Note: It is customary for wineries to waive tasting fees and host complimentary events for wine writers. Some wineries mentioned in this post extended that courtesy.
Last week, we toured tasting rooms in charming downtown Walla Walla, Washington. Turns out, there’s much more to this hub of Washington State winemaking than just the downtown core.
I was in the area last month to attend the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference, and while I didn’t have much time to explore beyond downtown, I did venture out to a few special spots.
Five Wine Districts
The Walla Walla Valley AVA encompasses just over 500 square miles, but its wineries and tasting rooms are spread across five districts. Downtown is one; here’s a sampling of the vineyards and wineries that make up the other four:
Rasa Vineyards: Southside district
Brothers Billo and Pinto Naravane left their jobs in the tech industry in the early 2000s, moved to Walla Walla, and launched Rasa Vineyards. 2007 was their first vintage, and the Rhone-style wines they made were released to critical acclaim.
Over a decade later, they still strive to make wines that emulate the very best European winemaking regions on the planet. They focus mainly on Rhone and Bordeaux varietals, but they also make riesling and chardonnay, and they even have a wine that pays homage to the Spanish region of Priorat.
Their winery sits on picturesque land in the hills just south of downtown. It was harvest time when I visited, and crush was in full swing just outside the comfortable tasting room. Billo and Pinto were understandably tied up, but I had a laughter-filled private tasting session with tasting room manager Laurence Davidson.
One of the many ways Rasa sets itself apart is by giving creative, mind-bending names to its wines. Billo and Pinto are intellectuals, scientists, and engineers, each with a masters degree. Their label names reflect their backgrounds in a whimsical way.
Take their first wine, a red blend of four Rhone grapes called “QED Convergence.” The letters QED are often scrawled at the end of completed mathematics proofs. They stand for “quod erat demonstrandum,” which, very loosely translated, means “We did it!” The 2013 QED, with its soft, powdery tannins and notes of cocoa, justifies the name.
The lovely 2014 “En Passant” merlot is named after a chess move. Not surprisingly, Pinto is an accomplished chess player. The wine is pretty, almost floral, with savory and meaty undertones. It’s sold only in magnums, and only 180 bottles were produced.
The standout for me was the 2014 “Veritas Sequitur” estate syrah. The name is Latin for “truth follows,” and indeed, this is truly a terroir-driven Old World-style wine. Modeled on the wines of the storied Hermitage hill in the northern Rhone, it transports you there, with all the smokey, bacon-y goodness that makes classic syrah so seductive.
Cadaretta Glasshouse: Southside district (Oregon)
One thing that makes the Walla Walla Valley AVA unique is that it straddles the Washington-Oregon line. On the first evening of the conference, I joined several attendees in venturing south of the border to a very special sunset dinner at Cadaretta Winery‘s “Glasshouse.”
This gorgeous event space on top of a hill overlooking the vineyards and the city below is not open to the public, but it’s worth sharing, as its location captures the beauty of a remote part of this AVA that many people never see.
The wines are lovely too. We started with a crisp white Bordeaux-style blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, paired with a gorgeous sunset. We then moved on to three big reds with dinner. The 2015 Southwind Malbec with lamb shank and black truffle risotto was the pairing of the night.
Of course, you can taste Cadaretta’s wines without visiting the glasshouse. The winery happily welcomes visitors at its downtown Walla Walla tasting room.
Dunham Cellars: Airport district
Adjacent to Walla Walla’s small regional airport sits a cluster of wineries and tasting rooms. On the second evening of the conference, we were whisked off to one of them for a wonderful pairing dinner.
Dunham Cellars‘ cozy spot in a remodeled World War II-era airplane hanger was the perfect place to spend this cool, rainy night. With its rustic decor, warm lighting, and comfy-looking couches that beckon alluringly, anyone would feel at home here.
Founder Joanne Dunham hosted our group in grand style for an excellent five-course meal.
It was fun to try Dunham’s 2015 tempranillo, a grape I hadn’t seen much in the area. It paired surprisingly well with a tasty corn bisque.
But the standout for me was the 2015 Lewis Vineyard riesling. Slightly off-dry but still crisp, it was an amazing match for the amuse bouche that featured a deliciously pungent cheese.
Long Shadows Vintners: Westside district
I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to Long Shadows Vintners before I arrived in Washington. The winery’s national sales manager Colin Cornett showed the lineup at a tasting at Swirlery Wine Bar just before I left Orlando.
Sadly, I didn’t have time to visit Long Shadows’ spectacular Walla Walla tasting room on a hillside west of town. But their wines are among the most interesting in the area and deserve a place in any Walla Walla post.
Long Shadows is a fascinating project. Founder Allen Shoup is the former CEO of what is now Chateau Ste. Michelle, the winery that put Washington State on America’s wine map. In 2002, he started Long Shadows to demonstrate what top vintners from the world’s best wine regions can do with Washington grapes.
Long Shadows partners have included Australia’s John Duval, formerly with Penfolds Grange, Randy Dunn of Napa’s Dunn Vineyards, and Armin Diel of Germany’s Schlossgut-Diel. These winemakers are not only consultants, but they also have partial ownership in the wines they help Long Shadows produce.
The “Poet’s Leap” riesling is a classically delicious German-style dry riesling, with bright acidity and notes of lemon and apple. It’s now only “inspired by” Armin Diel, as he got too busy to be more involved. I was happy to find this tasty wine on several lists around the Seattle area.
The other favorite for me was John Duval’s “Sequel” syrah. It’s much more elegant and delicate than I expected, with notes of roses dancing with acid and tannins that cut through the high alcohol that’s common to most Washington wines.
On my next trip to Walla Walla, I’ll prioritize a visit to Long Shadows to take in their beautiful views and try their new vintages.
Back to School
If you’ve only heard of one Walla Walla producer, it’s probably L’Ecole No. 41. It’s one of the region’s first wineries and certainly its most famous. Its wines are distributed around the world from their birthplace in a converted old schoolhouse just west of town.
This is another spot that’s on my list for my next visit to Walla Walla.
There so are many more, and while this was my first time at this little wine town that could, I’m sure it won’t be my last!
Special thanks to Jeff Burrows of foodwineclick for sharing his photo of me looking out over the vineyards at Cadaretta’s glasshouse. It was a no-brainer of a choice for the featured photo spot!