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Celebrating Syrah

A Weekend of Wine in Walla Walla, Washington

When it comes to wine tastings, I have an excellent strategy: have a friend who prefers white, and another who prefers red.

For a July trip to Walla Walla, Washington, I played the white wine lover. Leslie Morthland, my best friend since university days, played the red wine lover.

And we tasted a prodigious number of wines. Our first road trip together coincided with Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance's, Celebrate Syrah – a three-day event series highlighting what the American Viticultural Area’s 120 winemakers can make from this versatile grape.

Celebrate Events

Celebrate Syrah’s Thursday kickoff event featured U.S. Executive Editor, Elaine Chukan Brown (JancisRobinson.com), along with a film detailing Syrah’s importance to the region, growers, and winemakers.

From there, it was out to CAVU Cellars for the Vintage Pour – featuring wines a decade or older. Leslie and I took a novel sampling approach by picking wineries with neat logos or names.

Our wine education continued at Friday’s Wine Panel Presentation and Tasting. Panelists explained their winemaking process and tasting notes to look for. We can now both sniff out a Syrah from The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater (it’s an earthy, stone scent). The panel gave us a new appreciation of the science and decisions that go into each bottle of wine.

The Collaborative Winemaker Dinner Series (more the Food section) is a can’t-miss part of Celebrate if you enjoy savoring how wine complements food (and vice versa).

Celebrate culminated Saturday with the Syrah Grand Tasting at Valdemar Estates. Among shining steel tanks and winemaking machinery, black cloth-covered table after table offered the latest Syrah releases and sparkling, rosé, and white wines. More than 50 wineries popped corks at this event, with winemakers sharing what made each one special.

“Wine is a labor of love,” Brown said.

And with every sip, it showed.

Accommodations

For our first night, we stayed at The Finch. Situated at one end of downtown, this adorable hotel has great touches, like local artwork, borrowable bikes, lawn games (think cornhole and Jenga), a s’mores-ready fireplace, and local wine samples at check-in. They also had a bed so comfy we both talked about it the rest of the trip.

“You can be like a local,” Finch Office Manager Morgan Davis said. “It’s your base camp for getting out and adventuring.”

Nights two and three were spent at The Marcus Whitman Hotel. The storied building features its own tasting room and is only a block away from ten more. A more traditional hotel experience, the Marcus Whitman also offered a free breakfast buffet to get us ready for a day of tasting.

Food

If you’re a foodie or just enjoy a good meal, Walla Walla offers some tantalizing options. Some were exclusive to Celebrate, while others are available year-round.

For instance, on Celebrate’s first day, we attended the Community Dinner, prepared by the Walla Walla Steak Company, at Dunham Cellars. Fun fact: Their head table was crafted from the building’s wooden catwalk (which was once an Army Air Base hangar, and still has much of the original wooden paneling).

Breakfast options can range from hearty offerings at locavore spot Bacon & Eggs, to delicate pastries from Colville Street Patisserie.

We snagged lunch one day at Graze, where I found turkey and roast pear make a rather intriguing sandwich combo.

Another lunch was spent at TMACS, which came up repeatedly when we asked for dining recommendations. Those recommendations weren’t wrong, as we both gobbled up offerings like English Pea Bruschetta and Blackened Sea Bass.

AK’s Mercado showed up in our plans twice, once downtown and once at the Collaborative Winemaker Dinner series. Both offered Chef Andrae Bopp’s delicious meals, with the Winemaker Dinner at Sleight of Hand Cellars featuring the best short rib I’ve ever eaten. If you’re in town for Celebrate, the Winemaker Dinners let you chat with the winemakers themselves as to why the chosen food pairings best showcase their work.

Additional Fun

There’s plenty to keep you entertained in Walla Walla, but to start our adventure, Leslie and I sampled Gramercy Cellars wines and learned about Les Collines Vineyard, where some of their grapes are grown.  

Then it was over the border into Oregon to check out Rôtie Rocks Estate Vineyard. From the second-floor patio, we sipped wine as we appreciated the rows of neatly trained grapevines sprawling out before us. We also took in a tasting at The Walls Vineyard back in Walla Walla. Their outdoor seating area was lovely for relaxing with a variety of Rhône-style wines.

We broke out our walking shoes for the Walla Walla Wine Walk. This tailored tour takes you through three tasting rooms, with Walla Walla history sprinkled throughout. Local shops like The Epicurean Kitchen and D’Olivo Olive Oil Tasting Bar are featured stops. Tasting Blood Orange Olive Oil over vanilla ice cream was a revelation. If you’re a wine fan, Walla Walla absolutely deserves a spot on your next tasting tour.

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