If you’re planning on exploring Washington State, make the area’s scenic wine country a priority
By Cheryl Caira
Lead image: wallawalla.org
Wined and signed
I had planned to get some work finished on the short flight from Seattle to Walla Walla, the quirky southeastern city tucked into Walla Walla Valley, but this was scuppered as soon as I saw the view. A clear, bright day, the Columbia river and the spine of the snow-topped Cascade mountains began the distraction, before the vista changed to a patchwork of circular fields and colourful, undulating hills.
The diverse terrain and climate of the region seemed destined for wine fame, with the copious days of sunlight and rich soil perfect for winemakers looking to innovate and surprise with their creations. If you want as assorted a range of wines as you’ll taste anywhere, while not compromising on quality, then you could do far worse than the ‘town so nice, they named it twice’.
I’ve arrived in Walla Walla in October, just after wine harvest, and the foliage is at its glorious fall best, shedding red and yellow as I stare upwards starry-eyed. A drive from the airport en route to vineyard country presents a deserted highway and the sheen of the Blue Mountains in the distance. You could tour the wineries here for days – over 120 to give you a figure – as long as someone was willing to drive, that is. Hiring a driver might be the way forward if you want to thoroughly test out the area’s wine credentials.
As the morning sun starts to emerge, I visit Tranche (tranche.wine), a dreamily located winery with views over the Blue Mountain Vineyard and a terrace that makes summer evenings with a chilled glass of white seem very appealing. Tranche is known for its Rhone ‘Slice of Pape’ spicy blends, but keep an eye on the winery’s growing range of estate-grown wines, which focus on single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah and highlight the vineyard’s distinctive terroir.
I’m off to Foundry Vineyards (foundryvineyards.com) now – the winemaker’s namesake is an institution in the area, enabling world renowned artists to realise their casting vision, including Maya Lin, Ai Wei Wei and sculptor Deborah Butterfield. Butterfield keeps a studio in the area, and you can see one of her inimitable driftwood and bronze-cast horses if you take a stroll around Whitman College, a campus full of artistic highlights.
Grab a map and do the Outdoor Sculpture Walk – look out for Jim Dine’s headless pop art sculpture and Keiko Hara’s ethereal Topophilia Gates. The Sheehan Gallery (whitman.edu/sheehan/) on site is also fantastic, with six contemporary exhibitions a year. An interesting mix of winery, gallery and sculpture garden, Foundry Vineyards infuse art into the tasting experience, the wine labels notwithstanding. Foundry’s small batch wines – only 2,000 cases are produced annually – include a berry-leaning Merlot, the varietal that first brought Walla Walla Valley wine acclaim.
My last stop of the day is the inventive and leading-edge The Walls Vineyards (thewallsvineyards.com), with a name that alludes to the town’s history – referring to the local penitentiary, known as ‘the Walls’ –and in turn the walls people build to protect their vineyards.
Founder and local winemaker, Ali Mayfield, sourced the area’s best vines so she could create old-world-influenced wines with distinctive personalities, including the Walls Estate Vineyard in Oregon’s Rocks District, where the grapes grow amongst cobblestones rather than soil. The Walls have a sleek tasting room downtown, adjoining the trendy Passatempo (passatempowallawalla.com), an Italian taverna revival of the much-missed-by-locals Pastime Café.
Tasting take 2: Yakima Valley
Yakima Valley is less Walla Walla boho-chic, more laid-back Americana – but that doesn’t imply the region is any less innovative. It was the first American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Washington state, sporting well-irrigated, high desert volcanic soil, meaning the grapes grown here are some of the best in the biz. Walla Walla still leads on production, but more and more wineries are popping up in Yakima, making it exciting times for the valley’s vines.
Yakima itself has the feel of an old western desert town in parts, although the arid wilderness that once existed is now made up miles of fruit and vegetable farms, and importantly for my mission, vineyards. It hardly rains here – the area is blessed with over 300 days of sunshine a year – so if you like your wine tasting with almost guaranteed rays, this is your place.
The area’s agricultural emphasis informs the superb varietals on offer throughout the valley’s many tasting rooms. If you’re about to embark on an afternoon of wine-tasting, a spot of lunch is probably wise. Mexican food in the US is always a level-up, and the Latino community make up over 45% of Yakima Valley’s population. The food at family-owned café Salsita Antojitos Mexicanos is deliciously authentic – try the carne asada with a green chilli kick.
Treveri Cellars (trevericellars.com) is Washington’s only producer of exclusively sparkling wine, using the traditional Méthode Champenoise – the secondary bottle fermentation that spells quality. The Wapato-based winery was founded by Julie Grebb and her husband, Juergen, an expert winemaker who began learning his craft in the German city of Trier.
The free tastings at Treveri give you the opportunity to taste top-notch sparkling varieties across the board, from the drier Chardonnay Brut and Extra Brut to non-traditional, sweeter varieties such as Riesling and Müller-Thurgau. The clean New World fruit shines through, alongside a sure-fire Old World style of production.
When Owen Roe (owenroe.com) opened its second winery in the valley four years ago, it was all about a love of the land for owner David O’Reilly. A mixture of elevation and varying soil types, the terroir encourages colourful varietals with vibrancy and minerality.
Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Malbec and Mourvedre spread out far into the distance, giving anyone touring the vineyard views of Mount Adams and Rattlesnake Mountain. Inside the Barrel Cellar Hall, wine tastings are ongoing – this is the place to come for delicious, hearty reds that are full of character. Every Owen Roe label has a great story behind it – the highly rated Sinister Hand, featuring a label with a severed limb, depicts the hand found on the O’Reilly family crest and a centuries-old feud involving a land dispute, a rowing competition and a hand thrown ashore.
Cider tasting in Yakima Valley makes for adventurous supping. There are some innovative blends on offer at Tieton Ciderworks (tietonciderworks.com), including a Dry Hopped cider with some of the famous local hops, a tart apricot cider and a tasty Smoked Pumpkin concoction. The organic ciders are made from a blend of American, English, and French cider varietals and dessert apples, to sweet, clean-tasting effect.
Heading into downtown Yakima, you’ll find the Kana Winery (kanawinery.com) tasting room and bar. There’s a focus on red and white Rhône varietals and some award-winning wines to try – the smooth, fruity Dark Star is a top-seller.
Grape dates to remember
If you time your visit to Yakima and Walla Walla right, you could be the first to sample future stars of the wine world. The annual Spring Barrel, Spring Release, Fall Release and Holiday Barrel tasting events give you the chance to try new vintages straight from the barrel, alongside special winemaker dinners and live music.