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Walla Walla, 2

July 29, 2012 1 comment

Walla Walla Vintners

[This past week, we drove to Walla Walla in eastern Washington on Sunday, spent Monday and Tuesday touring wineries, and drove home on Wednesday. This is the second in a sequence of posts on the trip. You can find a post about our drive over to Walla Walla and first evening here.]

Monday, our first winery day, began with Hampton Inn breakfast in the dining room off the lobby. It’s part of the deal when you stay at a Hampton Inn that breakfast is included. And we weren’t alone in partaking. Joining us were Little League baseball teams from Seattle suburbs Woodinville and Mill Creek that had come to Walla Walla for a state-wide tournament. They were pleasant kids, around 10-12 years old. And breakfast, well, what’s to complain about? It’s free. And the selection is excellent: egg and cheese omelet, sausage patties, potatoes in one station, with oatmeal nearby; toast your own bagels and English muffins and toast in another station, with pastries and make-your-own waffles; cold cereals, milk, juice, hard-boiled eggs, citrus and pineapple fruit mix at a third site. But the quality doesn’t exactly equal the selection.

At 9:30, our nine wine tour participants gathered for the first time. Recall from my earlier post that we had bought this tour at an auction, with everything included. Joining us were friends Russ, Tobae, and Cynthia. As part of the deal, we got to have the company of Julie and Stan, an archaeologist/geologist couple who, happily, happen to be friends as well. (She’s the director of the museum whose dinner-auction we attended; buy the auction item and you get the director too!) Jay of Imbibe Wine Tours would be driving us around. And Philippe, owner of Oak Tradition — purveyor to the trade of barrels, corks, and much more — would be our wine expert. Given that we all couldn’t fit in the Imbibe Tours vehicle, two at a time would take turns riding with Philippe.

1. Walla Walla Vintners. This was our first stop. And like all but one of the eight winery stops we made, it was special. No simple walking into the tasting room, sampling the standard suite of wines, and heading out. We got behind-the-scenes insights at each place. Here, Judah took us out to the vineyard to look at the vines themselves. We spent about 45 minutes learning about the different grapes, soils, micro-climates; the dry farming they choose to do, in a location that receives sufficient rain most years to allow this, though most valley wineries irrigate at some point in the season; the pruning of the vines; the crew that does it; and so on. The setting was beautiful, with the Blue Mountains in the near distance, and famed Leonetti vineyards starting just a couple of hundred yards away at the edge of the Walla Walla Vintners plantings.

What’s the story with terroir? This framed much of our discussion, with Stan giving us his own wisdom, based on a lifetime in geology and some reading on the issue. His own view: the minerals aren’t really going to make a difference in themselves. What counts is the water, how much is absorbed, where the vine sits with respect to the slope, how much water drains off, when the frost comes, what the microclimate is. Stan also gave us a lesson on the geology of the region, most notably the Missoula Floods, as touched on in my previous post.

Then it was time to go into the tasting room and try the wines. Oh, actually, Judah started us there with a Sangiovese that we brought out with us to the vineyard to sample while we talked. That’s not a typical wine of the valley. The principal grapes are those of Bordeaux: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, etc.

2. Buty Winery. Next we drove back toward town and on north to the airport, adjacent to which are old Army buildings from World War II, some of which house Buty. One small building is home to the tasting room, where David gave us detailed explanations of the current releases in their Buty line and their more experimental BEAST line. (Buty is a family name of the owners; BEAST, well, they couldn’t resist.) We tried several reds and a couple of whites. I thought we had quite a thorough tasting experience, and expected us next to head to the next winery for lunch, so I was surprised when David closed up the tasting room in order to walk us two blocks over to the building where they make and store their wines. We tasted a wine still months away from bottling, looked over the barrels of wine, and learned more about what the winery does.

3. Waters Winery. On to Waters, a ways out of town, and again in a lovely setting. And time for lunch, before learning anything about the winery. We sat outside in a small patio area, where we were served a most delightful lunch provided by Olive Catering, with Waters’ wine as accompaniment. Olive Catering is an extension of Olive Marketplace and Café, in the heart of Walla Walla. They provided us with sandwiches (prosciutto, salami, chicken, turkey, vegetable), chips, water, and a dessert tray (brownies, lemon bars, a pistachio tart concoction). As we sat outside on a glorious day, in the heart of the Walla Walla Valley, mountains in the distance, Philippe filled us in on the history, tradition, and economics of the wine barrel business.

