Our timing for visiting Washington state wineries last month might have one thinking we had the inside scoop on Wine Spectator’s editorial calendar. One of the latest issues that featured the Top 100 wines also included some in-depth articles about Washington being a rising star in the wine world. We couldn’t agree more. In a two-week period, we covered close to 700 miles and visited 35 wineries and wine bars. Yes, you read it right…35. And, we were tasting wines from the 2012-2014 vintages, which have been highly rated due to favorable weather conditions in the state. I’ve already recounted our visits to Woodinville and all of the main wine regions of the Yakima AVA, so now it’s time to share highlights of our four-day visit through Walla Walla.
What You Need to Know
How long it takes to get to Walla Walla depends on where you are in your Washington wine tasting adventure. For us, we headed there from downtown Yakima, which was about a 2.5 hour drive (if you are coming from Seattle, count on about 4+ hours). Expect the weather in Walla Walla to be similar to that of the Yakima area, with warm, dry days and cooler evenings. We were surprised to encounter quite a bit of fog in Walla Walla, which locals said is normal in Fall.
The historic town of Walla Walla is a treasure in and of itself. Old buildings have been beautifully restored, renovated and reused in a way that celebrates the rich history of the town. World-class restaurants and wine tasting rooms are plentiful, and much of the downtown area is easily walkable.
The Walla Walla wine scene is like a hub-and-spoke system. Think of Walla Walla as the downtown hub with plenty of tasting rooms to enjoy the area’s finest. From there, you can travel outward in all directions toward rural landscape that is home to expansive vineyards and wineries.
The Walla Walla AVA straddles the Washington and Oregon state line, with two-thirds of the AVA being in Washington and one-third in Oregon. Walla Walla has 1,600 planted acres (making it much smaller than the 13,500 acre Yakima AVA), and lies at the same latitude where the midway point between Bordeaux and Burgundy can be found. Not surprisingly, the region produces beautiful, rich red varietals, such as Cabernet, Merlot, and other Bordeaux-based varietals.
Where to Stay
The Marcus Whitman located in the heart of downtown Walla Walla is a gem and the ideal home base for visiting all wine areas within the region. The hotel offers rooms and suites in both its Historic Tower and newer West Wing. Make sure to ask for a room in the Historic Tower if you want to truly experience the hotel at its best. Included in your stay is a full buffet breakfast. We enjoyed an evening sitting by the fireplace in their bar, where you can enjoy a glass or bottle of the house wine, which is the Marcus Whitman Signature Red made by L’Ecole 41, a well known Walla Walla winery.
Where to Eat
Farm to table is what to expect in Walla Walla, and the diversity of restaurants makes each dining experience different and unique. We selected restaurants based on word of mouth and online reviews, none of which steered us wrong. This is truly a foodie’s haven. I mean, just look at the beautiful produce with which the chefs get to create their amazing masterpieces.
Here are the restaurants we tried for dinner, and most of the locals we talked to said this list doesn’t get much better. I highly recommend reservations for all of these restaurants.
Passatempo Taverna is where we ate on our first night and not having reservations, we were seated at a large community table since all of the private tables were taken. We ultimately enjoyed it as it enabled us to mingle with the locals. The restaurant has a wine studio featuring Walls Vineyards, which also are on the dinner menu and pair well with the housemade grilled sausage and flavorful pastas.
Whitehouse-Crawford is attached to the Seven Hills winery, making it a great place for an early dinner after a tasting at the winery. The old building used to be a wood mill and it has been beautifully restored. For a decadent appetizer, try the fried onions.
Brasserie Four is a small, cozy French-style restaurant where you can browse through shelves in the back of the dining room to select a wine to go with juicy steak frites or, if you prefer the sea, moules frites.
Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen seems to be the “it” place in Walla Walla. Make sure to have reservations because the restaurant is small and popular. The food is creatively prepared and presented and the menu reflects what’s fresh and in season. The lamb shoulder was delicious and the honey black pepper ice cream was to die for.
For lunch we enjoyed the flatbreads at Olive Marketplace and Cafe and for a brown bag lunch to take to wineries, pick up sandwiches and salads at Graze, where they don’t skimp on the ingredients! If you are craving morning pastries, drop by Colville Street Patisserie.
Where to Taste
With more than 100 wineries in Walla Walla, you have to plan well and budget your time accordingly. We opted to spend four days in the area, which provides a good introduction to the area and provides reason to come back. The key is to focus each day on one of the specific spokes, or regions, of the area. All are within a short drive from downtown. As we discovered in Woodinville and Yakima, tastings in Walla Walla are reasonable (typically $10), with most fees being waived with a purchase. Here are some highlights from the wineries we visited and recommend:
On our first full day in Walla Walla we opted to head to the southside, starting with Pepperbridge, then making our way to Amavi and Northstar.
