So I just go back from my 2-week road trip driving cross country to visit my favorite wine region, Walla Walla! Now to be fair, I enjoyed wine on the way out and on the way back. I stopped in northwest Missouri to try some wines made from the Norton grape, which is the official grape of the state, as well as some wines in the Snake River Valley in Idaho, which is still an emerging wine region.
So back to Walla Walla, which was the point of this. It's been about 8 years since I last visited the valley, and more than a decade since my first visit in 2000 (I lived in Portland and then Seattle from 1999-2004). Back then, there were relatively few wineries, and Walla Walla was still a sleepy little region, but a good friend of mine from Santa Cruz who loved wine more than I do, convinced me to stop and pick up some wine on the way to visit her in Spokane. In fact, U.S. 12 was the main highway into town, and you would start at the western end at L'Ecole No. 41 and Woodward Canyon, then pass 3-Rivers and a couple others before the wine tour ended downtown at Seven Hills. The whole tasting tour could be done in an afternoon!
Today it seems like there are 150+ wineries, all over the city and surrounding areas, such that you could probably spend a week just to see a quarter of them! There is a new U.S. 12, which has been transformed into a 4-lane superhighway heading into downtown, but I felt a little bad for wineries like 3-Rivers, which was about 1/4 mile off the new highway and still on the old route 12. When I first visited, they had a nice new tasting room, and that was just left in the dust as progress rolled by them. In addition to so many new wineries, the other piece of good news was the addition of so many new restaurants to provide high quality food to enjoy with the wonderful wines (I had a lovely pan seared salmon salad at the Green Spoon, it was Copper River season!).
So, on my day of tasting (yes, unfortunately it was only a day since I was trying to cram so much into my 4,000 mile trip!) I started downtown at Seven Hills, which is probably my second favorite winery after L'Ecole. Enjoyed some of their Columbia Valley Merlot (it was surprisingly good), the Pentad and Ciel du Cheval, they were all quite wonderful, so I bought 5 or 6 bottles and asked for advice on where to go next (I got a new "wine guide" at the hotel, but since you have to pay to be in there, not all wineries are represented).
Based on their advice, I next went to visit Forgeron Cellars which has a tasting room downtown on 3rd street. The tasting room manager, Anne I think was her name, was such a wonderful host. We tasted through their current releases and I bought a bottle each of the wines that were only available in the tasting room, and of course I don't recall exactly which those were, I think it was the Petit Verdot and the Cab Franc, but I could easily be wrong! I also bought some other bottles, including a couple of the Walldeaux Smithie table wine, which was very nice!
Next stop was my favorite winery, L'Ecole No. 41. I've been in their wine club for quite some time and have ordered a bit of wine from them in the past. This was somewhat funny, since I had been communicating with them on Twitter that I was coming to visit on my wild road trip, and when I finally narrowed down the day to Tuesday, I let them know. When I walked into the tasting room, of course no one recognized me, and how could they really being a non-descript internet wine buyer. So they asked me if I was familiar with their wines (of course) and we started through the basic tasting when I tweeted to them "I'm here!" and within 30 seconds Jaime came into the tasting room and introduced herself! We tasted a bunch and then she gave me a wonderful tour of the cellar and told me about some recent wonderful wines she'd opened, including a bottle of '99 Walla Walla Merlot. So in line with my desire to get wines I could not get at home or online, I raided the library! I ended up with a bottle of the '99 Merlot, a couple bottles of the Ferguson blend from the 2004 vintage, a magnum of '01 Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon, and double magnum of the '09 Walla Walla Cabernet, which I think will turn out at least as good as the '08 which received such high ratings and quickly sold out. I also considered buying a 6-liter bottle, but where could I display such a work of vintner art? At any rate it was a lovely visit with some wonderful people and great wines!
My next stop was a walk across the parking lot to Woodward Canyon. They have a lovely tasting room in a farmhouse, and have produced wonderful wines under their Woodward Canyon and Nelm's Road labels. I tasted some wonderful Cabernets and ended up buying a couple bottles of their house red, a Nelm's Road Cabernet and a bottle of the latest "Artist Series" Cabernet.
The next stop was just up route 12 to Cougar Crest. I hadn't stopped so much based on a recommendation, but more for the name! Knowing some of the ladies I work with, and who are part of our office wine club, I could not resist stopping! The tasting room was quite nice, and they have a number of wonderful reds I tasted under their two labels, Cougar Crest and Walla Walla River Estate. I ended up with a couple bottles of their "Dedication Five" red wine, which is produced in honor of the doctors and nurses at the Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, who saved the winemaker's daughter back in 2005. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the wine are donated to the hospital, which I view as a wonderful gesture.
The last stop on my wine tour was to Reininger, which was a little further along on route 12. I walked in and there was a full house! Apparently a group of about 10 friends were doing a tasting tour and we crossed paths in the tasting room at Reininger. Like many other wineries, they have two labels as well, the Reininger label and the Helix Label. I tried about all of their reds, it seemed like at least a dozen! I ended up buying a few bottles, including "Mr. Owl's Red" (named fir their winemaker Raul, who apparently the owners' children had trouble pronouncing when they were small, so they called him Mr. Owl) and a Helix Sangiovese which was delightful!
Alas, the wine tasting done, I raced back across the border to Pendleton to buy a few blankets before they closed (my old blanket bought there in 1991 is really starting to wear out!). Then it was off to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks before heading back east across Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana and home to Michigan. It was a super fun trip that I would do again in a heartbeat, so for those of you who live in the Northwest, you should appreciate the Walla Walla Valley even more!
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