Celebrate Merlot, Walla Walla

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We’ve always favored full-bodied reds, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, over lighter choices such as Merlot and Pinot Noir. But after attending a couple of Winemaker’s Dinners at the Butcher’s Table restaurant, arranged by Merlot-enthusiast Jason Sanneman, we began to appreciate that varietal more. We’d also become interested in visiting Walla Walla in eastern Washington, after receiving several recommendations. The Celebrate Merlot weekend hosted by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore the Walla Walla area while sampling the region’s Merlot.

We made the four-hour drive on a wonderfully clear day with a great view to Mt. Rainier as we headed east on I-90 across Lake Washington. Once past the Cascade mountains, the scenery changed notably to rolling hills and agriculture of the Columbia River basin. We often travelled alongside the Columbia River or one of its tributaries, whose ready source of irrigation made the area so popular with settling farmers back in the 1800s and continues to this day.

For our weekend in Walla Walla, we stayed at The Loft on Birch, a VRBO rental property. The modern apartment worked out very well for us, with two private balconies and an easy walk to town and the Celebrate Merlot events.

We really enjoyed our time in Walla Walla. The city is full of restaurants, bars, historical buildings and much public art, and is heavily influenced by the large number of wineries in the area. The Walla Walla Valley became the second American Viticulture Area in Washington State in 1984, a year after the Yakima Valley became the first, and currently supports 120 wineries with 2,900 acres (1,173 hectares) of grapes.

The afternoon that we arrived into town, we attended a kick-off event at the Gesa Power House Theatre, housed in a 120-year-old heritage building originally built to produce coal gas for lighting. The host for the event was MJ Towler, creator, producer, and host of the Black Wine Guy Experience podcast. MJ has a great sense of humor and asked good questions of the several guests he brought on stage to interview during a live podcast and wine tasting.

After the kick-off, buses transported attendees just outside town to the venerable L’Ecole N° 41, the third winery in the Walla Walla Valley when established in 1984. There we tasted library wines, aged at least 10 years, of 33 different producers from Walla Walla and the nearby Columbia Valley. Most brought Merlot, with a few other vintages on hand as well. We were impressed at how well Merlot aged and enjoyed both tasting the wine and chatting with the winery representatives.

The following afternoon, we attended a wine panel presentation and tasting of six Merlots: three from Walla Walla, two from California and one from Chile. The panel consisted of winemakers of each wine being tasted, who described their winery and the Merlot they’d brought. We were particularly drawn to Montes in Chile’s striking Colchugua Valley, where we’d love to visit. Moderating the session was Doug Frost, one of only three individuals in the world to hold the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier titles. We appreciated Frost’s wit and knowledge during the panel.

That evening, participants separated into smaller groups to attend pre-selected winemakers dinners. Ours was at Caprio Cellars in conjunction with Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars. The winery is set on a hill with sweeping views of the area. We had an excellent meal and really enjoyed the setting, the wines and the company.

The final event of the weekend was a Merlot Grand Tasting, held at the event space The Motor Co, originally built as a car dealership in 1935. More than 100 wines were represented from 50 Walla Walla wineries and guest winemakers. Most were Merlot, but a number of other varietals were on hand as well. We chose to focus on Merlot only and really enjoyed getting into some more in-depth discussions with the various winemakers on hand. The only negative to the evening was that the temperature outside was 99°F (37°C) and the building had no air conditioning. The huge “Big Ass Fans” on hand helped enormously.

We very much enjoyed our time in the city of Walla Walla and tasting the Merlot grown in the area. We returned home in the same clear and sunny weather we’d departed in, with great views of the Mount Adams and later the Cascade Mountains. We stopped for gas at the Cougar Cafe, decorated in support of eastern Washington’s college football team, and for lunch at the recently opened Taps & Tapas in Cle Elum.

Our route to Walla Walla is shown on the interactive map below:

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