A Wonderful Weekend of Wine Tasting in Walla Walla

By: 
Leslie Kelly

Sauerkraut, sweet onions, a massive chicken fried steak and loads of wonderful wine. Those were just a few of the highlights from a weekend in Walla Walla.

There are more than 100 wineries in and around the city so nice they named it twice, yet I visited just two on Saturday and had two perfect experiences. Which I’ll fill you in on in a sec.

First, let’s dig into one of the biggest battered pieces of beef I’ve ever stuck a fork in. My buddy, Rick Eskil, has lived in Walla Squared since the 1980s, back when you could count the number of wineries on one hand. So, naturally, this proud Walla Walla-ian took me out to breakfast at a locals joint, a sports bar called The Stone Hut, where the meals come with names like The Hobo, The Caveman and The Big Dog. The Chicken Fried Steak and Eggs doesn’t need any clever moniker, though it could come with a subtitle: Been known to cure hangovers!

After getting stuffed at The Hut, we wandered over to the Walla Walla Farmers Market, and, for a puckery palate cleanser tasted through the samples from Booth Brine Co., a one-man operation with an important mission. Vince Booth naturally ferments cukes and cabbage into pickles and kimchi and sauerkraut, proving that there’s more than one way to get your probiotics. I fell hard for the purple cabbage kraut. Also picked up a bag of sweet onions. Not the same as the famous Walla Walla Sweets sold during the summer, but still…

Later, I met up with my pal, Zibby Wilder, who writes about wine for Seattle Weekly, and we went to Long Shadows Vintners. When we pulled up to this sweeping property off Highway 12, we spied winemaker Gilles Nicault on a forklift, toting grapes. Yes, harvest is still on.

What’s cool about this operation is that visitors get a tour of the production area and get to taste just-fermented juice right out of the tank. After sampling, swishing and spitting, it was impressive how the flavors go on and on. Even at this stage, you can tell the 2012 Syrah from Boushey Vineyards and the Cab from Candy Mountain are going to be dynamite.

I could have pulled up a chair by those tanks and sat there for a spell, but instead we headed to the dazzling tasting room, filled with Dale Chihuly art and comfy chairs. There, the staff sits down with your party to walk you through the incredible lineup, each bearing the imprint of superstar winemakers.

When in wine country, the urge is to hit as many tasting rooms as possible, but this leisurely sip-a-thon stretched to nearly two very pleasant tasting experiences, proving that quality does indeed trump quantity.

All the wines were wonderful, intense fruit, elegant finishes, but the Saggi was a standout.

On Saturday evening, I went to Northstar’s 10th anniversary celebration of its winery on J.B. George Road in Walla Walla. (The label dates back to 1995, while the physical winery debuted during the 2002 harvest.)

The big deal at this fete was the release of the 2009 Northstar Premier, a limited production 100 percent Merlot from Cold Creek Vineyard and while this gem was a grand slam in its official debut, it’s only going to get better with age, winemaker David “Merf” Merfeld told the appreciative crowd.

I cannot be objective about this particular wine because I’ve been tracking this project from the get-go in a series of reports called “The Big Dipper Chronicles.” It’s been such a blast to witness and write about the realization of a spectacular idea. It’s as inky as a huckleberry in late August and so very velvety smooth. But it’s got this pop from a lively shot of acidity. Some of the fruit was harvested a bit early to lock in those acids, essential for aging.

You don’t have to take any rave report solely from me. I ran into seasoned wine scribe Paul Gregutt at the party and he was mighty impressed, too. It’s available through the winery and because just 300 cases were made, the 2009 Premier won’t be around long.

Leaving town the next morning, I felt a mix of happy and sad, making the same vow I always do when visiting this special place: I need to come back soon and spend a lot more time tasting the next time.