The Long and Win(e)ding Washington Road

By / Magazine / December 17th, 2007 / 1

I’m starting to look forward to a holiday. My jaunt through Oregon, learning about organic, biodynamic and sustainable vineyard practices (see Part Three of my trip around the Pacific Northwest in the forthcoming April issue), had been fascinating. It had also been rather exhausting: a typical case of a lot to swallow without much time to spend at the table. In any case, the good folks at the Washington Wine Council had provided me with a great itinerary for (what I assumed) would be a leisurely ramble through the state’s picturesque wine country. It was my time and I’d call the shots. Well, guess what? Washington is a big place with seemingly countless wineries with, in some cases, considerable distances between them. Eight hundred (or so) kilometres of driving later, I am really, really ready for a holiday!

Do I regret a single kilometre? As if.

September 17, 4:15 p.m., Marcus-Whitman Hotel & Conference Center, Downtown Walla Walla: I just got into my room after a scenic four-hour drive from PDX to Walla Walla, Washington (the same trip took me forty minutes via private jet about a week ago … more on that in Part Three). I am looking forward to a nice, relaxing evening: you know, leisurely afternoon, nice dinner, bit of time mapping out the next few days, early night, refreshed in the morning, etcetera. Well, I’ve barely dropped my bags when the phone starts to ring. Oh, wow, an invite to a wine-tasting at a resto just around the block! Haven’t been to one of those in, oh, twelve hours. “Sure, I guess,” I reply, still unsure of how the mysterious caller found me. “I’m actually having dinner at that place tonight,” I say matter-of-factly. “No, you’re not,” she corrects me, “you’re going to be at Whitehouse-Crawford.” I’m starting to get spooked. This person not only knows where I am, but is also privy to an itinerary I don’t yet have and is now informing me of a change in dinner venues. I envision some sort of freaky setup (like waking up in a bathtub full of ice with a kidney missing and a note urging me to call 911). I need another tasting like I need to lose a kidney, but what the heck …

8:30 p.m.: So, I’m back in my room after a great dinner at Whitehouse-Crawford and a tasting at 26° Brix. I didn’t take exhaustive notes on the wines. Suffice to say that Washington wines have little to do with Oregon wines and even less to do with California wines.

September 18, 6 a.m.: Stepping out of the shower, I glance at the foggy mirror above the sink. A previous guest has apparently left a little “message” for his or her beloved, now readable through the condensation: “I love you, Puddin’ Pop.” Charming. I’m in a room once used by someone referred to as “Puddin’ Pop.” How can this trip get any better?

9:30 a.m., Five Star Cellars: Five Star Cellars is part of a gaggle of wineries, all of which look relatively the same, located within a stone’s throw of the Walla Walla airport. The area itself resembles an army base; Five Star’s David Huse informs me that this area in fact was an airforce training facility. (My powers of observation astound even me!) Five Star is a 4,500-case, family-run operation with exactly two people on payroll: David and his son. Using 100 per cent Walla Walla fruit, the father-and-son team have opted for “quality right off the bat,” according to Huse. “We didn’t see any point in doing anything low-end.” The philosophy seems to be paying off. The dense, concentrated, earthy/spicy 2003 Merlot, sporting flavours of coffee, mocha, blueberry and ripe plum, was awarded 92 points by Wine Spectator, as was the very French-styled 2004 Syrah with its smokey tobacco, chocolate flavours. Syrah is indeed turning out to be a star in Washington, but as far as Huse is concerned, “Washington should push Merlot.”

bad wine11 a.m., Dunham Cellars: Eric Dunham grew up around wine and spent almost five years at L’École No 41 winery before starting Dunham Cellars in 1995. “We were in the experimental stage for a long time,” Dunham admits, finally settling on Syrah as one of the winery’s flagship grapes. “Syrah behaves in a way that is uniquely different to each site,” he says. “You can go from an Aussie-style Shiraz to a Rhone Valley style.” The 2003 Lewis Vineyard Syrah places most definitely in the latter category with a forward smokey, black cherry, anise and mineral-tinged nose and a full, powerful, spice flavour tapering to a memorable finish. Among other wines I tried were the extremely drinker-friendly 2004 Three-Legged Red (named after Dunham’s three-legged dog Port) and a 2005 Sémillon Icewine loaded with orange blossom, sweet pineapple/tropical fruit aromas and flavours.

