On the Road to Diner – Walla Walla
Earlier this month, I reviewed the wine tasting room experience in downtown Walla Walla, Washington during the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference. This year, the WBC18 returned to a conference favorite format where the Friday evening meal location was a surprise choice for attendees. This blog will focus on the Friday evening excursions to local vineyards and wineries. Upon arrival at the registration desk, in addition to the conference materials, attendees were given a slip of colored paper and instructions that the color of the paper would be used to determine which secret group you would join on Friday evening.
The city of Walla Walla was established in mid-1850s and was named with the Nez Perce Indian words that mean “running waters”. A gold rush in the early 1860s, followed by a growing agricultural industry, made Walla Walla the largest city in Washington Territory by 1880. As the gold rush subsided and agriculture increased, the region became a major agricultural center in the United States for a wide range of stone fruits as well as grapes. The climate in the Walla Walla region provides for a long growing season which gives the growers a range of planting options for grape varietals that will benefit from longer growing periods.
With over 120 wineries and 2,800 acres of grapes, the Walla Walla region has seen a steady increase in the number of vineyards and a collaborative efforts by local wineries to improve not only the quality of wines but, the recognition by those outside of Washington about their excellent production capabilities. Drew Bledsoe who attended Walla Walla High School and had a distinguished NFL career as quarterback with the New England Patriots recently opened a tasting room in Walla Walla with his wife Maura Bledsoe.
When Friday evening finally came around, each of the participants congregated in the lobby in groups with others who had the same color paper. The groups were then sorted and assigned different locations. Vintage cars, luxury buses and motor coaches lined up outside of the beautiful Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center to escort participants to Walla Walla region vineyards, tasting rooms and wineries.
Nate, my husband and exceptional blogging editor, and I joined a group of approximately 100 red paper attendees, loaded onto a large luxury bus and took at quick 20-minute ride to just east of downtown Walla Walla to the nearby town of Lowden Washington. I was thrilled to see that we were visiting neighboring wineries Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole No 41.
Our group was greeted by Rick and Darcy Smalls of Woodward Canyon with an offering of their 2017 Estate Sauvignon Blanc. Small bites appetizers of flat breads, and various cheeses were served, and the group enjoyed socializing in the backyard garden. The 2017 Estate Sauvignon Blanc showed the benefits of having a longer ripening cycle during the growing season. A longer growing season showed balanced melon and herbal flavors to provide a fullness in the wine. Aging took place in neutral French oak barrels. This Sauvignon blanc reminded me of the mature complexities that I have experienced in varietals produced in the Loire region of France.
Rick and Darcy started Woodward Canyon (www.woodwardcanyon.com ) in 1981. This is the 2nd oldest winery in Walla Walla and the couple were part of the team that worked to obtain federal approval of the Walla Walla appellation in 1984.
After enjoying the appetizers and wines, the group moved over to a beautifully renovated barn on the property where we were joined by Woodward’s next-door neighbors – the owners of L’Ecole No 41. L’Ecole No 41 (www.lecole.com) is owned by Marty and Megan Clubb. Both sets of winemakers answered questions and told the rich history of their respective wineries and, of course the history of winemaking in the Walla Walla region. One constant theme was the spirit of collaboration that winemakers around the region share. This is a group of winemakers that understand that the whole town’s prosperity accelerates if everyone works together.
Our next stop was the tasting room at L’Ecole No 41. Our journey was short. We literally walked across a shared front yard of about 100 yards between the two wineries to arrive at L’Ecole No 41. The tasting room and dining facilities are in an exquisitely restored schoolhouse. It has been listed as one of the top tasting rooms in America multiple times. Megan’s parents Jean and Baker Ferguson established the winery in 1983. The schoolhouse was built in 1870 in the historic Frenchtown section of Walla Walla. The tasting room featured numerous awards won by the winery as well as the original schoolhouse wine bottle label.
The group retired to a large dining room in the schoolhouse for a two-course meal. The executive chef – Chad Boswick – and staff of the Walla Walla Steak house (www.wwsteakco.com) provided the culinary treats from steak to chicken, accompanied with a variety of in-season vegetables. No meal would be complete without pairing of multiple wines from L’Ecole No 41. My favorite for the evening was the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon from 3 distinct vineyards in the Walla Walla valley. This wine has a rose and cocoa nose, with blackberry and plum fruits to taste. French barrels rounded out the tannins providing a full finished taste. Walla Walla reds are known for their reflection of terroir and complexity and the L’Ecole No 41 lived up to this reputation of excellence.
We were split up into tables of 8-10 people. The conversations, laughter, and wine flowed freely throughout the evening. The food was simply outstanding! I was fortunate to have native Washingtonians at my table including Amber LeBeau who hosts the blog @spitbucket.net and is a WSET diploma candidate. Alyson LaVarnway, tasting manager for L’Ecole No 41, also joined our table. At the end of the evening, each wine blogger receiving a gift bag with wine glasses, coffee mugs and dessert.
The secret evening events are always one of my favorites during the conference as it provides an opportunity to see local area vineyards with like-minded group of wine enthusiasts. I encourage you to take the time to visit the Walla Walla region and include Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole No 41 on your list.
Remember to drink what it is that makes you truly happy and always think positively!
@lecole41 @woodwardcanyon #wbc18