Sunday, October 28, 2018

Walla Walla AVA Wine Experience

Walla Walla AVA Wine Experience

In follow up to our Seattle Culinary and Washington Wine Tour, we planned a trip to the Columbia Valley wine country. We traveled to Walla Walla (Washington) to visit the Walla Walla AVA wine appellation there, to visit some favorite producers, and meet and discover some legendary and emerging labels. Our trip yielded new discoveries, wonderful meetings and new/renewed friendships, great wines, great food, history and spectacular scenery. It exceeded our expectations on so many levels, we can't wait to go back, and have much to look forward to on our return visit (s). Immeasurable thanks to Carrie Alexander of Force Majeure Vineyards for hosting us and making some wonderful introductions.
Carrie Alexander and Linda at Force Majeure

As I wrote recently in these pages in our Woodinville Washington Wine Tour report, Washington State wines are coming of their own achieving new heights in quality and recognition. The number of  Washington wineries has increased 400% in the last decade and has grown proportionally as a tourism industry. It is the nation's second largest wine producer. Interestingly, the area is geographically located on approximately the same latitude (46ºN) as some of the great French wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

As we discover more incredible wines, its becoming more and more apparent that Washington State wines are on par with the top wines from the world's great wine regions. Yet, for lack of notoriety, in many cases (no pun intended), they represent some great values for great QPR (Quality Price Ratio) wine buys, from casual sipping to serious collecting.

Indeed, I wrote recently in these pages about Long Shadows , a collaborative project by Allan Shoup, former leader of Chateau St Michelle where he introduced Washington State grapes to winemakers from around the world in collaboration to produce quality wines. He founded Long Shadows to produce world class premium wines in Washington. 

Shoup has recruited a top winemaker with expertise and a track record producing best in class wine in several categories or types of wine based on a varietal grape. The resulting Vintners Collection, features a Long Shadows label produced in collaboration with a legendary winemaker in each category. See my Long Shadows Wine Cellars feature for more details.

Washington State wine growing areas are now officially recognized in 14 federally designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), also commonly known as appellations.  The vineyards producing wine grapes in the fourteen different appellations lie in the Columbia Valley river basin that cuts through the center of the state from North to South and then turns west separating Oregon from Washington as it heads to the Pacific.

In the Walla Walla AVA, in the southeastern corner of the state, the number of wine producers in the  area has grown to over 150 and the total vineyard acreage has grown from 800 acres in 1999, to 1,300 in 2011 and nearly 3,000 in 2017. 
Highlights of our Walla Walla wine and dine experience were:

Rotie Cellars visit and tasting
Gramercy Cellars tasting
Touring downtown Walla Walla and surrounds, seeing homes to so many famous labels
The journey to get to Walla Walla County and seeing historic sites and magnificent Washington State geography

Legendary Cayuse

Cote Rotie Cellars and Browne Tasting rooms

Mark Ryan Winery Walla Walla Tasting Room

Canoe Ridge Walla Walla Winery

Woodward Canyon Walla Walla Winery

L'Ecole Walla Walla Winery
Spring Valley Vineyards Walla Walla
Tasting Room


Watch for upcoming blogposts and updates on our tours, tastings, dining and travel discoveries and experiences.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Spring Valley Vineyards Tasting and Vineyard Visit

Spring Valley Vineyards Tasting and Vineyard Visit

During our recent wine appellation visit to the Walla Walla (Washington) wine region, we visited the Spring Valley Vineyards tasting room and then ventured out to the winery and vineyards. Spring Valley Vineyards is most likely the longest and deepest collection of Washington State wines in our extensive cellar collection, spanning vintages going back a decade and a half. We first discovered Spring Valley Vineyards Uriah Walla Walla (Right Rank Bordeaux) Red Blend dating back to the 2001 vintage. We still hold more than a dozen vintages dating back to the 2004 vintage in our collection.

Hence, a visit to Spring Valley was on our shortlist of winery or vineyard site visits during our Walla Walla appellation visit. We first visited their tasting room downtown Walla Walla. Spring Valley Vineyards have an extensive and growing brand of wines based on the Bordeaux varietals - Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot and also a Syrah.

