The focus of Part 1 was the excellent quality of Walla Walla Valley wine, while last week’s post focused on the bargain prices for which many of these wines can be purchased. So why isn’t this excellent, well-priced wine readily available outside of the Northwest? Quantity. A majority of the twenty wineries that I visited produce less than 10,000 cases per year. Some make far fewer than that–Tempus Cellars-800 cases per year, Kontos Cellars-1000 cases per year, Mackey Vineyards-1100 cases per year, Rotie Cellars-2000 cases per year, Skylite Cellars-2000 cases per year, Amaurice Cellars around 3000 cases per year, and Buty Winery-4000 cases per year. On the upper side of production, L’Ecole No. 41 makes 35,000 cases per year, making it one of the largest producers in the valley and the 18th largest producer in the state of Washington.
Quintessential Walla Walla: Vineyards and Wheat Fields
Living in Colorado, it’s rare to find many wines from the Walla Walla Valley in local restaurants or wine shops. I have heard other bloggers living outside the Northwest say as much about finding these wines in their own states. I have found a few L’Ecole No. 41 bottlings (although these are typically their Columbia Valley releases), some Tamarack Cellars releases, a few of Charles Smith’s higher-end bottlings, and some Waterbrook, but California wine dominates the inventory. If you want Washington wine, you’re typically limited to wines from Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Columbia Winery, Charles Smith Wines (the more heavily produced wines under this label, some releases are very limited) or other mega-producers. I’m not knocking these wines at all–I’ve given high praise to several of them–just pointing out that many wine consumers are given only a limited snapshot of the wines that are being made in Washington state.
How does one get a chance to taste Walla Walla Valley’s finest? My best piece of advice is to visit the area and taste a wide sample of the area’s wineries. Another option is to look for tastings/events focusing on Washington wine (if you’re in the Denver area, there’s a Washington/Oregon/Colorado wine event coming up on June 26th, send me a message if you’d like more details). Lastly, keep your eyes open while perusing your local wine shop. I stumbled across a very nice 2005 Merlot/Cab Sauv blend produced by Gifford-Hirlinger for $12.00 earlier this year!
A cluster of the Airport Wineries. Kontos Cellars is housed in the yellow building on the far right.
Walla Walla Wrap-Up
At most of the wineries that we visited, we were asked three common questions: 1) Which wineries have you been to? 2) Which ones are you going to after this? 3) Where are you going for dinner? These questions came from both tasting room employees and winemakers alike. You could just tell that the questions regarding the wineries we were visiting weren’t stemming from a competitive nature, but instead were out of genuine friendliness and promotion of the valley’s wine industry. Several gladly offered up their own recommendations and favorites.
It was nice to be able to talk to the winemakers/tasting room employees rather than having to worry about jockeying for position next to the tasting bar to ensure timely pours. Granted, most of our visits were by appointment, but the few wineries that we did randomly pop in at had at the most a couple of other tasters. On one stop, the marketing director pouring our wines made the comment that a long-time Napa Valley resident was visiting and made the comment that Walla Walla reminds him of the Napa Valley in the early 1980s, before the crowds, limos, and tour buses showed up.
And the food! Where there’s good wine, good food is sure to follow. The food scene in Walla Walla is really incredible, with an eclectic variety of options. I can personally attest to the following eateries:
- Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen- The most highly/heavily recommended stop and my favorite. The glazed pork belly was ridiculously good. I also got to sample my first blood sausage (an Anthony Bourdain favorite). I must say, it’s pretty good.
- Pho Sho- The sister restaurant to Saffron (their kitchens are actually attached), Pho Sho is a Vietnamese restaurant specializing in pho. This place is great and very reasonably priced–I’m guessing I would end up eating here a lot if I was a Walla Walla resident. They may in fact serve the greatest chicken wings in the world–their chili-garlic version was phenomenal.
- Brasserie Four–Serving delicious French fare, Brasserie was my wife’s favorite restaurant. The steak frites and bacon/caramelized onions made me feel guilty after eating them, which is hard to do, but they were very good.
- Graze–Really good paninis–a great lunch stop.
- Colville Street Patisserie–I developed a serious addiction to the Patisserie’s cheesecake brownies in three days. More addictive than crack? I wouldn’t know, but I have to imagine they’re pretty close.