1:30 p.m., Waterbrook Winery: One really cool thing about Walla Walla is that you don’t really have to go very far to find a place to taste. Many wineries have set up wine shops and tasting rooms right downtown, making a trip out to the actual winery (and driving) unnecessary. Waterbrook was the fourth winery to be established in Walla Walla (in 1983), and winemaker John Freeman, a young, easygoing chap, explains that Waterbrook “has always been a value producer. Our aim is to make the best wine for the best price.”

From what I’ve tasted, the philosophy is working. Standouts of the ten wines tasted are: the ripe, buttery and elegant 2004 Chardonnay (which scored 89 points in the October 2006 issue of Tidings); the ripe-cherry-and-tobacco-scented 2004 Mélange (a successful blend of Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Sangiovese/Syrah); and a perky, zesty and downright fun 2005 Sangiovese Rosé.

3:15 p.m., Seven Hills Winery: Housed in the historic Whitehouse-Crawford building (1904), Seven Hills Winery focuses primarily on Bordeaux-style reds with a few diversions thrown in for good measure. “Bordeaux blends are huge in Walla Walla and Washington in general,” winemaker Casey McClellan tells me, “but Rhone varietals are also doing very well.” As I taste my way through a selection, including the 2003 Columbia Merlot, the 2002 Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2004 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, I’m struck by the structure, power and age-worthiness of these wines. Even the 1999 Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon, with its classic Bordeaux profile of cassis, mineral and very mild yet intriguing iodine notes, is still very youthful.

September 19, 9 a.m.: I’m getting ready to bid adieu to Walla Walla with memories of a first-rate meal at 26° Brix last night still in my head. I’m heading west, back (eventually) to Portland, and I still have half a dozen wineries to visit — two more still in Walla Walla.

9:40 a.m., Woodward Canyon Winery: Rick Small, co-founder (along with his wife), is living proof that wine contains youth-sustaining properties. His energy and enthusiasm are astounding for someone who’s nearing sixty. He started making wine at home in 1976 before opening Woodward in 1981. Standing in his Cabernet Franc–planted vineyard some 850 feet above sea level, I admit to Rick that I’m having some difficulty nailing down the angle for my story on Washington.

“Washington does have a story, but it’s a hard one to tell,” he concedes. Though he claims that his winery is a “Bordeaux varietal house at the end of the day,” he notes that the gradually escalating temperatures in the region and the constant experimentation with other varietals are definitely affecting the vinous landscape. “It’s getting bloody hard to make a balanced Chardonnay in the valley,” he laments (though you’d never know it tasting his 2003 Estate Chardonnay or his very Burgundian 2001 Celilo Vineyard Chardonnay). I comment that I’ve noticed a bit of an emergent Mediterranean theme, what with all the Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Sangiovese, Barbera and Tempranillo being planted. Small warms to the notion, adding that he’s intrigued by Syrah but still somewhat perplexed by its various personalities. “More planting of Grenache and Mourvèdre might help balance it out nicely,” he muses.

11:20 a.m., L’École No 41: Located right next door to Woodward Canyon Winery is the charming L’École No 41. The winery’s offices and tasting room are housed in a schoolhouse built in 1915. Interestingly, the surrounding community is Frenchtown, a name that makes reference to the numerous French-Canadians who settled in the area in the early 1800s.

