Those of you that have wine tasted in California know that it can be an expensive and frustrating experience. Winery employees can be snobby and pushy while asking for a $10 tasting fee for juice that you wouldn't feed your mother-in-law. The farther away from Napa you get, the more reasonable the wine makers expectation regarding tasting. We love the Anderson Valley because it still has some of the small town charm. We had hoped that Walla Walla had that same charm. It entirely depended on the winery, some being Napa style snobby, while others being much more down to earth. Unfortunately, the wines are priced more like Napa than Mendocino County, and that's not really a good thing. Note, Walla Walla is waaaayyyyyyyy in Eastern Washington. It is literally nowhere. However, you can spend days here and not hit all the wineries. There are that many.
So how does one taste at a lot of wineries on a budget? Here are Coach Brown's tips.
1. Do your research. I read Wine Spectator not necessarily for the ratings, but the consistent tasting notes. Good wines are good wines, and Wine Spectator does a nice job pointing out gems. However, there are wine forums all over the Internet that supply even better info on good wine. Here and there are articles about every wine region you can think of. Use them and plot out a flexible plan for visits.
2. Buy 90% of the wine at a grocery store. We buy very little at the tasting room, and save a vast majority of our money for Safeway, Albertsons, Trader Joe's, and Raley's. Six or more bottles get you 10% off, and in Oregon there is no sales tax. Fresh Market in Richland, Washington had nearly every bottle we tasted, for a couple dollars less, and with discount for a bulk buy.
3. Taste only those you like and share the taste. We tasted primarily Cabernets, Cab Francs, Red Blends, and on occasion, Merlot, Riesling, and Sav Blanc. We avoided White Blends, Syrahs, and a bunch of grapes that are usually used in blending that are now the rage to make as drinking wine. Also, share the taste. A good tasting room server will give you a little more wine, it will keep both your palettes cleaner, and you can taste more wine.
4. You never deserve bad service. Walk away from wineries that act pretentious and pushy. Pretty tasting rooms and high prices don't make for good wine. And remember, tasting room employees are salesmen. The pitch should be nice, never pushy. The industry is currently in a phase where more and more people are looking for wine under $20. They should be treating you with respect, not distain.
5. Tasting does not always equal buying. Some people get all bent out of shape when you taste wine and then don't buy. That's bad form. It's really ok to walk away.
Now for Day 3. Oh, a note for Walla Walla wineries. There are four primary regions. Western wineries are on the way into town on the main highway (Highway 12). Southern wineries are south of town and the scenery is much like that you would find in Sonoma and Napa. Downtown tasting rooms are....downtown. And region four is the airport. A bunch of wineries are in an industrial park at the airport, and yes, they are worth going to.
Drive: First thirty miles from Portland look like something out of Fellowship of the Ring, when the group is paddling up that tremendous river gorge. It is really beautiful.
Go to: Multnomah Falls (easy on and off freeway center meridan), and Hood River. The falls are great and the town of Hood River is very quaint. It's the home of Tofurkey, which will never find its way into my belly.
Don't go to: The Dalles. Why go? It seemed sort of blah.
Tip: Look somewhere near the north end of The Dalles for one of the largest Google server farms in the world. Google plugs into the Dalles dam for all its power needs.
Columbia Crest Winery, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington.
Outside: Drive up through the vineyards to a sprawling mansion estate overlooking the Columbia River. Nice picnic area.
Inside: Massive and ornate interior that looked and felt plush. Tasting room itself was large and fairly standard, with the usual tourist trinkets.
Service: Retired ladies that were nice, but seemed to get on each others nerves. It was interesting to watch their interactions.
Product: Usual Columbia Crest wines and some reserve wines that many people don't know about. The Walter Clore and reserve wines are quite good if you haven't had them, and the H3 Cab is some of our favorite. But the product is very overpriced. Go to the supermarket or (for reserves) Beverages and More. Tasting fee for reserves.
Did we buy? No. Too expensive.
L'Ecole #41 Winery in Lowden, Washington
Outside: Winery is in an old school house next to Highway 12. It is very cute.
Inside: A multi-level, quaint building that is small, but very comfortable. The tasting room has a definite schoolhouse theme with rulers and pencils for sale, and a tasting bar that is made out of chalk board (yes, you can write on it).
Service: Mellow, polite, easy to talk to, and knowledgeable. It's how the tasting room is supposed to be.
Product: The normal cabs (which are a bit pricey) are damn good. In fact, we like them more than their reserves. Standard red blend was fine, but too expensive to justify. Overall, their cabs set the standard for most of the trip. There was a tasting fee, but it was waived when we bought some bottles.
Did we buy? Yes. And we stopped by on the way out of town and bought more.
Waterbrook Winery in Walla Walla, Washington
Outside: A huge desert style, modern building that has a fantastic outdoor lounge area. It looks like something you might find at a high style desert resort.
Inside: Modern and spacious. Tasting room counter isn't the only place they will serve you. Tables and a couple of couches are also there for your relaxation.
Service: Depended on the person. Both employees were college age girls. One was very nice, had good info, and was pleasant to work with. About 3/4 of the way into our tasting, she disappeared and was replaced by a girl who seemed extraordinary put out that we were there. During our last taste, the original girl was back and all was better. Tasting fee was waived with purchase.
Product: Cheaper white and red blends were pretty good (called Melange). Higher end stuff was ok.
Did we buy? Yes.
Cougar Crest Winery in Walla Walla, Washington
Outside: Nice looking patio with a moderate looking building. Nice and simple feel.
Inside: Large and spacious tasting room with an interesting "library" area that is sunken in with their higher rated wines. Long tasting counter. Weird smell upon entering.
Service: Two gentlemen behind the counter. Both were pleasant, although the guy that was working with us was bordering on pushy. We skipped a couple of wines that they insisted that we try. We obliged and they were enjoyable, but we also were a little annoyed. Tasting regular wines was free and the reserves had a fee. We only tasted one reserve, and the gentleman waived the fee.
Product: Cougar Crest has had some major success with reds lately. The cabs were actually pretty darn good, and some of the "Dedication" blends were also a success. But again, the prices were not worth the purchase. They ended up being $12-$20 more than we were really willing to pay for. Good move too, because we found Dedication at grocery stores for sale prices. But if you have some bucks, the vino is well worth it. Nice that they also didn't charge us for a single reserve taste.
Did you buy? No.
Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla, Washington
Outside: Outside of the main downtown area of Walla Walla, in a simple brick building. You can almost drive right by it.
Inside: Small room that doesn't have much in it, and a small tasting counter.
Service: One college age and one middle aged woman. The middle aged woman served us. She was fine.
Product: We have heard all the raves about the quality of Seven Hills wine. The one bottle we tried earlier on was fine, but not fantastic. We were hoping for better tasting room results. We were disappointed. They didn't have many of the cabs to taste and the one they did have open was the same one we tried earlier in the week. Because we didn't try most of the wines, they waived the tasting fee.
Did you buy? No.
Whitman Winery in Walla Walla, Washington
Outside: Mission style setup in town, actually away from the downtown. Cute.
Inside: Simple little room with a small tasting counter and not much else. Some trinkets for sale.
Service: Single woman who was a retired teacher and very pleasant to talk to. Ended up staying longer than we would have because she was so pleasant.
Product: Wine was fine, but again, too expensive to justify interest.
Did you buy? No.