Shortly after we began our lunch, in what had been the most peaceful of settings, things got real noisy. But our seeming bad luck was good luck as well, for it was bottling day. Waters, like all the wineries we visited, is a small operation. A winery we would go to the next day produces 1000 cases a year. More typical of the wineries we visited is a production of 3000-5000 cases a year. Waters was somewhere in that range, maybe 3000. At that level, it doesn’t pay to have your own bottling equipment. Instead, you pay one of several mobile bottlers in the northwest to come by with a bottling truck, an entirely self-contained operation, provided you supply the wine and the labels. Maybe the corks too.

More on bottling soon. But first, some arithmetic. As Philippe explained, there are two traditional barrel sizes, 225 liters and 228 liters. Let’s go with 225. At 750 ml/bottle, that’s enough wine for 300 bottles. And at 12 bottles/case, that’s 25 cases. So 40 barrels yield 1000 cases. A 3000-case operation requires 120 barrels of wine each year.

Waters Winery

After lunch, we bypassed the Waters tasting room and went straight to the larger nearby building where all those barrels sit. Our guide, the assistant winemaker, took us to the two principal barrel storage areas to taste wines out of the barrel from 2011 grapes. Then, the bottling racket proving irresistible, he led us out the open door to the truck and got the bottlers’ permission for us to poke around.

That was great. A hose ran from the building to the truck, where bottles were automatically filled, then corked. We were able to climb a small stairway to the side of the truck, where we could see the bottles make their way from the corking area to our left to the labeling area to our right. In-between, two men put on those wine bottle top things whose name I can’t remember and a machine sealed them tight. Once the label was put on, the bottles made their way to the rear of the truck, where men put them in boxes, which a tape machine sealed shut. From there, a conveyor belt brought the boxes to a ramp, which they slid down to a level area, where more men lifted the cases off and stacked them on pallets. At about 80 cases per pallet, or almost 1000 bottles per pallet, each of those pallets represented a lot of money.

Waters hadn’t planned a tasting for us in the tasting room itself, but we stopped by briefly on the way out to sample and buy some. (We’d been buying at every winery.) Then we loaded up and moved out.

4. Forgeron Cellars. We drove straight into town, where an old forgery building serves as the home of Forgeron Cellars. Once again, as we entered the tasting room and were met by Anne, I expected no more than a standard winery tasting. Anne kept mentioning that Marie-Eve was supposed to join us, and would once she got off the phone. But rather than wait, she started us off with a tasting of some of the wines and a history of the winery. After ten or fifteen minutes, Marie-Eve did join us. She’s the winemaker, and co-owner. As the webpage about their wine making explains:

After earning her masters degree in enology and viticulture at the University of Dijon, Marie-Eve Gilla received practical training at local Burgundian wineries and vineyards. In 1991, she came to the United States to further her winemaking experience. Intending to stay for just a few months, she realized the incredible opportunities available in the wine industry. Now after more than ten years of making premium wines in the Northwest, she has come to appreciate the incredible growing conditions we enjoy in Eastern Washington.

Marie-Eve

Marie-Eve took us back to see all phases of their wine-making operation, from the area outdoors where the grapes arrive and are crushed to the initial storage tanks and the barrels. She had quite a lot to say, as did Philippe. At the end of our walk, she and Anne had wine and cheese waiting for us, along with still more wines to try. They were so generous with their time and knowledge. It was a great visit.

We had a short ride back to our hotel, then took a break before heading into town for dinner. Gail had decided days earlier that we should try Whitehouse-Crawford, which by all accounts was one of Walla Walla’s top restaurants. It’s closed on Tuesdays, whereas many other restaurants close on Mondays, making Monday the obvious night to go there, and so we did.

