Now that the fog has lifted from the whirlwind extravaganza that is Fall Release in Walla Walla, it’s time to share some news, gossip and observations picked up on the valley floor.
The real deal: Want the authentic vineyard farming experience? Then schedule a tasting at the Spring Valley ranch. We rolled up around 10 a.m. Saturday to find Serge, Kate and their crew in the midst of crushing 13 tons, some of the last grapes to come off of SVV’s estate vineyards this season. Tony, who usually works the downtown tasting room, was on hand to pour for us and talk us through the various steps of crush. Kate or Serge would break from time to time to talk about what they were doing. One highlight: Tasting bright, freshly pressed Petit Verdot juice, and then tasting the newest wine in the SVV lineup, the 2010 Sharilee, a sublime 100 percent Petit Verdot. If you haven’t done the ranch experience at Spring Valley, stop wasting time and schedule it for your next visit.
Big eats at the MWH: It’s always tough to get a dinner reservation during event weekends like Fall Release. Saffron is booked months in advance. Ditto for T.Macs, Whitehouse, Brasserie 4 and most everything else. Now the same rule applies to The Marc, the in-house restaurant at the Marcus Whitman Hotel. I ran into Brenda Mussman in the hotel lobby Sunday morning – she said the restaurant did more than 100 covers on Saturday night. No surprises there – the food has been evolving under the steady guidance of Chef Antonio Campolio and the reviews from patrons indicate that the efforts are paying off. And you thought it was all about the bacon at the MWH breakfast buffet, didn’t you?
It’s only rock ‘n roll: When we stopped by Sleight of Hand late Saturday afternoon, Trey Busch couldn’t stop checking his watch. “Only 18 more minutes and I’m outta here,” he said. Turns out he was gearing up for a power run to Seattle to see the Afghan Whigs that night at the Showbox. The dude has some serious commitment to his music. However, he was gracious enough to throw some Tom Petty vinyl on his turntable by special request from someone in our party before he hit the road.
First stop in… Prosser: We like to break up the drive from Bainbridge Island to Walla Walla by making a dinner stop at Wine O’Clock Wine Bar in Prosser. And why not? Ron Bunnell makes some of the best Rhone varietals in Washington State, his wife Susan has put together a pitch-perfect kitchen and service staff, and if you’re lucky, Dick Boushey may be lurking at his ‘reserved chair’ overlooking the spectator kitchen. The pizzas are inventive, seductive and ideal for two, and all of Ron’s wines are available on the menu by the bottle or glass without the standard restaurant mark-up. Susan led us through a great dinner + a couple glasses of wine, and we still made it to Public House 124 well before last call Friday night.
Over the top: As you probably know (and probably regret if you procrastinated), Reynvaan has gone 100 percent allocation to the folks on their list. As a result, they did a private release event for list members only. In order to make it memorable, they poured every red wine that they’ve ever released. “Pace yourself,” Julie told me when she handed me the glass. “We’re pouring 22 wines.” (Hmmm, that’s 19 pours from the library bottlings and current releases, plus three barrel samples, if you’re keeping score at home.) “Since this is our first invitation-only release party, we wanted to do something memorable,” winemaker Matt Reynvaan told me. (Memo to Matt: Mission accomplished.) Once I had my glass, I made a beeline over to visit with Mike Reynvaan, who was pouring three vintages of Stoneessense, RFV’s mind-bending 100 percent syrah. I won’t even try to describe it other than to say if you can get your hands on a bottle of the ’09, don’t hesitate.
Looking good in latex: One of the collector’s items from the weekend was the t-shirt commemorating harvest 2012 at Va Piano. It included the picture of Justin in his favorite candy apple vinyl jumpsuit (left). Just not sure if he dressed like that for the raging party Friday night at the winery. (Speaking of JW, we hope he’s doing well after appendix surgery on Monday.)
Top tees: While we’re on the topic of t-shirts, two of my all-time favorite winery shirts are straight outta the valley. The super-cool logoed T from Dusted Valley is No. 1, but running a close second is the Eclipse long-sleeved t-shirt from SYZYGY. The planets are definitely aligned on this one – I only wish Zach would sell these via his Web site.
Apples, apples everywhere: We try to make Watermill one of our regular stops, even though it’s a little off the beaten path (i.e., Milton Freewater) for wine touring in the valley. First, these guys are making some exquisite wines at terrific price points. Second, I always like to catch up with Ron Brown, the patriarch of the Brown family and the visionary behind the company’s booming cider and wine businesses. Ron exudes positive vibes and always seems to have a smile on his face. But he wasn’t at the winery when we stopped in – he was still knee-deep in harvest. Apple harvest, that is. The Brown’s primary business is apples – Earl Brown & Sons is the largest apple packer in Oregon. I caught up briefly with Ron via phone – he was in one of the orchards on Mount Fuji, supervising a crew of more than 100 apple pickers. He said this year’s apple harvest is one of the largest ever – kinda like the grape harvest.
