Between Two Vines: A Weekend Wine Tasting and Pokémon Hunting in Walla Walla, WA

The Washington State AVA (viticultural region appelation) is full of all types of grape, terrain and care. Red Mountain has a more acidic terrain, and the Columbia Valley has grapes up to Wazzu, literally. (WSU) If you want to taste them all, you will need a few weeks to navigate the entire Yakima Valley and beyond. For this trip review, we have decided to stick to Walla Walla, WA with an overnight stay in Ellensburg to make the 4.5 hr drive more enjoyable. and to catch some Pokémon along the way.

Keep in mind most winery taste rooms open from 11 am to 5pm, +/- 1hr, so be prepared to keep track of time unless you don’t care missing out on a few local gems. At a rate of 5 to 13 brands (or vitner houses) per day you can easily overdo it if you are not responsible. Avoid the blue light special and contact the following services before heading out into the Great Wine Escape Route.

Day 1: Walla Walla Wines 

First stop: Woodward Canyon Winery

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As a first stop, this winery offered a nice start to our wine tasting weekend. Right next to L’Ecole No. 41, it features a nice patio, awesome tasting room and the opportunity to eat woodfired pizza on Fridays for lunch. Make sure you bring o’deurves and snacks for the kids though. Nearby there are two PokéStops and a gym providing entertainment for the whole family. The selection includes local varietals, blends and different types of tastings. You can apply the cost of the refundable tasting to a bottle but you cannot apply the cost of the Reserve tasting to a purchase. Prices are moderate to high but you are paying for quality and exclusivity which makes it reasonable. Grab what you like and picnic outside or sit by the front porch to hide from the hot summer weather. Cheers.

Second stop: L’Ecole No. 41

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This taste room is full of rich history and books! Founded by French Canadian immigrants, the region is full of historical sites and tid bits. The staff is genuinely nice and interested in helping you find your way through the many offerings they have in store. We had learned of the winery through a friend and it did not disappoint. Their Merlot and Fergusons have won many awards for this house which they proudly showcase on site. The decor and grounds are stunning, and the prices are moderate to high but totally worth it. Take the Semillon and the Frenchtown to go and enjoy them outside on the yard while you catch Pokémon. Best nerd date ever.

Third Stop: Reigninger

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Reininger Winery is a very nice place to take a breather, enjoy the sunshine and try Walla Walla and Columbia Valley varietals. Izzie and her pals made sure we enjoyed good wine, excellent commentary and a great time. The Reserve and General tastings compliment each other well, so I highly recommend that you try one of each. The CPR was impressive and even though it commands a $90 price tag, it is worth its price in gold. For those on a budget, try the Helix Rosé and the Cabernet Sauvingnon, which are affordable and really tasty on a “college budget”. (Helix labels are Columbia Valley AVA, FYI).When we arrived there was an antique limo outside giving me the hint that the place is not only good for romantic get aways but probably for events as well. Sadly they didn’t have snacks or food but you can bring your own and picnic outside. Cheers!

Fourth Stop: Three Rivers Winery

A few yards down the road from Reininger and right next to a Pokémon stop you will find this beautiful winery. Drive a few feet between the vines and you will find the parking lot, a three hole golf course, a few plastic Adirondack chairs and the tasting room. Take a peek through the window down into the processing facility to spot barrels and packing supplies. They offer tours at certain times during the week so call ahead and ask for schedule and vacancies.

The wine itself was very good but you must purchase a white ($10) or red ($15) tastings which are refundable with purchase. However, their best feature is the grilled cheese (Beechers, Seattle’s own and Walla Walla sweet onions) and the charcuterie board with cheeses from around the world. The chocolate sausage was incredibly sweet and crunchy since almond and other nuts were used to simulate the marbling. At $8 and $18 respectively, they are excellent deals but be warned that they don’t qualify for the refundable fee. Good end to a visit in the Walla Walla wineries off Old Highway 12.

Pit Stop: The Marcus Whitman Hotel and Convention Center and Graze 

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Built in the center of Walla Walla’s downtown, this boutique hotel is very convenient for wine tasting. The outside perimeter has 6 tasting rooms one with a decent cigar cabinet. The staff helped us figure out where to eat and where to drink! 🙂 Because of our late booking we lucked out and got suites on the 7th floor. Totally worth it! Plus check out the neighborhood of PokéStops in the area:

After a quick stop in the Tero, Flying Trout and Waters tasting room, part of the lobby offerings, we took a walk around town and settled on some grub at Graze. Their tortas, panninis and salads are delicious and fresh. For less than 10 bucks per person, you get a very good foodie experience. Excellent choice to keep the stomach full while you visit local wineries.

Fifth Stop: Mark Ryan Winery, Downtown Walla Walla

My husband fell in love with this winery when they started up in Woodinville and was really excited to tour their Walla Walla location. Sadly Mark wasn’t there but we were able to share the Dissident Club membership tastings with our family which made it okay. Based on my observations they serve certain appetizers but I didn’t dare check them out because they were closing soon. Their popularity can work against them though, many of the offerings were already sold out by July so if you go there in August, there may not be a lot left. Crush starts after September so plan ahead if you want to be there for that instead but you risk having less wines to experience.

After Mark Ryan, we went back to the hotel and opened a few of the bottles we had purchased during the day. We paired them with Mexican chicharrón and refried beans for El Sol, Carnicería Mexicana. The hotel room has a fridge which helps cooling the reds a bit. The 97 degree heat can ruin them if you are not careful. Drink lots of water and keep the sunblock handy especially if you are in for more than a day of tasting wine.