Due to the remoteness and vast distances to many of the Washington State wineries and vineyards, it is commonplace that Washington State producers have tasting rooms retail sites in central locations. The most common site for such tasting rooms is Woodinville, Washington in suburban Seattle which advertises as having more than 130 such tasting rooms. We visited the Seattle suburb last month as part of our Woodinville (Washington) Tasting Experience.

The charming, historic small rural town of Walla Walla, in the center of the Walla Walla Valley wine region in the Southeastern corner of Washington State, is another such site with dozens of tasting rooms, including Spring Valley Vineyards.

The branding of Spring Valley wines is based on the rich family history and heritage. The land that the Corkrum, Derby, and Elvin families farms today has been farmed by the family dating back to the mid 1800’s. Current vineyard owner Shari Corkrum Derby’s grandfather Uriah Corkrum began farming in the area acquired the land now known as Spring Valley in 1910. Shari and Dean Derby planted the first grapes at Spring Valley in 1993 and the first vintage of Estate grown and bottled Spring Valley Vineyard wines were produced with the 1999 vintage. All the wines are named for ancestral members of the family going back to Uriah and Frederick and others. 

In the Spring Valley retail site tasting room, we got to taste their range of primary labels, six labels that span their primary brand. We tasted all six labels from the recent vintage. Two or three vintages were available as boxed sets of the family of labels. No library wines were on offer, or apparent in the retail tasting room.

More on the tasting room wine flight to come.

Wines tasted:

Uriah Red Wine Blend 2014 - Blend: 56% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec
Frederick Red Wine Blend 2015 - Blend: 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 8% Malbec
Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc 2016 - Blend: 100% Cabernet Franc
Sharilee Petit Verdot 2014 - Blend: 90% Petit Verdot, 10% Cabernet Franc
Mule Skinner Merlot 2016 - 100% Merlot
Nina Lee Syrah 2015 - Blend: 99% Syrah, 1% Viognier

The Spring Valley Vineyards and wine production facility lie about fifteen miles northeast of downtown Walla Walla. The vineyards are a stark contrast to the vast openness and plains of the surrounding wheat fields that cover the wide vast expanses of the central and eastern parts of the State. The vineyards stand out in stark contrast even on the Google satellite imagery, as shown below.

We drove out Middle Waitsburg Road, around the Walla Walla airport, to Corkrum Road, aptly named for the patriarch ancestor of the Spring Valley producer's family, to the winery and vineyard site. 

There we ran into Dean Derby patriarch, husband to Shari Corkrum Derby, ancester and co-owners of the family business. What a treat and honor to meet Mr. Derby and what a delightful visit we had.

The vineyard site sitting amidst over 110 acres of vineyards is open to the public from May to September during posted hours during the week, and at other times by special appointment.

The Spring Valley Vineyards from a distance down Corkrum Road. 

The Spring Valley Vineyards adjacent to the winery site

 The Spring Valley Vineyards adjacent to the winery site

The Winery Production Facility 

Much of the adventure and interest of visiting the region and the Spring Valley site is the magnificent expansive vast vistas of the surrounding hills, as shown below. 

Spring Valley Vineyards continues to expand operations with new vineyard plantings and a growing staff of family members and professionals joining the organization. It is a historic institution in the region and a label of serious quality wines to be sought out and appreciated. It should be on the shortlist of any visit to the Walla Walla appellation.


Friday, October 26, 2018

Walls Winery Visit During Walla Walla Wine Experience

The Walls Winery Visit During Walla Walla Wine Experience

One of the highlights of our Walla Walla Wine Experience 2018 was a visit to The Walls Winery, and meeting former tech exec, Founder and CEO, Mike Martin.

The "Walls”, is an imaginative tribute to the Walla Walla regional name and the historic legacy of the Washington State Penitentiary there, also known as 'Concrete Mama', which looms on the outskirts of town, just down the road from some of vineyard sources for their wines.

"Like you, our wines are different."

