It's always a happy holiday with a Christmas tree of Dunham Cellars wine bottles

It’s always a happy holiday with a Christmas tree of Dunham Cellars wine bottles

In Part 1, Yakima Valley Wineries were discussed
All photos by Russell Wagner
Two of the biggest decisions we faced when deciding to visit both Yakima Valley and Walla Walla wineries were where to stay for the easiest travel after a day of exploration and sipping, and which of the many wineries to visit of those we knew or had been recommended to us. There were far more wineries on our list than we could reasonably expect to actually drop into. Where to stay turned out to be Kennewick, because it sits roughly an hour’s drive between the two wine regions along accessible highways.
Next time we go (and after this visit it’s not an if, but definite), we may stay at the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel, a luxury lodging in downtown Walla Walla, built originally in 1927. All of us—Russ, his brother Randy and our sister-in-law Cher, relish historically preserved and revered architecture. This 133-room hotel, restored and reopened in 2001 represents the essence of elegance, sophistication and beauty from an earlier era. We did dine at The Marc Restaurant, named “Restaurant of the Year” by the Washington State Wine Commission, which I will happily rave about at the end of this blog.
With the question of where to stay on our current journey resolved, the next was where to do our tastings. Russ and I have been drinking wines from Walla Walla more frequently, discovering them at various tastings at home in Central Florida. Walla Walla has been recognized as an AVA (American Viticultural Area) since 1984. Two-thirds of the AVA is in Washington State; the other third in Oregon. There are more than 100 wineries located within 2,000 acres of agriculturally-rich land. With land elevations that range from 400 feet to 2,000 feet above sea level, the varietals of grapes grown are quite diverse. We gathered recommendations from wine aficionado friends and adjusted our winery visits by the time we had and where we were at the time. Our schedule began with our unshakable desire to see L’Ecole and taste their legendary wines.
L'Ecole was once a schoolhouse and now contains a top-producing winery

L’Ecole was once a schoolhouse and now contains a top-producing winery

L’Ecole (in the outer rim of Lowden) had been recommended to us by many wine drinkers in whose expertise we trust. We registered for the $20 tasting tour because their setting in a former school originally built in 1915 piqued our interest, even though the wines are the star attraction. The tour isn’t scheduled often. Our affable and knowledgeable guide, Paul, led us into the basement of the former Frenchtown School where remnants remain of murals hand-painted by past classes of students for their recitals, through the winery’s tasting room, production facilities and back porch patio where the warm weather and bistro furniture invites one to relax with a glass of wine. The school closed in 1974 but the water fountain, swing set in the back yard, light fixtures and wood detailing have been preserved.
The winery grew from the dreams of Jean and Baker Ferguson, retired from their careers; she as a Home Economics teacher and him as a banker. She is recognized as the first winemaker in Walla Walla. Their combined knowledge and love for making wine via old-fashioned methods have continued to make this winery shine. L’Ecole makes between two and three dozen types of wines a year, about 50,000 cases a year and still usually sells out of everything.
2014 Estate Luminesce –Sourced from Seven Hills Vineyard. 50% Semillon, 50% sauvignon blanc. Aromas of lemongrass, kiwi, white peach and melon. Full of flavor. Little or no sugar in this beauty.
2013 Estate Merlot – Ferguson & Seven Hills Vineyard. Left bank French style of Bordeaux. Loved this. Dense flavors of black cherry and plum. 80% merlot; 10% cabernet sauvignon; 10% cabernet franc
2013 Estate Syrah – Seven Hills Vineyard. Yum! Great for anything grilled. 100% syrah. Savory aroma of bacon fat and black pepper, according to tasting notes. Tasted smokiness lingering on my palate.
2013 Apogee – Pepper Bridge Vineyard. This would be great with a ribeye. L’Ecole has been making this blend since 1993. Fills the mouth with flavor but silky smooth. 60% cabernet sauvignon; 20% merlot; 15% Malbec, 5% cabernet franc.
2013 Estate Ferguson – Ferguson Vineyard. 56% cabernet sauvignon; 33% merlot, 7% cabernet franc, 4% Malbec. The first year of this release and it won as best Bordeaux in the world. Balanced, natural acidity. Robust finish.
Gramercy Cellars:
We had to search for Gramercy. It’s a tasting room inside an undistinguishable building. Actually, there’s only a tiny sign by the door that stated their name. We were told their low profile was purposeful. They aren’t looking for indiscriminate drive-by tasters, but wine drinkers, like us, who sought them out. We found a couple wines we thoroughly liked.
Cher accepts a glass of Viognier at Gramercy Cellars

