Suburban Wino 2: The Wordpress Experiment

Oh, the Places You’ll Go

July 1, 2010
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I’m wondering if the use of a Dr. Seuss reference as a post title for summarizing several days of very adult consumption is sacrilege of sorts. Perhaps, but I took 10 minutes drawing that crappy cigar and glass of wine with my mouse, so we’re gonna go with it.

The past week, I’ve poked around some of the most fascinating, if not still somewhat unknown, wine regions in North America. A pilgrimage was made from Atlanta, through Denver, into Portland, southwest to the Willamette Valley, north towards the Yakima Valley, through Prosser, east over to Walla Walla, then west to the most remote corner of the lower 48- Seattle- to sit on a tarmac for two hours, pores exuding perhaps pure wine at that point. Into Atlanta, straight to work, dreaming of my next trip west.

To be a “wine enthusiast” and say you’ve been to Napa Valley is akin to a “movie enthusiast” claiming he liked The Godfather. Yet, as my vine-centric adventures amass, I feel very privileged to have visited regions that not only are as impressive, but are perhaps unknown to the general public as wine Meccas.

Willamette Valley:

As you can see to the right, this area is known for its rain…

The Willamette (rhymes with “dammit”) Valley’s north end lies just west of Portland, and it runs down from the Columbia River to just south of of Eugene, OR. Framed on the west and the east by the Coastal Range and the Cascades, respectively, this area is known for cool, rainy winters and warm, dry summers (though the region rarely sees temperatures above 90˚, relatively cool by grape-growing standards). For this reason, the area is known for Pinot Noir, a cluster notorious for difficult growing. It’s sort of like the Lindsey Lohan of grapes: don’t supply it with constant attention and monitoring, and you’ve got a hot mess on your hands. Fortunately, the relatively mild and consistent temperatures of the Valley (particularly the Yamhill-Carlton AVA in the north end) acts as a controlled, low-dose narcotic to Pinot’s Lohan, thus keeping the grapes happy and thriving, resulting in some of the finest examples of Pinot Noir wine in the world.

Yakima Valley:

Head up north from Portland, then east over the Cascades, and you see the real effects of a “rain barrier”. With Mount Rainier forming the highest point at over 14,000 feet, most moisture that tries to get past the mountains is forced so high into the air, it freezes and precipitates out of the atmosphere atop the mountains. What’s left to the east is a virtual desert, as the Yakima Valley receives about 6-9″ rain a YEAR, compared to Seattle’s 37″. Fortunately, dry and hot can be a pretty damn good thing for growing grapes, among other things. Cherries, hops, apples, peaches, etc., etc., etc. all thrive in the Yakima Valley. As for wine grapes, I saw Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec…well, there’s not much I didn’t see. Most of the wines tasted of the heat (though the typical climate is more temperate, allowing cool-natured grapes like Riesling to flourish here as well), with high alcohol, lots of tannin, and big fruit flavors. From my limited experience, I consider Yakima the South Australia of U.S. viticulture, sans marsupials, crocodile boots, and a low-tannin approach famous in quaffin’ Aussie wines.

Walla Walla Valley:

Another valley carved out by the massive, prehistoric Missoula flood, W-squared lies southeast of the Yakima Valley, and the AVA actually crosses into Oregon, which has always made for an awkward situation for WW’s allegiance when the WNBA’s Seattle Storm and now-defunct Portland Fire used to lock horns. Oh, Portland Fire…we hardly knew ye.

Anyway, upon hearing that Walla Walla had both a proud winemaking tradition AND a large state pen, I stocked up on canned fruit cocktail, oranges, ketchup, loaves of bread, and Zip-Loc bags, eager to learn the secrets and subtleties of expressing the Walla Walla terroir in a fine Pruno. Instead, I found much of the same as in Yakima: a focus on reds, especially Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, many of which were blended in what some call the “Aussie Meritage”, or a “CSM”. Also found a good bit of Grenache and Mourvèdre, but mostly for the sake of blending with the Syrah to create Rhône-style blends. Also big in fruit, extraction, and alcohol, I did find the Walla Walla reds I tried to be a bit more restrained than the tooth-stainers from Yakima.

So, that’s where I’ve been. I think many knew what Willamette has been bringing to the table, but Washington isn’t on the rise for nothing. I’ll delve into some of my favorite wines- and favorite people- down the road a bit. For now, find a bottle, crack it open, and pour a little out for the Portland Fire…and Dr. Seuss.