Uncorked Ventures Blog

Mark Aselstine
 
September 2, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Ranchero Cellars 2012 Carignan

The highest rated bottle of Carignan ever according to Wine Spectator is heading to our wine club members right now-learn something about the woman behind it, as well as the grape itself:

Video Transcription:

Hi guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I'm joined today by a bottle of wine that I think deserves some attention by itself. It's a 2012 Carignan from Ranchero Cellars. Ranchero Cellars is located down in Paso Robles. The winemaker and owner Amy has become somebody who we've shipped wines from in the past couple years. She works with our friend Anthony Yount from Denner on a Brouhaha blend, which is kind of a crisp, acidic white. We know her work pretty well, and during the last large-scale Rhone Rangers, I made a point to go and try this. Which I was then not surprised when I saw Wine Spectator came out a month or two ago and rated this the highest rated Carignan they've ever had anywhere, France included.

Carignan as a grape, let's go to the hat for a minute, since you may have heard of it, you may not have. At one point it was the widest-planted grape in all of France. They had something called the wine lake that happened in the late 80's, and that was in large part, the Rhone and Languedoc planted a whole ton of grapes. They planted so many grapes, in fact, that the entire European wine market was drawn down by those. In essence, they had over planted, they had an oversupply, and so everything got a heck of a lot cheaper. As you might imagine, the French government wasn't very pleased, so they actually were paying farmers to pull out their vines. In large part that was Carignan.

Carignan's known as something, if you have dry, hot conditions but if you can water it a lot, it will grow. You get yields that are sitting at ten tons per acre, perhaps more, and that's why you see it both in the quote unquote wine lake in France, but you also see it used as part of large-scale production in California's Central Valley. This obviously is not that, at 94 points from Wine Spectator. There's about half the grapes come from a vineyard up in Mendocino County, and about half come from a vineyard down in Paso Robles. I think that's a nice combination. I think one of the things that you'll run into sometimes with Mendocino County fruit is that it's almost too acidic and you almost can't get your kind of brain around how a red wine can be as acidic as a lot of whites that you like. Also, sometimes in Paso you're missing some of that acidity. I think Amy does a good job of combining those two here, and I think the results obviously speak for themselves.

Ranchero Cellars, worth a look on a number of different levels. She focused on Rhone varietals, both on the white and red side. Carignan is a favorite of the wine maker, and so that's something that you should look into. Although I'm guessing at $32 or so retail and 94 points from Wine Spectator, these are going to be gone by the time this video goes out there. First, congratulations to Ranchero, and then second, I hope our wine club members enjoy them this month. I likely don't have any extras.

Once again, I'm Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I hope you've enjoyed a short history of Carignan and of Ranchero cellars. Amy makes some great wine, and both deserve your attention, and I hope everybody's having a good week.

Mark Aselstine
 
August 25, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Napa Valley Wine Train Kicks Off Book Club

While I probably shouldn't wade into politics and race relations on a business site....I will.  The Napa Valley Wine Train kicked off a book club, made up primarily of African American women.  To me, it brought up a few questions...first, why? Second, Napa Valley has a history of being made and created by people admittedly that look a lot like myself, although there's a whole upper valley versus lower valley dynamic at play as well.

 

 

Hi guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I'm going to spend a couple minutes today talking about something that's a rather uncomfortable topic in that if I had any business advisor they would tell me to steer clear of this and never talk about it again for the rest of my life but it's just not something I'm comfortable doing. Over the last few days it's come out in the news both here locally in Northern California and it's now hit the national news that there is a group club of African=American women that were kicked off the Napa Valley Wine Train. Let's start with what is the Napa Valley Wine train. It runs from downtown Napa up to Calistoga and it's about a 3-hour round trip. They serve lunch or dinner plus food, drinks, the whole kind of nine yards. It's a nice way to see the valley if you're a tourist. They're heavily marketed the thing to tourists and it is a pretty gorgeous ride.

A few things about the wine industry and about Napa in general. The first thing to understand is that the wine train starts in downtown Napa which has traditionally seen a very clear divide between the upper valley which is St. Helena, Yountville kind of, et cetera, and the lower valley which is kind of where American Canyon ends and where downtown Napa begins. Downtown Napa is home to the courthouse. They're home to a lot of the county facilities and quite honestly until a decade or two ago, they were home to what was a lot of abandoned storefronts and a rather rundown downtown for something that should be a tourist destination. Upper valley has never had that. St. Helena, they refer to themselves as America's Main Street and it's gorgeous.