Hot night: One of the hot tickets Saturday night was the bonfire at aMaurice out on Mill Creek Road. The morning after, winemaker Anna Schafer said they completely exceeded expectations – nearly a couple hundred people shows up to enjoy Anna’s lovely wines around a roaring bonfire on a gorgeous late fall evening, complemented by homemade cassoulet whipped up by Anna’s mom Kathy. Anna says Kathy is planning cassoulet for 300 next year.
W-ville to WW: The new Mark Ryan tasting room in downtown Walla Walla is doing well, says winemaker Mark McNeilly. It definitely has a killer location – immediately next to Starbucks and across Main Street from Olive Marketplace and the Otis Kenyon TR. Wineries from eastern Washington are springing up all over Woodinville, Seattle and even Kirkland. I wonder if any other Woodinville wineries are considering the reverse commute.
Top secret staff retreat: Charles Smith doesn’t do anything halfway, even when it comes to staff outings. Last year, for example, he took the entire staff to New Orleans for a week for a staff retreat and ‘market research.’ I got the lowdown on the plans for this year’s staff event, but sorry folks, I’m sworn to secrecy. Suffice it to say that it’s going to be epic.
Favorite view: I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite views of the Blue Mountains from the Northstar patio. You get a similar panorama from the Pepper Bridge deck or looking at the backdoor at the Girasol Inn. Well, just add Fjellene to the list. Not only is Matt Erlandson making some lovely wines, but his charming little winery offers a sweeping vista of the Blues. Definitely worth the stop.
Bacon, eggs & winemakers: If you’re secretly a Walla Walla winemaker groupie, just hang around the town’s sublime breakfast joint, Bacon & Eggs, for a couple of hours. Sightings and conversations over Saturday and Sunday mornings included Devin Stinger (Adamant), Zach Brettler (SYZYGY), Anna Schafer (aMaurice), Mark McNeilly (Mark Ryan), Ross Mickel (Ross Andrew), Steve Kenyon (Otis Kenyon), Dave Stephenson (Stephenson) and Tom & Amy Glase (Balboa).
Pinot in the valley: As I mentioned in my preview of Fall release, Chris Figgins of FIGGINS Family is sourcing grapes from Willamette Valley for a yet-to-be-released pinot noir. Turns out he’s not alone – Watermill also has a pinot in its lineup sourced from the Willamette Valley. It’s available only at the winery. “We’re an Oregon winery and people just figured that we’d have to have a pinot,” Ron Brown said. “So we did one.”
Ghostbusters: Rumor has it that Tom Glase of Balboa is about to unleash a new project called Eidolon, a new blend of Cab Sav, Syrah, Malbec and Petit Verdot from their estate vineyard. It’s going to be accompanied by an enchantress called Wraith, a Malbec/Syrah blend from Pepper Bridge and Eidolon vineyards. Only 100 cases each and exclusive to wine club members. We didn’t have a chance to taste the juice, but we did peek at the labels and they’re simply stunning. Would love to see Tom or Amy turn them into posters.
DaMaNation: I stuck my head into the new DaMa TR – it’s located just a couple of doors down from their old space on Main Street. The DaMa chicks, Dawn & Mary, definitely have something going on in the new space – it’s bright, colorful and spacious. It’s perfect for small- to medium-sized parties and events – I don’t know the event space in town all that well, but given the décor, size and location, Dawn & Mary may have a new revenue stream on their hands.
What, no hashtag?: I was surprised that there was no ‘official’ event hashtag for Fall Release that would enable people to follow along with the festivities via Twitter. If there was, I missed it. There are some great Twitter participants in the Walla Walla wine community and it would have been fun to share the Fall Release experience with them and the larger WaWine community under one umbrella hashtag. An event hashtag should be SOP for any event organizer – in this case, the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance – as they promote an event, as it creates value for consumers and winery participants alike. As I said, I could have missed it.
Not enough time: Fall Release in Walla Walla is one of those weekends that always hits on our wine tourism calendar and the more we do it, the more clear it becomes that we need more time to enjoy the experience. After blasting across the state and arriving Friday evening, we try to cram too much into Saturday and Sunday morning before reserving course Sunday afternoon. By the time we get to the ferry terminal Sunday evening, we’re toast. Gotta find a way to put another full day on the front end. But unfortunately reality… in the form of work… bites.