- In general, I passed on tasting Chardonnay and Merlot, because I have limited palate stamina and have little interest in those wines. However, as you will see below, I tasted a few of these wines when it seemed appropriate to do so.
It was NOT our goal to perform a forced march through Walla Walla wine tasting rooms. Rather, we tried to visit about 5 wineries a day, taking as much time as we wanted to talk with people, and to see some other sights (like the Fort Walla Walla Museum).
We visited a selection of wineries on the west side and south of town, and a couple at the airport; we did not hit the downtown tasting rooms or the east side wineries. I estimate we saw roughly a tenth of the total wineries in the greater Walla Walla area.
Keep in mind that the great January 2004 vine freeze destroyed roughly 80% of the Walla Walla grape vines, forcing many of the wineries to produce Columbia Valley wines, rather than Walla Walla wines, in 2004.
- Woodward Canyon: This winery is located on Rt 12, in Lowden, a 10-15 minute drive from downtown. They had numerous offerings of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and blends for us to taste, and we found all of them to be very good to excellent wines. We started with their NV Columbia Valley Red ($17), which has dark fruit with leathery notes. This Cab-dominated blend has a rather unique ingredient grape, Barbera (11%), and it is a nice wine for the price. Their second label 2004 Nelms Road Cabernet Sauvignon ($21) is pretty good, but it did not compel me to buy. The 2003 Merlot ($39) is quite a lovely wine with dark chocolate on the nose; it has luscious dark fruit flavors and a very good finish. The 2002 Estate Red ($55) is dark and sultry, and came across as a beautiful wine. It is a blend of Cabernet Franc (39%), Merlot (38%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (23%). Their 2003 Artist Series #12 Cabernet Sauvignon ($44) brings together grapes from seven different vineyards to produce an outstanding wine that is both smooth and complex. We ended with the 2003 Columbia Valley Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), a 100% varietal made from predominantly Champoux Vineyard grapes. This wine has a hint of spice on the nose and very rich flavors; it’s a huge wine with great aging potential.
L’Ecole No 41: A few yards to the east you will see a nicely manicured lawn with a lovely old schoolhouse building. Unfortunately, I felt rather disappointed with some of the wines I tasted here. They had an extremely generous number of wines available for tasting, and I did not even attempt to try all of them. I tasted two (of the three) bottles of Semillon available that day. The 2005 Seven Hills Semillon ($19) has a crisp and pleasant floral aroma, and delivers a nice balance of fruit and acid. The 2004 Fries Vineyard Semillon ($19) has less of a floral aroma with perhaps a bit of diesel, and delivers more citrus on the finish. Jumping to the reds, I tried the 2004 Recess Red ($17), a blend of six different grapes, including a fair amount of Syrah (25%) and small amounts of Malbec and Carmenere. It comes across as a medium-light quaffer with bright fruit and light tannin; good, but it did not grab me as compelling. So I jumped right to the big blends, Perigee (which they served first) and Apogee. The 2003 Perigee ($44) is a 3-grape blend that shows some interesting complexity, but not enough body-fruit-finish to justify the price. This was the first time I tasted this wine and I was comparing it to Ensemble Cellars Release One ($48), which we tasted the previous evening (see below). The 2003 Apogee ($44) is a 4-grape blend that delivers bright fruit, but without that rich feeling I’d experienced with the 2001 vintage. It surprised me greatly that these wines did not compare well to other Walla Walla wines I tasted at this price point. (Word has it that L’Ecole No 41 has been steadily increasing production the past few years.) I finished up by tasting the 2004 Seven Hills Syrah ($36), which I found to be very nice, with good berry and spice on the nose and palate.
Reininger: Working our way back toward town, we stopped next at Reininger, where I was introduced to their second wine label, Helix. My first taste was the 2005 Helix Aspersa ($18), a blend of Viognier (60%) and Chardonnay (40%). The aromas of both grapes definitely come through; the wine is crisp with good acid, fruit and nice finish. However, my initial thought and final impressions were “Why would anyone want to ruin a decent Viognier by adding Chardonnay to it?” The 2005 Helix Rose’ ($18), made entirely from Merlot, is nice and dry, and an altogether nice wine … for Rose’ lovers, of course. The other Helix selection I tried was the 2003 Pomatia ($20), a 4-grape blend that is half Cabernet Sauvignon; it has some nice complexity in a medium-light wine. From here I moved to the standard Reininger label, starting with the 2003 RTW ($25), a 4-grape blend with over half being Syrah. It brings some pepper on the nose and bright fruit flavors with a good finish; however, I detected some intermediate bitterness on the palate. Their 2002 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($32) contains small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Carmenere, has a nice dark aroma, and delivers very good dark cherry fruit with some leather on the finish. The 2003 Walla Walla Valley Syrah ($32) has lots of fruit and pepper on the nose and the palate. Both of these last two wines were very nice.
Skylite: We stopped here, because the Reininger hostess said they made a very nice Viognier. Unfortunately, their new winery building/tasting room is not finished yet, and they were already sold out of their Viognier. (Apparently, they only made 50 cases of it.) The assistant winemaker suggested we try Amavi, because they have a really elegant Semillon.
