Embarrassment of Riches

Last month's tasting organized by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance was a model event in many ways. There was plenty of space (two large rooms in the Washington Athletic Club), good snacks and bottled water to cleanse and refresh the weary palate, and a big handy spiral-bound catalog of the wineries and their offerings, with plenty of room for taking notes. And rarely have I been so frustrated in my life. The problem? Walla Walla is a small appellation, but it now contains so many good wineries (46 were pouring at the event), most of them dedicated to big, chewy reds, that there was no way to taste all 100 to 150 wines on offer; even expert tasters, veterans of the trade, had to practice triage, picking whose wine to sample before their palates collapsed. How are the Walla Walla vintners to overcome this impasse? A full day of tasting would help, and/or splitting the vintners into morning and afternoon teams; but that would also cost twice as much. The main thing learned from last month's tasting is: Walla Walla, we have a problem, and we need to solve it before March 2006 rolls round and crushes us all. I'll be writing about some of the wines I tasted in future issues, but I'd also like to call to your attention some of the agreeable surprises I happened on on my arduous round: Yellow Hawk Cellar, well-known for its Italian-style sangiovese and dry Muscat, also makes a lovely "rosato" (around $12) from lemberger grapes, frankly fruity but with substantial body as well. Seven Hills Winery has released its 2002 cabernet, a pip as always, but the real surprise was the winery's 2001 cab ($30), rather overlooked when it was released a year ago, but now bursting with flavor, soft yet substantial, with a lovely odor of violets on the nose. Forgeron Cellars made its name with big, complex reds selling around the $30 price point, but Marie-Eve Gilla's nonvintage red table wine, a blend of fruit from eight notable vineyards, is a wonderful wine, worthy of the Forgeron label, at half the price (around $16). Dunham Cellars likewise is known for its hefty, pricy syrahs and cabs; the 2001 "Trutina", a Bordeaux-style blend matured in 100 percent French oak, is so good that it threatens its big brothers: at around $22 a bottle! Caleb Buty hit the big time with his reds, but he also scores with his 2003 sémillon-sauvignon blanc blend. It has the heft that so many Washington whites lack; so much so that I expect to lay my bottles down for at least a year to let their vehement acid come into balance. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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