Cher accepts a glass of Viognier at Gramercy Cellars

2015 Viognier – felt like flowers on my tongue. Light. Delicate.
2013 L’Idiot du Village Mourvèdre – 323 cases were produced. Aged 22 months in 100% neutral French oak. This wine tastes best with food. Gramercy notes describe this as possibly the earthiest wine they made in 2013. 90% Mourvèdre and 10% syrah from Alder Ridge and Olsen Vineyards.
Dunham Cellars:
Dunham Cellars was easily one of the most unusual tasting rooms we visited. Located at the Walla Walla Airport, just north of downtown, it is one of over 20 wineries located within walking distance from each other. Dunham’s is inside a refurbished Quonset hut on the old regional airport base run by the Fourth Air Force from 1944 until the Port of Walla Walla assumed ownership of the airport and business park in 1989. The closeness of the wineries, bakeries, breweries, distilleries, general business, art galleries, and coffee roaster creates an ambiance of a small village. Dunham Cellars’ two rooms are jam-packed with original gifts and interesting décor, such as a tall Christmas tree decorated year round with empty Dunham wine bottles. The ambiance is as festive as the staff is friendly. Another facet of Dunham that differs from other Walla Walla winemaking is that they only use two wines for blending. All other bottled wines are 100% of a grape. When Dunham’s first vintage, a 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon was released, it was deemed one of the finest wines made in Washington by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
Dunham Cellars has won awards for its eclectic tasting rooms in the Airport District

Dunham Cellars has won awards for its eclectic tasting rooms in the Airport District

2012 Trutina – 45% cabernet sauvignon, 38% merlot, 10% Malbec, 5% syrah and 2% petit verdot. Easy drinking.
2012 Cabernet Sauvignon XVIII – pure cabernet sauvignon. Full bodied flavor.
Alaska Airlines Presents Taste and Tote
Excuse me while I break from winery exploration to tell you about a pretty cool offer from Alaska Airlines. This is the first time I had heard of this, but the promotion is called Taste and Tote Your Vacation to Washington Wine Country.  We were asked at Dunham Cellars if we were flying out of Walla Walla Airport because if so, we could ship our first case of wine free. Apparently the offer is good from Yakima, Tri-Cities/Pasco or Walla Walla on Alaska Airlines. The deal includes some special discounts from Hertz Rent-a-Car. Additionally, when you show your current Alaska Airlines boarding pass, you will receive free tastings at nearly 200 participating wineries. We couldn’t use the offer, but maybe you can!
Northstar Winery was on our must-do list of wineries to visit

Northstar Winery was on our must-do list of wineries to visit

Northstar Winery:
When we can find Northstar wines, we buy them. Their winery was one of our must-do sites. We were told that most of their wines could be laid down 7-10 years for maximum flavor and the premier wines for 10-20 years. Personally, I can’t imagine waiting even seven years! We were Impressed with quite a few of the wines available for the tasting.
2015 Stella Blanca White Blend – Stella means White Star. Sourced from Horse Heaven Hills AVA. 100% barrel fermented. Dry white wine with aromas of citrus. Bright finish.
2012 Columbia Valley Merlot – Wine Enthusiast gave this a 91-point rating. We rarely agree with expert points, but this was a treasure. Sourced from 10 vineyards. This wine represents 75% of the Northstar’s entire production. The tasting notes describe aromas of cherry, raspberry and chocolate that lead into flavors of cedar and vanilla with a lingering toasted oak finish. I just know it as one Russ and I have bought as often as we can.
2012 Premier – 100% merlot. Sourced from Cold Creek, Beverly and Stone Tree vineyards. Full body with a nose that whispers vanilla, berries and dark chocolate.
Otis Kenyon (tasting room in downtown Walla Walla):
We walked around downtown Walla Walla to see what the city is like, killing time until our dinner at The Marc. Otis Kenyon was one of the tasting rooms we popped into for a tasting.
The "artful" tasting room of Otis Kenyon in downtown Walla Walla

