Walla Walla, 3
[Last week, we drove to Walla Walla in eastern Washington to tour wineries. I wrote about the drive over here and about the first day of winery touring here. This is a continuation of the second post, which introduced the dramatis personæ. Recall that among them was the wine expert who accompanied us: Philippe, owner of Oak Tradition, purveyor of barrels, corks, and much more.]
Tuesday began with our daily Hampton Inn breakfast. It was much like Monday’s, except that the sausage patties and potatoes were replaced by biscuits and gravy and the cheese omelet turned into a meat omelet. Selection was plentiful, but of modest quality. Little League families were everywhere.
At 9:45, we met up again with Philippe, and with Jay of Imbibe Wine Tours, for the drive south to our day’s first winery. The Walla Walla Valley crosses over the state line into Oregon, and our first stop was just north of the line. A failed attempt to navigate the eponymous State Line road, which turns to gravel and dies just where we wanted it to continue to the winery, led to a temporary excursion into Oregon. This is one of those places where the only way you know you’re in a new state is that the cars suddenly have different license plates. By the way, given the integration of the wine community across the state line, there is an agreement between the two states under which Oregon residents who cross over to buy wine at the local Washington wineries have sales tax waived. It took me a while to catch on to this, and to why we were asked at each winery if we were Washington residents. Once I understood, I restrained myself from saying no, Oregon, but it was tempting. Of course, if called on it, I would not be able to produce suitable ID.
We did eventually arrive at
5. Rasa Vineyards. It is run by two brothers, Pinto and Billo Naravane. Both left the computer industry to start up the winery, Pinto on the business side and Billo as winemaker. As at the wineries the day before, we were the beneficiaries of extraordinary generosity, as Billo spent over an hour with us, telling us stories about the winery, his career path, and the individual wines as we tasted them. He had studied applied math at MIT, then moved on to Stanford for a Master’s in electrical engineering and to Texas for a Ph.D. But he left the PhD program partway through to begin work in the computer industry. When the time came to leave it all behind for wine, he headed to Davis for another Master’s, in their famous wine program. Now he heads the wine program at Walla Walla Community College.
The mathematical backgrounds of Billo and Pinto are reflected in the names of some of their wines. My friend Paul makes it a point, whenever he encounters a wine with a name that — by intention or chance — has a name with a mathematical connotation, to photograph it and post to Facebook. This is how I first met two Rasa wines, QED and Principia. On first arriving at Rasa, I was delighted to see them. As Billo explains, Rasa is the rare winery that doesn’t display their own name prominently on the label. The conceptual wine name takes pride of place. This is a risky marketing strategy, as illustrated by my lack of awareness of who exactly produces QED and Principia. But Rasa sells what it produces, and is happy to proceed this way. You can see more of their beautiful labels here.
The brothers make more than just attractive labels. The wines were excellent. We bought more of theirs than anyone else’s, including two bottles of the 2008 Creative Impulse (pictured in the middle), a cab/merlot blend that was our most expensive purchase of the trip. They will need to lie down a while before we open them.
We had the place to ourselves until the arrival of a mysterious visitor, who at first was content to hang back and listen. Eventually it emerged that he’s a professor of philosophy and religion at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who is doing research on wine culture. He was there to interview Billo, though soon he joined our group and chatted with us.
Wines purchased and behind schedule, we headed on down the road to
6. Northstar Winery. I wish I could offer some enthusiastic comments about our time there. Something may have gone awry with the scheduling. In contrast to the other seven places we visited, no one was available to provide any inside glimpse. Rather, we came into the wine tasting space, stood at the enormous bar, and received the standard wine tasting offerings. Northstar is owned by Ste. Michelle, the giant of Washington State winemakers. The vineyards and building were beautiful, but the wine tasting space was larger and more commercial than the others on our itinerary, with a large retail space offering t-shirts, hats, etc. Which is to say, it’s all pretty standard, what lots of big wineries offer visitors, just not what we were receiving elsewhere.
We must have tasted eight wines. The pourer told us the year and constituents of each as she poured for us and other visitors too, the bar becoming sufficiently crowded that a second pourer joined in. Pretty early on, we got absorbed in our own private conversations, paying only minimal attention to the wine. Philippe showed us one of the retail offerings, a bottle opener that pumps gas in to push the cork out. He coaxed our pourer into demonstrating, then he bought one himself. I figured if one of the valley’s leading wine experts thinks it’s worth buying, we should get one too, and we did. Our lone Northstar purchase, at the lone winery where we bought no wine.
Lovely grounds. A great place for a private party. But we drove off indifferent to the wines.
7. Garrison Creek Cellars. What a gorgeous place! We seemed to be on the eastern edge of the valley’s plantings, though I may not have gotten the geography right. The vineyards went up to the foothills of the Blue Mountains. And these are among the largest vineyards in the valley. But the building. Wow!
We were met by Laura, a young woman who introduced herself as the assistant winemaker. She brought us into the enormous barn-like structure that houses the winery, where they had set tables and chairs up for our lunch. When she proposed that we could move out to a small patio in the distance instead, looking out on vineyards and mountains, we readily agreed. Lunch was a repeat of the day before, courtesy again of Olive Catering. The same mix — and it’s a good one — of sandwiches, with chips and dessert. Once again, Philippe took advantage of our time all together to share his wine knowledge, as we studied samples of oak with varying grains and learned about barrels and corks.
Laura came out near the end and told us a bit about the winery’s history. It revolves around three men who grew up together in Walla Walla and went their separate ways. One, the football star, was looked at by some of the Pac 10 schools, but went instead to Harvard, and eventually to Wall Street, where he made the money that made the winery possible. He re-united with his buddies, then spent 7 years fighting zoning ordinances before being given permission to build his dream building on the existing site. It is a copy of a historic barn nearby in Oregon, and once we went in for our tour, we could see this was the ultimate no-expense-spared design and construction. Oh, that’s right, maybe one of the high school buddies was in construction and handled that. I forget the details. But no matter. It’s quite a place.