That's one thing about Napa Valley that you have to understand. It's that there has been this traditionally lower valley versus upper valley dynamic that adds to the grower versus vintner kind of discussion that we've had so many times in the past here. Secondly you also have to realize that the wine industry itself, and we're talking owners of wineries here and people in places or positions of decision making authority, are not the most diverse set of people in the world. The valley was started mostly by Italian immigrants and there were some other folks that came in from Western Europe as well and as immigration has continued into Napa because of the wine industry and because of the kind of stature among the world wine capitals, et cetera, it's continued to draw people from outside of the county. You do meet a lot of Europeans and a lot of people that were born overseas.

However, most of them are from Western Europe or from kind of other Anglo-American countries. I've met plenty of people from New England ... oh, New England... From New Zealand, from Australia. Definitely there's plenty of people from France and Italy still. It's not a diverse set of people though and that's something that the wine industry has struggled with is how do you kind of market yourself

to the entire country and continue to grow sales and then also encourage people from different ethnic or racial backgrounds, however you want to phrase it, to come into both the industry as a job and career-minded path and then open their own winery. Ceja vineyards and Campesino vineyards are two Hispanic owned wineries and those are ones that we tend to notice in my house. My wife was born in El Salvador so we do notice if there's a little bit of marketing done in Spanish or just folks that have a little bit of different outlook.

You do see some of those folks growing different grapes and there's kind of a different perspective which I think is good and that's really healthy. Do I believe that this group of women was kicked off of the wine train because of their ethnic background or however you want to phrase it? Frankly I don't think there's any way to know. I don't think that we've heard the entire story. Quite frankly if they were kicked off for just being loud and obnoxious on the wine train I would be frankly rather shocked. That's a pretty boisterous group a lot of times when you see people getting off. It's obviously a vacation kind of activity. There's plenty of alcohol flowing and so people tend to have a good time and enjoy themselves. When you get off the thing after three hours, it's usually people have had ... It's obvious people have had a good time and it's good that they're walking to the final destination.

Unfortunately the Napa Valley Wine Train is in the news. I think it has also brought up some of the inherent, maybe not bias, but some of the inherent issues that have gone on in Napa over the years. I hope this can be the start of a conversation between folks both in Northern California and Napa and kind of wine county in general and how do we figure out how to be more inclusive and how do we get different viewpoints and how do we continue to grow the industry by being as inclusive as we possibly can. I think it's important and I think it's something that you're going to continue to see and hear about. It's something that we're going to write about a little bit more than we have to this point and hopefully that'll continue the discussion and hopefully this is the start and not the end of it.

Once again, mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I'm sorry for the small offshoot off of what is typical wine conversation into race, politics or relations in the United States. I know it's an uncomfortable thing and maybe it's something I shouldn't talk about but I think at this point it's important. I think it's important to know some of the history of Napa and of the region in general both in terms of the lower valley, upper valley stuff but then also because it's just frankly not the most diverse group of people in the history of the world and that's something that I hope changes. Once again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. Have a good one. We've been called one of the best wine clubs in America by Forbes Magazine, I think partially because we're willing to have this dicussion with our members and our readers.  

Mark Aselstine
 
August 24, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

A Lodi Introduction: Old Vine Zin & More

Lodi is known for Old Vine Zin and quite frankly little else.  It's a wine region in America that is going to be known for more in the coming years, including Albarino, a classic Spanish varietal that grows incredible well in Lodi.  Here's some history and what's happening now in the AVA.

Video Transcription:

All right guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. First, happy Monday to everybody. Hope everybody is off to a good week. Little interesting Mr Toad's wild ride with the stock market this morning ... I hope everyone's recovered.

