Exploring Walla Walla Red Wines

by Nancy Zaffaro
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walla walla red wines

Enjoying Walla Walla red wines equals sunshine, sagebrush desert, and sweeping views of the Blue Mountains. The Walla Walla Valley AVA comprises more than 100 wineries and some 2,800 acres of planted vineyards, and is part of the broader Columbia Valley AVA which includes part of eastern Oregon and Washington. The area is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Grenache, Viognier, and many other varietals.

walla walla red wines

Here, we look at some of the Walla Walla red wines we recently sampled during the most recent Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance event in Portland. (And while we focus here on the area’s red varietals, the Walla Walla Valley also produces some wonderful whites; primarily Chardonnays and Viogniers.) This annual event comes first to Seattle and then on to Portland, bringing along many of the established and the newer winemakers from the Walla Walla AVA. It’s a great occasion to enjoy wines from the region, and enjoy an evening of wine and knoshes.

An affable crowd enjoys wine from the Walla Walla Valley AVA.

Made for Aging

Many of the red wines you’ll find from Walla Walla wineries age extremely well, and you don’t necessarily have to purchase a winery’s Reserve wines to make putting those wines in your cellar worthwhile. There are many factors in how well a wine will age, of course, but those which especially pertain to Walla Walla wines are fairly consistent weather conditions from vintage to vintage—it’s safe to say that the Walla Walla wine area has very little rainfall throughout the growing and harvest season, has cold winters, consistent summer heat, and plentiful sunshine much of the year. Look for reds with high acidity and a lower pH, good balance and perhaps, wines a bit lower in alcohol. Another benefit to attending wine events like this one is the chance to simply ask which wines can be expected to improve with age.

Then again, I’ve brought wines home with the intent of putting them away, only to open them the following week. For the right friends, the right food, the right occasion…that’s just fine!


The Middleton Family is a fourth generation family of farmers and businesses and winemaking, which started in 1975. Their wines are made in very different areas; California’s Central Coast and Washington’s Walla Walla and Columbia Valley regions. They make wines under two labels; Cadaretta and Inconceivable. The Cadaretta label began in 2005, with their first boutique release a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon in 2007.

Just recently released, the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine with deep berry fruit, smoky, polished, great acidity, and at 92 points, not a wine to take lightly. And as excellent as it was, my favorite pour was the 2013 Windthrow, a Rhône Blend wine, also with Columbia Valley fruit. It’s a blend of 76% Syrah, 16% Mourvedre and 8% Cinsault. I loved the oak and vanilla and soft mouth feel. (Enhanced by the Mourvedre, perhaps.) The flavor does not fall flat at the end—quite the opposite; I especially enjoyed the finish, which brought out some great berry flavors. The 200 cases of this wine will mostly remain in the Cadaretta tasting room, so take that as an excellent reason for a tasting trip direct to the Washington source.

Just a sampling of the wines produced by Cadaretta.

Dusted Valley

Dusted Valley’s Colleen Berard pours at the Walla Walla event.

Dusted Valley’s 2013 Tall Tales Syrah stood out as a truly special wine, surprising with complex levels of flavor. On first sip, for a fleeting moment, it was fruity, “bright and light,” but it quickly unveiled itself to be a wine of layered, deep flavor. Earthy, roasted root vegetables, and wonderfully ripe, the grapes are from their 17-acre Stoney Vines Vineyard, in the coveted area known as The Rocks on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA.

Another standout is their Petite Syrah. Big, big, big and every bit as wonderful, Dusted Valley has been growing Petite Syrah since 2007 and the 500 cases they bottle annually makes them the largest single producer of Petite Syrah in Walla Walla Valley. The grapes are from their 250-acre Stone Tree Vineyard in another especially well-considered area of the Walla Walla AVA, Wahluke Slope.

Dusted Valley’s story is one of those you love to hear because it’s all about wanting something, making it happen, and even better—doing it with family. Chad and Janet Johnson and Corey Cindy Braunel all grew up “proud Wisconsin farm kids.” All four also had an appreciation for fine wine and the desire to make wine. And so, in 2003, they shopped around and bought land in the Walla Walla AVA and set about making a new life, each leaving impressive corporate careers as well.  Even more fun—Janet and Cindy are sisters. Running a winery together often has family roots, but in most of those cases, it’s the family farm that binds these partnerships.  In Dusted Valley’s case, they set out to create a family business that makes exceptional wines. They succeeded—and their adopted community is the better for it.

A family effort from transplanted Midwesterners, Dusted Valley wines are exceptional.

L’Ecole No. 41

You really can’t talk about Walla Walla wines (or Washington wines, for that matter) without talking about L’Ecole No. 41. When Jean and Baker Ferguson started their winery in 1983, theirs became only the 20th winery in the entire state of Washington and only the third in the Walla Walla. Today, Marty and Megan Clubb, the Ferguson’s daughter and son-in-law co-own the winery, where Marty is Managing Winemaker. They make international award winning wines, and enjoy some of the top and most prestigious the accolades in the industry. Mr. Clubb has been instrumental in furthering Washington winemaking in virtually every area: he’s been instrumental in viticulture efforts, was a founding member of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, he helped develop the Walla Walla Community College Center for Enology and Viticulture, and more. While a winery’s wines speak for themselves, these efforts are essential to furthering the industry.

The 2013 Estate Merlot from Walla Walla Valley was wonderful; I loved the minerals and earthiness of this wine. My favorite pour, however, was the 2014 Apogee from the Pepper Bridge Vineyard. It’s a blend featuring 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, with the rest made up of Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. This wine just features the best of rich Washington reds; dark fruit, wonderful spicy nose, and great structure, balance and tannins. This is the one you want to put away for later—if you can resist opening it right away.

Co-Owner/Managing Winemaker Marty Clubb and National Sales Rep Jeff Von Bargen chat with attendees, and share their wine at the event.

Va Piano

Va piano refers to “going slowly” in Italian. Chatting with Justin Wylie, Va Piano’s Owner and Winemaker, or as he prefers, Chief Relaxation Officer, you can see the enjoyment of what he does lies in paying attention to each step of the winemaking process. But while he’s a man who knows how to put his feet up at the end of the day, his commitment to making good wine is also apparent.

Va Piano offers several lines of delicious, well-crafted wines.

The majority of Va Piano’s grapes are estate-grown, but Mr. Wylie also really enjoys the process of carefully sourcing grapes that will give him the flavors, aromas and complexity he seeks in his wines. He’s also committed to sustainable farming practices.

Va Piano produces several lines of wines: Bruno; their everyday, value-based line, Ox; well-crafted everyday blends, their Yellow Label Collection; featuring Washington-style wines sourced from some of the area’s best vineyards, and their Black Label line, which feature vineyard-specific grapes produced in 200 cases or less.

The standout pour for me was their 2014 Black Label Les Collines Syrah. It’s elegant, with beautiful color and some wonderful chocolate and smoke flavors. Join their Estate Club for access to their top reserve Estate label wines.

Va Piano’s Owner/Winemaker/Chief Relaxation Officer, Justin Wylie.

The Walla Walla Valley and Walla Walla Red Wines

Walla Walla is a four and a half hour drive or one hour flight from Seattle. Visiting the Walla Walla Valley for a wine tour is a must for lovers of good wine and the natural beauty of a distinctly unique part of the Pacific Northwest. You’ll fine great wines, of course, but also great food and places to wander and explore.

For More:

The Wine Region:

The Wines:

– All photos by Nancy Zaffaro.

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