31 December, 2008

What's a Walla Walla?

"This is Walla Walla kiddo," Mr. Sapolil Cellars winemaker said as he commented on the eastern Washington State town's lack of nightlife. I was originally keen on visiting Cayuse, but a big SOLD OUT sign at the winery's tasting room redirected me to its neighbor.

It has been a bittersweet Christmas, a week of celebrating mother's return to the States but also my goodbye as I leave in January 2009 for my adventures in Argentina.

* * * *

We collected our rental car amidst a dull Oregon rain. It was already mid-morning but it felt early. Although it's already December 28th, most of Portland still slumbered in its post-Saturnalia food coma.

Portland International Airport, NE 181st Street, Gresham, and Troutdale . . . . One by one, mother, the sister, and I counted as we sped past Portland's eastern suburbs and into the Columbia River Gorge. Anticipating the majestic views of the river valley, we were instead greeted by a steady and increasingly energetic rain. It was as if mother nature desired no visitors and did its best to turn back the city slickers.

At the end of the last ice age, the Missoula Floods angrily rushed millions of tons of ice down the Columbia, cutting through the volcanic Cascade Mountains and creating the 80-miles long Gorge. Jagged bluffs, sometimes up to 4,000 feet/1,200 meters, now flank the mighty river's northern and southern banks.

Multnomah Falls

But on this wintry day, Mt. Hood and her shy sisters hid behind a thick white veil.

I cannot say exactly when the landscape changed, perhaps at the Dalles, the end of the Oregon Trail. The narrow and dramatic Gorge gave way to open sky and a high desert landscape befitting of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns.

* * * *

Although I am a Willamette Valley and Burgundy Pinot Noir man, my first bottle of L'Ecole No. 41 Estate Syrah filled my head with fanciful imagination. The Blue Mountains, the high deserts bordering Idaho, and very warm summer days and the cool nights welcome the migrants from the South of France to the new world. Merlot from Bordeaux and Syrah from the Rhône have found a happy home in Walla Walla.

Excitedly ejecting myself out of our rental car each time we pull up to a new winery, I sampled offerings from L'Ecole No. 41, Woodward Canyon, Bergevin Lane, and finally Sapolil Cellars. But while the Syrahs were definitely worth the four hours drive, what struck me the most is the contrast between the winemakers' connection to the land they farm*, and their commitment to produce creative and quality wines; some converted rocky family plots that were unsuitable for planting wheat or onions but are great for the vines, while others came from as far away as France because of Walla Walla's freewheeling wine making culture.

* * * *

Unlike our eastward drive two days ago, today's trip back to Portland was smooth and relatively free of nature's wrath. Although it was still cloudy, the sun occasionally came out to play.

Today, the Columbia River Gorge was a pensive grand old lady who cautiously permitted us into her realm.

* Many Walla Walla winemakers commented that they're 3rd or 5th generation Walla Walla residents.

For lodging we stayed at the Walla Walla Inns' downtown location.


Leslie said...

Gotta love that gorge. Being a misplaced Oregon girl, I appreciate your pretty postings.

iWalk said...

According to chinese tradition, 2009 is OX(牛)year, OX means growing, Yeah, A growing year!

So Happy 牛 Year to you!

╭┴──┤Happy ├╮
│o o│牛year │●°
╰┬──╯    │ ∴°﹒
☆ | / /∴☆

Baino said...

Wow the landscape does change considering it's only a four hour drive (takes a little longer here in some cases.) You have "Blue Mountains" too? Excellent and the fall in the first shot is very reminiscent of waterfalls in our Blue Mountains actually.

TCL said...

@ leslie - Thanks Sundog. I'll miss Oregon. But going to Argentina!

@ iWalk - happy new year to you too.

@ Baino - the Northwest is a fantastic region of the US that often gets overlooked. It's not big, famous, and sunny like California or glitzy like New York. We've our Blue Mountains too The Blues on one side and the Cascades on the other. That keeps the warmth in for the grapes.