Secondly, one of the month club's shipments for August are going out over the next 72 hours or so. As some folks have emailed and called to wonder what's going on. Quite simply, if you watch the nightly news you know that the hot weather has been a topic of conversation. We can't ship when it's so darn hot. The big issue is not when it's on the truck going to your house, the big issue is, for the east coast folks especially, it's a five day shipment process for ground, the wine stops somewhere for the weekend and we have absolutely no control really over, not only where it stops, but what the temperature is like in the warehouse. We've had wine too many times in the past for us not to pay attention a little bit about shipping temperatures and shipping time frames. We have gotten a little bit more sophisticated about knowing, if I ship this on Wednesday and it's going to the East coast, it's likely to stop after two days. Two days puts in Colorado. Denver is actually a pretty well air conditioned facility, so that's kind of where we're at.

Third, I have two bottles from Lodi in front of me today and we don't do a lot of Lodi wine. However, the Wine Bloggers Conference, which is really on of the largest meetings of wine industry folks in the country right now, is going to Lodi next year. Two years ago it was in Santa Barbara. I attended. Little bit of a hum game for me. Excuse me. This year, just finished up at The Finger Lakes in New York. If your not familiar with The Finger Lakes, sits in western New York. There is five lakes. They literally look like fingers. They run north to south instead of east to the west. We don't get a lot of their wine on the west coast simply because New York City takes most of the good stuff. What's remaining is still small enough production that they don't need it. The wine is pretty good, it's getting better. It's a focus area for New York wine is to get the finger lakes out there so there's the marketing message of- personally through the wine bloggers conference.

Lodi is doing something similar next year. The history of Lodi is two-fold. First, it's one of the true pre-prohibition growing areas within California. At the beginning they focused on Tokay, which is a grape that you virtually never heard of any more. Even when it's still grown they make it into fortified wine now, so you're not going to see a Tokay table grape any more. Then there's also some Zinfandel vines. Lodi has some of the best old vine Zinfandel, and by old vine, I used to tell people if it's older than me, it's old vine. I'm

in my mid-30s. I realise that makes it a sliding scale so to speak, so let's just say 30 years or older and I'll count it as an old vine Zin.

There are vintners who will throw 'Old Vine' on a label after 5 years, I think it's a little ridiculous. They know it's ridiculous but they're doing it for marketing, for easier sales. That's one question to ask, or one thing to read on the back of a bottle. If it's truly an old vine, they'll tell you exactly how old it is, what year the thing was planted, and what happened and why it survived through Prohibition if it's that old. If not, why they planted it in the 60s or 70s as opposed to something else that would have been an easier sell at that time, say, Merlot.

Lodi's this fascinating growing area for two reasons. First they have these, in the heart of Lodi, the original AVA, they have all these old vines in. Those are great. Those are interesting, those are a unique look into California and what a lot of people consider a native grape here. Second, they have this [inaudible 00:03:38]. This Grenache is from the St Clements Hills. As the heart of Lodi has been built out, you're starting to have these sub AVAs pop up in the periphery. You're seeing Grenache being grown at elevation. You're seeing Albariño, which is a Spanish white wine grape, grown really all over the place and grown incredibly well, it's a grape that's adapted really well to California's temperature in Lodi.

I should mention about Lodi, we have not the most positive opinion in the wine industry of what the San Joaquin Valley and what Central California grows. Stuff grows really really well there, and if vines are not stressed out they don't produce really flavorful wine. That's why the 2 dollar wine you buy at the grocery store, the 5 dollar wine at the grocery store probably came from Central Valley. As long as you water the stuff it produces almost year-round.

That's not what Lodi's marketing these days, it's not what they're going to be known for long-term. Lodi is at the furthest northern reaches of the San Joaquin Valley, and that's a really good thing because they're only 80 or so miles inland from the San Francisco Bay. They do get some maritime influence from the bay including the diurnal temperature which is probably more closely associated with Napa than it is for the rest of the inland California Central Valley.

In any case, Lodi. They make some interesting juice. It's something they're just trying to market themselves a little bit now, I think they're still trying to figure stuff out. Is this just going to be something they focus exclusively on old vines

in? If they do that, what does that say for folks that are just planting a vineyard now, or just want to open a vineyard? Do they have to wait 35 years to really be able to take part in the marketing, or can they create sub AVAs where they focus on Grenache, they focus on Albariño. Really that's part of the question that most of us face in California, is what's your white wine grape? If you're not growing Chardonnay, what is it? What's the story, why should we be interested in it, and why shouldn't I just buy a generic Champagne or Cava or Prosecco, on the sparkling side.

