Each year, a select group of wine professionals are invited on a Washington Wine Commission sponsored trip to learn all about Washington State wine. The packed itinerary includes focus seminars, group tastings, and small group exercises in the vineyards and wineries, stretching from Seattle to Walla Walla. Attendees also enjoy delicious dining experiences and some serious fun with leaders in the Washington wine industry during the most exciting time of the year – harvest! It is an intense, demanding five days which requires lots of positive energy and a desire to “get purple.”
Day 1 – Emerald City Welcome
I left Portland on the train to Seattle and quickly remembered that the Seahawks were playing Denver at home – lots of fans and energy! I took a cab through all the fans and ended at the Edgewater Hotel, where I have wanted to stay since I was a kid (I was fascinated with the Beatles picture when they stayed there in the sixties). I met up with our group, which included buyers and sommeliers from around the country. We headed to the Space Needle for a regional wine tasting that included Mark Ryan, DeLille Cellars, Brian Carter Cellars, Andrew Will and many others. It was a beautiful Seattle night and a great stay.
Day 2 – Woodinville to Richland
We left the Edgewater early on a cloudy, cool morning and headed to Woodinville for some winery exercises. I joined Brian Carter Cellars for some punch downs, sugar level measuring and tasting. The fruit was only about 8-10 days along and the winery was just starting the hard work that goes into this amazing process. We discussed the potential issues that can happen to wine grapes in the vineyards such as sunburn, shot berries, bird and hail damage, and possible ways to prevent them.
After the winery exercises we walked upstairs at Columbia Winery for a blind white wine tasting with Master Sommelier Robert Bigelow from Chateau Ste. Michelle (CSM), Sean Sullivan from the Wine Enthusiast, winemaker Wendy Stuckey White from CSM, Mark McNeilly from Mark Ryan Winery and Chris Sparkman from Sparkman Cellars. We tasted Riesling, Viognier and Chardonnay. The purpose was to show where Washington wines fit in the wide world of wine – blind tasting is the only true way to judge wine.
We had lunch at CSM and immediately hopped a bus to Terra Blanca winery near Richland, WA. We enjoyed a beautiful dinner and it was there that I got a chance to dine with Tim Hightower from Hightower Cellars. While we have spoken on the phone, we had never met, and it was fun to put a face to “our” name.
Day 3 – Yakima and Red Mountain/Columbia Valley
First stop was to the newly replanted “Skyfall” vineyard just outside of Richland. We toured the vineyard and tasted fresh Sauvignon Blanc that was just starting to ferment. We noticed a huge car-sized piece of granite that was transported from Montana during the Missoula floods: too big to dig up so they planted right over top of it.
We lunched at the Walter Clore Center and went right into another blind tasting – all Red Mountain red wines, which included Betz Cabernet Sauvignon, Col Solare and Force Majeure. All of these incredible wines were age worthy, showed great tannic structure and beautiful fruit flavors. We were joined by Bob Betz, Master of Wine and a Washington state pioneer.
Afterwards it was back to Terra Blanca for a vertical tasting of their “Onyx” blend from 1999-2010. It was an amazing experience, and one of my favorite memories of the entire trip.
Dinner that evening was at the 14 Hands facility by James Beard award-winning chef Tom Douglas. It was the best dinner of the trip by far (black bean tamales and citrus salsa was my favorite).
Day 4 – Walla Walla
We traveled to Figgins Estate vineyard and started with a picking contest. Let’s just say “grape harvester” is not in my future. After thirty minutes of picking Merlot I was able to fill five buckets, which is not considered very good at all; I wanted to take my time and make all the cuts perfect. Our next stop was downtown Walla Walla for a tasting with Master Sommelier Greg Harrington from Gramercy Cellars, Anna Shafer from a’Maurice, Rick Small from Woodward Canyon and Marty Clubb from L’Ecole No.41. We tasted Walla Walla Merlot, Bordeaux blends and Syrahs. After lunch we joined Jerry Soloman and Trey Busch from Sleight of Hand Cellars. I thoroughly enjoyed their tasting room which has over 1400 vinyl records and an old school jukebox. We learned about their winemaking style and visited “The Rocks” vineyard where ancient river bed rocks reach down some 100-300 feet in some places. We tasted the vast differences between Syrah grapes that were planted only a few miles from each other. For our final night, we enjoyed a fun dinner at Charles Smith Winery with amazing library wines from many different wineries: this was followed by lots of dancing!
Day 5 – Horse Heaven Hills
Our first stop was “The Benches” vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, which is where Long Shadows Vintners sources many of their different wines such as Feather Cabernet Sauvignon, Poet’s Leap Riesling and Sequel Syrah. The dusty, bumpy road to the vineyard was 8 miles long -a reminder of the vast Eastern Washington space available, and the beauty of the Columbia River along the steep cliffs. After lunch at J. Brookwalter we all parted ways and headed back to our own corners of the country.
I can not thank enough the people involved in getting me on this trip: Chris Sparkman for nominating me, Chad Mackay for providing an unbelievable restaurant group to buy wine for, and my fellow employees for covering me. Also thanks to Steve Warner and Chris Stone from the Wine Commission for their hospitality, and all the fellow attendees who made this trip enlightening and very educational.