Legend has it that in the 1880's, the young town of Walla Walla chose to site a prison, rather than a University, within its city limits. While to some this may have seemed an odd decision, to the locals of the time it was more about pride.

The Walls pays tribute to the notorious landmark that has been a cornerstone of the community dating back to 1886. Life behind the “Walls” was memorialized in the book “Concrete Mama”, nickname for the prison, published back in 1981, a compendium of photographs and stories showing the uniqueness of the place including the preponderance of motorcycles behind the gates. The classic book is being republished in an upcoming re-release.

The Walls memorialize the book and stories with a flagship wine,  'Concrete Mama', a big firm Syrah in a large oversized heavy bottle with etched label of an image of Wall's character Stanley Groovey peering over the wall.

The Walls is also a testament as a metaphor for life and the role wine plays in our existence. The owner cites: "You can’t drive into Walla Walla -- to drink wine, play golf, spend time with friends and family -- and not think about life behind those walls. This contradiction is also a personal one as walls have become metaphors in all of our lives --  we put up walls to protect our hearts, we toil within the walls of work constraints, we build walls to defend what’s important to us.

"Nevertheless, as we build walls we’re also always looking for ways we can tear them down. Wine is the river that can overflow, subvert and topple these walls. It is a powerful force in bringing people together and building true community, capturing and preserving memories of time, places and people."

Mike Martin has fun with The Walls branding and marketing. He has created a whimsical cartoonish character Stanley Groovey who adorns the building front, the tasting room, and many of the labels. We laughed at the imagery of a 'Where's Waldo' theme where the character pops up in the vineyards or him appearing dressed in red on Christmas promotions of holiday labels.

The Walls portfolio includes a broad selection of red and white wines with creative and curious names including: Curiositas, The Ramparts, Gaspard, and Stanley Groovy (from Red Mountain); Concrete Mama, and Wonderful Nightmare from the Rocks District of Milton Freewater, and Cheys, Lip Stinger, Martin’s Gold, Cruel Summer from Yakima Valley AVA, and La Lutte and McAndrew from Columbia Gorg.

The Walls source grape from the usual suspects of prime appellations' sites with distinctive terroir in the state. They are developing their own 18-acre Estate vineyard in perhaps the most distinctive place or terroir, the Rocks District of Milton Freewater, the country’s newest AVA. Wine Spectator calls this AVA “perhaps America’s most distinctive example of terroir."

The unique riverbed of cobblestones and pebbles is as much as two hundred feet deep, formed 12,000 years ago from massive floods that swept through the region caused by ruptures in the ice dam that held Montana's glacial Lake Missoula. The Rocks District is a 12-square mile alluvial fan of 3,770 acres. 

The Walls also sources grapes from Red Mountain, Yakima Valley and the Columbia River Gorge AVA's.

Yakima Valley was Washington’s first official federally-recognized AVA located along the banks of the Yakima River. The Yakima Valley AVA also has sub appellations of Red Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills and Snipes Mountain.  There are more than 150 wineries with more than 17,000 vineyard acres planted. The Yakima Valley AVA is the largest sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley AVA both in total size and wine-grape acreage.

The Red Mountain AVA is Washington's smallest is typically the warmest growing region in Washington, with daytime averages of 90 degrees and lows dropping below 50. These fluctuations in temperatures promote sugar accumulation with the day’s heat while cool nights promote balanced acidity. Red varietals are dominate in the AVA’s where the sweltering slopes are well-known for Rhone varietals on the upper slopes and Bordeaux varietals on the lower blocks near the valley floor.

The Columbia River Gorge AVA straddles the Columbia River for a stretch of about 15 miles, including 280 square miles in the Cascade foothills above the Columbia River Gorge, near Hood River, Oregon. The Columbia River Gorge is a unique geological site where the mighty Columbia River flows approximately 80 miles from one side of the Cascade Mountain Range to the other. It is the only such passage through any major mountain range in the Western Hemisphere.