Once again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. Hope you're having a good day. Once again, yes, wine club shipments. They are leaving in the next 72 hours, you should have an email with both a either prepaid or charged order, and then a second email with a checking number directly from us and UPS. Hope you're enjoying your week. Have a good one.

 

Mark Aselstine
 
August 21, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

Ferguson Crest & Celebrity Backed Wine Projects

I haven't traditionally been a huge supporter of celebrity wine projects.  Here's one example, Ferguson Crest, that's helping to change my mind:

Video Transcript: Hi guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I'm joined with three bottles of wine today and I'll get to the exact winery here in a second. First I want to take a minute to talk about celebrity backed wine projects. This is one. This is the one that I like and we're working on an entry on the blog section of the site about our favorite celebrity backed wine projects because there are a few that make really good wine.

Celebrity backed wine projects fall into two categories in my opinion. First is the ones that we avoid and it's about seventy-five percent or more of them. This is where a celebrity gets approached by a wine company, by an importer, or a by somebody already in the industry saying, "We have this juice. We'd like to slap your name on it, use your PR firm, and use your clout to get it out there, and we'll write you a check every month." Those are the ones we tend to avoid or at least we try to avoid kind of at all costs. We definitely do get approached by them and we definitely decline. As a consumer I think the easiest way to tell which projects aren't very serious, if you look at the winery's website and you can't tell who made the wine or exactly where it came from, and by exactly I mean down to the vineyard or at least the AVA. If they are marked kind of California red wine, skip. It's probably not going to be anything more than the bulk juice that you can get at Trader Joe's or at Safeway under a brand you never heard of for probably half the price. At least that's my opinion.

Second of all, you have ... You do have celebrities who have significant financial backing obviously based on whatever they do for a living. Much like you have tech executives that buy wineries, you have celebrities that buy wineries or start wineries. They're able to, in a sense, speed up the process of building a great wine from the ground up based on having some financial resources. Kamen in Sonoma is a great, great example. Kamen's owned by a guy who's a screenwriter in Hollywood. It's one of the few meetings I've ever had where I've gone a little geeky on stuff. He's done stuff from the Fifth Element to Lethal Weapon, and then one of my personal favorite movies from childhood, The Karate Kid.

That brings us to what's in front of me, Ferguson Crest. First, if you know me at all, you know I love Santa Barbara wine. I think it's unfortunate that the industry down there hasn't been able to quite capture people's attention, outside of Pinot and Chardonnay. The wonderful thing, and I've talked about different parts of Santa Barbara in the past. It's the longest stretch of the east west coastline in California and I believe if you take out kind of that stretch of Texas and Mississippi and where they can't grow wine grapes because it's too hot, it's definitely the largest east west coastline with mediterranean style. The mountains go to the beach. They cut back inland. Every mile you that you move inland takes off one degree of temperature. Every hour the sun is up or down takes or adds one degree of temperature. You have Santa Barbara kind of sitting on the coast and that's where Pinot and Chard are grown, but every ... If you move five miles inland, they're growing some really great Merlot. If you move five miles further inland from that, they're growing great Syrah. That's part of the marketing challenge Santa Barbara faces.

They've tried to divide up, there's Ballard Canyon AVA, there's a Happy Canyon AVA, and there's kind of all this kind of marketing that goes in behind it that we're in there trying to figure out how to explain this to people because Santa Barabra is one of the few areas, in my opinion, that's really capable of growing both classic, varietally correct, world-class Pinot, Cab, and Syrah kind of in one larger AVA. Ferguson Crest sits pretty far inland. It's called Santa Ynez Valley. It's a region that I know pretty well. If you go to Los Olivos, Solvang, Fess Parker is one of the bigger names. We've done wines from wineries that have tasting rooms in the Santa Ynez Valley. Just off the top of my head, Dragonette, Blair Fox, Stoltman, and then Tensley.

Tensley is where I knew this was a serious wine. Joey Tensley runs a winery with his family. They make a thousand or a few thousand cases. Almost all of it goes out through the tasting room and the guy is something of a Syrah savant. If you look at Spectator or Robert Parker, you're going to see any Tensley Syrah scored in to low to mid ninety point range and priced in the $35 to $40 range. It's really kind of an incredible wine project and Joey Tensley is a winemaker who we kind of follow and we try to find other projects from. I wasn't aware that he made the wine at Ferguson Crest. I'm just kind of amazed given that it's a celebrity backed project but it hasn't got that much attention. I should mention Ferguson Crest ... This is Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. This is her family's winery. She tells a great story on the bottle about how she grew this thing with her Dad in the backyard and how [inaudible 00:04:40] growing grapes to make wine. I think it's actually really well put together.

