Walla Walla, WA: Walking Your Way to the Best Wine Vintages and Culinary Delights

October 25, 2019

Weather and Wine - Part 1 of a 3-part series.

The Ride East

The first decision was easy: leave the continued rainy pattern in the Seattle area or go east to the sunny conditions of the wine country in Walla Walla Washington. The next decision was more complicated: Take the brief one-hour plane flight or drive.

We decided to drive the four hours and enjoy the scenery with a stop partway for lunch and a brew at the hop capital of Yakima. After the refreshments we continued east. Near the famous wine region, Red Mountain AVA (American Viticultural Area), we passed over the scenic Snake River and of course the majestic Columbia River.

Time for a brief stretch and scenic view? Quickly done with a one-minute detour to Twin Sisters Rock. What a stunning view of the Columbia River and the Wallula Gap! Imagine thousands of years ago, the surge of fast-moving water that passed through this gap! 

After this spectacular view, we drove the last 35 minutes, enjoying the view of many wheat fields just outside of Walla Walla. Then we arrived at The Courtyard by Marriott Walla Walla, which was our home base for the next two days. The car rested while we walked around town. 

Cool vs. Warm Vintages: Go vertical and taste the difference

Ready to focus on bold reds with higher tannin, sugar, and alcohol values that warmer vintages can tend to bring? Perhaps you are more like me -- wanting the softer reds with lower tannin and sugar levels which the cooler wines tend to bring.  Is that the only difference between cooler vintages vs. warmer ones? No! If there is too much rain the grapes tend to be lower quality and disease-prone. If you want more details here is a great source

 Vertical wine tasting at Barons Winery, Walla Walla

After this discussion, we took the ten-minute stroll to Barons Winery for a vertical tasting of their 2009 to 2013 Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. Vertical tasting is a tasting of the same varietal or blend from different years. This is an easy (and enjoyable) way to experience how different weather patterns can affect the wines. The weather patterns for Red Mountain AVA and Walla Walla can be summarized here.

First, what is the gold standard for comparing years? That would be growing degree days (GDD), which are determined by accumulated temperatures over a certain threshold during the growing season.

Simply put, when the GDD is above average, it is considered a warm year and generally, and we all love that. More details here

The 2009 Red Mt Cabernet Sauvignon (listed below as Cab) was grown in what is considered an average GDD year, but sometimes one needs to look beyond that number. We found this a softer wine, perhaps because the hot July gave way to a cooler August, which probably helped bring the softer tastes.

2010 was hit with a double whammy with a cold winter, which destroyed some crops, and then below normal GDD for the growing season. Thus, no surprise that this vintage has a softer taste and is a lighter red than the 2009. Did the heat return in 2011? Yes and no. GDD were below normal again, thanks to a cool spring and start to summer. But a warmup at the end of summer and early fall brought an intense nose and bolder red than the prior year. Did the heat return in 2012? Well some say this was a pristine year. A dry summer with a nice warm-up in August brought average GDD. We found complex flavors, and this quickly became our favorite. The final tasting was the 2013 which started the trend of above-normal GDD. We certainly noticed the darker red and higher tannins levels for that year. All these Cabs had close to 90% Cab and 10% Merlot.

 Master Sommelier Jason Fox

Ready to check out some Syrah? We took the easy one-minute walk across the street for our next vertical tasting at Lagana Cellars. A cook from Indiana fell in love with Syrah when he helped a bartender study and pass the Court of Master Sommeliers. That would be Jason Fox, founder, and head winemaker, who used his knowledge of wine and desire to make wine. He then enrolled in the Enology and Viticulture Program at Walla Walla Community College. More on this program in part two of our story.

2013 was a warm and dry summer in the Walla Walla AVA, which produced a Syrah which displayed a light structure. Jason said he was sure we would also love the award-winning 2014. This won a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. 2014 brought a warmer summer, with above-normal GDD, slightly higher tannin levels, and pepper notes, which we really enjoyed. 

Some like it hot? That was 2015, with GDD over 30% above normal four 100+ records in June. It was a long, warm summer, so the wine had stronger tannins along with an intense fruit nose. We enjoyed some of Jason’s other wines as well, but soon it was time to move on.

Wood fire oven pizza from Walla Walla Bread

More vertical tastings or time for lunch? A five-minute walk through downtown, and we arrived for lunch at Walla Walla Bread Company.  The new owners, Michele and Coral Pompei, created a trendy bakery (Bakehouse 55) in Redmond Washington, but soon needed a storefront. So, they purchased an existing business in Walla Walla and continued with all the popular items, while adding a few magic pastry touches. 

Pastries from Walla Walla Bread company

Why Walla Walla? Coral does have roots in Walla Walla since her parents and grandparents attended college there, so that was a natural transition for her.  Her husband Michele, with roots in Italy, was raised in South America. How did they meet? They both worked in the pastry field and met in Florida, then later started their ventures in Washington State. And we are so glad they came to the Northwest!

Wood Fired Pizza was my goal, and I went with the Artichoke with white sauce, garlic, roasted shallot. That crust was so perfect! Oh, let us not forget the soup of the day which was a hearty Italian soup with pasta shells, sausage, and shellfish. Sadly, no room for their assortment of pastries.

The Last Vertical Tasting

Time to walk off our lunch, at least in a minor way, since it was only a five-minute walk to Kontos Cellars for some Merlot. Cameron Kontos is the winemaker with family roots going back to 1800’s in Walla Walla. His great-great-great Grandpa started the Baker Boyer Bank in 1869, which was the first bank in the Northwest Territory. Like most families with roots in Walla Walla, the Kontos family was also involved with wheat and other farming.

Cameron learned winemaking from THE BOSS -- his dad Cliff, who started making wine in Walla Walla in 1977, but he also had cows and wheat to attend. So, winemaking was just a side business. Cliff started his winery in the late 1990s, Fort Walla Walla Cellars. The Boss did find time to mentor Cameron and his brother Chris with Kontos Cellars. Cliff, The Boss is now retired, but his name is commemorated with a wine Kontos named The Boss; a blend of Cab and Merlot.

Cameron showcased all Walla Walla Merlot, with the 2011 as the starter. The light tannins were no surprise, given that much of the summer was on the cool side. 2012 continued the trend we had seen with other wines with a progression of warmer summers. 2012 showed higher tannin levels, and the wine did very well in competition. 2013 continued the increase in tannins with the warmer conditions and above normal GDD. This one was my favorite. I also found the 2014 very enjoyable. Just like the 2013, the growing season of 2014 had almost the same warm temperatures. 2015 was a scorching year, and the wine reflected that with much bolder favors and strong cherry notes. Finally, we had the 2016, which was a cooler year. This vintage was lighter for sure, but hard to judge because it is still a young wine. We need to return to this one in a few years.

We took the brief walk back to our hotel, chatting about vertical tasting, and the question came up: should we do a horizontal tasting? That is wine within the same region and the same year but a different producer.  We discussed trying that the next day or continuing with our vertical tasting, or maybe something completely different. Stay tuned for part two.

Read Part 2 and Part 3.

Editorial disclosure: lodging and food were generously provided.