The climate and terrain of the wine producing appellation are similar to the French wine regions of Burgundy and the northern Rhone Valley. The cool western end of the Gorge produces Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; further east provides Pinot Gris and warmer-weather red grapes such as Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernets and Barberas as well as white Rieslings, Gewürztraminers and Viogniers.

Wines tasted:

The Walls McAndrew White Salmon Vineyard Columbia Gorge Chardonnay 2016

This wine is a tribute to 'Doc' William McAndrew, Seattle Surgeon who first planted grapes on Underwood Mountain in the Columbia Gorge in 1972.

This is 100% Chardonnay, sourced from cuttings from Doc’s original plants and is made in a crisp, fresh style using the finest concrete tanks imported from Burgundy. Walls offer it both in his memory and with his “if you can dream it, do it” spirit.

The Walls The Ramparts Red Rhone Blend 2015 - A Southern Rhone Chateauneuf-du-Pape style blend of Grenache (52%), Mouvedre (32%), Counnoise (13%), and Syrah (3%). This is a tribute to the walled city of Avignon, just south of the Chateaunuef-du-Pape appellation, Les Ramparts d'Avignon were built by Medievel Popes to ward off mercenaries.

This wine began as an experiment with this vintage. Walls took what is sometimes called a GSM blend but blended in an otherwise higher percentage of Mourvedre and added another Southern Rhone CDP varietal Counoise resulting in further layers of complexity. They confined it - protecting it - within the cool walls of a concrete tank for three months, producing a favorite wine with dark fruit and wet stone balanced by a light body with bright hints of fresh plum and lilac. The 2015 Ramparts earned a gold medal in the 2018 Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition.

The Walls Gaspard Red Mountain Syrah 2015 - Winemaker Ali writes: "A Legend has it that in 1224 a Knight named Gaspard, wounded and weary from the battles of the Albigensian Crusade, was given permission by the Queen of France to recover atop a granite peak in the storied Hermitage. Through with bloodshed, Gaspard became a hermit but was soon joined by others seeking similar refuge. Together, they began to tend the area’s mythical vines. “It’s crazy to think that almost 800 years ago, a hermit on a hill walled himself off from the world and in doing so, inspired this wine.”

The Walls Curiositas Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 - This was my absolute favorite of the flight. Of course I tend to favor Bordeaux varietals  but I found this especially appealing.

The fruit for this was sourced from the Obelisco Vineyard on the higher slopes of the Red Mountain AVA. The vines get increased exposure to the sun and are planted in higher density to further stress the grapes. The result is a wine of great complexity but one that is elegant and lush, yet subtle with tones the winemaker describes as possessing 'freshness that evokes a Margaux-styled fragrant' Cabernet' I grabbed a case of this and am eager to try it home and share with my wine buddies and friends with grilled steak. 

The Walls Stanley Groovey Red Mountain Red Wine 2015 -  This is a complex unique blend of 55% Touriga Nacional, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13.5% Souzao, 9% Tinta Cao, 1.5% Tempranillo. While I would not call this the 'signature' wine of The Walls, it is their namesake wine, named for their signature branded character.

They whimsically write about this wine:

"You may not have heard of Stanley Groovy, and that’s OK. We’ll tell you he’s a strange -- but delightful -- guy, much more complex than he lets on, despite his “regular guy” exterior. Inside, he’s groovy -- just like the wine in this bottle. Trying to describe this wine is like trying to describe the inside of the fine artist’s mind; you may say you “get it” but really, no one gets it. And this is why what’s in this bottle will remain in generalities - simple on the outside, complex and groovy on the inside.'

The complexity and uniqueness of the wine is indicated by the diverse varied blend of varietal grapes from Portugal accenting Cabernet Sauvignon, the principle grape of Bordeaux.  

The Walls continue, in describing this wine: "Stanley Groovy isn’t afraid to stray from the crowd — he's different and he knows it, just like the wine in this bottle. Cabernet Sauvignon lends depth and complexity while intense Portuguese varietals bring a whole lot of groovy. The result? A wine that celebrates the beauty of being “different” — something Stanley is proud to lend his name to.'