The “artful” tasting room of Otis Kenyon in downtown Walla Walla

2014 Roussane – sits on the back of mouth. Best with a fatty cheese.
2013 merlot – easy drinking. They only made 450 cases.
2012 – 100% petit verdot. Good because you don’t usually try a petit verdot by itself. We expected our mouths to pucker. They did not. www.otiskenyonwine.com

  1. Cuneo Cellars: (another tasting room in Walla Walla)

This label was unfamiliar to us, but we especially liked the 2015 Rosato made of 100% Sangiovese fruits. I got into an interesting conversation with a couple standing next to me, who began the conversation about the beaded braids in my hair to how they were just learning about wines. They had several purchases bagged by their feet, so I guess they were learning quickly. We shared comments about the Rosato. Russ and I thought it would be a lovely summer wine in Florida. Not

Friendly conversations and wine tasting at G. Cuneo Cellars

Friendly conversations and wine tasting at G. Cuneo Cellars

oversweet. It had a fresh red fruit nose with floral notes of rose and hibiscus. This couple wasn’t sure about picking out aromas but they did like the wine. Tasting notes suggest it pairs well with grilled sausages, wild king salmon or paella, or even spicy Asian or Indian foods.
Columbia Crest – Prosser:
We stopped at Columbia Crest on our drive from Walla Walla back to the Portland Airport, from where we were flying home. Columbia Crest is one of our go-to wines. Drinkable. Consistent. We wanted to see what wines they have that are not available in Central Florida, or maybe not even out of the tasting room. We found them. Built in 1983, this tasting building is beautiful, surrounded by bright flowers and immaculate landscaping. There isn’t a restaurant, a surprise to us as Columbia Crest is remote from other wineries or general businesses, but the gift shop does have some cheeses, luncheon meats and snacks. We bought the Reserve Tasting, and as expected, none of these are available anywhere but at the winery. The three I’m mentioning are all sourced from Horse Heaven Hills and Coyote Canyon Vineyard.
Columbia Crest, a destination worth visiting

Columbia Crest, a destination worth visiting

2013 Reserve Grenache – Our pourer said this is the favorite of most tasters. Has a long finish. Ripe red fruit laced with cherry and licorice overtones.
2012 Reserve Red Blend – We liked this one a lot. Complex and acidity balanced. Flavors of baked red berries and currant. Supple tannins. Very food-friendly.
2011 Reserve Syrah – 100% syrah. Rhone style. Mineral character. Notes of spice, blueberry and sweet blackberry.
The Marc Restaurant
Russ, Randy, Cher and I are not the first people to rate The Marc Restaurant inside the Marcus Whitman Hotel in downtown Walla Walla as a dining experience. The ambiance is stellar. In another place, without the friendliness of its staff, it could have become a stuffy place where you take corporate clients. Instead, we felt relaxed and eager for a culinary experience. We were not disappointed. The restaurant notes that their award-winning chefs offer “progressive American menus that blend traditional Northwest-influenced cuisine with molecular gastronomic twists.” Yes, I could see that. I won’t tell you what we had because the menu changes often and the produce is locally and seasonally sourced. Just be prepared to look at this as affordable dining. You won’t have to take out a mortgage to feel like you are eating like royalty.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ILEA and MPI and is now serving on the 2015 – 2016 MPI Global Advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

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