Exemplifying beauty and simplicity, Pepperbridge focuses on a small portfolio of well made Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot varietals, and embraces sustainability as a driving force in its production. A small patch of solar panels powers about 80% of the winery, which is built into a hill, set against the beautiful Pepper Bridge Vineyard. Wine club manager, Katie, offered us a tour of the winery, which was impressive and had us walking alongside vines named after wine club members and enjoying a photo opp in front of the hand-painted mural in the wine production area. You honestly can’t go wrong with any of the wines. Expect quality and not quantity at Pepper Bridge. We tasted three wines from the 2013 vintage, the Merlot, Cab, and Trine, which is a blend. Katie also had the 2012 Cab open as well, which ended up being our favorite. It offered vivid fruit laced with a bit of minerality and soft tannins. For more information, visit www.pepperbridge.com.
Amavi, whose name is derived by love (amor) and life (vita), is a sister winery of Pepper Bridge. The winery is 100% certified sustainable and winemaker Jean-François Pellet produces a portfolio of wine, primarily Semillon, Syrah and Cabernet from six estate vineyards, with the flagship wine being Syrah. The tasting room has floor-to-ceiling windows with an expansive view of Pepper Bridge Vineyard and, on a warm day, I would plan on bringing along a picnic to enjoy the patio. We were anxious to try the Syrah, particularly since it was from the 2013 vintage, which was especially beneficial for the varietal. It met, if not exceeded our expectations, with blackberry fruit, pepper and violet notes. For more information, visit www.amavicellars.com.
After a busy harvest weekend for most wineries, we discovered that visiting on a Tuesday had its advantages. When we arrived at Northstar, we found that we had the gorgeous tasting room to ourselves and we enjoyed a beautiful tasting presented by Jan. Northstar is most known for its Merlot, so we were pleasantly surprised to find other varietals on the menu, such as the 2015 Stella Blanca white blend made mostly of Semillon, which would pair well with Cougar Gold aged cheddar, and the 2013 Cab Franc, which had juicy red berry and spice notes. The 2012 Premier Merlot was decadent, rich and bold, and aptly presented in a black velvet bag. Something to keep in mind when visiting Northstar: the winery offers a unique Blending Experience, which we wish we had time to accommodate in our schedule. Jan took us down to the room, where guests get to taste four different Merlot selections directly from the barrel and use glass beakers, cylinders, and other equipment to compose a one-of-a-kind blend. For more information, visit www.northstarwinery.com.
We spent our second day in Walla Walla exploring the Westside, beginning at Woodward Canyon, then on to L’Ecole 41 and Long Shadows.
Prior to our trip out to Washington, we did a tasting of a variety of Washington cabs with our neighbors to help us narrow down which wineries we wanted to visit. The 2013 Nelms Road by Woodward Canyon was the winner of the tasting, so onto the itinerary it went! When we arrived at the winery, we were greeted by a sunlit room with soaring ceilings and beautiful wood floors. We later learned that the tasting room is a restored 1870’s farmhouse, the perfect setting for a crisp fall day. Woodward Canyon has a varied portfolio, some that are distributed, like its second label Nelms Road, and others that are not. We enjoyed the Artist Series Cab (the half bottle and magnum pictured in the vignette), which the winery has been producing for 22 years. Each year, the bottle features a label with artwork by an artist in the northwest. Top on our list was the 2012 Estate Erratic, a Rhone-based blend of Mourvèdre, Syrah and Grenache. For more information, visit www.woodwardcanyon.com.
L’Ecole 41 is located in the old historic Frenchtown School, which has been the cornerstone for shaping the branding of the winery. The meaning of its name, which is French for the school located in district 41, is a nod to the early French settlers in the area. We have enjoyed L’Ecole wine for many years, particularly the red blends and Merlot, and looked forward to exploring the wine collection. Overall, we were disappointed that most of the wines had been open for several days and, frankly, were not a good representation of how the wine should—or would—taste if you were to take a bottle home and open it to drink with dinner. It’s no surprise that the one wine we liked the most, the Grenache, was one of few that had just been opened that day. Because we love the Merlot and felt it was tasting tired after 3 days, we asked our hostess if she could open a fresh bottle. She did, and it was exactly as we had hoped…delightful. For more information, visit www.lecole.com.
A visit to Long Shadows is an absolute must. It offers the unique opportunity to experience wines from seven distinct vintners under one roof, thanks to an innovative concept created by Allen Shoup, former president and CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle. Long Shadows takes some of the finest winemakers in the world, gives them the best fruit that Washington State has to offer, and provides a state-of-the-art winery and onsite winemaker, Gilles Nicault (formerly of Woodward Canyon), to create the magic. In a sense, the winemakers provide Nicault their secret formula and he works with them, either remotely or via occasional visits, to produce world-class wines. The current releases include a Riesling, Super Tuscan, Merlot, Bordeaux blend, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab/Syrah blend, and Syrah. With travel limiting us to one bottle from each winery, we were hard pressed to select just one, but opted for the Merlot by Michel Rolland. For more about the wines and winemakers, visit the Long Shadows web site.
Because we stayed downtown, we sprinkled in visits to the lively, urban tasting rooms throughout our four-day stay, fitting them in as we had pockets of time.
