Wine Tasting in Walla Walla

We left the forested city of Spokane, Washington and headed south on interstate 90, then onto 395. The further we got from Spokane, the more the land opened up…water everywhere, and green, grassy rolling hills. Far off in the distance I thought I caught a glimpse of Mount Rainier. As we reached Pasco, we got our first view of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. It was here that we saw vineyards along the banks of the Columbia and far off on the hillsides of Horse Heaven Hills.

Spokane Falls
For this trip, we chose to focus on the Walla Walla area of the Columbia River Valley. The previous night we had met up with old friends at the Wolf Lodge in Couer D’Alene, Idaho. They brought a bottle of Va Piano Cabernet Sauvignon, and we added a bottle L’Ecole No.41 Cabernet to complement our steak dinners. They advised us on some wineries to visit on our trip down, and to avoid what looked like the shortest route to Walla Walla. While more direct, the backroads are windy country roads. As it was, the trip from Spokane to Walla Walla took just about 2 hours and 45 minutes.

It has been 30 years since I was last in Walla Walla. I’m sure they must have been growing grapes back then, but I certainly don’t recall the town being a wine town. Now there are over 80 wineries located in Walla Walla, spread across five “tasting districts”: Westside, Downtown, Southside, Eastside, and Airport. A sixth district would be the wineries located in Oregon, which are literally a block or two from some of the Southside wineries.

From Va Piano
As we drove to the wine region, you can help but notice the basalt rock outcroppings, reminding you that this region was dramatically influenced by volcanic action. The volcanic and sandy loam soil have the great drainage that grape vines love. Most wineries refer to their vineyards as having soils of loess  (pronounced “luhss”), made up of wind-blown deposits of sand and silt. The other large influences are those of the Columbia River, Snake River, Yakima River and Walla Walla River. This area would be a desert, in the rain shadow of the Cascade mountain range, if not for the availability of water.

The Columbia Valley AVA has nine smaller AVA’s within its’ large boundaries:  Ancient Lakes AVA, Horse Heaven Hills AVA, Lake Chelan AVA, Rattlesnake Hills AVA, Red Mountain AVA, Snipes Mountain AVA Walla Walla Valley AVA, Wahluke Slope AVA, and Yakima Valley AVA.

Most people think of Washington as being so far north, that they shouldn’t be able to grow great wine grapes. However, when you look at a map of the world, the Columbia Valley AVA is located at the same latitude as Bordeaux, France. Being this far north gives the grapes more daylight hours during the growing season. As in Bordeaux, this is Cabernet Sauvignon country, but Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, and numerous other grape varieties are grown.

We entered Walla Walla from the west, along Hwy 12, driving through dips and valleys that influence the weather in this region. Pockets of colder air settle into the valleys, and flow into the open areas. This day the weather was warm, but they were expecting a heatwave into the 90’s within a few days.

L'Ecole No.41
The first winery we came to was the iconic L’Ecole No.41. This wine tasting room is located in an old (1945) school house (just as depicted on their wine label). Founded in 1983, they are the third oldest winery in the region, only preceded by Leonetti Cellars and Woodward Canyon Winery. What a great way to start the day. The comfortable tasting room has plenty of space to enjoy your tasting. The tasting staff was friendly and guided us through their wines, and showed us maps, locating their vineyard sources. I came here for their Cabernet Sauvignon, which did not disappoint. The Apogee, Ferguson and Perigee were all perfect examples of this AVA: dark cherry, cassis, herbal tones of tobacco, and well-structured tannins, making for great wines to cellar. They also have some interesting Semillon and Chenin Blanc, but one standout for me was their Grenache RosĂ©. Luckily, they offer shipping to California, and with the hot weather that was anticipated, for a couple extra dollars, they ship with cold packs. All my wine arrived safely and cool.

Tasting room at Cougar Crest
Our next stop was just down the road at Cougar Crest Winery. Here they have a large selection of wines to purchase and taste, including the normal mix for the area, plus Tempranillo, Malbec, traditional Port grapes and Viognier. We were the only people in the tasting room, so got full attention from the two tasting room people. We tasted many of the wine available for sale, and enjoyed the tasting room atmosphere with their winery cat, and gift shop. It has been two weeks, and I haven’t seen my shipment of wine yet. We’ll see how it eventually arrives.

