Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc. --> Visiting Washington Wine Country, Part II

Visiting Washington Wine Country Part II
Columbia Crest and Col Solare

Our second day involved my most anticipated stop, a visit to wine giant, Columbia Crest's Horse Heaven Hills, production facility. Located literally in the middle of nowhere, 60 miles west of Walla Walla and 30 miles south of the Tri-Cities, we reached it via the scenic route paralleling the Columbia River on both the Washington and Oregon sides. You have to understand, large wine production facilities don't normally give tours and I had never visited one that produces 2.5 to 3 million cases of wine per year. Giant stainless steel tanks, bags of oak chips and the additives usually associated with large production aren't particularly romantic. I've seen the tank farms at Gallo and Sutter Home from a distance, but this bore no resemblance. The first impression feels a little like Napa with beautifully landscaped grounds and an impressive, Mediterranean-inspired building housing the tasting room and offices.

On closer examination, it provided a front door to the 23 acre, mostly underground, winery filled with seemingly endless rows of fermenting tanks and over 120,000 oak barrels.There is a reason they are not afraid to give tours...they make the wine here the same way that it is made at a facility like Northstar. They just use state-of-the-art technology, the latest and most sophisticated equipment to produce wines like the Wine Spectator 90 point Grand Estates Chardonnay. It sells for $9.99 in spite of being aged in French oak barrels that have the lees stirred manually twice a week. Trust me....there aren't many $10 wines that ever come within miles of a French oak barrel (or that get hand-stirred).

When we arrived, a 40-foot grape hauler was being tested by a computerized probe that measures the brix and all of the relevant information about the incoming grapes and transmits it to the laboratory where they program to which fermentation tanks it should be sent. The trucks then proceed to the red or white receiving bins where the grapes are crushed for whites or de-stemmed for reds and flow through pre-programmed pipes to their destination within the winery. After visiting so many boutique wineries over the years, the scale and technology was mind-boggling, yet it all accomplished the same end purpose that we watched being done by people, fork lifts and shovels at Spring Valley the day before.



We saw 56-case pallets of wine stacked up to five high as far as the eye could see and an automated bottling line where bottles were fed on one end and sealed cases were shrink-wrapped into 56-case pallets on the other end, mostly without human intervention. Yet next to the towering barrel stacks that contain next year's Grand Estates or Horse Heaven Hills popularly-priced, wines sits the Walter Clore and Reserve Series red barrels. And while the oak may be newer, the process is the same. As we left, after over-staying our appointment by 40 minutes, there were nine grape haulers lined up for their turn, and I felt vindicated in my 15 years of support in preaching the quality of their wines.

Our next stop was a huge contrast...Col Solare on Red Mountain, a joint venture between Marchesi Antinori and Chateau Ste. Michelle. You have to understand that this project is a little like Opus One in Napa in that the Antinori family has been making highly acclaimed wines in Tuscany since the 1600s. They built a dramatic winery on the top of Red Mountain and planted vineyards of Bordeaux varietals surrounding it that are just now beginning to mature. They only make one wine for distribution, a Bordeaux-blend made from varying percentages of Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec that sells for $75 at the winery or $55 at our store for the 2008 vintage, Wine Advocate 93 points. They are great wines and the winery and views are truly beautiful.

Since we were late coming from Columbia Crest, we phoned while traversing the desolate wheat-covered miles (after we finally got a signal), and our hostess seemed very concerned. And when we arrived, we discovered why...the chef was waiting and she did not want to diminish the quality of our three course lunch starting with a sampling of compounded butters with homemade bread, followed by grilled duck breast, roasted vegetables and an incredible dessert, served with two vintages of the Col Solare. Did I mention that this is probably not a winery that intends to make money, but to serve as a flagship for the brands. Tasting, tours and views are by appointment only, but sometimes it is good to be in the wine business!

It is hard to believe that we could still eat dinner, but Brasserie Four, a few doors down from our condo, was the one of the best meals of the trip. Gosh, who would think that a traditional French bistro in downtown Walla Walla would be packed on a Tuesday evening at 6:30. Since it was past tourist season, we can only assume that the staff at Whitman College, a Butler-sized liberal arts college not far from downtown, adds to the dining scene. The last time we had bistro fare this good was at Brasserie Jo in Chicago. With an ambiance so dark that our server provided tiny flashlights, the four of us shared a charcuterie plate, escargot, French onion soup, bouillabaisse and steak frites, all of which were impeccably prepared. And all paired well with a couple of inexpensive bottles of Vidal Fleure Côtes du Rhône that we shared over a leisurely, two hour dinner. At this point, we were convinced that Walla Walla was worth the effort to get there!

Washington Trip Part I Walla Walla and Chateau Ste. Michelle
Washington Trip Part III Seven Hills, Waterbrook & Tamarack Cellars
Washington Trip Part IV 48 Hours in Seattle