Walla Walla reminds me a lot of the larger towns/smaller cities that you would come across in the Midwest. The people are friendly, the pace is fairly slow, and the houses and buildings are nice but not overly fancy. Throw in the world-class wineries and the great food scene and you’ve got one unique and special city.Day 3 of tasting included stops at two wineries within Walla Walla city limits, four of the “airport wineries”, and another just east of town.
Charles Smith Wines/K Vintners- Founded by Charles Smith, a former sommelier and rock band manager. The Charles Smith Wines label includes wines that retail for as little as $12.00 (the super-valued Kung Fu Girl Riesling) to more limited releases that retail for over $100.00. The K Vintners label also includes several limited release wines. Smith’s wines have received some serious love from the big wine publications–he has scored as high as 99 (on a couple of occasions) with Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
$20 Above wines
- Charles Smith Viognier Stoneridge Vineyard-Columbia Valley 2009 ($40.00)- Rich but nicely balanced, with melon and bacon fat aromas. Highly Recommended
- Charles Smith Viognier Columbia Vally 2011 ($25.00)- Recommended
- K Syrah Milbrandt-Wahluke Slope 2010 ($30.00)- Smooth, with a slight smokiness, cherry, and vanilla. Recommended
- K Syrah “Pheasant Vineyard” Wahluke Slope 2010 ($35.00)- A mouth-coater, with smoked meat, black cherry, and floral (geranium and violet) aromas and flavors, and a great finish. A killer value! Highly Recommended
- K Syrah “The Beautiful” Walla Walla Valley 2010 ($60.00)- Savory, with a gorgeous aftertaste. Highly Recommended
Tamarack Cellars- Founded in 1998, Tamarack Cellars was the first “airport winery” that we visited. They had some very nice wines selling for under $20.00, including a ridiculously good Chardonnay for $15.00 (reviewed in the next $20 below post). I was also impressed with their Merlot and Sagemoor Reserve red blend.
$20 Above wines
- Tamarack Cellars Merlot Columbia Valley 2008 ($28.00)- Big, juicy, spicy, and ending with a memorable finish. Highly Recommended
- Tamarack Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2008 ($32.00)- Aromatic and mouth-coating, with peppery tannins. Recommended
- Tamarack Cellars Syrah Columbia Valley 2008 ($28.00)- Tea leaf, blackberry and black cherry aromas and flavors. Recommended
- Tamarack Cellars Sagemoor Vineyard Reserve 2008 ($50.00)- 50% Cab. Sauv., 25% Merlot, 25% Cab. Franc. Red and black cherry and cola aromas. Highly Recommended
Buty Winery- Founded by Caleb Foster and Nina Buty Foster in 2000, it’s impossible to deny that Buty has several beauties in their lineup. Buty also features a “Beast” label, under which they sell a red blend and a Riesling. I was a big fan of their unique Cab. Sauv/Syrah blends (and vice versa), as well as the Chardonnay and Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc/Muscadelle blend.
$20 Above wines
- Buty Semillon, Sauvignon, and Muscadelle 2010 ($25.00)- Crisp, with enticing honeydew and citrus aromas. Highly Recommended
- Buty Connor Lee Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 ($32.00)- One nice Chardonnay. Zestful and beautifully textured. Highly Recommended
- Beast Wildebeast Red Blend 2009 ($25.00)- Dark berries, toast, and spice. Recommended
- Buty Rediviva Phinny Hill Vineyard Estate Grown 2008 ($48.00)- 60% Cab. Sauv., 40% Syrah. Red currant, spice, and black pepper intermingle on this beauty. The longest finish of any wine I tasted on the trip. Highly Recommended
- Buty Rediviva of the Stones 2009 ($60.00) 77% Syrah, 23% Cab. Sauv. Sumptuous and earthy, with green peppercorn, tea leaf, and blackberry. Highly Recommended
aMaurice Cellars- Winemaker Anna Shafer’s enormous talent shines through in aMaurice Cellars’ diverse and stunning portfolio. From Viognier to Chardonnay, from Malbec to Syrah and back to Bordeaux blends, it seems that she can do it all. In my opinion, aMaurice had the best Viognier and Malbec that we tasted.