Va Piano
Next we went to the Southside District of Walla Walla, and visited Va Piano Vineyards. This winery sits right on the border of Washington and Oregon, surrounded by vineyards. This winery has a large following, based on the number of people we saw having lunch in their picnic area, and the packed tasting room located in what looks like a Tuscan villa. And, for good reason…the wines are very nice! They offered two different tasting flights, so we did both, by splitting our tasting between two people. The regular flight was only $10 (as it was at every winery we tasted). The reserve flight was $20. Don’t let anyone tell you different, there is a difference between the current releases and the reserve releases. Almost everything we purchased was from the reserve list. Just like L’Ecole No. 41, these wines are perfect for cellaring. Big, dark fruit and tasty. My shipment also has not yet arrived, but they did call, and say they would wait for the weather to cool a bit before shipping.

Locati Cellars tasting room
After a quick bite to eat in the downtown area, we stopped at Locati Cellars, located in the Marcus Whitman Hotel, right in the heart of downtown. We stopped here to see what other grape varieties tasted like in the region. As you might have guessed by their name, these were Italian grape varieties. Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Barbera, Dolcetto and Primitivo, are just some of the available wines. We were told that all their wines were actually produced in Oregon, just a few blocks away, and the family has been producing wine for a century. These Italian varieties have great acidity to them, and make for great food wines. Their prices are also very good. The most expensive wine on their list was the Primitivo at $35…and for good reason….tons of fruit and smooth tannins. All wines shipped and arrived in good condition. Also, when we got home, I noticed we were on their facebook page.

Tranche Cellars vineyards
Our last wine tasting was in the Eastside District, at Tranche Cellars. At first, we thought for sure that our GPS was off. We drove through a residential area, winding around the roads, and then made a left turn into a large vineyard, and in the center was a very modern looking building. This wine tasting experience was different that the previous four. It didn’t have the same quaint feeling we had in the other tasting rooms. This was modern, and stark. The wines were based on Bordeaux and Rhone varieties (including: Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Counoise). Once again, we had the wines shipped. They arrived within a week. The wines were warm, so I immediately cooled them down, and we’ll have to see how they did.

Lastly, we drove around the Airport district. It was getting late in the day, and we had to head back to Spokane. So, no tastings, but wanted to see what this area had to offer. Here we found about 12 wine tasting rooms, concentrated within a few blocks of each other. You could spend all day parked in one spot, and visit numerous wineries. On top of that, the airport is right there, and Alaska Airlines is offering to check-in your first case of Washington wine at no cost. This is perfect for anyone visiting the area.

Unfortunately, this was a quick, one-day trip to the area. I wanted to get a “lay of the land”, and a taste of the terroir. Both were accomplished. The winery trail booklets were very informative of the multiple wine tasting opportunities, dining locations, and places to stay. I think the next trip to the area will be for at least two nights, and will extend into the Yakima AVA, which rivals Walla Walla for the number of tasting rooms

California Family Winemakers Event 2017

It is spring time, and that means the annual return of the California Family Winemakers event in Southern California. This year, it was once again hosted at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.  The event is both a trade and consumer tasting, with an opportunity to not only meet the owners, winemakers, and distributors, but an opportunity to taste their wines. The gathering is also an opportunity to meet some of the smaller production wineries, alongside larger producers. This year seemed like there were less wineries participating. By my count there were 79 wineries in attendance, as well as cheese and bread stations sponsored by Kerrygold and LaBrea Bakery. 

The focus of the California Winemakers Event is to highlight family-owned wine producers from across the state. This year, there were a lot of the same wineries as in the past, but there were also eight first time attendees. 

As in my past attendance, there is no way to get to every winery, so I had a list of certain wineries I wanted to meet with. With my recent wine tasting trip to the Sierra Foothills, I wanted to meet with those wineries, as well as the newest wineries to join the event. 

As some of you are aware, for the last 13 months, I have been working with some business partners to acquire a restaurant. My original intent was to attend this event for the purpose of developing our wine list. Unfortunately, somethings just don’t work out. Our restaurant purchase fell through at the last minute (real disappointment after such a long process). So, once again, this year I attended as a media representative. As such, I was able to enter two hours before the general public.

My first stop was a C.G. D’Arie winery. I had visited their winery in the Shenandoah Valley last fall, and really enjoyed their wines. I was hoping to meet Chaim Gur-Arieh, in person, but he was attending another event. I did have a good conversation with his Southern California distributor, and tasted some wonderful wines. My favorites are still their Zinfandels, but they make very nice Barbera, Tempranillo and Syrah. Based on their recommendation, my next stop was with Vino Noceto winery.

