I just returned from a delightfully hot and delicious weekend in Walla Walla, Washington. It had been a couple of years since my last visit, and this was the first time I had ample time to explore on my own and not within the context of a workshop or event.
We visited five tasting rooms during a full Saturday of touring, and some of my favorite tastes are noted below. Plus three terrific restaurants -- WhoopEmUp Hollow Cafe and Jim German Bar in the quaint, quiet town of Waitsburg where we stayed at the pooch-friendly Dogwood Cottage, and Salumiere Cesario in downtown Walla Walla. Highlights included the Whoop mac 'n cheese, beignets and coca cola cake (something this southern gal had never before tried), Jim German's schnitzel and potatoes (absolutely sinfully decadent -- who knew potatoes could be this good) and Salumiere's sopressata and great salt and cheese collections.
What most struck me is the vast valley there -- miles of green rolling hills with relatively few wine businesses scattered between. In Walla Walla, a wine tasting room is just as likely to be located downtown or around the airport as at a more traditional winery property. Duane Wollmuth, Executive Director of the Walla Walla Wine Alliance -- which is putting on what promises to be a terrific June event in Celebrate, let me know the organization has 110 members. (I have many more tasting rooms to visit and thankfully, am already looking forward to my next trip there.)
We began the day at A Maurice, a pretty and understated property making quite elegant wines. I particularly enjoyed the 2011 Viognier, which had pleasant aromas of citrus, gardenia, herbs and a refreshing zippy acidity with a very clean finish. The 2010 Conner Lee Chardonnay had lime, passionfruit and very well integrated barrel spice. The third standout, "The Graves" Red Bordeaux Blend had tons of blackberry, cherry, a little mocha and very silky tannins. The common thread between the three was a perfect balance of fruit, acid, structure and finish -- elegant restraint. They left me wanting more, in the best possible way.
Next stop across the street -- Walla Walla Vintners, a long-time producer focused on reds. The winery's 2010 Cuvee, a Bordeaux blend with added Syrah, had great blackberry, cherry pie, leather and mocha notes with a particularly good balance of fruit and oak. The 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon was another treat -- lots of black fruit with sweet curing tobacco, toffee, eucalyptus and more.
We then visited K Vintners, home of wines made by the media savvy and witty Charles Smith (whom we spotted downtown enjoying lunch later in the day). I've long known of K's focus on Syrah -- big Syrah, but what most stood out to me was the incredible 2011 Lawrence Vineyard Viognier. What a beautiful expression of this variety. Tons of tropical fruit with a little honey and slatey/mineral character that I just loved.
And finally, we ended the day at Gramercy Cellars. Janel and I met Greg Harrington at Taste WA and Auction of WA Wines last year, and his tasting room has been on my "must visit" list ever since. Everything at Gramercy was terrific -- from the wines with personality (L'idiot du Village Rhone blend and Inigo Montoya Syrah) to hospitality by Steve Wells (who is noted as Director of Awesome on the winery' site). The 2012 Rose immediately transported me back to a favorite beach in St. Martin -- it's pretty grapefruit character, bright acid and clean finish were so captivating it was almost like being on a vacation. The L'idiot had great black cherry, rosemary, white pepper notes with a chalky texture on the palate that is oh so old world. The 2010 Syrah just sung with purity of black and cherry fruit, a little pie crust and more pepper notes.
In summary, these visits were terrific, with wine quality being the stand out take-home message. (There is one tasting room I do not mention as I found the wines to be quite average and one to be flawed -- interesting they had quite a discount deal on it; I'd have removed it rather than damage the overall brand.) In general, the welcomes were friendly -- not exactly full of warmth, but we felt quite welcome given the seemingly laid back nature of those we visited. I also noticed that tasting fees tend to be very reasonable -- usually $5, sometimes $10 and refundable with purchase. (Gramercy gives tastes free for those who find them -- their signage is not stand out there on the edge of town, but I have a feeling that could be on purpose.)
The one major area of improvement is something we see over and over again: not one winery representative asked for the sale. In our industry, we tend to be very wrapped up in describing flavor, oak influence, clones, vineyards, etc., and therefore miss the opportunity to learn about what our customers value.
Engaging people with conversation -- trying to discern preferences and create a relationship, makes consultative style selling much easier. Something for all tasting room manager and staff to keep in mind when dealing with the public. I could have just as easily been a restaurant buyer, member of the media or consumer looking to fill up my SUV trunk that day. Few of those we visited would have known because only two took the time to ask!
PS - although not a tasting room visit, I did get the opportunity to try 2012 “Cheninières", a delicious and dry Vouvray style Chenin Blanc from Waitsburg Cellars. Rather than try to comment about a respected wine journalist's wine, I'll forward you to a site that will do a much better job and give you quite a chuckle -- HoseMaster of Wine!
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