After spending the night in Kennewick to attend the Tri-Cities Wine Fest, we continued on to Walla Walla’s Fall Release Weekend. Needless to say, we didn’t make it to all 48 wineries showcasing their new releases, but we did manage to visit five Walla Walla wineries. Those we did visit, however, provided us with some great tastings of Washington wine.

Rulo Winery

We started off at Rulo Winery since this is one of the rare occasions that Kurt and Vicki Schlicker open their doors to the public all day. Here we tasted the 2007 Sundance Chardonnay. Fermented in stainless steel tanks, the sweetness and fruitiness of the grapes shine through. This is quite a contrast to the 2008 Birch Creek Chardonnay which is aged in oak barrels. Both have been through malolactic fermentation, so tasting them side by side is a great opportunity to study the different flavors that the barrel can impart to wine. We snatched up a bottle of the 08 Birch Creek Chardonnay, planning to pair it with crab cakes and a side of buttery corn.

Our biggest surprise came from tasting the Rulo 2006 Syrah. This vintage reveals quite a bit of fruit on the palate. “Why don’t we taste the smokiness that was captured in the ’05 Syrah?” we asked. Kurt explained that we were experiencing the influence a different vintage can have on a wine’s flavor profile. The ’06 vintage saw a lot more sun, resulting in riper fruit that is detected in the nose and on the palate. At $20 a bottle, we still think this is a great value for the quality and brought some home keeping in mind that each vintage will call for different food pairings. A sip from a bottle of ’01 Syrah was a nice way to wrap up our visit, giving us an opportunity to taste how the wine softens with age. If only we could keep this stuff around long enough…..

Northstar Winery

Our next stop was Northstar Winery where our club selections were awaiting pickup. This winery’s premium Merlot was revealed to us several years ago at a special dinner with friends where the 2001 Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot was matched to lamb along with potato croquettes and onion pudding. We’ve been fans ever since, and even more so after meeting the winemaker, Merf, as well as the assistant winemaker, Noah, who was kind enough to invite us to their production area last year to see the punch down and have a taste of the fermenting juice – an experience we will never forget. The tasting room is a great place to linger with plenty of comfortable seats, a beautiful view, and a tasting bar with a backlit white surface that enables us to check the wines’ color and clarity. As luck would have it, a fantastic spread of cheeses, fruit, nuts, and crackers was also being offered on this special weekend. To top it all off, we were fortunate to have our wine poured by one of the grape growers, allowing us to gain some insight about the recent harvest. In order to help me fully compare and contrast the 3 merlots they were sampling, she poured the wines side by side using an aerating device. The 2006 Northstar Merlot Columbia Valley with its plum and cherry flavors perfectly suited my palate. I can’t wait to compare it to the 2000 Columbia Valley Merlot that was included as part of our fall club selection.

Gifford Hirlinger

Moving on to Gifford Hirlinger, we got some one on one time with winemaker, Mike Berghan. We admire him for his use of estate grown grapes, and his courage to produce a bottle of 100% Petit Verdot. I’m always intrigued whenever someone bottles 100% Petit Verdot. Perhaps it’s because the grape has a reputation as being difficult to grow, or because it’s typically used in small proportion as a blending grape due to its high tannins and alcohol. There’s just something so “in your face” about it! As expected, Gifford Hirlinger’s ’07 Petit Verdot is a deep, deep purple and has a firm tannic structure. At $26 I couldn’t resist buying a bottle to share with friends who have yet to taste this varietal on its own. I also bought a bottle of the Stateline Red, a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot. This is a fruit forward wine that will pair well with food, and is a good deal at $16 a bottle.

Sleight of Hand Cellars

As we reached downtown Walla Walla, we had just enough time to stop in at the Sleight of Hand Cellars tasting room to take advantage of their Fall Release Weekend sale prices. We left with a bottle of the 2007 Magician, a nice dry Gewurztraminer with crisp acidity and pear on the nose. It was a good match to our Indian food takeout dinner this week.

Fort Walla Walla Cellars

The next morning, we were out for a stroll before leaving town when we noticed that the Fort Walla Walla Cellars tasting room had just opened. Lucky me! My friend, Cathy, describes the wines produced here as “lush” and I have to agree. These are wines that are produced to drink now by destemming the grapes, barely pressing them and racking five times. So, what does that mean? Simply put, I found that it generally resulted in wines with velvety smooth tannins, nicely balanced with a lovely finish. We took home a bottle of the Fort Walla Walla Cellars 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon with plum on the nose and flavors of red currants and chocolate with a hint of vanilla. This is one that we’re likely to save for a special occasion with loved ones. What a great way to wrap up a fantastic weekend!