More Into Wine In Walla Walla

Another Featured Posting by Jan Beks, The Wining Dutchman!

At the end of July 2009 we headed for Walla Walla. From The Dalles, OR, it is about a half day drive to this centre of more than 100 wineries in the South East of Washington State. For the first time in 2 years we are able to travel together again. My travel partner Teresa surprised me with scheduling a five day trip into this booming wine area. Situated at the same latitude as the major French wine areas it substantially has grown over the years since it was established in 1984.

We discovered that once we arrived in the region it became even harder to select the wineries and their tasting rooms we wanted to visit. An article by the Wine Spectator given to us by Stacy was some help but as adventurous as a Middle East Correspondent and as stubborn as a Wining Dutchman can be it sounded nice to try some other places too or instead of the pre-selected ones. 

After we found a campground and set up our tents (our residences during the length of our stay in the Walla Walla Valley) we spend our first day (or what was left of it) in the city of Walla Walla. This was because some of the major wineries left the airport area and relocated their tasting rooms all over the town and the country side. Not that there aren’t any left at the airport; there are some good ones there but none of the ones left were on our first list.

Once in the city of Walla Walla we got wine brochures (e.g. the Touring Washington’s Wine Region) about the area and all the tasting rooms available. And as we like to make things even harder we had limited ourselves to two max three tasting rooms a day. Although the car we drove was big enough to carry a lot of bottles home we both simply didn’t want to spend a fortune on wines. Also until this day I don’t want to spit out the wine I am tasting, I want to experience the joy of swallowing it. So safe driving was an issue too.

There are lots of tasting rooms to choose from in downtown Walla Walla but it was made easier for us because most of them were either closed that afternoon, or just had closed upon our arrival. We ended up in the Walla Walla Wine Works. This neat tasting room covers a variety of wine labels. Examples we enjoyed were Waterbrook, Pendulum, Apex and the Magnificent Wine Company.

Of the last one I love their simple labels and the price versus quality rating is great. We decided to buy the 2007 Steakhouse, a 100% cab, fully bodied but still smooth tasting. Even I liked it. And still liked it a year later when I enjoyed it with a tender sirloin steak from the grill. We weren’t impressed by the Waterbrook Viognier. This 2007 white from the Columbia River Valley didn’t match up to the one we tasted a couple of days before at Maryhill Winery, also near the Columbia River but about 140 miles to the West. The Pendulum 2008 Pinot Gris and Apex 2005 Syrah were OK, but not impressive enough to add to our small collections.

On the other hand the Pendulum 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon with grapes from the Columbia River Valley which sprinkled more depth to our taste buds than the Steakhouse did was impressive enough to make us decide to buy a bottle.

The second day of our visit we managed to find some even more impressive wines, especially at the Va Piano Winery. Earlier that day we had visited the Cougar Crest Estate Winery about 10 miles outside of Walla Walla. We did the tasting for the wines served that day and as I recall we bought two bottles from them. One of them was a Cabernet Sauvignon and I am pretty sure I bought a white one from them. After a year it is hard to recall, but I think it was their Viognier that reminded me of the one I had tasted at Maryhill Winery. Obviously we weren’t yet used to making notes intensively.

After having visited the historical marker west of Walla Walla, coming back we would have been able to buy a truck load of different wines as there are a lot of small wineries in this area west of the city. And sometimes you just end up somewhere you weren’t heading for. I am not sure where we went wrong, but I remember that we were looking for another winery but couldn’t find it. Sometimes signs are placed in awkward places or just suddenly disappear.

People, no need for sorrow since this seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. So Va Piano was not scheduled for that day but we ended up there. And … I am glad we did! More expensive than most of the wines we tasted on this trip, but for sure it was worth buying! Even at this “early” stage of our trip. We bought two! Even though one bottle was close to $40; but this 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon just melted even my taste buds with “dried black cherry, cassis, leather, spice and tobacco with refined balanced tannins on the finish which complete this wine”, as their website told me afterwards.

The only thing I would like to add that despite its heavy body it still tasted very smooth. “Justin Wylie has brought a few varietals into this wine; Merlot Cab Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, which he believes has added more complexity and depth to the wine.” Drink the wine as the name of the vinyard suggests, go slowly and enjoy every single drip of this wine.

Along with some of your favorite music and suitable food. Dark (min 70%) chocolate maybe? I am sure it will do great with the Lindt Excellence Extra fine dark chocolate with extract of chili pepper, I recently discovered in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Or “just” with a grilled steak. It’s a good thing I still have the bottle I bought. Also impressive was the 2007 Syrah and we had to buy it, too. Now I am confusing myself since I didn’t buy their sole white wine which I really appreciated too.