Vino Noceto is also located in the Shenandoah Valley, of Amador County. The winemaker, Rusty Folena, was pouring wines. His tasting consisted of Barbera, Zinfandel, and Sangiovese. The focus here is on Sangiovese.  They even call themselves “California’s Sangiovese Specialists”. They produce seven different Sangiovese wines, from different clones of the grape. Each wine was distinct. This winery is definitely on my list for the next visit to the Sierra Foothills.

We wandered around, and tried a few wineries that seemed to be gathering a lot of tasters. But, nothing really stood out. We then stumbled upon Englemann Cellars. Bret Engelmann, the owner/winemaker was a first time attendee. What caught my eye was where his winery is located: Fresno, Ca. When I think of this area, I think Thompson Seedless, and raisin production. I guess I’ll have to rethink this area. Bret was pouring Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and his Bordeaux style blend (Cab Franc, Cab Sauv, and Malbec). His Malbec had a spiciness to it, that was more reminiscent of a French Cahors, but without the same earthiness. His Clark Ranch Zinfandel was nice and jammy.

Hawk and Horse Vineyards, from Calistoga presented a couple Cabernet Sauvignons, but what excited my palate was their dessert wine.  This was a dark, concentrated wine with aromas of chocolate, cassis and cherries. Nicely balanced.

My favorite Pinot Noirs of the tasting came from another first time attendee: O’Connor Vineyards. Here we tried three different vintages from the Green River area of the Russian River Valley. They are extremely small production, only about 300-400 cases per year. Their wines are more Burgundian in style, versus most California Pinot Noir. They are light, with nice acidity. The nose has some nice notes of cherry, spice and a bit of earth. For me, the 2014 vintage was the favorite.

We bounced around to a few other wineries, and then met Herve Brukert, owner of De Novo Wines, out of Oakland, CA.  Unlike some of the other winemakers in attendance, they do not own any vineyards. They purchase all their grapes. We tried a mix of Cabernets, and Pinot Noirs. We learned that Herve has a cousin in Alsace, France, and he imports wines for his cousin. Because this was a California wine tasting, he wasn’t allowed to pour the Riesling….but somehow, I was able to get a taste. Pretty nice.

We ventured around some more and tried the huge wines of Keenan. If you like big Cabs, and Merlots, this is your winery.  Another was Greyscale Wines. Here we met Jean and Larry Rowe, the owners.  If you like the “dusty” flavors of Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, then try their 2014 Cab. Very nice wine, and nice people too.

Following an afternoon of tasting, we headed down to San Diego, where we had dinner overlooking the ocean. Not a bad way to spend a rainy spring Sunday.

If you have never attended the California Family Winemakers Event, I would highly recommend it. They conduct tastings twice a year: one is Southern California and a second in Northern California. It is an easy way to taste a number of different wineries in a short time. The key word is “taste”, not “drink”.

Wine Tasting in the Sierra Foothills: Amador County

Villa Toscano
On Friday, we did wine tasting in Lodi, and Saturday we were in Calaveras County. Sunday is the day that everyone is on their own during our wine tasting treks. Many had to be back at work on Monday morning, so they headed out on the road for the 7 hour drive back to Southern California. We, on the other hand, headed northeast to Amador County, to do some tasting in the Shenandoah Valley.

Officially, the name of the AVA is California Shenandoah Valley.  The AVA was established in 1983, and it includes portions of Amador county and El Dorado county. This is California gold rush country, but now probably better known as Zinfandel and Barbera country. The Shenadoah Valley is the lowest elevation region, in the Sierra Foothills AVA, and is also the westernmost. There are over 40 wineries in the Shenandoah Valley.

From Lodi, the drive to Amador only took about 45 minutes. We wound our way through rolling hills covered with oak trees. As we approached the town of Plymouth, we saw signs of new housing sub-divisions, touting wine country living. We turned off of Hwy 49 and made our way onto Shenandoah Road. The country road winds through the foothills, and wineries are easily accessible on both sides of the road. These wineries are generally smaller than what we encountered in Lodi and even in Calaveras County, if you judge them by their parking area. Most of the tasting rooms were smaller, and any thought of bringing a large group in for a tasting would be a challenge. Matter of fact, a couple of the wineries had signs saying, “No buses or limousines”. 

