Friday, December 11, 2015

WINE. Walla Walla Wonderful AND Spokane Sensational!

Walla Walla In the mid-90s, when oenophiles started to buzz about the region’s Bordeaux-style wines, there were just 10 wineries in Walla Walla, Washington. Today, there are more than 100, mostly accessible from Highway 12. In addition to the wineries, there are more than 1,800 acres of vineyards that make up the agricultural landscape in the Walla Walla Valley.

Experiencing such wine explosion, the Walla Walla Community College now has a Center for Enology and Viticulture, providing students with hands-on experience in winemaking, viticulture practices and wine sales. The renowned vineyards and small-town attitude have attracted not only winemakers, but also restaurateurs who are altering the characteristic of this rural town.

Whether new or established, the members of the Valley’s winemakers and growers openly support each other, maintaining strong family values. The region’s unique terroir sits at 46 degrees latitude, which is the same parallel that runs between Bordeaux and Burgundy in wine-drenched France. The quality of the fruit produced in the Walla Walla Valley has secured this river-laced, college town a place on the world’s wine map. Once best known for onions, this farming community is now respectfully referred to as the “Promised Land” of Washington wine. The wine scene began humbly more than 30 years ago when wine pioneer Gary Figgins, now of legendary Leonetti Cellars, made Cabernet in his farmhouse basement. Figgins and his son Chris, the closest thing to Washington wine royalty, set the standard for handcrafted wines which have demanded premium prices.

Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellars and Figgin's Estate Winery


Though the wineries are plentiful in Walla Walla, most of them have found their niche. As a prime example, Northstar Winery is a Merlot specialist. Founded in 1994 as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Northstar produces worldclass Merlots from the Walla Walla and Columbia Valleys. A Washington Merlot is bigger but more complex than that of other regions, and this winery showcases that difference brilliantly. Northstar’s singular sensation on this noble grape variety is due to winemaker David “Merf” Merfeld, who artfully blends Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc into the Merlot.

Winemakers from all over the world have discovered and moved to Walla Walla, but there are also many farming families whose heritage runs deep in the Valley’s soil. For more than 100 years, five generations of the Corkrum family have worked the land that is now known as Spring Valley Vineyard. In 1993, Shari Corkrum Derby and her husband, Dean Derby, planted the first grapes to diversify from the family’s wheat growing livelihood. The first vintage of estate grown and bottled Spring Valley Vineyard wines were produced with the 1999 vintage. Being true to the generations of farmers before them, Spring Valley wines are named after family members who lived and worked
the land prior to its being repurposed for wine. Original winemaker and son Devin Derby realized that making wine in small lots by hand would distinguish Spring Valley, allowing it to make a name for itself by banking on quality. Derby crafted the wine until his untimely death in 2004. Devin’s assistant and friend Serge Laville took over as winemaker and continues the legacy of sustainable
practices at Spring Valley Vineyard.

L'Ecole historic Frenchtown School House tasting room

Another family-owned artisan winery is L’Ecole N° 41. This second-generation winery is located in the historic Frenchtown School depicted on their label. Founded in 1983, they are the third oldest winery in the Walla Walla Valley. Marty Clubb is Managing Winemaker and co-owner of L’Ecole N° 41 with his wife, Megan. The winery was founded by Megan’s parents, Jean and Baker Ferguson. The Clubbs’ children represent the third generation working at the winery and will no doubt continue the tradition of excellence. L’Ecole is known for reliable wines that stem from he owners being engaged in growing and making 100
percent of their own wines. The focus is on terroir driven, distinctive and expressive wines that reflect the Walla Walla Valley.

SPOKANE While Spokane’s wine scene hasn’t experienced the explosive growth of Walla Walla, the
region has flourished at a steady pace. With 18 wineries and counting, wine aficionados are taking notice of Spokane wine, and the region’s winemakers are finally getting some well-deserved attention for their award winning products. Each Spokane area winery has a unique story that is reflected not only in the characteristic of their wines, but also in the personality of the various tasting rooms. What these diverse wineries have in common is a passion for the labor-intensive craft of making fine wine and a creative camaraderie, with the collective goal of establishing Spokane as a wine destination.

Spokane has a personal approach to wine, where wine is an everyday indulgence that is not only meant be enjoyed, but shared. In Spokane, if the winemaker isn’t the one pouring the wine in the tasting room, he or she is usually close by and more than happy to partake in the tasting and discussion of the wine. Spokane’s renowned wineries produce remarkable reds, crisp whites, blissful blends, precise ports and even a bit of the bubbly. As with many Washington wineries, the grapes come from the perfect grape growing sun and soil of the appellations of Walla Walla, Yakima and Columbia Valley. With a vineyard on the shores of Lake Roosevelt, Whitestone Winery is Spokane’s only true estate winery.

***When it opened in 1980, Worden Winery was the sole area winery, with now-legendary winemaker Mike Scott at the helm. Scott, who later went on to Lone Canary Winery, significantly contributed to Spokane’s wine scene by recruiting Mike Conway to the area. Conway, a trained microbiologist whose wine resume included Gallo and Parducci, opened the popular Latah Creek Wine Cellars in 1982.

