Note: It is common practice for wineries to waive tasting fees for wine writers. Some of the tasting rooms reviewed in this post extended that courtesy.
Washington’s wine regions sprawl widely across this diverse and beautiful state, but when it comes to wineries and tasting rooms, there are a few main centers of gravity.
Walla Walla is one of the biggest.
I just returned from my first trip to this small-town-turned-major-wine-destination. I was there to attend the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference, but I spent some time checking out a few of the area’s 120 wineries too.
If you’re thinking of visiting Walla Walla, keep in mind that it is remote. Seattle is over four hours away by car; Portland, Oregon is not much closer.
The drive from Seattle is spectacular, though, and I can’t imagine anyone would get bored. It offers stunning views of mountain peaks as it crosses Snoqualmie Pass (check the weather first). The transition from the lush, green vegetation west of the Cascades to the scrubby sage brush covering the hills on the east side is fascinating.
Mt. Adams takes on a starring role as the route passes through Yakima, a wine destination in its own right. Stop at Treveri Cellars and gaze for awhile at this 12,000 foot volcano from the cozy tasting room or pleasant terrace as you sip on lovely sparkling wines.
The Views are Big. The Wines are Too!
Washington wines are BIG.
There are notable exceptions to that statement, but by and large, the state is known for red wines that are high in alcohol, full-bodied, and often full of jammy fruit flavors and aromas.
That doesn’t tend to be my style of choice, but I can certainly appreciate well made wines, even if they aren’t the ones I’d drink every day. I’ll highlight wines I particularly enjoyed, but if you love those big styles, you’re sure to like most everything you find out here.
Downtown Walla Walla Tasting Stroll
There are more than 35 tasting rooms in downtown Walla Walla alone. Most are within a few blocks of each other, which allows for a safe and easy day of foot-powered tasting.
Wine is a casual experience in Walla Walla. Few tasting rooms require appointments, and the fees are reasonable. There’s a good chance you’ll be served by a winemaker or a member of his or her family, so you’ll be close to the source. Some tasting rooms are only open during the latter part of the week, though, so check before you go.
I ducked into a few highly recommended spots, and here’s what I found.
Located in an understated space on the second floor of a brick building in the middle of town, Rotie Cellars is one of the few exceptions to the no-appointment rule. It’s easy to book online, though, and when I visited, I was able to reserve a next day tasting with no problem.
The winery’s namesake is the famed Cote Rotie in France’s Rhone Valley, and Rotie aims to emulate that region’s wines using fruit from Washington State. It makes southern Rhone and northern Rhone blends, as well as occasional single varietal wines.
The standout for me was the 2016 Southern Blend, made with 70% grenache, 20% mourvèdre, and 10% syrah. The nose was full of coffee and mocha at first, with smokey meat aromas wafting out as I lifted the glass to my lips. Coffee and chocolate notes continued on the palate, with fruit flavors coming later.
I laugh now when I read in my tasting notes that I thought the wine was “not too big,” even though its alcohol content clocks in at 14.2%. My palate clearly developed a different calibration over the course of my time there!
Mark Ryan Winery
The first thing you see when you walk into Mark Ryan‘s Walla Walla tasting room is a rusty blue motorcycle in the middle of the floor. The macho vibe continues when you see the names of the wines, many of which are Pearl Jam song titles. It’s enough to make you worry that the wines might be a little too, shall we say, testosterone-influenced.
Mark Ryan hosted us for lunch as part of the bloggers conference, and most of the wines poured were pleasantly surprising, especially given those first impressions. My notes include several descriptors involving floral and herbal aromas – not hallmarks of overly masculine wines.
The standout by far was a 2016 Bordeaux blend called “The Dissident,” yes, named after the Pearl Jam song. It’s made from Columbia Valley fruit – just over half cabernet, just under a quarter merlot, and the rest cabernet franc and petit verdot. The wine is extremely complex, with new surprises sneaking out of the glass as it evolves. On the nose, it offers chocolate covered cherries giving way to herbal aromas, along with roses and purple flowers. On the palate, the cocoa powder and roses dominate, with a mouthfeel of fine tannin – a beautiful wine.
G. Cuneo Cellars
On the Saturday afternoon I visited G. Cuneo‘s tasting room, winemaker and owner Gino Cuneo was a little harried. There was a “wine walk” going on in town, and droves of bloggers had descended on his tasting room too.
But Gino was in good spirits, happily showing of his wines made from Italian varietals grown around eastern Washington.
He first poured a lovely and light rosé of sangiovese, followed by my favorite of his wines, which he calls Nebbaro. It’s a 2013 blend of nebbiolo and barbera, and it’s lovely and light, with crisp acidity and nice cherry notes.
He also makes a ripasso and an Amarone-style wine, though he uses barbera, sangiovese, and nebbiolo instead of the traditional corvina, rondinella, and molinara grapes featured in Italy’s Valpolicella wines. Still, he uses the Italian method of drying the grapes before pressing, and people were snapping these bottles up.
There’s not a lot of white wine floating around in Walla Walla, but I found a nice one in Kontos Cellars‘ comfortable tasting room.
The 2016 Gossamer White is 46% chardonnay, 28% roussanne, 19% grenache blanc, and 7% orange muscat. Its honeyed white floral notes made me wonder whether there might be a touch of residual sugar. I’m still not sure, but either way, it was quite tasty.
Apart from that, Kontos focuses mainly on Bordeaux varietals grown in the Walla Walla Valley.
My choice among those was the understated and floral 2016 merlot. I also enjoyed a Bordeaux blend called “The Boss,” a collaboration between winemaker Cameron Kontos and his dad, Cliff Kontos, who co-founded the now-closed Fort Walla Walla Cellars. It’s equal parts cab and merlot, with the rest cabernet franc. It’s high in tannin but has nice, soft cocoa powder undertones to keep things interesting.
I walked into the bright tasting room at Lagana Cellars to be greeted by winemaker and co-owner Jason Fox. He’s a young guy, full of energy, and he welcomed me with a big grin and a ready pour.
His winery focuses equally on whites and reds. I tasted three of each, and my favorite was the 2014 Minnick Hills Vineyard Syrah. Modeled on Cote Rotie, it clearly evokes the Rhone, with notes of smoke and dark fruits.
Too Many Tasting Rooms, Too Little Time
There were many more tasting rooms I wished I’d had time to visit. You could easily spend several days here and never run out of wines to sample. Still, I think I got a good taste (so to speak) of the downtown area.
I also had time for a tiny sampling of wineries outside the downtown core. I’ll share those experiences with you in a future post – stay tuned!