Travel, Etc. --> Visiting Washington Wine Country
Visiting Washington Wine Country
Walla Walla and Chateau Ste. Michelle
Second only to California in wine production, Washington's Columbia Valley has over 45,000 acres of vineyards and almost 750 wineries ranging in size from tiny, family-owned operations, to wine giant Ste. Michelle Estates, who depending on who you believe, controls over 40% of the wine produced in the state. Unlike California's compact wine regions, the Columbia Valley encompasses a vast region of central and eastern Washington, with wineries spread out from the eastern slope of the Cascades to the Idaho and Oregon borders. From the air you would never know that grapes are grown there since the vast undulating hills are covered with Washington's primary crop, wheat....as far as the eye can see. The combination of the Cascade Mountains' rain shadow and the Great Missoula Flood of 16,000 years ago created a high dessert with very little rainfall and very silty, gravelly soils, perfect for grapes.
We and our traveling companions, Kurt & Cathy, chose to make Walla Walla our base for this wine trip as it is the closest thing to a central location that exists. And it's not easy to get there...almost 300 miles from Seattle, we chose the only air option; one of the two Alaska Air flights per day that reach the tiny airport. The town of Walla Walla is a little reminiscent of our last visit to Paso Robles, CA. It is a rural town of less than 35,000, being transformed by the wine industry that surrounds it. Where empty storefronts stood in the past, have now become chef-driven restaurants, boutiques and tasting rooms.
Over 23 tasting rooms were within walking distance of the newly renovated building containing 5 luxury rental units at 51 East Main Street where we stayed. And if you are ever in Walla Walla, we can highly recommend the accommodations. Our 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom loft unit had a full kitchen and comfy living room, fitted and furnished as well as our own home. And better yet, after our long journey there was Olive, a marketplace, wine bar/cafe two doors down that offered some of the best gourmet carryout pizza that we've ever eaten.
Our first winery visit was Northstar, just 10 miles south of Walla Walla. Located on the crest of a hill overlooking vineyards and apple orchards, Northstar is the critically acclaimed epicenter of Washington Merlot. Their bottlings consistently receive 90 to 94 point ratings from all of the major publications, and they deserve them. Owned by Ste. Michelle Estates, the gravity flow winery is built into the side of a hill, with the crush pad and tasting room on top and fermenting tanks and barrel storage below. While they also produce a Cabernet and a Stella Maris Bordeaux blend, the real story is that the Merlot that may be better than anything Napa or Bordeaux can produce. In classic Ste. Michelle hospitality fashion, we were treated to a tour of the vineyards and the winery, along with an excellent lunch. But if you are in the neighborhood (even without the lunch), Northstar is worth a stop.
Our next stop was Spring Valley Winery, a joint venture between the original Derby Family who have farmed wheat on the property for over 100 years, and first planted grapes in 1993. And now Ste. Michelle Estates handles the marketing and distribution. The drive to the ranch from Walla Walla involved 20 empty miles of wheat, wheat and more wheat, until reaching Spring Valley Road and finally seeing the rolling hills of wheat replaced with vineyards. Spring Valley is a small boutique winery, specializing in Bordeaux varietals and naming their wines (with matching labels) after the family ancestors.
We met the fourth generation, Kate, who was enthusiastically knee-deep in harvest, assisting French winemaker, Serge Laville, who has been making their wine since 2001. And making wine in an operation this small means being an extraordinary fork lift driver, as we watched Serge finesse bins of newly picked grapes into a 12 foot tall fermenter. It is hard to believe that Ste. Michelle would be so supportive of a tiny winery like, this producing less than 10,000 cases per year when they deal in millions. We were privileged to watch the hands-on activity during harvest and crush, and realized that Ste. Michelle isn't just about production - they believe in and support a small winery producing a great, handmade product. Read our review of the Fredrick Bordeaux blend named for the second generation who farmed this ground later in the newsletter.
Dinner in Walla Walla was at T Maccarone's, a locally owned fine dining restaurant that would not be out of place in downtown Chicago. Around the corner from our accommodations, it featured the kind of menu we love to share with each other and our friends, including a pass around tuna tartare with sweet chile garlic sauce, a tomato basil bisque and heirloom tomato basil salad for starters, and then two orders of house-made Pappardelle with a bolognese sauce made from a milk braised beef and pork ragout, and fresh picked thyme. A bottle of Dusted Valley Walla Walla Grenache proved a perfect pairing. The meal left us wondering..."How does a town this size support restaurants of this quality?"
Washington Trip Part II Columbia Crest and Col Solare
Washington Trip Part III Seven Hills, Waterbrook & Tamarack Cellars
Washington Trip Part IV 48 Hours in Seattle
October 22, 2014