Lots going on to warm up this dreary month. But first a note of advice. Wineries – do not ship wines when the entire country is in a deep freeze! This would seem obvious, yes? And yet I came home from band practice yesterday afternoon and found two boxes of wine had been delivered to my door. When opened, to no one’s surprise, I found that the bottles had frozen, the corks were pushed, and the exploded wine had saturated the boxes and my entry way floor.
A half dozen bottles had somehow survived without pushed corks, but the mere fact that they were frozen solid disqualifies them for any meaningful evaluation. I was intrigued by the thought that since some of the wines were made at lower alcohol levels than others, it might have meant that they would be more prone to freeze first, while those with higher alcohol would freeze at a lower temperature. If that were true, and the temps were right on that margin, it possibly could account for the survival of some wines. But that’s not a topic for further discussion. What is a topic for further discussion is who on earth would ship wine in sub-zero temperatures?
These wines did not come from the southern hemisphere, by the way, where it could be argued that someone might not think it through and fail to realize it isn’t summer up here. No, these were shipped from a Pacific Northwest winery at a time when the entire region is in a deep freeze. If you read my guidelines for shipping, I always ask that you contact me before sending wines, so that I can make a weather evaluation before giving you the green light. In this instance I had not heard from the winery in question for more than a decade. The wines just showed up out of the blue. Apart from the mess I had to clean up, it’s a lot of wasted inventory for the winery. So please, restating the obvious, do not ship wines to me or anyone else in sub-zero weather.
Short time visitors to the Walla Walla Valley are faced with an impossible menu of winery options. With over 130 wineries to choose from, how do you plan a two or three day visit? I get this question all the time, and the answer is simple: minimize driving time. How do you do that? You pick a sub-region and make that your focus.
There are roughly a half dozen geographically-defined regions from which to choose. Downtown (you can walk to all the tasting rooms); Oregon/Rocks District; Southside; Westside; Airport and Eastside. Most of these will require more than a couple of days to explore thoroughly, but they do offer many good options without a lot of driving. A handy guide is here.
The Eastside wineries might be of particular interest. Heading east on Mill Creek Road you’ll pass long-time favorites K Vintners and Abeja. A bit farther on you come to a sharp left turn up a hill where Figgins and Bledsoe|McDaniels have vineyards, and long-time favorite Walla Walla Vintners, now under new ownership, has a massive new winery, a revamped tasting room, a new winemaker and the same spectacular view. A lot of major new vineyard development is happening nearby, along with almost ready for prime time tasting rooms for Echolands and Figgins.
I recently had the chance to tour the new Walla Walla Vintners facilities with owner Scott Haladay, and tasted through some upcoming releases from winemaker Derrek Vipond. Although the winery changed hands several years ago, it is just now, with these latest wines, that it is easy to evaluate what the new regime is putting in place. My take? Very impressive!
I asked Derrick to comment on his approach to the wines, noting that though they are labeled as varietals, they are all rather complex blends.
“The wines were always great,” he notes. “Stylistically the approach is a bit different but many of the vineyards remain the same. One big thing that we have focused on in recent years is protecting the fruit. This means we are picking a bit later than we had in the past and letting the natural or added acidity be a piece of the puzzle rather than the star of the show. We have worked to bring in new vineyards and blocks that allow us to achieve the softer texture that we look for in our wines.
“Our focus is to make elegant wines. We do not like tannin, acid, or alcohol to poke out in any odd way. This is much of the reason for these wines to be blended with other varieties. I always shoot for wines to be 100% varietal, although we never seem to get there. We find often that a little bit of Merlot in our Estate Cabernet or Cabernet Franc really helps to bring the wine richness and helps to polish the edges. It seems to tie the room together. The goal with blending as with everything is this business is to make the best wine possible. We make wines we want to drink, the rest is up the consumer, buyers, critics, and a bit of good fortune.
“The sourcing for Cabernet Franc has changed very little in the last 15 or more years – largely Weinbau and Bacchus. Both blocks were planted the same year (1996) from the same clonal material, yet they are very different profiles. Weinbau brings the power, Bacchus brings the elegance.