Sometimes you need to get away from the purpose of visiting an area so the “discovery” of the town Dayton east of our campground was a pleasant one. And the next morning we went back to enjoy this nice small town and their former train depot along a four decades ago abandoned railroad. In the afternoon we visited the Seven Hills Winery back in downtown Walla Walla. They for sure have some good wines but none of the ones we tasted late that morning were impressive (wow) enough to bring home. We visited wineries in the airport area after lunch. The ones we tried weren’t compelling enough.

Again that doesn’t mean that they weren’t good but with a limited budget and still some to visit, we didn’t want to add more to our carload yet. We visited that area since we found many of the tasting rooms downtown closed due to the fact of either being sold out (yes!) or just because of being at their doors the wrong day of the week.

One of those yet to visit was Waters Winery, which is situated in the same area as Va Piano. I had to “see” their Wines of Substance. Having been a lab tech for chemistry at that time I was sure that I would like the way their wines were labeled. Not that this would suggest a good wine but sometimes ordinary people just want to buy something because it was thought over well and not another “thing” put together to make money in a simple way. Without even tasting it I bought two bottles. The Viogner, Vg as they figured Mendeleev would have abbreviated it in his Periodic Table of Elements. The other one was a Malbec (Mb).

We also bought a Waters Cabernet Sauvignon since that one was the most flavorful and yet again smooth wine offered at their contemporary designed tasting room. Months later the Viogner was ok, unfortunately not up to the Maryhill one (which obviously had become my reference Viogner), since it lacked the freshness and desired smoothness but still flavorful taste of the latter one. Nevertheless promising. I hope the Malbec still sits in storage in The Dalles. I am eager to try that one.

In the afternoon we decided to try to find some more interesting wineries but we didn’t. I mean we were not able to decide upon any of the tons left. So we called it a day regarding wines, bought some great chocolate and ice cream at Bright’s Candies in Walla Walla, and were already looking forward to the wineries we had chosen to visit the next day on our way back to The Dalles.

But before we drove to the campground we decided to have a look at one of the major supermarkets. Stacy had given us a wonderful hint. Sometimes it can be very useful to stroll through them and find really good deals on good wines. Unfortunately it also can turn out into a small “nightmare” when you try to find the best wines as listed in the Wine Spectator in those markets. Nevertheless it is fun and satisfying when you do find that one particular wine as a great deal. I would like to give a hint too: make sure that you are able to visit those markets regularly and that you take your time while checking them out.

Fidélitas Red Mountain and Tapteil Vineyard Winery were the wineries we ended at before we started the last leg of our nice journey. Both are situated outside Benton City. At Fidélitas it was where we for the first time had the trouble of choosing two wines to take with us. Of course during the days behind us we got some into the taste profession and even I was able to distinguish some major flavors. Far from professionals yet we decided that their 2006 Columbia Valley eight Syrah had a nice nose, smooth aftertaste and lots of flavor. The 2005 Columbia Valley Merlot was the best Merlot we tasted so far, light but with a tasteful aftertaste.

The 2006 Columbia Valley Malbec had great flavors along with the outstanding dill one and showed to be smooth to our tongues. The 2006 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was smooth too and had lots of blended fruity flavors, while the 2005 Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon tasted deep earthy from the deep inside of the wine. Too bodied to tickle my palate! On the other hand I had very good reasons to buy the 2007 Columbia Valley Semillon: like a white should be, easy yet flavorful and refreshing. A good match to the Maryhill Viognier. Although after so many reds we both were wondering how their Wine Club Members Only wines would taste. We tried the 2005 Columbia Valley Optu Red Wine which tasted as a great wine in the session we experienced. Sorry but we didn’t even bother to write down its descriptions since we were not planning to buy this $40 wine anyway.

We just should have gone “home” after this experience but their was still the Tapteil Vineyard Winery on our list and just within a couple of miles distance. I had some troubles to reset my mind and being unbiased. Not necessary since they for sure have great wines too. We even bought two. Among them the 2005 Syrah with a rich nose and a blend of many flavors, fruity and peppery. Pepper seemed to be their thing anyway. Caused by the barrels they use and found in the taste or aftertaste gotten from the 2003 (Yakima Valley) and the 2004 (Red Mountain) Cabernet Sauvignons. While their 2003 Merlot was very berry and had a chocolate aftertaste.

I am pretty sure that we skipped more great wineries than we visited. It is just that you cannot visit more places during such a short period or even a bit longer one. There are “too” many wineries in such a small area. And then for Washington there are still the areas Yakima Valley, Columbia Valley, Puget Sound, Columbia Gorge, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope, and Rattle Snake Hills left.

We would like to thank all the visited wineries for their hospitality during the trip we made. It is such a pleasure to talk about wines along with tasting them. And … of course about our Wi-Know business cards which made everyone curious …