Getting to Walla Walla
Inspired by an episode of V is for Vino on Amazon Prime, I set off on a quest to Walla Walla, Washington. I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect, as my only experience in Washington was west of the Cascades, where the population is booming and where the nightlife is buzzing.
It’s a lot easier to get to Walla Walla than expected. There are direct flights from Salt Lake to Pasco/Kennewick — only about 30 minutes away from Walla Walla. The city is on the south central end of Washington, and part of Walla Walla Valley straddles Oregon. As you make your way from the airport, you’ll pass beautiful pastures of wheat, apple orchards and hops (Washington actually grows approximately 70% of the nation’s hops). Speckled between these fields are rolling, picturesque vineyards.
Walla Walla Winemakers
I arranged for a tour guide, as this was our inaugural voyage to this area, so we booked our adventure with The Touring Company. The proprietor, Ali Rodgers, took us to several wineries, but one in particular captured our hearts: Smoky Rose Cellars. This small winery was awe inspiring, with a young husband and wife team running every aspect of the operation, from pressing the grapes, to fermentation, to blending, to bottling, to labeling and even running the tasting room.
These winemakers, like a lot of them in Walla Walla, don’t grow their own grapes. This allows them the freedom to buy grapes from different vineyards and make different wines from year to year without being tethered to the same vines and their grapes over and over. They can experiment with their wine making, blending different grapes or playing around with aging, revealing where their talents lie and what their customers like best. Without having to manage the growth and harvest of their own vineyards, this allows for more time and financial flexibility.
Smoky Rose has an internal competition going on between husband and wife on what they feel is the best style of Chardonnay. One being more of a buttery, somewhat oaky version and the other a stainless steel, fruit-forward style. They like to serve those side by side to see how their customers react to each wine. Their flagship wine, Stinger 71, was a big hit. The 2020 version is a blend of 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Rock District Mourvedre. This wine, being barrel aged, had flavors of vanilla, warm baking spices and the typical uniqueness that is due to “The Rocks AV,” but still let the fruit shine through with a nice amount of acid. The name is in honor of the sister-in-law, a fighter pilot whose handle is Stinger 71. This generous name-sake provided the seed money for these talented young winemakers to start their business. We should all be grateful for her generosity, because this wine is amazing.
Walla Walla Wine Styles
Downtown Walla Walla is quaint with a small-town feel. Many wine tasting rooms line the streets. Here you can experience so many versions of what Walla Walla has to offer. What I discovered is that there isn’t necessarily a claim-to-fame grape here but a welcoming of each wine maker’s individuality, maybe even the placation of a whim.
Therein lies the beauty of winemaking in America, Freedoms are encouraged rather than prohibited. An example of winemakers embracing the eclectic is the pride they take in what they lovingly referred to as The Rocks Funk. The Rocks (The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA) is an AVA just over the border into Oregon that is named after the cobble-stone rich soils. This unique terroir imparts the most unique flavors and aromas of barnyard and worn leather onto the wine. It is a level above what some may call “earthy.” If someone wasn’t a believer of terroir’s influence in making a wine, this would certainly convince them.
I tried two Syrah’s from the same year and produced by the same winemaker with the only difference being where he procured the grape. One was from Walla Walla AVA and the other from The Rocks AVA. It was like night and day. Now, not everyone has a penchant for barnyard aromas in their wines, but it is certainly different.
Making Their Mark
Walla Walla may be the proverbial new kid on the block when it comes to commercial wineries, but they aren’t afraid to let it be known they are here to stay! I encourage you to pick up a bottle of wine, any style of wine, from Washington — Walla Walla Valley AVA in particular — the next time you are out.