The tasting room is in one of the school’s classrooms (and it includes the original chalkboards, lighting fixtures, fir floors and mouldings), and I’m sampling a range of wines crafted by owner and winemaker Martin Clubb. Standouts are the 2004 Fries Vineyard Sémillon (classic Sémillon in every respect); the powerful 2003 Pepper Bridge Vineyard Apogee (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with a smattering of Malbec and Cabernet Franc); the dense, inky, peppery 2004 Seven Hills Vineyard Syrah; and a 2004 Sémillon Icewine (honey, apricot, elegant, refined, beautifully balanced).



2:10 p.m., Hedges Family Estate, Red Mountain: I remember interviewing Tom Hedges, the estate’s founder, for Wine Tidings (as it was called) back in 2001, and I’m eager to chat with his brother Pete. When asked about the challenges of making wine in Washington, Pete offers the following: “We’re still a relatively new winemaking area and we’re faced with the challenges of a young industry. To some extent, we’re still trying to figure out what varieties work best here. Twenty-five years ago, we were mostly making Riesling, since Washington was seen as a ‘cool climate.’ Then someone figured out that it’s really pretty hot!”

Although Hedges is actively experimenting with exotic grape varieties (Touriga Nacional, anyone?), the main flotilla of wine is based on Bordeaux (or Bordeaux-ish) blends. The rich, concentrated 2003 Three Vineyards; the dark, plummy 2003 Two Vineyards; and the intense, smoky 2002 Two Vineyards Reserve prove that a little Syrah added to the traditional Cabernet/Merlot blend can indeed add structure and complexity. The 2003 Single Vineyard Limited Bel’Villa North Block Syrah is the Washington equivalent of Hermitage, with its huge, smokey, mineral and white-pepper complexity. Awesome stuff.

September 20, 9:45 a.m., Bookwalter Winery, Columbia Valley: Three wineries to visit in the Tri-Cities area. Luckily, they are within walking distance of each other. In operation since 1983, Bookwalter has quickly risen to become a widely acclaimed player with numerous critical and commercial accolades. Primarily a Bordeaux-blend winery, Bookwalter also crafts a few white wines using Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling. I’m surprised by the flavour of the 2006 Chardonnay must, right out of the tank, which tastes more like tropical fruit punch than anything wine-like.

The 2004 Merlot, which also contains a measure of Petit Verdot and Malbec, shows bright, smokey, blueberry, coffee and mocha elements wrapped in a muscular 14.5 per cent alcohol frame. The 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (also bolstered by some Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot), while still fairly tight, shows promising slate, cassis and a hint of toasty oak. Bookwalter feels that the winery is “still a work in progress,” whose mission is to “cultivate and express the highest potential of our vineyards.”

“It really is a bit like the wild, wild west out here,” he surmises.

11 a.m., Bernard Griffin Winery: Bernard Griffin Winery, founded in 1983 by Rob Griffin (whose winemaking career started in 1977) and Deborah Bernard, has been producing award-winning wines for over twenty years. At 70,000 cases per year, Bernard Griffin is Washington’s largest family-owned winery. Named “2006 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year” by Wine Press Northwest, the winery produces a diverse range of reds and whites from a myriad of grape varieties. However, as with many of the state’s wineries, it champions Merlot as its anchor. The spicy, blueberry- and plum-scented 2003 Reserve Merlot and the cedary, herbal, supple and immensely drinkable 2004 Ciel du Cheval Merlot more than adequately display the winery’s deft hand with this variety. The 2004 Zinfandel, the 2004 Reserve Syrah and the 2004 Reserve Syrah Port (yup, you read that right) also stood out among the ten wines sampled.

12 p.m., Tagaris Winery: A Greek taverna in the middle of Washington wine country? Bit of a surprise, but also a refreshing change of pace. Tagaris, according to Penny Morgan, the winery’s president, “didn’t want to be a typical ten-to-five tasting room.” The aim instead was to “take the next step in completing the food-and-wine circle.” Tagaris is an accessible, come-as-you-are food-and-wine playground that strives to stay out of, in Morgan’s words, “the already established rat race.”

