After moving to Boise, we began hearing whispers about this intriguing and not-yet-too-discovered wine region with a strange name ...Walla Walla. We went, we sipped - and we were conquered.
This American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the southwest corner of Washington state (with a bit of overlap into Oregon), is everything a true oenophile wants: dining, tasting, biking, shopping, with a spa treatment or two and a cultural event in the evening - all without (as of yet) the crowds.
The region is home to about 170 wineries, mainly small operations, where owners and winemakers craft highly regarded bold reds (Syrah and Cab writ large). Although Walla Walla is off the beaten track (about 250 miles from either Boise or Portland), it boasts a remarkable infrastructure of high-end hotels, B&Bs, restaurants (including a chef recognized by the James Beard Foundation), galleries and shops. It is living proof of the adage that if you make great wines, they will come.
Many wineries have tasting rooms; some are downtown and others are at the wineries themselves. Check hours of operation before you go, especially in the off-season when many wineries are open by appointment only. Addresses listed are the tasting rooms; those noted with ** are at the winery proper.
TERO ESTATES: 6 W. Rose St., 541-203-0020; www.teroestates.com Partners Mike Tembreull and Doug Roskelley harvest from some of the oldest commercial wine acreage in the valley and use a gentle touch to create bold reds. The self-taught winemakers' Merlots, Cabs and Super Tuscans leap out of the glass and promise even more delights after a few years in a cellar. Their other line, Flying Trout, marries the skills of winemaker Ashley Trout with Tero Estates grapes and some juice from Trout's Argentinian vines for another kind of red alchemy in surprising blends.
CHARLES SMITH WINES: 35 S. Spokane St., 509-528-5230, www.charlessmithwines.com Charles Smith is a big-time (for Walla Walla) winemaker and the fifth-largest producer in Washington. His labels offer about 250,000 cases a year, from small winery K Vintners to his eponymous brand of larger volumes. He's a rock 'n' roll guy whose labels, tasting room and wines reflect his approach to life. K Vintners bottles sophisticated Syrahs and Cabs, with The Creator label earning national renown. His Secco Italian Bubbles brand of sparkling wine is unusual in the area. Smith is working on another winery and expanding his reach into Chardonnays - he is a stay-tuned wine maker.
DUSTED VALLEY VINTNERS: **1248 Old Milton Highway, 509-525-1337, www.dusted valley.com Dusted Valley is truly a family affair. Winemakers Corey Bruenal and Chad Johnson are married to sisters. They hail from Wisconsin, so don't get them started on the benefits of using barrels made from Wisconsin oak. Just taste and believe. They offer an interesting Rose, but the reds were our favorite. Call it power of suggestion, but the dusty tannins of the Grenache and the Syrah were irresistible. And the new (to us) Cinsault is a subtler red. Their delicious late-harvest Syrah is a less-sweet version of this dessert wine. Join their wine club, slyly named Stained Tooth Society, and take home a free toothbrush.
FOUNDRY VINEYARDS: 13th & Abadie, 509-529-0736, http://foundryvineyards.com In an area replete with interesting winemaker stories, this one stands out. The Walla Walla Foundry is a serious fine arts foundry; in 1998, owner Mark Anderson planted some vines and in 2003 began making wine. The first vintages were set aside to reward artists who used his factory; now he shares his 500 cases with the public. The Foundry Vineyards reds were terrific - we joined the wine club. But the bottle we brought home was the 2011 Chardonnay, enhanced with 7 percent of the Maria Gomes grape (we are not usually Chardonnay fans, but this could convert us). The tasting room is also an art gallery, where Foundry patrons have their works displayed inside and out, making for a most convivial space for sipping.
PEPPER BRIDGE WINERY: **1704 JB George Road, 509-525-6502, www.pepperbridge.com Winemaker Jean-Francois Pellet is Swiss-born, with experience at Napa's famous Heitz Cellars. His creativity is fully on view in Pepper Bridge's 6,300 cases of Merlots, Cabs, and Bordeaux varietals, enhanced by the region's "new world climate (in all regards) and an old world terroir." The Trine label allows Pellet to blend any of the five types of traditional Bordeaux grapes as taste and whim dictate. A charming feature is the Vine Club, which allows members to "own" a vine (personally labeled) and receive a bottle of wine made from that block.
SAVIAH CELLARS: **1979 JB George Road, 509-520-5166, www.saviahcellars.com Ask about The Rocks, perhaps soon a new AVA in the Walla Walla Valley. This rocky patch of land stresses the heck out of vines and produces some incredible reds. Montana transplant Rich Funk, winemaker at Saviah Cellars, is all about The Rocks and other special Walla Walla blocks. His Super Tuscans and Big Sky Cuvee prove the impact of the terroir. The Cab Franc made us believers in the appropriateness of this former blender as a stand-on-its-own varietal. The Syrah and the Petit Verdot also deserve attention. And coming soon: the 2010 Syrah Funk Estate (The Rocks!).
Take or rent one; either way, Walla Walla is a cyclist's dream. Rolling terrain, friendly drivers, lots of fellow cyclists, and well-mapped routes - what's not to like? Visit www.wwvalleycycling.com for a preview, reserve a bike at Bicycle Barn (509-529-7860) or Allegro Cyclery (downtown: 509-525-4949), pick up a Valley Bike Map and roll. We cycled in the mornings and tasted in the afternoons - a perfect blend!
Wine-tasting, fine dining - why not continue the pampering at a local day spa? Divine Serendipity is a gem. Owner Sheila Hadley and her staff offer the full range of spa treatments and pleasures at prices guaranteed not to break the bank (75-minute facial for $60). Men and women are welcome, and the service is delightful. Reserve online. Divine Serendipity Day Spa, 6 [0xbd] N. 2nd Ave., 509-540-4091, http://divineserendipityspa.com
Biking, wine, beautiful countryside - sounded like a picnic. We visited Salumiere Cesario for goodies and found ourselves overwhelmed by the selection. The walk-in cheese closet is good for an hour or so on its own. We let the knowledgeable staff put together a picnic-to-go of cheeses, artisan-cured meats, bread, olives and a bit of chocolate. Salumiere Cesario, 12 E. Main St., 509-529-5620, www.salumierecesario.com
Maria and Michael Smith are freelance writers based in Boise. They love wine, food and travel.