The restaurant is housed in an old lumber planing mill and furniture factory (see here for the history), rebuilt in 1904 after a fire. Almost torn down in 1988 for parking, it was rescued and restored to house the current restaurant, as well as a winery. Sharing the space is Seven Hills Winery, which is run, if I got the story right, by the sister and brother-in-law of our driver Jay. From within the restaurant, there are interior windows looking into the winery, which adds to the character of an already character-filled restaurant. It’s really a wonderful space, with high wood ceilings and historic photos on the walls.

Walla Walla Valley is home, of course, to more than fine wines. There are, for instance, the famed sweet onions. We didn’t have to work hard to reach the decision that we should share a basket of crispy fried sweet onions to start. In addition, I had the warm spinach salad with smoked trout, bacon, grilled onions and mustard vinaigrette. For my main dish, I went with the Oregon beef tenderloin steak with red wine sauce, mushrooms, and shallot-thyme mashed potatoes. (The grilled pork shoulder with harissa, cilantro, carrot puree, and spring vegetables sounded good, and there was Copper River salmon too.) Gail had a wild mushroom pasta dish that I don’t see on the online menu. Everything was superb.

I decided to skip dessert, but everyone else ordered. By that point, a once-packed restaurant had mostly emptied out, yet we waited nearly half an hour after ordering for dessert to show up. I don’t know what the problem was. Gail had a peach dessert that again isn’t on the online menu. I took a small taste and would happily have eaten more. Except for the delay, it was a perfect evening. A perfect day too, for that matter.

Lunch and dinner had spoiled us. Hampton Inn breakfast just wasn’t in the same league, and we were sure to be disappointed come morning.

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Categories: Travel, Wine

Walla Walla, 1

July 29, 2012 1 comment

Wallula Gap, Columbia River, Washington State

In my final post on the Tour de France last Monday night, I mentioned that watching the closing stage of the race delayed our departure for Walla Walla, where we would be touring wineries in the Walla Walla Valley of southeastern Washington. We did get there, in time for dinner last Sunday, and returned to Seattle Wednesday late afternoon. Between the trip and subsequent catching up on other things, Ron’s View has been quiet. Time to crank it up again.

I’ve long wanted to go to Walla Walla, as much to see that part of the state and visit the Whitman Mission National Historic Site as to taste the wines. But I’m not a big fan of driving, so we never got around to heading over there. When a fully-arranged trip was offered as an auction item three months ago, I realized that this was our chance. By buying it, we could be sure at last to make the trip. And so we did.

Sunday was driving day. Monday we visited four wineries. Tuesday we visited four more. Wednesday we took a quick walk around Walla Walla’s Whitman College, drove west a few miles to the Whitman Mission, then headed home. I’ll say more about each, in separate posts. This post is about Sunday.

Our Sunday drive got off to a slow start, thanks to our need to watch the cycling and then the conclusion of the men’s Open Championship golf from northwest England. We were hardly 20 miles into our 278-mile drive when we pulled off in the Seattle suburb of Issaquah for lunch. And a fine lunch it was, at an absolutely mobbed Panera. Who knew that that’s where everyone in the neighborhood goes on a Sunday afternoon? It was discouraging, getting back in the car an hour into our trip, to realize we had made such little progress.

As we continued east on I-90, I was stunned to realize that I couldn’t for the life of me remember the last time we crossed Snoqualmie Pass, the major pass through the Cascades. Once over it, we left the clouds behind for good. One of the wonders of driving across the state — which I have done so rarely — is the dramatic change one encounters in geology and climate. As we continued east to Ellensburg, the landscape got drier and drier. This I had seen before, but at Ellensburg we left I-90 for I-82, which initially dips southward to Yakima, and almost everything in the remaining 170 miles was new territory.

The 35-mile stretch down to Yakima is spectacular. It is almost entirely undeveloped, courtesy of the US Army and the firing range that runs from I-82 east all the way to the Columbia River, and from I-90 south to Yakima. The road travels up and down and up and down and up and down, over the Manastash and Umtanum Ridges, making one final descent into Selah and Yakima.