Barrel tasting with Mike Conway of Latah Creek Wine Cellars


Conway and his wife, Ellena, arrived from California on May 18, 1980, the day Mount St. Helens blew and Spokane was dusted in volcanic ash. Happily for local wine drinkers, that didn’t scare the Conways away. Mike and Ellena announced in 2005 that their daughter Natalie would be joining the family business as the assistant winemaker. Celebrating 30 years of making fine wine, Latah Creek Wine Cellars is still exploring new territory as a cornerstone to the Spokane wine scene. Latah Creek is heralded for being one of the state’s leading Merlot producers and, despite getting attention for their new Monarch Red series, 60 percent of their wine is comprised of Riesling and Huckleberry d’Latah. Their Tuscan-style tasting room has indisputably the best winery gift shop anywhere. The winery is conveniently located off 1-90 in the Spokane Valley, and is one of the most welcoming tasting rooms in the area, with visitors regularly treated to Ellena’s cooking, and always treated like family.

About the same time Latah Creek was established, another winery came on the scene: Arbor Crest Wine Cellars. At Arbor Crest, winemaking is also a family tradition. Born into a family that had farmed in Washington State for more than a century, brothers Harold and David Mielke discovered in the late 70s that their land had enormous potential to grow grapes for fine wines. Their dream became a reality in 1982 when they, along with Harold’s wife, Marcia, established Arbor Crest Wine Cellars. Two years later, in 1984, the Mielke family purchased the Riblet Estate and relocated the winery to the estate’s Cliff House, perched high atop cliffs overlooking the Spokane River 450 feet below and providing outstanding views. The Cliff House, a National Historic Landmark, was built in the Florentine style in 1924 and is a picturesque winery, complete with awe-inspiring views. Arbor Crest boasts one of the most spectacular settings of any winery in the Washington State and for this reason alone is worth visiting. Arbor Crest’s winemaker, Kristina Mielke-van Löbel Sels, is a second-generation winemaker. Daughter of Harold and Marcia, she is a fermentation science graduate of the
University of California Davis. Mielke-van Löbel Sels spent seven years in California honing her winemaking skills before she and her viticulturist husband, Jim, joined the Arbor Crest Wine Cellars staff. Arbor Crest hosts a popular summer concert series that welcomes thousands of guests to the
grounds to picnic, listen to live music, and sip wine. A second tasting room is located in downtown’s
River Park Square. Arbor Crest Wine Cellars is best known for its Sauvignon Blanc and its red blend, “Dionysus.” Continuing their family tradition, Kristina and Jim celebrate the recent re-introduction of the van Löbel Sels label, which originated in California.

Mountain Dome, yet another family-owned and operated winery, opened in the 1980’s, making a total
of three local wineries in Spokane. The Manz family built their geodesic dome and 8,500- square-foot
winery themselves. Located on an 85-acre forest in the foothills of Mount Spokane, Mountain Dome focuses exclusively on sparkling wines made in the traditional Méthode Champenoise, which is sparkling wine made in the true French method of Champagne. Michael and Patricia Manz started Mountain Dome in 1984 with help from their children and Michael’s brother, John Mueller.
For the first two years, the grapes were pressed in the kitchen of the family’s geodesic dome home. In the years since, Mountain Dome has grown to be a stateof- the-art winemaking facility. Combining Old World techniques with New World refinements, they focus on crafting world-class sparkling wines from Washington State grapes. After spending a few years developing the desired style of sparkling wine, the family decided the 1988 vintage would be the first commercial release. A friend suggested that the winery, built on a snowy, tree covered mountaintop, reminded him of a gnome village and created the gnome label for Mountain Dome’s Non- Vintage. The labels of some Mountain Dome’s sparkling wines feature a whimsical drawing of gnomes who look a lot like the winery’s founding family. The line-up at Mountain Dome includes the nonvintage “gnome” label, non-vintage dry sparkling rose, vintage sparkling and an elegant Cuvee Forte. Michael Manz passed away in 2006, shortly after his son Eric took over as head winemaker.

Spokane’s wine scene was barely beginning with Worden, Latah Creek and Mountain Dome. To put things in perspective, there were fewer than 50 wineries statewide in the 1980s. Today, Washington State is home to more than 700 wineries.

The next wave in Spokane winemaking history included the openings of Whitestone Winery (1992), Caterina Winery (1993), Grande Ronde Cellars (1997), Townshend Cellar (1998), Knipprath
Cellars (1999), Robert Karl Cellars (1999), Barrister Winery (2001) and Lone Canary (2003). Lone
Canary, Caterina and Mountain Dome are now owned and operated by Don Townshend of Townshend Cellar. Each of these wonderful wineries has developed its own wine style, offering not only a vast selection in varieties, but also diverse wine experiences in the personalities
of their tasting rooms which are all, with the exception of Townshend Cellar (Greenbluff), located in downtown Spokane.

The latest additions are almost exclusively boutique producers. They include Nodland Cellars
(2006), Vintage Hill Cellars (2007), Liberty Lake Cellars (2008), Trezzi Farms (2009), Barili Cellars
(2009), and Overbluff Cellars (2010). Finally, Grande Ronde Cellars mentored two of the area’s
newest boutique wineries—Bridge Press Cellars and EMVY Cellars—who share a tasting room.
This stellar cellar line-up of 18 local winemakers participates in open house traditions, such as
Holiday Wine Fest and Spring Barrel Tasting.

Published in The Essential Guide 2012

***Correction: This article was updated for accuracy. Mike Conway was at Worden Winery and hired Mike Scott before opening Latah Creek Winery.
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