Laura took us into the wide open space of the barn, where a wine tasting bar sits in one corner, and then downstairs to the barrels. They make 1000 barrels a year. Talk about a boutique operation. Garrison Creek doesn’t exist to make money. We had become accustomed to stacks of barrels four or five high. Not a stack is to be seen here. Just one level. And, as Laura assured us, no barrel gets used twice. Why? Why not? They can afford it. One use and it’s sold off.
I should back up and explain that the immense acreage surrounding the winery is a separate operation, co-owned by the Harvard alum and some other partners. It is a major provider to the region, selling about 98-99% of its grapes and saving the rest for its premium wines. If the grapes don’t meet Garrison Creek’s specifications one year, they just don’t make wine that year. Maybe it doesn’t quite come to that, but I’m pretty sure Laura said so.
Down in the cellar, we tasted wine from two barrels. And what a beautiful cellar it was, a concrete bunker with barrel ceiling. Then we went back up, only for someone to remind Laura that we missed the Library, so back down we went to see it. The Library holds cases of every wine they’ve ever made, and it gave us some ideas for what we might do with the old wood storage area of our own basement.
Upstairs again, we tasted the wines at last. You know, I don’t have strong memories right now of what we thought. The labels are masterpieces of simplicity and elegance, with a texture that photos don’t reveal. We bought a couple of bottles. We’ll open them in a few years and I’ll let you know.
Due to a shuffling of the schedule, our last stop was back across the valley, immediately adjacent to Northstar, so we headed back that way to
8. Pepper Bridge Winery. To the left is a small building housing the tasting room. To the right is the larger winery building. They must actually connect, but appear at first to be separate. We entered the tasting room, where a young man was hosting a couple. After a short wait, an older gentleman showed up, Norm. He would spend the next hour-and-three-quarters with us. What a fascinating guy! And, again, a most generous one.
Norm, as we learned, is one of the pioneers in the wine business. He was in construction for many years, running the giant company that built the Kingdome and State Route 520, to mention two Seattle landmarks. Then he left it behind for the wine business in the Yakima Valley. He worked with Hogue Cellars in Prosser, Canoe Ridge in Walla Walla. Big ones. And when I say work with, I gather that this means running them. I think I heard him say he was on the board of one, chair of the board of another. But he tired of big-time wineries and left them behind for small, higher-quality wines. He is co-owner with that Harvard guy of the vineyards that surround Garrison Creek. He owns or co-owns, I’m not sure which, other vineyards as well, such as the one surrounding Pepper Bridge, and maybe Seven Hills across the line in Oregon. (I’m looking it up now. I see that Seven Hills is jointly owned by Pepper Bridge, Leonetti, and L’Ecole No 41, or at least it was.) Norm may have some other agricultural holdings as well. Plus, he makes wines, or his Swiss winemaker Jean-François Pellet does.
Norm met us, then took us from the tasting room to the winery, down to the level where they have the initial storage tanks, then down another level to the cellar with the barrels. This is a bigger operation than Garrison Creek, maybe 5000 barrels a year, and they are stacked. We spent quite a bit of time down there, then out towards the back to an open work area where we talked about the machinery and the operation and met Jean-François. Upstairs to the higher work level, more information, then up to the top and over to the tasting room, where we took seats around a coffee table. Norm had some business to attend to temporarily, so the young man at the bar came around and got our tasting started. Then Norm came in, we all talked some more, and tasted some superb wines.
Norm’s grandson was in the midst of a tight Little League game, going into the last inning all tied, and Norm shared the reports with us as calls came in to his cell phone. We also had a lovely view south over the vineyards and into Oregon. At some point, one of Norm’s partners in a nearby winery, Amavi Cellars, came by, as did Jean-François, who serves as their winemaker too. When we bought some wine, Norm and Jean-François signed the bottles.
For the second day, we ended our winery touring on a high note. The visit was great fun. But it was time to head back to the Hampton Inn. Once there, we said goodbye to Philippe and Jay, then to our special travel companions Julie and Stan, who had to get back to Seattle that night. The five of us were on our own.
We had a few ideas for dinner, but one place couldn’t take us until 8:00, and so we settled on T. Maccarone’s, part of the trio that also includes Olive Catering, which made our lunches, and Olive Marketplace and Café. No sooner had we sat down and studied the menu than Philippe showed up with a colleague. Our farewell had been premature. After a quick exchange of hellos, they headed to the bar.
To start, I had the spring salad with vegetables (fava beans for one), farm egg, and grain mustard vinaigrette. Gail had the T Mac and cheese. I thought both were excellent, but the T Mac and cheese was a bit much for an appetizer, which is why Gail shared it around. And it was way rich, all the more thanks to the truffle oil. Then I had the bolognese, with house made pappardelle. Great on flavor, but also a bit much, and almost lasagna like, as the pappardelle stuck together in thick layers. Gail’s main dish was halibut, served on coconut rice, in a bowl with green beans and greens. I tried a taste. Excellent once more, but the presentation made getting to all the constituents a bit difficult.
For dessert, we left T Mac’s, turned the corner, and went down Main street to Bright’s Candies, a delightful traditional candy and ice cream parlor. So many temptations! But the pasta and salad left me more than full, so I passed it all up. After ordering, we sat outside in the enclosed sidewalk area, where yet again we encountered Philippe, heading our way after leaving T Mac’s.
By the time we were ready to leave, Bright’s was long closed, and we were in the way of their final cleanup. Back to the Hampton Inn to conclude a special day.