I spent four days in Walla Walla Valley last month, reconnecting with old friends at established wineries and scouting out a handful of newer ones. Along the way I did plenty of "power tasting" while critiquing the estimated 100-plus wines I sampled.
As the old saying goes, it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.
There are several reasons the Walla Walla Appellation is one of my favorites. Yes, it's a lengthy six-hour drive from Bellingham. But with approximately 140 wineries at your disposal, setting up a daily tasting itinerary is a breeze. That's nearly 20 percent of the state's total, and virtually all of them are within a 20-minute drive of downtown Walla Walla.
Then there's the downtown area itself: a cluster of several older, beautifully restored buildings; good restaurants (try the Berkshire pork chop at T. Maccarone's); and a number of tasting rooms within walking distance of the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel.
Friendly wine-industry people also make Walla Walla a great place to visit. Although the population is slightly over 30,000, the city has the feel of a smaller, close-knit community where you're constantly running into acquaintances.
For example, while I was dining at the outside seating at Brasserie Four restaurant, Tyler Harlington, the assistant winemaker at Saviah Cellars unexpectedly dropped by and joined me for a glass of Woodward Canyon riesling.
At the adjacent table sat Seven Hills Winery founder and winemaker Casey McClellan and his wife, Vicky, so ordering a bottle of their merlot, which the restaurant happened to carry, seemed a natural choice.
If this all sounds a bit like a modern-day "Mayberry R.F.D." with first-class wines, you're on the right track.
Walla Walla-area wines tend to be a bit on the pricey side, with most reds in the $25- to $40-a-bottle range. During my whirlwind tour, I encountered about a 3-to-1 ratio of reds to whites at most tasting rooms. Although some wineries don't produce any whites, that appears to be slowly changing.
For instance, Russell Creek Winery now offers the tasty, melony 2010 White Wine Tributary ($14), a combination of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, while Basel Cellars serves the 2011 Forget Me Not ($18), a zesty, semillon/sauvignon blanc blend with lemongrass flavors.
While cabernet and syrah are the norm among reds, I noted that a number of wineries now produce malbec, both as a stand-alone varietal and for blends.
In the next few weeks I'll feature more Walla Walla wineries, along with several wine recommendations.
DAN RADIL is a wine enthusiast who lives in Bellingham. Reach him at danthewineguy.com.