Going from left to right, my least favorite to my favorite bottles. We start with the white that they make. The Viognier is kind of mid to upper $20 range. For us, our exploration's wine club, it's the cheapest that we offer. It averages just $20 per bottle. That doesn't give us a really easy landing spot for a mid $20 white or above because then we have to have a $20 red which people are happy with the inverse but not the higher expensive white. Its floral notes, and I think it's a variety that if people had more experience with, they'd like better. I think it's something that just kind of struggles to sell in most markets, even here in San Francisco. People have moved to Granache Blanc and some other Rhones a little bit more than Viognier. It's great on the nose. I don't know if the kind of the acidity and the backbone of it kind of hold up for a lot of people. This is a really well made wine. It's just not a variety that people are familiar with and it doesn't fit in our wine club.

Second, Syrah. I like the Syrah and it's a classic Santa Ynez Valley Syrah. Joey has a lighter hand with these than a lot of people do and I think that comes through in this. I think the outstanding kind of star is the Fergalicious wine, which I feel funny even almost saying that. It's a blend. It's still over fifty percent Syrah. It also has Merlot and Grenache. I think it does the best job about taking Syrah, which can be over-the-top, almost in the line of a [inaudible 00:06:05] and then scaling it back down with the other varietals. I think it does probably the best job that I've seen in a while, actually, at showing kind of how Santa Barbara can grow all of these different grapes and grow them well. Then put them in the hands of really what is a world class winemaker and you allow him to create a blend with it. You end up with something that's retail price $40. I think Spectator, off the top of my head, gave it ninety-two points. I think that might be a little underscored. If it said Napa on it, they'd have a couple more tacked on.

I think it does a great job of expressing what is Santa Ynez Valley and what is possible here in this growing region that most people have never heard of. Even the people who drink wine consistently, they've heard Santa Barbara county but they also associate Santa Barbara county only with Pinot. I think that's something that's going to start to change. I think wineries, like Ferguson Crest, are doing a good job about trying to change that. I think that you're going to see an increasing number of wines that come out like this. Syrah, we've talked about a lot in this space, it's not something that sells easily for wineries no matter how damn good it is. I think using ... We refer to it as a trade name when you give it a name that has nothing to do with the varietal that's inside of it and then you create a blend every year based on what you have coming in from the vineyard. Fergalicious is something that I think you are going to start to see that's out there that's in fine wine shops. I mean, I think that it's something that on a restaurant wine list, especially in L.A., it's going to do incredibly well. There is kind of that celebrity culture there.

In any case, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. Celebrity wine projects, be careful what you have. Check, see if they have a real winemaker. If they have a real winemaker and they're willing to tell you some bit of a story, they're probably pretty darn good because there's going to be financial backing behind it, both from the celebrity themself and all the kind of hangers-on in the industry. I hope you've enjoyed it and I hope you've enjoyed our short talk about Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley, and Santa Barbara in general.

Mark Aselstine
 
August 10, 2015 | Mark Aselstine

A Week in Walla Walla

Welcome to Walla Walla CountyOver the past week I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time tasting and spending time in Walla Walla.

Washington has what is probably America’s fastest growing wine region and from a quality standpoint, Walla Walla, a town of about 30,000 (the county is about twice as big) is its epicenter.

There’s some household names that call Walla Walla home (more on most of these later); Cayuse, Leonetti, Longshadow, Woodward Canyon, Doubleback and K Vintners and while I visited some of those, I focused on some lesser known names.

Walla Walla is a great visit, it’s been called among America’s 10 best wine travel destinations by Wine Spectator, America’s best 10 small towns by Fodor’s Magazine and as America’s Friendliest Small Town by Rand McNally…..all that praise, even if it isn’t the easiest town in the world to get to.  