Gardens at Young's
At the recommendation of friends, the first stop (and the first winery you come to on Shenandoah Rd) was Young’s Vineyard. As you approach the tasting room, you can’t help but wander the garden area interspersed with lawn chairs and picnic tables. The tasting room is small, but we were the only four people in the room. We were greeted and went through a lineup of wines. As another small group came in, our pourer moved over to them, and we continued our tasting with the owner. She never introduced herself, but she had a European accent, and we were told (later) that she was the owner. The wines are mostly reds. We did have a Riesling and a Rose, but this is red country.  They produce about 3,000 cases. The wines are full bodied, fruit forward wines. All have interesting, artsy labels. We purchased the 2014 Barbera and the 2014 Reserve Cabernet (which needs to age another 4 to 5 years).

Tasting room at Youngs
As I typically do, I had asked the owner what winery we should go to next, and she suggested Jeff Runquist Wines, just up the road. This winery has a larger parking area, and it was a good thing, as they have a club member event going on that day. The tasting room was packed. The winery produces 22 different red varieties from 9 different AVAs. They do not grow their own grapes, so don’t expect to see their vineyards. No white wines here… Zinfandel, Barbera, Syrah and Petit Sirah are the main focus, but we also found Sangiovese and Petit Verdot. All the wines are fruit forward, and rich. We purchased the 2014 Cooper Vineyard Barbera and2014 Esola Vineyard Zinfandel. More on the Cooper Vineyard below.

Tasting at C.G. Di Arie
Another recommendation was C.G.Di Arie Vineyard and Winery. We backtracked a bit and pulled into the small parking lot. Once again, we were the only people in the tasting room. Our pourer gave us the entire history of the winery, and the winemaker. The back stories are always the fun thing about tasting at a small winery. This one was really interesting. Chaim Gur-Arieh made his money as a food product developer. His claims to fame are Cap’n Crunch cereal, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, and Power Bars. I can’t tell you how many different wines we tasted here. It had to be at least 15. Many weren’t on the tasting list, but happened to be open and sitting in the tasting room cooler. This was one of our “finds” of the weekend. They had a number of special discounts available, and they were not just for wine club members. We took advantage of the ½ priced 2007 Zinfandel, and split a case with our friends, as well as the 2007 Petit Verdot. At a local wine tasting event, back home, I brought a bottle of the Zinfandel for the tasting, and it was picked as the best wine of the evening. Stop at this winery if you are in the area.

Entrance to C.G. Di Arie
By this time, we were getting hungry, so we stopped at VillaToscano Winery. Our friends are wine club members there, so we stopped to pick up there club shipment. The lunch choices were tasty, and the outdoor picnic area is very nice. This is one of the largest wineries in the area, with a large tasting room, and extensive gift shop. The grounds and building do look like something out of Tuscany.

Tasting Room at Cooper
The next recommended winery was Cooper Vineyards. I mentioned their vineyard above, as one of the suppliers for Barbera. We parked along the dirt circular drive, overlooking vast vineyards on all sides. We happened to pick the tasting bar where Dick Coopers daughter, Jeri, was pouring. We soon learned that Dick Cooper was known as the “Godfather of Barbera”. The family has been farming in the area since 1919. Most of the wines are dry reds, but don’t miss the two dessert wines they offer too. All the wines are outstanding, and this was our second “find” of the weekend. If you like Barbera, then you have to stop here. We purchased the 2013 Barbera, 2013 Sangiovese, and the 2014 Grenache. All estate grown, and all very well priced.

Photo credit to
We left Shenandoah Valley and drove to the old gold rush town of Sutters Creek. This was like a step back in time. I had received a message on Facebook, from a winery who follows the Sommelier Update page. One of the owner’s sons saw that I was going to be in the area, and suggested I stop by, so I did. Bella Grace Winery is a family owned winery with a tasting room located in a building from the 1860’s. They offer a mix of sparkling, whites, rose, and reds. They also have a quaint gift shop with olive oils, vinegar and animal wine pour spouts. We purchased the 2012 Barbera and 2013 Old Vine Zin.

Rosewood Bar & Grill
As our weekend was coming to an end, we drove back to Lodi, and then headed out for our final dinner in the refurbished downtown area of Lodi. I small group of us met at Rosewood Bar & Grill, and shared our different tastings throughout the area (some stayed in Lodi and explored the local wineries there).

The next morning we had breakfast at the Omelet House, then hit the road back to Southern California. I said it in one of my previous blogs about this trip….don’t discount Lodi, or the Sierra Foothills. While they don’t get the press that Napa, Sonoma or Paso Robles get, this is a legitimate wine tasting region!