As has been our pattern throughout the trip, we did not make reservations in advance but it was a good thing that we decided to book something before leaving Moses Lake as Walla Walla was extremely busy this weekend and we were fortunate to get the last room at a Holiday Inn Express.
The landscape became more attractive as we left the Columbia Basin, but I have to admit to not finding the area as pretty as many other wine country regions. Perhaps it was the contrast to the Okanagan but it does not compare in natural beauty to there or Califonia. We have been fortunate to visit many beautiful areas during this trip and I suppose it is natural to make comparisons, but we were a little disappointed. When we think about it, however, it is just because of the geology. The area has the world’s largest lava flows, and that, combined with glacial flood deposits and a very favorable climate, contribute to great grape growing conditions.
Wineries began to appear along Highway 12 as we approached the town of Walla Walla. Vineyards, however, seemed conspicuous by their absence and it seems that many wineries in the area buy wines from half a dozen vineyards in the region and that the Estate Wineries (those who grow their own grapes) are relatively few.
We stopped at Reininger along the way. They buy their fruit from several of the better vineyards including Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills and Spring Valley as well as from Ash Hollow Vineyard that they bought with some partners back in 1999. Their portfolio includes two labels, Reininger and Helix by Reininger and they make a wide range of wines from Chardonnay to Syrah, Malbec , Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon. Although my dislike of wine ratings is well known, Wine Spectator and Robert Parker have rated many of their wines in the 90s. What this really means is that they are very good, very well made and with a focus on the varietal that is true and straight. I tasted the 2007 Carmenère, a grape that was originally in the Bordeaux blend but that has found a new home in Chile where they make some superb examples alongside Malbec. The Reininger offering made with grapes from the Seven Hills Vineyard was full of red, strawberry fruit that also has a depth of flavor more reminiscent of blackcurrants and a peppery note that was enchanting.
After checking into the hotel (early for once) we headed out to find some more wineries. I was attracted to one, Beresan that is a small producer of handcrafted wines, owned and operated by Tom Waliser and his family. They have 18 acres of estate vineyards and produce high quality examples of cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot in addition to a fine Semillon. However, I was most interested in the their Carmanère, as they were the first to produce a wine from that grape in the Walla Walla Valley. Having tasted the Reininger example earlier it was good to compare the two. They both share the characteristics of the grape but are completely different profiles with the Beresan being a little more powerful and aromatic, but ironically with less tannin. The pepperiness was still evident and it is a beautifully made wine by a grower with a great local reputation.
As time was going on, we headed to the newest winery in the region, Castillo Feliciana, set in a beautiful location, surrounded by wines and fields of grain with a tasting room inspired by Southern Spanish Andalucía architecture. The owners are Sam and Deborah Castillo. Feliciana was Deborah’s great aunt and she showed me a photo of her. Deborah’s interest in wine was sparked by memories of going into her great aunt’s purse in search of gum, and being reminded of the smell of leather, roses (from her perfume), slight mustiness and the smell of the gum. The name of the winery means “Castle of Happiess” and that was certainly the feeling I got when visiting.
Sam is a Seattle dentist and they made the decision to go into the wine making business right at the wrong time, as the economy dived in late 2008. Sam had hoped to sell the dental practice but that fell through. Consequently, all funding for he winery has come from their personal savings so this is a huge leap of faith that they hope to hand on to future generations. Retirement is not a slowing down for Sam and Deborah! However the wines are top quality and they certainly deserve to succeed. They have concentrated on Spanish and South American varieties and the Tempranillo is their signature wine. Very complex on the nose and palate, it has aromas of mint, spice and blackberries. The mouth-feel was delightful and the finish long and multidimensional. It would be a perfect accompaniment to tapas!
Feeling rather hungry after this, we headed to the town of Walla Walla and were delighted to find a winery, Sapolil Cellars, who also serve great bistro food and have an outdoor patio for Hopi. The weather was perfect, the house wine delicious and the food excellent. To top it off, a pianist played and the place filled with punters who were on wine trips and basically calling on every winery in town. Great atmosphere and a wonderful end to our Washington trip!