We pulled off in Yakima for gas, and to see the city, the first time for me and the first time since early adulthood for Gail. Various cousins of Gail’s have lived or grown up there. We didn’t see a whole lot, but did drive the length of downtown, and got to visit an am/pm convenience store. Then it was back to the freeway and on through the farming towns I have stared at so often on the map, and had taught students from, but had never seen: Wapato, Toppenish, Sunnyside, Grandview, Prosser. This is wine country now, home to a long list of wineries, but country we will have to wait to spend time in.

Once out of Prosser, the road climbs again, as it continues east 30 miles to the Tri-Cities: Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco. We crossed the Yakima River one last time as we dropped into the Columbia River Valley, the Yakima’s final destination. This was a familiar stretch for me. Seven summers ago, I flew over to Pasco one morning for a four-hour meeting at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the huge US Department of Energy research lab associated to the Hanford nuclear site (where plutonium for atomic bombs was made for decades, starting during World War II). From the airport that day, I drove over to Richland, had some time to kill, parked at some small park I found by the Columbia, walked along the river for a while, grabbed an early lunch at a Subway that seemed to fill with PNNL staff shortly after I got there, then headed up to PNNL for the meeting, after which I headed straight back to the airport and flew home.

Thanks to that visit, as we drove down into the valley, through Richland, and over the Columbia River, none of this was ne to me. But Gail hadn’t been past Yakima before, so she was seeing the Tri-Cities for the first time. Parched though the region is, it looks like it has its attractions, starting with the Columbia itself. As the Columbia flows south, it separates Richland to the west from Pasco to the east. But then the Columbia makes a sudden turn eastward, becoming the line between Pasco to the north and Kennewick to the south. On the east side of Pasco, the Snake River flows southward, joining the Columbia at the edge of town. This is a historic confluence, the point where Lewis and Clark arrived at the Columbia two centuries ago, and we could see it plainly off to the right as we drove east on US-12 over the Snake. We will surely want to explore it next time we get over there.

For the next 20 miles, we followed the Columbia downstream as it curved from an eastward heading to southeast to southward, until we could see in the distance as dramatic a geological formulation as the Columbia offers: the Wallula Gap. We would not pass through it. US-12 veers east just before entering it, with Walla Walla 30 miles away. We stared at it in awe, learning only the next day how important it is to the geology of southeast Washington. For the gap plugged up the immense flow of water from the Missoula Floods 15,000 years ago, a flow perhaps as large as that of all today’s rivers in the world combined, one that removed the loess covering eastern Washington and produced today’s landscape.

It’s quite a story, but I’m not the one to tell it. Fortunately, joining us on our trip as of the next morning was our geologist friend Stan, gifted teacher and author of a best-selling standard text. As we stood in a vineyard looking out at the Blue Mountains, he recounted the dramatic days of that long ago flood. But this lay ahead. On Sunday, we drove away from the gap in ignorance, knowing only that it sure looked dramatic.

From the Columbia Valley, we made one final climb. Soon we saw our first Walla Walla wineries, Woodward Canyon and l’Ecole No 41. And then, ahead to the left, there was Walla Walla’s state penitentiary. That was our cue to get off US-12. A couple of miles on local roads and we pulled into the Walla Walla Hampton Inn, five hours after leaving home.

What next? We still had dinner to eat. And there in the parking lot, emptying their car were our tripmates Russ and Tobae. Once we were all settled, we agreed to eat in town at Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen. Russ looked at the menu as we talked, but I didn’t ask him about it. I just imagined the place was a standard middle-eastern restaurant, which sounded good to me. We arrived to learn that it was fully booked, but we could sit at one of the tables in the small enclosed outdoor section on the sidewalk, which we agreed to do. Only on looking at the menu there did I realize that it’s an upscale place, and only the next day did I learn that it’s considered one of Walla Walla’s two top restaurants.

For good reason. It’s excellent. Three of us went with the evening’s soup special, an intriguing blackberry gazpacho. Gail had a fingerling potato appetizer that she raved about. Then three of us had the leg of lamb, described on the online menu as having spiced basmati rice, pistachios, yoghurt, cilantro, and raspberry harissa. I can’t remember if that’s quite right. I do remember that it was delicious.

Pretty good day.

Categories: Travel, Wine