Getting to Walla Walla gives you two main options, first you can fly directly into Walla Walla on Alaska Airlines via their partner Frontier (don’t ask me to explain how these relationships work, for some reason airlines continue to be among the most complicated business arrangements in the world, but I digress).  Every flight from Walla Walla’s regional airport goes to, or from, Seattle.  It’s about a 45 minute flight.  The airport is named a “regional airport” and handles about 200 passengers per day. The other option, in my opinion, is less appealing, it includes a flight to either Seattle or Portland and then driving about 5 hours to Walla Walla. Before that whole 200 passengers per day thing scares you off, the plane on both of my flights was a good size….you know, 2 seats on both sides of the aisle (evidently, that’s a recent upgrade from the 1 seat and not being able to stand straight up in the aisle type of plane).  Yes, you get to walk on the tarmac to board and deboard of course and there really isn’t anything along the lines of carry on baggage, you stow anything that rolls under the plane once you’re out on the tarmac, where you retrieve it after landing.  For some perhaps more accustomed to flying out of SFO these days, it was kind of fun.  Plus, the trip gives you a great chance to see Mt Rainer out the window.  On the way home, which was a clear day, I was struck by seeing the mountain clearly higher than out plane.  You aren’t especially close since the mountain is about 50 miles south of Seattle, but it truly is a majestic sight.

The better news: the Walla Walla airport is only a few miles from downtown, where you should plan on staying. The drive, reportedly is pretty nice and I spent enough time driving around on highway 12 to say that yes, you’d be able to drive it pretty easy.  It reminds me more of the Thruway in western New York than any California roadway in either Northern or Southern California, two lanes on both sides and courteous drivers.

Walla Walla sits in eastern Washington, about 50 miles from the Idaho border and only a few miles from Oregon.  It’s technically in the Columbia Valley AVA, which is both massive and one of the few AVA’s in America that straddles two states: in this case Oregon and Washington.

Walla Walla reminds me a bit of Paso Robles in that the wine industry has made some significant investments into their facilities and into promotion of their industry and the wider tourism industry has started to benefit from those investments, without having made the same level of investments as of yet.  The local tourism industry in Walla Walla has been growing at close to 10% per year, among the very highest rates in all of Washington (eastern Washington as a whole has grown at about 3% per year) and that’s basically all being driven by the wine industry.

There’s very clear signs of progress as well.  First, downtown storefronts which some locals pegged at 40% vacant 10 years ago are basically all full and downtown is starting to creep out of its normal boundaries, sucking up real estate that’s pretty clearly been underdeveloped for some time.

It's still the Pacific Northwest though and not California, so wheat is more common than are grapes at this point: 

Wheat Fields in Walla Walla

There’s also all the signs of a vibrant local wine scene, walkable tasting rooms, restaurants focused on local ingredients and a combination of local clothing stores and interesting gift shops. According to everyone I talked to, those affiliated with the wine industry and not, those are fairly recent changes and they can almost completely attributed to the wine industry and the foot traffic that wineries have brought to the area.  There’s a good feeling to Walla Walla right now, both from those within the industry and those outside of it.  I had people chat with me about life, business and my trip quite a few places but my favorite conversations happened each morning at the local coffee shop, Coffee Perk Perhaps that’s partially since I’m not a local and Starbucks has a better location only 2 doors down on the corner of Main Street (Starbucks says they want to be on the corner of Main & Main...always are and that’s true here as well)….but local spots are always more fun anyway and there’s Starbucks at the airport.  Coffee Perk was great and deserves the local attention that it receives btw.  I’d certainly go back.

One thing I was immensely interested in talking to people about before arriving was how the locals viewed the wine industry.  In Sonoma and Santa Barbara County (specifically Los Olivos) there’s some significant push back between locals whom are not affiliated with the wine industry and those who own wineries and generally have jobs supported by the visitors that wineries bring.  There’s always debate on how many concerts, private events and how many people should be allowed in and out of winery properties. In Walla Walla, it’s interesting to note that those conversations aren’t happening yet.  Maybe they’re in a bit of honeymoon phase, the locals not affiliated with the industry are enjoying having new restaurants and the new facilities that $120M in tourist revenue brings to Walla Walla. After all, in a town of this size, having a handful of world class restaurants, is a feather in your cap, not something to complain about. Will the vibe change as more hotels open, when people see their neighbor’s renting their homes on AirBnb and as traffic continues to worsen? I hope not and this is one of the few places I’ve been, that seems almost collegiate in their rooting for each other.