Amavi: I was quite anxious to try their 2005 Columbia Valley Semillon ($20), and I was not disappointed. It has a beautifully crisp aroma, to which Eileen exclaimed, “It smells like sunshine.” The wine has a nice creamy (but not flabby) texture that comes from 100% fermentation in neutral oak, and aging sur lie. Its flavors are rich with lovely lemony nuances, and it is all balanced with nice acidity. All in all, this is a very distinctive wine. Their 2004 Columbia Valley Syrah ($28) is very dark, with an awesome aroma; it is a big wine that delivers complex flavors without over extracted jaminess. This was the best Syrah for the price we tasted during this visit. The final wine we tasted here was the 2004 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($24), which has almost 23% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc. Its dark fruit, lovely texture and medium tannin made it one of the nicest Cabs we found for the price. They also have a high-end 2004 Les Collines Vineyard Syrah ($30), which is due to release in November; unfortunately, they were not offering tastes at this time. We really liked Amavi wines, and joined their wine club.
Whitman: It was getting late in the day and we were getting tired from a full day of sightseeing and tasting, so this was a quick stop. I tasted only one wine here, their 2005 Walla Walla Valley Viognier ($19), which has a lovely floral aroma, along with crisp citrusy fruit flavors.
- Skylite: On our way to the south side wineries, we stopped at their downtown tasting room at 10AM. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open yet, and there was no sign indicating the hours of operation. So, we moved on to our first winery of the day.
Basel Cellars: We knew nothing about this winery, other than it opened at 10AM, so we headed 10 minutes south on Rt 125. Since we were the only tasters there, we were able to spend almost two hours with winemaker Trey Busch, who poured our tastes that morning, including some unreleased wines. The 2003 Claret ($24) is a Cab-Merlot-Syrah blend with good complex aromas, and medium+ body with cherry fruit, good acid and a nice finish. The 2004 Claret ($24, releasing in December) is a different blend altogether; it is lighter than the ’03 and still a bit closed. I decided to try the 2004 Merlot ($24), which has 16% Cab Sauv blended in; it has nice red fruit aromas and tastes with some light tannin on the side. The 2003 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($32) has 16% Syrah. With dark fruit all the way, and a bit of mint or menthol hidden in there somewhere, it is a very good wine, starting with its complex aromas to its really long finish. As much as I liked the previous wines, I was even more thrilled by their 2003 Walla Walla Valley Red Wine ($36), a blend of Merlot (56%) and Cabernet Franc (44%). This wine is beautifully structured, with lovely dark fruit and medium tannin. The 2003 Merriment ($48) is a blend of Merlot (50%), Cabernet Sauvignon (45%) and Cabernet Franc (5%), and it delivers a very good, complex wine with firm tannin and bright fruit. We both loved these last two wines. The 2004 Columbia Valley Syrah ($42) was dark and rich with intense flavors without being jammy. However, we quickly discovered a deeper level of darkness to be found in Washington Syrah when we tried the (unreleased) 2004 Lewis Vineyard Reserve Syrah ($60) from the Yakima Valley, a HUGE wine in all dimensions. The wine is so dark, it appears black; the aroma is a mixture of dark fruit and grilled meat; the flavors are intense and the finish lasts forever. The wine is so big and well put together, we didn’t notice that it packs a whopping 15.9% ABV. A limited amount of this killer Syrah was produced, and it is scheduled for release to their wine club members in September. (Oh, yes … we joined on the spot … and we did serious damage at this winery.) Before we left, Trey Busch made appointments for us at Isenhower and Rulo, which were not normally open that day. He also took us on a winery tour, and into a nearby vineyard to sample the ripeness of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. This stop was the highlight of our visit.
Isenhower: We have friends in Gig Harbor, who love this winery, and they recommended we stop here; I’m glad we were able to do so. Our first wine here was the 2005 Snapdragon ($18), a blend of Rousanne (55%) and Viognier (45%). I’ve tasted this unique blend before, which smells floral and tropical (the Viognier), yet has some heaviness and spicy flavors (the Rousanne). We were lucky to be able to taste their 2004 Red Paintbrush ($26), which had previously been sold out (until an east coast distributor defaulted on their allocation). This smooth tasting blend of Merlot (80%), Cabernet Sauvignon (17%) and Syrah (3%) is made for easy drinking and delivers nice body with it. We next tried two samples of Syrah: 2004 Wild Alfalfa Syrah ($28) and 2004 River Beauty Syrah ($32). They are both dark and well made; however, the River Beauty grapes come from the Horse Heaven Hills, and it has noticeably more body and aging potential. The final wine we tasted was the 2004 Tapteil Vineyard Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), which has bright red fruit and medium tannin.
