The color blue is often associated with sadness but, as many a great artist has shown, blue is rich in symbolic associations. From blue skies to ocean blue to blue suits, blue symbolizes confidence, distance, infinity, and the imagination. Perhaps it is these associations that make the Blue Mountains lurking on the horizon so mysterious, a silent, inscrutable witness to all that goes on in the Walla Walla Valley. Perhaps that sense of mystery explains why the wine gods have blessed this valley of wheat and onion fields with magical, exhilarating Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah that are putting Walla Walla on the wine map.
This is an unlikely wine tourist destination. Isolated in Southeastern Washington and small, with the town of Walla Walla consisting of only about 32,000 residents, there are nevertheless over 100 wineries in the area, and many operate downtown tasting rooms where visitors can sample the wares in a small-town atmosphere supported by a growing number of restaurants, lodgings, and shops, all designed to enhance the wine experience.
Unfortunately, there are few opportunities to taste some of the more celebrated wines in the region. Among my favorites, Leonetti, the cult winery that launched Walla Walla as a wine region in 1974, is not open to the public, and Cayuse, one of Walla Walla’s rising stars, was sold out when we visited early in November. Both have substantial wait times to get on their allocation lists. But one great thing about wine tasting is that new “find” you uncover when you least expect it. Through the hospitality of Debbie and Rick Johnson, proprietors of Walla Faces, an inn and winery, we were able to attend the release party for Reynvaan Family Vineyards. They make consistently high scoring Syrah that perfectly marry the lush fruit expression of new world, warm weather vineyards with the elegance and finesse of the Northern Rhone. Their secret is the judicious use of a very modest percentage of new oak that remains in the background and allows the characteristics of the vineyard to shine. The 2012’s are stunning wines that should once again draw the attention of Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator.
Happily, most wineries in Walla Walla are open to the public. During our short visit we could taste only a sample of the wines poured here. Among the most impressive was Long Shadows. Started in 2003 by Allen Shoup, former President and CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Long Shadows invites some of the top winemakers in the world to make wines from Washington State’s best grapes. On a visit to Long Shadow you taste wines from the likes of Armin Diehl, Randy Dunn, John Duval, Michel Rolland, Phillipe Melka, and Augustin Huneeus, Sr., among others. Diehl’s dry Riesling and the 2012 Pirouette Bordeaux blend by Melka and Hunneus were show stoppers, with Rolland’s Merlot very close behind. This is a remarkable opportunity to taste wines from some of the most celebrated winemakers in the world. Tastings are by reservation only at the winery.
Among the many tasting rooms downtown, we were most impressed with Mark Ryan’s way with Rhone and Bordeaux blends. The Numbskull 2012 using Walla Walla grapes is a classic GSM and the 2012 Dead Horse, a Bordeaux Blend, was big, bold, and beautiful. These wines are gregarious with lots of vibrant fruit yet polished and refined.
Lastly, we found L’Ecole #41 wines to be excellent, especially wines made from their estate grapes. Located just outside of town in an old schoolhouse, L’Ecole is the third oldest winery in the Walla Walla Valley, and has won Wine and Spirits Winery of the Year Award for 14 consecutive years. Their 2011 Estate Syrah and 2011 Bordeaux blend, called Estate Perigee, are standouts, opulent yet graceful and elegant.
As for restaurants, we found Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen to be top-notch for dinner. Cozy and casual with a menu bursting with flavors from various countries on the Mediterranean, this restaurant provides big city quality and creativity in this small town—a fitting end to a day of wine tasting. For lunch try the fresh soups and sandwiches at Graze.
And if you need a place to stay, Walla Faces can deliver. They feature an inn downtown or accommodations in their nearby vineyards with gorgeous views of the valley. In either case you can sample their stellar Syrah and get an up-close and personal peak at artisan winemaking at its best.
Between the wineries, restaurants and cafes, two colleges—including the liberal arts school Whitman College located near downtown—and its long history as the hub for agricultural commerce in the region, Walla Walla packs a lot of activity into a small area. Even if Eastern Washington is not on your bucket list of places to visit, Walla Walla is increasingly becoming a don’t miss wine-lovers destination. Especially if you like blue.