Day 2: State Border Wines

Since Walla Walla is so close to the border with Oregon that we decided to extend the trip to cover one winery in the sales tax free zone. Hehe. After a nice breakfast, we got in the car and arrived in less than 15 minutes at our first destination.

First Stop: Zerba Cellars

Don’t let the log cabin fool you, this place has classy and tasty offerings that are not pretentious but should be. At $5 refundable with a tasting fee you can afford to drink here. Their pour master gave us a few extra rounds of Petit Verdot and Port that were to die for. The Malbec was very young but can be aged a few years for best results. If you are a fan of Roussant, run to this place and buy them out. We didn’t  get to see the dogs though but so far none of the canine friends of the Winery Dogs of Washington have made an appearance. 😦 Their prices are low to moderate, technically a steal for the quality and award winning penchant.  Enjoy the time here and bring food to enjoy your purchases with in their backyard. Gorgeous scenery and interesting antiques and trinkets. Loved it!

Second Stop: Castillo de Feliciana

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Crossing back to Washington, we bordered the state line to visit a few more wineries and vineyards. Castillo de Feliciana is another taste room that is also available in Woodinville. We fell in love with their Miércoles a red blend that we always run to get because of its rich get gentle taste, enough that you can drink it as a table wine. This is one of those spots were you will learn about Spanish heritage, cool owner anecdotes and the passion that goes into making every bottle. Their Brillante is sparkling wine worth its price in gold. Try the Tempranillo Rosé during the summer heat. It is like drinking a fruit spritzer of the out most quality. If you don’t like Rosé wines, the traditional Tempranillo is also a treat and very well received in the local wine circles. From what I heard they have concert series and food trucks so check their schedule of events. On Labor Day they do a Salsa dancing contest. The $5 refundable fee makes it worth visiting because you will most likely end up buying a bottle to consume there or later. It is that good. Salud!

Third Stop: Va Piano Vineyards

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Another Oregon/WA border winery, the $5 refundable tasting fee and gardens are a very unique stop in the wine country road. Their reserve tasting is stellar but didn’t really impress us much and although certain wines belonged to a different tasting tier, we got a few extra tastings on the house. According to Yelp, and a cute four legged guest that hung out with us for a while, the place is pet friendly. I wish I had seen more dogs there but the lawn games and view sufficed. Their Rosé is Cab Franc based and didn’t quite convince me to take it home which was unfortunate because the weather begs for a good rose wine. Unless they are having a party or you are a member, skip it. I didn’t get as much out of the visit as my in laws did.

Fourth Stop: Northstar

Right after going through a maze of vines and merlot grapes, and taking a slight detour away from Peppers Bridge we ended up at this winery. Their modern art gallery-esque take on wine tasting yielded a few good finds for the walls of my new home. Their trademark wine is Merlot which turned out to be good but way too pricey for our budget ($85). Since you must age it up to 20 years to reap the rewards, we skipped it and focused on the Malbecs and Merlot blends instead.

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At $7 per tasting, refundable, you got one wine per dollar which is really ingenious. In the end you don’t get to pay over $10 to sample their offerings and you don’t feel bad if you walk away empty handed. It is a sweet deal. For those who love crackers, their pallette cleansing basket is delightful and would do best paired with one of the cheeses they have for purchase on their mini fridge. Take the tasting indoors or outside, the staff will come to you with the stories behind the labels and the harvests. Anything 2012 is ridiculously excellent for this brand. If you must decide between this and Pepper Bridge, I’d go with Northstar.

Fifth Stop: Sleight of Hand Cellars

This winery is something else entirely. Made for those who have rock running though their veins, the collection of LPs and music selections will have you sipping to the tune of AC/DC and the greats. Right next to an upity Syrah place, it is the antithesis of what a tasting experince should be because it is FUN. Between the names of the wines and the likeness of NPH in one of their bottles, named The Conjurer, this simply magical wines will win you over. Dog friendly to boot, their refundable $10 fee with purchase of $25 or more is an easy proposition. My mother in law ended up with a T-Shirt that sums up the lifestyle promoted by this company who is expanding to include a taste room in Seatrle, next to Safeco on August 27th. Cue Purple Rain.

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Sixth Stop: Saviah Cellars

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Known for their Syrah, we stopped at this place to validate the hype and found instead that their Tempranillo, Rosé and Cabernet Sauvingnon were the true stars. We didn’t realize how much the tastings were and in the end it didn’t matter because we ended up purchasing a few bottles. Many places waive or refund the fee with purchase so if your plan is to buy, you should be fine. I overheard someone mention that the people at Mark Ryan recommended this joint but we didn’t find anything particularly interesting there other than the staff (who were excellent and knowledgeable) and their new area of appelation called The Rock in the Milton-Freewater District. The surprise was The Jack label wines that are very inexpensive and are made with the remainder of the harvested grapes used to make their premium wines. Their Library selections were interesting but there are better wines for less in the same wine rating category.

Pit Stop: Back at The Marcus Whitman

After ending our wine tour, we headed back to the hotel for dinner. The Marc Restaurant was available for dinner and we took the opportunity to check out their steaks and salads. The waiter walked us through the small bite provided by the Chef which was a compote of berries and blue cheese. Delicious! We enjoyed the sweet onion soup, the snow crab ravioli, a couple of salads and the steaks. It was premium priced but of exceptional quality thanks to their use of fresh ingredients from the region. If you don’t feel like fine dining, their Vineyard Lounge offers food and good beverage choices at a modest price.

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After counting our stash, all 30+ bottles, and our blessings we went to sleep and headed back home early in the morning. If you can spare the extra day or morning you can take in a few tastings before departure. The hotel had breakfast included so we didn’t try any brunch or breakfast places of which they are many. Feel free to suggest locations and services in the comments.

Enjoy!

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