Pepper Bridge: We hadn’t planned to stop here, but we had 45 minutes before our next appointment and we needed a place to have a quick bite of lunch. Note that although many wineries charge a modest $5 tasting fee, which applies against any wine purchase, Pepper Bridge had the highest tasting fee ($8) we encountered out there. They had only three wines to taste, and they were all big premium wines. The 2003 Walla Walla Valley Merlot ($45) has a wonderfully rich aroma, and intense flavors, but with some unidentified mid-to-back palate tastes at first. (This could have been an aftereffect of my hastily consumed lunch, however.) This Merlot is a big wine and needs food to do it justice. Their 2003 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($50), which contains small amounts of Merlot and Malbec, is big and lush with dark cherry aromas, intense flavors and a really long finish. The 2002 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) also contains small amounts of Merlot and Malbec, and is equally big and dark, but with somewhat less appeal than the ’03. Although pleasant and seemingly knowledgeable, I was rather turned off by the hostess, who kept pushing issues of Wine Enthusiast (or was it Wine & Spirits?) magazine in front of me to show how much they liked these wines. The wines were terrific, but I would really prefer to have an intelligent discussion of the qualities of the wine, rather than being told that wine reviewer X gave them 92 points.
Rulo: This was a fun visit, because the owner-hostess was very engaging and had a great sense of humor; they also make really nice wines here. The first wine on the left was the 2004 Viognier ($18), which some folks feel is a strong candidate for Best Viognier in the Walla Walla area. It has everything I like in a good Viognier: engaging floral aroma, nice acidity, crisp fruit, and a lingering finish. I really liked this wine. Their next white wine, 2005 Combine ($15), is another unique blend of Sauvignon Blanc (82%) and Viognier (18%). It is neat and crisp, and it delivers the best of both varietals for me, floral aromas with lemony flavors. I broke my no-Chardonnay rule here, because our hostess wanted me to taste the difference between two of their vintages. The 2004 Sundance Vineyard Chardonnay ($20) is made from grapes grown in Matawa, north of the Tri-Cities area along the Columbia River. This wine has crisp fruit and minerals with more of an old world taste to it, and I preferred it to the next one. The 2005 Walla Walla Chardonnay ($20) is richer with more fat and butter, but is too much like most other domestic Chardonnay for my taste. The 2004 Syrah ($20) comes across as a very good wine for the price, but the 2003 Silo Syrah (aka Reserve, $25) is quite a stunner with more of just about everything, including a nice dose of black pepper. Unfortunately, they were out of this wine, and just happened to have an open bottle at hand. SIGH.
- Ensemble Cellars: This new winery, which released its first product in May 2006, is open by appointment only. It was actually our first stop of the trip, late in the day of our arrival. They produced a relatively small amount (250 cases) of a Bordeaux style blend that winemaker, Craig Nelsen, is trying to fashion after Ch. Margaux Bordeaux. The name Ensemble is significant in many respects. First, it reflects the winemaker’s love for music and the fact that he is a classical violinist. Second, it reflects the careful blending of this wine, which spans two vintages and seven vineyards. The NV Release One Columbia Valley Red Wine ($48) is comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon (60%), Merlot (24%) and Cabernet Franc (16%), and is a blend of 2003 (68%) and 2004 (32%) vintages. This is a very polished and elegant wine with wonderful dark cherry flavors and lovely balance. Astute (or lucky) buyers were able to pre-purchase this wine at $38. We also tasted the unreleased NV Release Two Columbia Valley Red Wine ($tbd), which is a blend of three vintages (2003-2004-2005). Like its predecessor, it will be a beautiful wine upon release in May 2007. Moving forward, future releases of Ensemble Cellars wines will span three vintages, and will reach an annual production close to 350 cases. Note that these wines can only be purchased at the winery (either in person, by phone or FAX) or at Water to Wine, the wine shop in Gig Harbor that Craig Nelsen first opened in 1999.
Tamarack: In truth, we did not stop at this winery; it was on our list, but we ran out of time and did not get around to making an appointment for a mid-week visit. However, we just missed meeting the winemaker, who had been visiting Craig Nelsen at Ensemble Cellars. Fortunately, they left a small amount of 2003 DeBrul Vineyard Reserve ($40), which we tasted with Craig. This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (62%), Merlot (31%) and Cabernet Franc (7%) starts with dark fruit aromas with some smoke and chocolate on the nose. It then delivers lush dark fruit flavors with some leather on the long finish.
Buty: We had heard very good things about this small winery. Unfortunately, it was closed … apparently they sold all of their wines this year.
Dunham Cellars: This was our final stop of the trip, and we actually arrived a few minutes after 4PM, their posted closing time. Since there were still two tasters inside, the hostess graciously welcomed us in. I started with the 2005 Walla Walla Rose’ Wine ($26, but on sale for $19). This 100% Cabernet Franc dry Rose’ wine is a light pink salmon with crisp fruit and floral notes. It was very nice, but somewhat hard to justify at the regular price. The 2004 Three Legged Red ($19) had a very nice aroma, but the wine seemed to be a bit sour and acidic. The 2004 Trutina ($24) was a richer tasting blend of Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot-Cabernet Franc with a noticeably nicer and longer finish than the TLR. The 2002 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon VIII ($45) remains their flagship wine; it delivers dark fruit and mocha aromas, and dark cherry tastes. The 2003 Columbia Valley Syrah ($45) comes with an enticing dark and spicy aroma; it has very complex tastes of fruit and spice … very nice.
I hope you find these notes to be useful and interesting.