There’s nothing quite like that first visit to a burgeoning wine region. For wine fanatics, it’s the equivalent of an eight-year-old going to Disney World for the first time. The thought of all the unexplored wineries in the surrounding miles sets the mind racing. So it was for me on our first trip to Walla Walla wine country this past week. We rolled in to town at 5:30 pm on May 29th, too late to visit any tasting rooms. The scores of wineries that we passed along the way made the wait for our first tasting the next morning nearly unbearable.
As a wine region, the Walla Walla Valley is new even by American wine standards, with the famous Leonetti Cellar opening up the first commercial winery in the area in 1977. By 2001, the number had grown to 30 wineries. A winery explosion in the last decade has pushed that number to well over 100 wineries in the Valley. It’s funny to refer to wineries founded in the 1990s as veterans, but that’s the case in Walla Walla.
The Walla Walla Valley straddles the Washington/Oregon border. I was surprised to learn that 1/3 of the valley actually falls in Oregon and that the largest vineyard in the area, Seven Hills Vineyard, is planted in Oregon soil. Walla Walla is by far the largest city in the Valley, so most of the wineries are either located within city limits or are a very short drive away.
A vast majority of my exposure to Washington wines has come through the very reasonably priced, mass-produced wines put out by producers such as Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Pacific Rim, and Charles Smith Wines. I have always been impressed with the quality that can be found in these wines, which rarely cost over $15.00. My major wine trips for the last three years have been to California, but I knew that I had to get up to Walla Walla, as I had read and heard of the exciting things taking place in the area.
After visiting twenty of the area’s wineries over the course of three days, I can testify that the Walla Walla Valley is an absolute must visit for any wine lover. The overall quality of the wines is simply outstanding. Readers may look at my notes over the next three posts and wonder if there was a wine that I didn’t like. There were times that I was wondering to myself “can they really be making this many wines that are this good.” If I needed any reassurance, I could simply glance around and see the signs and magazines displayed by several of the wineries touting the 90+ scores they had received from publications such as the Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Stephen Tanzer, or the Rhone Report.
The Walla Walla Valley is big red country. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were the first varietals from the area that gained national attention. Holy Merlot! The Cabernet Sauvignons were great, but overall I thought that the Merlots that I tasted were consistently better. There were a few Cabernet Sauvignons that outshone all of the Merlots. The Woodward Canyon Artist Series 2009 was one of those Cabs. I also tasted several amazing Bordeaux blends, with the Long Shadows Pirouette 2007 really standing out.
More recently, producers such as Cayuse Vineyards, Reynvaan Family Vineyards, Charles Smith’s K Vintners, and Rasa Vineyards have helped to establish the region as a Syrah powerhouse. The Syrahs that I tasted showed astounding diversity, ranging from big and fruity, to floral and spicy, to savory and earthy. Personally, I’m a fan of such diversity. Who wants to taste a bunch of wine that tastes the same, even if it is really good?
Some of the most exciting wines that I had on the trip were Rhone-style “GSM” blends, featuring a combination of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. Of these blends, the Rotie Cellars Southern Blend, Gramercy Cellars Third Man, and Trio Vintners Plaisir really stood out to me.
I also tasted several Cabernet Francs, a few Petit Verdots, a handful of Malbecs, a Carmenere, some Grenaches, Mourvedres, Zinfandels, a Barbera, a couple of Sangioveses, and a Tempranillo. That may not even be the complete list of reds, but one can see that the wineries here have not pigeon-holed themselves into simply Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah producers–experimentation is alive and well.
What about the whites?? I tasted some excellent whites and I’ll describe the various varietals that I can across in Post 2 of the series.
On Day 1 of our 3 day tasting marathon, we visited seven wineries: five were just west of Walla Walla, one was just east of town, and one was in downtown Walla Walla. A vast majority of the wines that I tasted are featured below.
Day 1 Wineries
L’Ecole No. 41- Founded in 1983, L’Ecole 41 is the third oldest winery in the Valley and actually occupies an old French school house. I was very impressed with L’Ecole’s Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignons that I tasted were excellent. L’Ecole produces 35,000 cases a year, which is very high among Walla Walla wineries.
$20 Above wines
- L’Ecole Estate Merlot 2008 ($36.00)- Lovely weight in the mouth, with spice, plum, and anise inter-mingling on the nose and palate. The best Merlot I tasted on the trip! Highly Recommended
- L’Ecole Cabernet Sauvignon WWV 2009 ($36.00)- Spice and tobacco leaf on the nose with uber ripe cherry in the mouth and a smooth, long finish. Highly Recommended
- L’Ecole Estate Perigee 2008 ($49.00)- 55% Cab Sauv, 26% Merlot, with Cab Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot in the blend. Big and beautiful, with red licorice and black cherry and powdery tannins in the mouth. Highly Recommended
- L’Ecole Apogee Pepper Bridge 2008 ($49.00)- 60% Cab Sauv, 29% Merlot, with Cab Franc and Malbec. Slightly closed up, with a bit of leather and dark berries. Recommended
- L’Ecole Estate Syrah 2009 ($36.00)- Recommended
- L’Ecole Estate Cabernet Franc 2009 ($36.00)- Recommended
Woodward Canyon Winery- The second oldest winery in the Valley. Admittedly, this winery was not scheduled as a stop on our original list (just too many to see!) but it was highly recommended and literally steps away from L’Ecole 41. I’m very glad that we made the stop. Their Cabernet Sauvignon was one of my top three or four favorite wines on the trip!