Walla Walla also has a long history of supporting a number of different projects that the town should really be proud of. There’s three post secondary options locally (Walla Walla University, a City College and a private school, Whitman) and the town is very proud to have the longest running Symphony west of the Mississippi River. When people heard I lived in San Francisco, they almost universally mentioned the symphony, I had that happen on at least 5 occasions.  There’s also a baseball team called the Sweets which plays independent Northern League, which I was bummed to find out was out of town during my time in Walla Walla.  Independent league teams aren’t affiliated with an MLB parent, but given how fun and eclectic minor league games have been in the past including both Buffalo at AAA and Lake Elsinore at A ball, I would have loved to see the fun at an independent league game. Those are the spots where plenty of interesting people have built their marketing chops. Plus, I can’t complain about going into a shop on Main Street to buy my son a hat and seeing a sign for “Front Office Staff” down the hall to the left.  Smaller teams make for better access and having the team in town, is a nice entertainment option.

I opted to stay at the Courtyard Marriott, the newest hotel in and around Walla Walla (for comparison, the flight crew evidently stays at the Clarion, which I only know because my shuttle and theirs were the last to arrive) and there’s a few other options in the 2 and 3 star hotel range.  As it currently stands, I’m not aware of a truly high end hotel in Walla Walla. No Four Seasons, no swanky Bed & Breakfast) My Marriott, as you’d expect from the brand, was comfortable, well appointed and offered a full set of amenities….including wine tasting my last night in the lobby. It was also only a block off of Main Street, although it was a couple of blocks down from the main set of restaurants, tasting rooms and the like.  It’s an easy walk, but I’m accustomed to walking, some people I guess, wouldn’t love the idea of walking 6 blocks to dinner, especially given the heat (it was over 100 degrees during my trip). But, this is a walkable choice, especially if you’re driving during the day.

So, my general impressions of Walla Walla: it’s a fun and interesting small town.  I’ll remember that virtually everyone that I met, was incredibly nice.  Like seriously nice. Not fake nice, but generally we want to make sure everyone here has a good trip nice.  Hell, the TSA agent at the airport on my way home, checked in to make sure I had enjoyed my trip and wished me well on my trip home. As an example, at the close of every meeting that I have for Uncorked Ventures, I ask winemakers or whomever I am meeting with, what other local stuff they drink.  Normally, winemakers tell me about their other side projects and about other projects that their former co-workers have going.  That’s really helpful. They also tend to give me a list of places that I should skip, for any variety of reasons.  

Legitimately, no one in Walla Walla ever gave me that second list of wineries I should skip.  There also didn’t seem to be a difference between newer winemakers and the original wave of folks.  People referred me to places that I should visit, across all of Walla Walla, often offering to call and see if someone could see me, even if their tasting room was not suppose to be open. There’s a real camaraderie here that’s not entirely apparent in other regions (like I said though, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara continue to be the exception there, instead of the rule).

The wine scene in Walla Walla is often described as existing in four distinct regions.  There’s the west side, which is home to the oldest wineries in Walla Walla. There’s about 30 downtown tasting rooms.  There’s a group of start up wineries around the airport that make up the famed incubator.  Lastly, there’s the east side wineries.

I spent time in all four regions and although the locals seemed to think they were all mutually exclusive, there’s only a few miles (at most) separating one region from another. Given that downtown Napa is 10 miles from Yountville, with much worse traffic, I’d consider these all easily accessible from each other. Considering that most of the local wineries are sourcing grapes (there’s very, very few estate vineyards in the region) location tells you a bit about the winery’s size and history, but little about what’s going to end up in your glass.  That’s certainly a unique feature about Walla Walla, I think it’s at least partially driven by the farming heritage in the region. After all, why spend the money on a vineyard, wait 5 years for the fruit to be usable, another 5 for it to be up to your standards, when you buy it, by the acre tomorrow? The by the acre sale of grapes is another thing that I heard repeatedly from winemakers on my trip.  Yields in Walla Walla Valley are lower than they are in California. That’s partially because it gets pretty damn cold at time, even snowing a couple of times per year.  But, it’s also because it gets so hot during the summer, wine grapes, contrary to what most people believe, don’t grow much when it’s over 90 degrees.  In essence they shut down, unlike say the table grapes that we’re buying locally at a $1 per pound right now. Buying by the acre gives winemakers complete control over how to farm them, what chemicals, if any, they want used and usually how much to water (the grower will of course not let them water so little, as to kill the vines!). In my opinion and experience that’s a better setup for world class wine than buying by the ton.