“Our Merlot is predominantly from our estate vineyard, the balance from Seven Hills and Les Collines. Seven Hills has a redder more elegant profile, Les Collines is dark and floral, our estate is classic Merlot – dark, a little green and very fleshy. Once we find the right balance of those we search of other pieces that might make the wine a bit better. Cabernet is an obvious choice, adding weight to the mid-palate and extending the length. Malbec brings a hit of color to a wine that can be a little light.
“The Cabernet is a little bit of a stylistic departure from the 2019 and 2020. We brought in a vineyard, Southwind, that is an untamable monster. This is the first varietal wine that I have made that is blended down to 75%. We found at the blending table we needed to find pieces that would bring softness to the edges of the wine. That is where Merlot and Malbec came to help. We had plenty of mid-palate weight from the Cabernet so we needed to bring fleshiness. Malbec was light on middle but big on fleshy.
“Our Estate Syrah is a different than many modern Walla Walla Syrahs. In 2021 we had low yields and tiny berries – more like Cabernet than a typical Syrah. We co-fermented a little bit of Viognier with the Syrah to bring out more florals. This is a young wine that needs to decanted for an extended period before it shows its full stuffing.
PG: Heads up – these are previews of wines due out in early spring. Given the quality and favorable pricing, they seem sure to grab some great reviews from the national publications. The winery should be on everyone’s must-see list this spring, as it’s new from the ground up, and sits across from the Doubleback and Figgins vineyards. A spectacular location that is close to town yet feels like a different world.
Walla Walla Vintners
Walla Walla Vintners 2021 Merlot is this week’s Featured Wine (see below)
Walla Walla Vintners 2021 Cabernet Franc – The companion wines – a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon – are sourced from Walla Walla vineyards. This blend of Cab Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon comes from classic vineyards outside of the valley – Ciel du Cheval, Gamache, Bacchus and Weinbau. Nonetheless it fits stylistically and follows a similar track – nicely blended, broadly flavorful, fully ripened and well-balanced. Here the 28% new oak barrels include American as well as French oak. Though all three wines carry varietal labels, they are true blends and emphasize fruit and balance rather than specific varietal focus. In other words, they are complete, smooth and delicious, each with its own spin on a Bordeaux blend. This Cab Franc has a tight focus, good penetration, less breadth, and dark highlights of lead pencil and licorice. 1380 cases; 14.9%; $35 (Columbia Valley) 92/100
Walla Walla Vintners 2021 Cabernet Sauvignon – A nice mix of estate fruit and several well-respected Walla Walla vineyards; 24% of the blend is a 50/50 mix of Malbec and Merlot. It’s a fine companion to the winery’s 2021 Merlot, itself a Bordeaux blend but with Merlot front and center. This Cab gets 50% new French oak, putting a toasty frame around the core fruits. It’s bursting with juicy berries, pie cherries and a dash of baking spices, finishing with drying tannins that bring a touch of graphite. This broadly flavorful wine requires no waiting to enjoy, yet should cellar nicely for the next 10 years. 1230 cases; 14.9%; $40 (Walla Walla Valley) 93/100
Walla Walla Vintners 2020 Cut Bank Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – Right outside the winery in the Mill Creek Uplands, the estate vineyard survived a tough early start and is now established as one of the rare dry-farmed sites in Washington state. This limited selection has been given the star treatment, with a black label, an extra year in bottle, and a healthy dose of new French oak. All that aside, the fruit is not up to the barrel challenge, at least so far. The wine is tannic, dark and dominated by the oak. A full day’s aeration does help to soften it a bit, but the fruit is still buried. 225 cases; 14.9%; $80 (Walla Walla Valley) 9?/100
Walla Walla Vintners 2021 Cut Bank Estate Syrah – The estate Syrah, spared any new oak, shines brightly. Co-fermented in the classic style with 3% Viognier, it punches through with black fruits and black highlights of espresso, baking chocolate, licorice and chalky graphite. It does not have the gamy funk of Syrahs from the southern part of the Walla Walla Valley; rather it is focused on cassis, black cherry, dark chocolate and pure power. 2236 cases; 14.9%; $50 (Walla Walla Valley) 92/100
The Tumwater estate is on Pete’s Mountain, an off-the-radar site just south of Portland in the eastern foothills of the Cascades. I chatted with Pascale King, who manages the property, about the wines and the prospect for Pete’s Mountain becoming an AVA. It is being worked on, he said, but will probably be the “Willamette Falls AVA” if/when it is certified.