$20 Above wines
- aMaurice Cellars Viognier Columbia Valley 2010 ($25.00)- One sip revealed that this was a wine made with care. Delicate, with lilac and tropical fruit aromas. Highly Recommended
- aMaurice Cellars Chardonnay Columbia Valley 2009 ($28.00)- Aromas of citrus, with a slight smokiness. Flavorful, balanced, and refreshing. Highly Recommended
- aMaurice Cellars Syrah/Grenache Columbia Valley 2008 ($34.00)- Violet and cherry on the nose, with a gorgeous velvety texture in the mouth. Very impressive! Highly Recommended
- aMaurice Cellars Malbec Columbia Valley ($35.00)- Understated, with black cherry and leather aromas. Simply the best American Malbec that I’ve had. Highly Recommended
- aMaurice Cellars “The Tobey”2008 ($35.oo)- 44% Cab. Sauv., 30% Cab. Franc, 26% Merlot. An explosion of fruit and spice. Highly Recommended
- aMaurice Cellars “The Cummings” 2009 ($35.00)- 47% Cab. Sauv., 33% Merlot, 20% Cab. Franc. Black cherry, tomato leaf, and spice. Still a bit rough around the edges, but sure to improve with age. Recommended
Rotie Cellars- Rotie Cellars was by far the most recommended stop by the other wineries that we visited, which speaks volumes of the respect that the Walla Walla wine industry has for winemaker/owner Sean Boyd and his Rhone-stlyle wines. Rotie produces 2000 cases a year and with it’s growing popularity, don’t be surprised if these wines are nearly unobtainable in the years to come. Rhone lovers should consider jumping on the mailing list while they still can–see Sine Qua Non.
$20 Above wines
- Rotie Cellars Southern White 2011 ($28.00)- 50% Viognier, 30% Rousanne, and 20% Marsanne. Beautifully aromatic, with rich banana, lemon rind, and floral notes. Minerality in the mouth, balanced with a nice texture and weight. Highly Recommended
- Rotie Cellars Southern Blend 2010 ($40.00)- 75% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre. Lip-smacking dark berry goodness, with notes of roasted meat. This sumptuous wine was meant to please. Stellar
- Rotie Cellars Northern Blend 2010 ($40.00)- 95% Syrah, 5% Viognier. Chewy and packing a bit of muscle. Blackberry, roasted meat, and expresso abound on the nose. Highly Recommended
Tempus Cellars- Tempus Cellars was founded by Joe Forest in 2006. Forest also works as the winemaker at Patit Creek Cellars. Tempus had a very impressive portfolio, including an outstanding Riesling for $16.00 and a Grenache Rose for $19.00 with one of the more beautiful colors that I’ve seen in a wine. The Grenache and Syrah were also excellent and very well-priced.
$20 Above wines
- Tempus Cellars Grenache Yakima Valley 2010 ($25.00)- Striking light purple in color, well-balanced, with loads of cherry. Highly Recommended
- Tempus Cellars Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2009 ($28.00)- A “pretty” syrah, with blackberry, spice, and floral aromas Highly Recommended
- Tempus Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2008 ($32.00)- Recommended
Kontos Cellars- Brothers Cameron and Chris Kontos, 6th generation Walla Walla residents, founded Kontos Cellars in 2006, releasing their first vintage in 2008. Their father is a winemaker for Fort Walla Walla Cellars. Another up-and-coming winery in Walla Walla that didn’t waste any time before making some really nice wines.
$20 Above wines
- Kontos Cellars Gossamer White 2011 ($22.00)- 35% Viognier, 28% Chardonnay, 20% Rousanne, 17% Orange Muscat. Nicely balanced, with lots of character. Highly Recommended
- Kontos Cellars Merlot 2009 ($32.00)- Big plum and cherry aromas, spiciness, and a long, lingering finish. Highly Recommended
- Kontos Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($32.00)- Recommended
- Kontos Cellars Alatus 2008 ($32.00)- 60% Merlot, 25% Cab. Sauv., 10% Malbec, 5% Syrah. Firm tannins, juicy fruit, and a lingering finish. Highly Recommended
Me, outside of Rotie Cellars, preparing to sample some Rhone goodness.
-Wines in Bold above were my personal favorites–”Nick’s Picks” if you will.
-Wines retailing at $20 and below will be discussed in the next $20 Below post.
-Sean Sullivan, author of the Washington Wine Report, ranks his 100 top Washington wines every year. I stumbled across his list after the visit and was interested to see that a handful of the wines that I reviewed were on the 2011 list.
Posted on June 19, 2012
in $20 Above, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Red Blends, Riesling, Syrah, Washington, Wine Column, Winery Visits