The Walls 'Concrete Mama' Walla Walla Valley Syrah 2015 - This is a blend of 91% Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard and 9% Grenache from the River Rock Vineyard from the Walla Walla AVA.

This is the second vintage of this label, named for the State Penitentiary near the winery on the outskirts of town, bearing the same nickname as this wine, 'Concrete Mama'.

The Walls draws the comparison between the two:

"In the 1880's Walla Walla chose to site a prison, rather than a University, within its city limits.
While to some this may have seemed an odd decision, to the locals of the time it was more about pride.'

"Walla Wallans were not ones to shy away from hard work; in fact, the harder the work the greater the sense of community pride. “Concrete Mama” still sits sentinel above our little town. Life is hard inside her walls, but for those who make it out, a new beginning beckons. This wine bears her nickname because nature’s struggle of transforming these Rocks District grapes into fine wine took place within similar walls of concrete, with loads of hard work and great community pride. Concrete Mama leaves these Walls full of promise. All you have to do is give it a chance on “the outside”.'
This is dark inky purple plum and ruby colored, big, bold and concentrated dense rich ripe black currant and black raspberry fruits accented by layers of olive tapenade, tobacco and pepper.

RM 94 points.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Force Majeure Vineyards Site Visit and Tasting

Force Majeure Vineyards Site Visit and Tasting

One of the inspirations for and objectives of our Walla Walla Wine Experience 2018 was to visit Force Majeure vineyards. We first met Force Majeure winemaker Todd Alexander and marketing, distribution and branding exec Carrie Alexander during the Chicago stop of their promotion tour in 2016 when we hosted them at Italian Village in Chicago. Since then we've acquired a respectable collection of Force Majeure wines, hence, they were one of our shortlist priority visits when we planned our Washington State, Columbia Valley wine trip.

Force Majeure Carrie Alexander and Linda
Following our Woodinville (Washington) tasting experience where we tasted several fabulous  Red Mountain AVA wines, we were targeting there for our first Washington State wine appellation visit. Carrie convinced us to visit Walla Walla and we followed her guidance and were amply rewarded as it was a spectacular wine travel experience. Our Walla Walla AVA visit provided the opportunity to visit a vibrant wine region, meet some legendary winemakers on the Washington wine scene, and still experience the best of Red Mountain appellation wines as well!

Force Majeure have vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA where they grow Rhone varietals on the upper slopes and Bordeaux varietals on the lower blocks of the site. According to Carrie, the varietal blocks are based on the selection and matching of the grape varieties to the appropriate soil composition in the eight different soil types on the site.

The Red Mountain site was the very first vineyard on the steep, rocky upper slopes of Red Mountain. Developing the Red Mountain estate vineyards involved carefully matching varietal and clonal selections and vineyard trellising and irrigation to the eight distinct soil types in the vineyard.

The site was formed by the ancient Missoula floods, winds and volcanic activity resulting in many small “micro-blocks,” each uniquely suited to specific grape varietals. The rocky upper-slope with shallow soil is well suited to the cultivation of Rhone varietals such as Syrah and Grenache, while the lower blocks of the vineyard are comprised of deep, well-drained Warden soils, where Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc excel.

Force Majeure recently acquired a small vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley. The site is within the boundaries of the The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA, just across the Oregon side of state line border. The portion of the vineyard outside The Rocks District is within the borders of the Walla Walla Valley AVA.
The Rocks District is named for the rocky deposits left by the Walla Walla River where the river exits the foothills of the Blue Mountains and enters the Walla Walla Valley. It resembles the gravelly soil of the Southern Rhone River Valley in Chateauneuf du Pape. The Rocks District of Milton Freewater is the country’s newest AVA. Wine Spectator calls this AVA “perhaps America’s most distinctive example of terroir."

The unique riverbed of cobblestones and pebbles is as much as two hundred feet deep, formed 12,000 years ago from massive floods that swept through the region caused by ruptures in the ice dam that held Montana's glacial Lake Missoula. The Rocks District is a 12-square mile alluvial fan of 3,770 acres.

Force Majeure are building a new winery and tasting room facility in an old historic renovated rural schoolhouse and an adjacent wine-making production facility on the Estate site. They are scheduled to be open and operational next year.