Lunch, prepared by Chef Chris Ainsworth, features a tantalizing array of Greek-inspired specialties accompanied by wines crafted by Frank Roth, who cut his teeth at British Columbia’s Sumac Ridge (see Part One of this series in the December 2006/January 2007 issue of Tidings) and at Bernard Griffin. Included are a spicy, true-to-type 2005 Gewürztraminer; a melon-, peach- and tropical-fruit-nuanced 2005 white Meritage; a ballsy, black peppery 2005 Mourvèdre; and a supple, powerful and complex 2005 Petit Verdot.

I feel like I’ve been moving non-stop through Oregon and Washington and would love nothing more than to hang out at the bar with these folks, chew the fat and drink the wine. However, I’m already late for my next stop and have to hit two more wineries before the day is done.

2:45 p.m., the Hogue Cellars: If one had to swear allegiance to the mantra “Cork Is Crap,” Hogue winemaker Co Dinn would no doubt salute. The Hogue Cellars launched an extensive study of tree bark as wine closure. Conclusive observations? Cork sucks. Monitoring Chardonnay and Merlot at six-month intervals over the course of thirty months, professional evaluators noted that a) cork-topped wines were consistently low in fruit, b) synthetic corks pretty much suck too, c) screwcapped wines remained fresher over the thirty-month period, d) screwcapped wines allow for excellent aging, e) screwcaps are superior. So, here’s to you, Mighty Screwcap.

Fruit for Hogue wines is sourced from a variety of Columbia Valley appellations as well as from its own 100 acres of vineyard. Having farmed the Columbia Valley for over fifty years, the Hogue family launched its first vintage in 1982 and today produces in the neighbourhood of 600,000 cases.

“Washington is one of the great places in the world to grow Riesling,” Dinn admits as we sample the peachy, floral, mineral-tinged 2005 Genesis Riesling. Other standouts include the 2004 Reserve Chardonnay, the barrel-fermented 2005 Viognier (“You have to get the acid and alcohol in balance with this grape,” Dinn reveals), the 2002 Terroir Syrah, the 2002 Merlot and … and, damn, I’ve gotta fly!

5:20 p.m., Maryhill Winery, Columbia River Gorge: I was supposed to be here two hours ago. Yes, it’s my fault (but I’m blaming Co, for the record). God, what a spectacular view! According to owner Vicki Leuthold, these vineyards haven’t experienced a freeze in forty-five years (they even escaped the brutal Big Chill of 2004). The winery’s yummy 2005 Viognier (pronounced “vin-yay” by some people I’ve met out here) is, admittedly, “inner-staved” to add a note of oak (in short, a plank of oak was paddled through the wine). But who cares — the end justifies the means, right? The Sangiovese Rosé shows bright cherry/strawberry fruit and a light, zesty personality. A 2002 Grenache is beautifully smokey with notes of anise and tobacco.

Interestingly enough (but not surprising) is the fact that the tasty Bernard Griffin Zinfandel I tried yesterday was made from fruit sourced from Maryhill. The Leutholds tend seventeen acres of Zinfandel — the largest planting of this variety in Washington, from cuttings sourced from vineyards that are over one hundred years old (in fact, the oldest vitis vinifera plantings in the Pacific Northwest). I love Zin, and this 2004 Zinfandel is classic stuff. I’d recommend California winemakers taste this as a “recalibration” exercise!

8:30 p.m., Shilo Inn, The Dalles, Oregon: I almost run out of gas getting here. I want two things: a Portland-brewed beer and a meal. In that order. I’ve had a complete luggage malfunction and now my possessions are hogtied together with twine. If the baggage inspectors in BC got antsy because I had a corkscrew, wait till the people at PDX get a load of this!


Tod Stewart is the contributing editor at Quench. He's an award-winning Toronto-based wine/spirits/food/travel/lifestyle writer with over 35 years industry experience. He has contributed to newspapers, periodicals, and trade publications and has acted as a consultant to the hospitality industry. No matter what the subject matter, he aims to write an entertaining read. His book, 'Where The Spirits Moved Me' is now available on Amazon and Apple.

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