There are three other wineries nearby, King explains – Pete’s Mountain winery, Campbell Lane and Twill Cellars. Tumwater has about 26 planted acres and just added six new acres of Chardonnay, which King calls “the star grape of the site”.
No argument from me. I came to the same conclusion before Pascale and I touched base. The wines speak loud and clear for themselves.
Tumwater 2022 Barrel Select Chardonnay – Consistent with past vintages, this is a juicy mouthful of delicious nectarines, peaches and light suggestions of tropical fruits – papaya, guava and pineapple. It’s accented with a lick of caramel and hints of barrel toast, but it’s clearly the fruit that is the star here. Flavors fade into a trailing finish of lemon meringue. 297 cases; 13.4%; $45 (Willamette Valley) 92/100
Tumwater 2021 Black Label Reserve Chardonnay – The reserve gets an extra year in bottle prior to release, along with one quarter new French oak aging. It’s more focused and lean than the the 2022, but that’s no criticism. The compact fruits include apple and kiwi, and the barrel flavors are well-integrated and lifted by supple acidity. There is an underlying creaminess as it trails out the finish. This seems a good candidate for cellaring over the rest of the decade; for drinking now, decant it! 200 cases; 13.3%; $70 (Willamette Valley) 94/100
Tumwater 2022 Estate White Pinot Noir – If you’re looking for a light, elegant white wine you’ve found it. Loaded with spicy pear fruit that might fool you into thinking it’s Pinot Gris, this carries those flavors across and down the palate. Despite the low alcohol, it’s got grip and a palate-tickling graininess that is quite captivating. The finish is crystal clear, still fruity and backed with zesty acids. 257 cases; 12.7%; $55 (Willamette Valley) 92/100
Tumwater 2021 Prince Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir – This vineyard was first planted by Dick Erath in 1983, and some of those old vines may still be part of the mix. For such a young wine it seems to be drying out, its berry fruit flavors slightly faded, like a sepia photograph, and astringent, woody tannins. That said, it’s balanced and a good drink, though not likely to improve. Drink over the next couple of years. 305 cases; 13.6%; $60 (Dundee Hills) 90/100
Tumwater 2021 Estate Pinot Noir – This lovely, aromatic wine really shows the special nature of the site. It’s a sexy mix of power and precision. Nine months in 20% new oak adds a buttery softness to the mouthfeel, and smoothes out the finish. Sharp accents of beetroot, forest floor and fungus are nicely integrated into the cranberry/cherry fruit. 910 cases; 13.2%; $48 (Willamette Valley) 92/100
Tumwater 2021 Black Label Reserve Pinot Noir – This reserve is aromatic and beautifully balanced, which can be said of this entire lineup. This reserve is brimming with mountain fruit flavors of wild blackberries and highlights of forest floor, bark and earth. The length is exceptional, with details falling into place as it sashays down the palate, adding a dusting of baking spices along the way. Juicy acids keep it fresh and lively. Young and already delicious, this is a wine to track over the next decade or longer. 150 cases; 12.9%; $70 (Willamette Valley) 94/100
Walla Walla Vintners 2021 Merlot – This founding Walla Walla winery is now under new ownership, with a massive new facility and upgrades everywhere on the property. This Merlot is a fine introduction to the new regime, and uses estate grapes along with fruit from Seven Hills and Les Collines. Along with the Merlot there are small amounts of Cabernet, Malbec and Petit Verdot in the final blend. No new barrels were used, nor are they missed. The splendid fruit speaks for itself, creating a generous, broadly flavorful wine with berries, cherries and plums dancing on the palate. Tannins are polished and smooth, the finish long and luscious. It’s everything the the best Washington Merlots strive to be, and offered at a very fair price. 1440 cases; 14.5%; $30 (Walla Walla Valley) 93/100