Force Majeure also source grapes from select blocks of a thirteen acre vineyard of SJR Vineyards (left) just down the road which are owned by Delmas Vineyards and managed by Brooke Delmas Robertson.

The SJR Vineyard is located on the corner of Lower Dry Creek and County Road in Milton-Freewater, at the SW corner of ‘The Rocks District’. The site is planted in Rhone varietals Syrah and Grenache.

After touring the vineyards and winery site we dined at Brasserie Four French Bistro in downtown Walla Walla where we tasted a flight of Force Majeure wines.

Force Majeure Estate Red Mountain Syrah 2015

This is 100% Syrah sourced from the steep rocky sections of the top of the Red Mountain hillside vineyard.

Dark garnet colored, full-bodied, rich concentrated black berry fruits, hints of blue fruits, accented with layers of smokiness, minerality and tones of anise, black tea, black olive tapenade and hints of smokey meats, with bright lively acidity and cloying but approachable tannins on the tangy lingering finish.

RM 92 points.

Force Majeure Parvata Red Blend 2016

Parvata is a blend of 69% Mourvèdre, 21% Syrah and 10% Grenache, 100% sourced from the Force Majeure Red Mountain Estate vineyard.

Parvata means “mountain” in sanskrit, and hence is the name for Force Majeure's southern Rhône style blend, grown in the sandy, loamy soils of the lower section of the Red Mountain vineyard.

Dark garnet colored, medium bodied, this is black fruits accented by white pepper and tones of dried herbs with bright lively acidity.

RM 92 points.

Force Majeure Estate Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Dark garnet colored, medium full bodied, complex but smooth and polished with bright lively forward blackberry fruits accented by notes of anise, hints of dark mocha, spice and subtle tones of pain grille' and soft spicy oak with silky smooth tannins on the lingering finish.

RM 93 points. 

This is a blend of 96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Merlot,1% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot.

Later we dined at the brand new just opened Walla Walla Steak Company Depot Restaurant where we enjoyed Force Majeure Épinette Red Mountain Bordeaux Blend.

Force Majeure Épinette Red Mountain Red Blend 2014

Épinette is Force Majeure's Right-bank Bordeaux-inspired blend, and was named after an avenue in Libourne that leads to Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, the home of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Épinette is also the name of a musical instrument akin to a piano, as well as a word for pine tree, which is a fitting nod to the locale's in Washington state.

Épinette is a Bordeaux blend in the 'Right Bank' style meaning it is primarily Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

The blend for this 2014 vintage was 58%  Merlot,  22%  Cabernet Franc 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and the remaining 5% Petit Verdot.

The Merlot and Cabernet Franc are grown in the lower areas of the Red Mountain vineyard with its  deep, well-drained soils. The wine was aged for approximately 22 months in mostly new French oak.

The Force Majeure Épinette was the perfect complement to our aged prime steak dinner, perfectly prepared 'Pittsburgh' style, served with mashed potatoes.

Silky tannin' 'Legs' of Force Majeure Epinette
Dark garnet colored, medium full bodied, bright vibrant forward black berry, ripe black raspberry and black current fruits with notes of cigar box, mocha chocolate, hints of leather, anise, graphite and spicy oak with gripping but approachable silky tannins on the lingering finish.

RM 94 points. 

The Force Majeure Rhone wines were perfect complements to the Provencale bistro foods of Brasserie Four.
Brasserie Four Authentic French Bistro in Walla Walla

The Rillettes porc et de Canard, 'Pork shoulder & duck breast preserved in lard with Juniper berry & sage', was authentic and very interesting, crying for and ideal for with a sophisticated wine accompaniment such as the Parvatta GSM.

I had the very unique lunch entree selection, 'Vermont duck breast burger, Hudson Valley foie gras on a Kaiser roll, served with fries'. This was exotic and obscenely rich, an interesting culinary experience, not for the feint of heart. The Foie Gras accompaniment was fabulous and ideally suited for the big Syrah and the more complex and polished Cabernet.