It all started with a $200 bottle of wine. Actually, we didn’t know it cost that bloody much when we pulled out this dusty gift, from a generous brother-in-law, at dinner one night.
“Wow! That’s good,” is all we said. Subsequent Googling revealed the bottle’s shocking price and a bit about the wine-producing area it came from: the Walla Walla Valley of southeast Washington. A week later, we were booked into a Walla Walla airbnb, with plans to tour the area’s wineries.
Not that we were planning to buy any $200 wine. A) we couldn’t afford it. B) the producer of that splendid wine, Leonetti Cellar, isn’t open to the touring public. No matter. More than 80 other valley wineries are happy to welcome the glass-swirling masses.
We ended up visiting just six of them over two days. A mere morning’s work for heartier imbibers, and hardly sufficient to assemble a comprehensive review of the area’s wines. Still, enough to get a rough sense of the wine scene.
Walla Walla is farm country. Gorgeous farm country, with rolling green hills and, to the east, the low Blue Mountains. Walla Walla is known for its wheat and renowned for its sweet onions, the state vegetable of Washington. The apple orchards, however, are increasingly giving way to vineyards.
Thirty years ago, there was no wine industry to speak of here. Today, scores of wineries surround the city of Walla Walla (population 32,000) and spill south across the nearby Oregon border.
A couple of interesting things. One, when you visit wineries west and east of the city, there are generally no vineyards nearby. You have to venture to the south to discover where most of the grapes are grown.
Two, downtown Walla Walla boasts more than 25 tasting rooms. You can thus stumble through an extensive wine tour on foot from your hotel room. But there’s something sterile about this experience, especially considering these tasting rooms seem to be open only a few hours a day.
I much prefer being out in the country, where the wine is produced, even if no vines are in sight. Going to colourful places like L’Ecole No. 41, in a historic schoolhouse west of the city, or, Sleight of Hand Cellars, in the midst of the grape-growing Southside area.
The terroir matters. In many places here, it’s a unique combination of basalt overlain by wind-deposited silt, or loess. These soils produce mighty fine Cabernet Sauvignons, Cab Francs, Merlots, Semillons and lightly-oaked Chardonnays. Ho hum, you say.
Well, some of the Syrahs are pretty damn exceptional. Like Saviah Cellars’ Funk Estate Syrah (named after its winemaker, Richard Funk), hands down the best wine we tasted on our brief tour. Coming from Canada, we did gulp at the $60 (US) price tag. Still, a lot cheaper than $200.
Walla Walla Wine Tip: If you value your sanity, steer clear of events like Spring Release, the first weekend of May at area wineries. This year, one sampling room alone was swamped with 1,200 sippers, many from Portland and Seattle. We strategically arrived 10 days later and had the same places to ourselves, with the full, lengthy attention of our server. Timing is everything.