$20 Above wines
- Woodward Canyon Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($54.00)- Exotic aromas of dark fruit and tar, ultra-smooth in the mouth with a gorgeous finish. I did not come home with a bottle of this wine and it makes me sad just thinking about it. Stellar
- Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon WWV 2009 ($44.00)- Smooth and graceful, with aromas of mocha and plum. Recommended
Reininger Winery- Founded in 1997, Reininger sells wine under its Reininger and Helix labels. They offered the only Carmenere that I came across (which was very good). I also thought that their Syrah was outstanding.
$20 Above wines
- Reininger Cabernet Sauvignon WWV 2009 ($40.00)- Big and rich. Highly Recommended
- Reininger Syrah WWV 2008 ($42.00)- Perfect example of the essence of exploding white pepper, complimented with blueberry and herbs. Highly Recommended
- Reininger Carmenere WWV 2007 ($47.00)- A wild menagerie of aromas, with leather, floral, expresso, and dark fruit oozing from this powerhouse. Highly Recommended
- Reininger Reserve Chardonnay 2010 ($47.00)- Recommended
- Reininger Merlot 2007 ($38.00)- Recommended
Long Shadows Wineries and Vineyards- An assemblage of a who’s who of winemakers and wine consultants make the seven labels sold under Long Shadows. Familiar names include Randy Dunn of Caymus and Dunn Vineyards, John Duval of Penfold’s Grange lore, and Michel Rolland, wine consultant titan. I was simply blown away with several of their wines, particularly the Pirouette. Top to bottom, they had one of the better lineups I tasted.
$20 Above wines
- Pirouette 2007 ($50.00)- 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, with some Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec in the mix A blockbuster with rich blueberry and plum fruit, dusty tannins, and beautiful spice on the mid-palate. Stellar
- Saggi 2007 ($45.00)- Blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. Velvety with a beautiful, lingering after-taste. Highly Recommended
- Feather Cabernet Sauvignon 20007 ($55.00)- Round and supple with black cherry and tobacco leaf. Highly Recommended
- Sequel Syrah 2007 ($50.00)- Sinfully plush with a long, lingering finish that left my gums tingling. Highly Recommended
- Pedestal Merlot 2007 ($55.00)- Plum, sweet spice, and cedar with easy-going tannins. Recommended
- Chester-Kidder 2007 ($50.00)- Loads of fruit (cherry pie with crust aromas), glycerin, and vanilla. Recommended
Walla Walla Vintners- Founded in 1995, this east side winery focuses solely on red wines. Walla Walla Vintners is best known for their Cabernet Franc, and indeed, it was one of my favorites. I have yet to have a domestic Cabernet Franc that compares to it!
$20 Above wines
- Walla Walla Vintners Cabernet Franc Columbia Valley 2010 ($28.00)- Sultry, ripe blueberry and a bit of spice–a real treat. Highly Recommended
- Walla Walla Vintners Merlot WWV 2009 ($28.00)- Smooth and balanced, with a strong acid backbone. Recommended
- Walla Walla Vintners Malbec Pepper Bridge Vineyard WWV 2009 ($32.00)- Smooth, with tobacco leaf and dark berry aromas. Recommended
- Walla Walla Vintners Belle Rosso Columbia Valley 2009 ($32.00)- Notes of expresso and ripe, red cherry. Recommended
- Walla Walla Vintners Cabernet Sauvignon WWV 2009 ($35.00)- Recommended
- Walla Walla Vintners Cabernet Sauvignon Sagemoor Vineyard Colubia Valley 2009 ($40.00)- Recommended
Mackey Vineyards- This newcomer’s first vintage was 2008 and they didn’t waste any time in releasing some excellent wines. Brothers Roger and Philip Mackey have enlisted the help of Rasa Vineyards Billo Naravane as winemaker. They’re sure looking like a solid team so far.
$20 Above wines
- Mackey Vineyards Merlot 2009 ($36.00)- Subtle nose, with flavors really exploding in the mouth. Highly Recommended
- Mackey Vineyards Concordia 2009 ($38.00)- 77.4% Syrah, 12.9% Grenache, 9.7% Mourvedre, with tantalizing blackberry and black pepper aromas. Highly Recommended
- Mackey Vineyards Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2008 ($32.00)- Recommended
- Mackey Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($32.00)- Recommended
Skylite Cellars- Skylite’s first vintage was 2005. Ernie, a Westie, was one of the more friendly winery dogs that we came across, greeting us just as we exited our car. Skylite sells wines under two labels: Skylite Cellars and its Hiney Wine label.
$20 Above wines
- Skylite Cellars Estate Merlot 2007 ($28.00)- Big, mouth-filling plum, rhubarb, and dark chocolate. Recommended
- Skylite Cellars Syrah 2007 ($28.00)- Recommended
- Skylite Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($28.00)- Recommended
-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.
-Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3!