A favorite since attending a tasting event in Florida earlier this year, Seven Hills was the first winery to make it on our itinerary in Walla Walla. Therefore, we started our Walla Walla adventure here after checking into the Marcus Whitman, which is located around the corner. Occupying the old Whitehouse-Crawford Planing Mill (where much of the wood in the Marcus Whitman came from), the tasting room is bright and airy, the perfect spot for tasting the best of what the area has to offer. Although owner Casey McClellan recently sold the winery to Crimson Wine Group, he continues to lead winemaking and operations. His daughter, Gwen, not only provided valuable input during our planning stages of the trip, but also kindly spent several hours with us to provide an overview of the Walla Walla region. Some favorites of the tasting—2013 Petite Verdot and 2013 Cab—came from the McClellan Estate located in the Oregon side of Walla Walla. (For more information about Seven Hills and the wine portfolio, see my post from earlier this year).
On our last evening in Walla Walla, we were heading to dinner and were running a bit early. We walked by the Goose Ridge tasting room, which we had seen the day before, however, since we already had it on our itinerary for the next day in Richland in the Tri-Cities area (the primary vineyard location), we thought it might be duplicative. But the bright, spacious tasting room looked inviting so we opted to stop in to take a look and do some recon for our Richland visit. We hadn’t intended to taste, but the effervescent Kristine lured us in and the next thing we knew, we had a glass in hand. She explained that the stunning Walla Walla tasting room was brand new and that, although she primarily worked out of the Richland location, she was helping to get the new tasting room established. As we chatted with Kristine, we tasted the Sol Duc, an excellent Cab-heavy blend that features lots of dark cherry, with a touch of oak and spices. I highly recommend putting Goose Ridge as a stop in your tour in downtown Walla Walla, and especially the Richland location, which ended up being a highlight of our overall trip. For more information, visit www.gooseridge.com.
I’m still a bit confused about the name for this winery because I never quite saw a sign that said Latin Corner. However, it is easily located caddy corner to the Marcus Whitman, on the corner of Rose St. and 2nd St. so we kept passing it during our walks into town. We decided to pop in here on our way back to the hotel after an afternoon snack at Olives. The tasting room houses two wine collections: g. Cuneo, which offers classic Italian-style wines, and Salida, featuring wines of Spanish heritage. A Ripasso and Amarone-style wine dominated the g.Cuneo side of the menu, and an Albarino, Tempranillo (pictured), and Malbec/Tempranillo blend were highlights of Salida. In fact, we found that one of the varietals that pleasantly surprised us in Washington was Tempranillo, and Salida’s was aromatic with dark fruits and dried herbs. For more information, visit www.salidawine.com.
As a fan of dragonflies, I was drawn to the family-operated Kontos, whose symbol is the dragonfly, representing change and life’s journey. Located in the heart of downtown, the tasting room embodies the historical architecture of Walla Walla with brick-adorned walls and rich, dark wood crown molding. The majority of the wine Kontos produces is only available via the tasting room or wine club, which we fully appreciate. It’s like you are getting in on a secret that few know about. Kontos specializes in full bodied Bordeaux varietals, and we found favorites in the 2013 Merlot as well as the 2014 Syrah from the Les Collines vineyard, one of the higher elevation vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley AVA. For more information, visit www.kontoscellars.com.
Our gracious hostess at Long Shadows, Evelynn, recommended that we visit the Center for Enology & Viticulture, which is part of the Walla Walla Community College and offers Associates programs for students pursuing careers in the wine industry. What an impressive institution. We were given a campus tour by students, Eli and Tyler, and learned that the program, which is partially funded by local wineries, prepares students through hands-on instruction that even includes running a true winery, College Cellars. We were impressed by the ambition of the students and the wines they are producing, many of which have won awards at multiple wine competitions. We discovered during our visit that the Center embraces the qualities we found to be characteristic of the Washington wine industry, which include a quest for quality and an appreciation for collaborative efforts. For more information, visit www.collegecellars.com.
Of all of the wineries we visited in Walla Walla, our experience at Tranche was the most memorable, for a variety of reasons. To be candid, Tranche wasn’t on our itinerary, but we left flexibility for recommendations by the locals, so we were game when our server, Audrey, at Whitehouse-Crawford suggested we pick up sandwiches at Graze and spend the afternoon at Tranche. We were so glad we did. For starters, the tasting room made us take pause, in a good way. The domed ceiling covered with wood staves creates the illusion that you are inside a wine barrel. Tastings are poured in individual glasses intended to showcase each varietal, which is an attention to detail that we appreciate after having attended a wine glass workshop by Max Riedel, where he truly proved that the shape of the glass does indeed affect how the wine presents itself. The weather held out beautifully, so we sat outside with our sandwiches and a glass of Tempranillo, our favorite of the Tranche lineup. Tasting room manager, Richard, lit the fire pit, and we enjoyed a relaxing, quiet afternoon watching the farm animals graze along the Tranche property. If only time could stand still. For more information, visit www.tranchecellars.com.
Feature photo of article is of Seven Hills Vineyard, courtesy of Amavi Cellars.