my means.
Spring Valley — Family members were there pouring the wines, which was nice considering the tragedy they’ve endured, though I understand the winery is now owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle. I tasted the Frederick, which I believe is a cab-dominated blend, and the Uriah, which is a merlot-dominated blend. (I forget whether the vintage was 2003 or 2004.) The former seemed over-the-top oaky to me and not very pleasant. The latter was more balanced but it didn’t do much for me either. A week later, I was able to taste an earlier vintage of the Uriah (2001 IIRC) that was much more harmonious and enjoyable.
L’Ecole No. 41 — Marty Clubb, the winemaker, who is married to a former classmate of my wife, was there. I tasted the 2003 Perigee and Apogee. The former is a cab-dominated blend from Seven Hills Vineyard. The latter is a merlot-dominated blend from Pepper Bridge Vineyard. Interestingly, the Apogee was much bigger and more powerful than the Perigee, despite being made from mostly merlot. I take that to be a reflection of the difference in vineyards. I do know that Seven Hills (as noted above) tends to produce wines with more elegance than power. I liked both wines, but preferred the Perigee.
Leonetti 2003 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon — Chris Figgins, son of Leonetti founder Gary, was there pouring this wine. He seemed a very nice guy with a good sense of humor. I have read lots of postings in this forum and others warning that Leonetti’s wines are oaked to the hilt, but I was actually very impressed with this. What oak there was seemed integrated and there was delightful, complex fruit and earth to balance things out. This also seemed like it had the best aging potential of all the wines I tasted. This was the runner-up of the night, IMHO, after the Woodward Canyon. At $70, this wine is also beyond my budget and unavailable to all but the privileged few on their list.
A week later, I had the chance to have two glasses of the Leonetti 1996 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Seven Hills Vineyard Reserve. I thought this was outstanding, with good secondary and tertiary development going on, great complexity, and, once again, not too much oak.
In summation, I got to taste a lot of wines I can’t afford, buy some wines I can’t afford, and had a great time. What wine geek could ask for more?