The west side wineries gave Walla Walla its start.  Unlike in regions like Napa Valley, you can still spend time with the winemakers and vineyard owners who literally brought grapes back to Walla Walla. As an example, Ren

These are most of the household names in the industry these days.  I spent about three hours at Reningher with a variety of folks within the winery.  Name founder and winemaker Chuck Reininger took a tremendous amount of time to chat, about both his wines, as well as the wider Walla Walla Valley as well.  Reneingher is a great example of what’s happening in Walla Walla and I’ll be writing about my visit there in more detail soon, but their Reininger label is exclusively from Walla Walla fruit, while a second label allows them to source from the rest of the Columbia Valley.

Walla Walla Airport Wineries

At the airport, you have one of the most unique and innovative setups in the wine industry.  A set of old World War II buildings, some in significant states of disrepair (reportedly, the first winery into each of these buildings is footing a $30,000 bill to get the thing turned into a normal wine production space).  The good news is that costs for wineries now are really reasonable and sites offer enough space for production and a small tasting room, all told right under 2,000 square feet.  Many of the wineries in this section share tasting room staff and given the incubator approach that is being taken on by the Port of Walla Walla (the land owner) and the local community college and their 2 year viticulture program, you have a way to start a winery, if you want to. It’s exactly the type of setup that someone would do well to offer in literally every wine region in California and Oregon as well btw.  Specifically Santa Barbara county where land around Buellton is still affordable makes sense. The model would resonate hugely in San Francisco of course…..but land’s likely so expensive as to make the startup costs too high for all but the best funded newly trained winemakers.

Sleight of Hand Cellars and Neil Patrick Harris WineOn the east side, there’s an unusual combination of older, established names and then some names which are just coming into focus as major brands now.  I had the opportunity to taste through the wines at Sleight of Hand Cellars, a name that came highly recommended across the board and was impressed by much of what I tasted and heard.  It’s not a normal winery tasting room by any stretch of the imagination.  ACDC blaring, playing on a record player, with almost a room full of records, customers feel free to choose their music.  Then there’s this Neil Patrick Harris inspired wine bottle….it’s a winery that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  But, they make serious wine.  Assistant winemaker Keith Johnson led me through much of what they produce, the high end blends consistently score into the mid 90 point range according to critics, like Stephen Tanzer who I guess had been in, earlier in the day. Again, more coming on Sleight of Hand in an upcoming post.

Lastly, downtown probably has the most going on.  One of the things that I found interesting about downtown Walla Walla tasting rooms is that there’s a nice combination of established names and some newer guys, who have recently graduated out of the incubator at the airport. Cayuse is probably the biggest name, they have a storefront right in town, although a sign on the door said the wine was sold out, please try again later….the locals said that they’re not really open any longer, ever.  

Kontos Walla Walla 2012 MalbecKontos is among the first handful of incubator wineries to venture out on their own.  Producing 1400 cases means this is becoming a full time job and winemaker Cameron Kontos clearly knows what he’s doing.  A 6th generation Walla Walla resident and 2nd generation winemaker, these are world class wines.  I happened to simply walk in the front door of Kontos, because the bottle looked interesting.  Plus, it was on the way to the hotel....this is exactly why wineries want walkable downtowns with tasting rooms.  I tend to try and leave some time available in my schedule on these random stops now.  The guys have Kontos have a light hand with Syrah, producing maybe the best acidity in a local version that I found on the trip.  They’re also crazy enough to produce a 100% Malbec and try to sell it.

Walla Walla offers a lot of intrigue if you’re someone who wants to spend a couple of days in small town America.  The wine is probably better than advertised which is saying something because of the hype surrounding Washington right now.  The town’s fun and offers a slightly slower look into winemaking than do some others.  The names are also smaller, which means you’re more likely to have a winemaker wander into the tasting room and pour a little something special.  You’ll hear more about the wines and wineries from my trip in the coming days, wine club members will see quite a few Washington bottles showing up from this trip in the coming months.