Wily Walla Wallans Show Off Washington Wines

by Paula Sugarman

Topel wine bottleI have been to Washington twice in the past year and was surprised both times by the sophistication of the wine industry there. Like many Californians, I assume we live at the center of the wine universe, both in quality of wines and label design. I’m sure the French are snickering as I write this. One thing is for sure: Washington ain’t no tin lizzy when it comes to wines.

I landed in Walla Walla for the 2010 Wine Blogger’s Conference expecting to find a cozy little ‘burb with a few dozen wineries making the likes of 1970’s Boone’s Farm and Tyrolia. The misconception was quickly dispelled at the first event, a tasting of delectable Washington wines. I was equally impressed by the very appealing and well designed labels, and several created a case of design envy. The wineries I toured were every bit as elegant as our Napa Valley digs, but with a warm and welcoming vibe. Their beautifully designed wood and rock tasting rooms were like swanky ski lodges with sweeping vineyard views. (links to Reininger and Northstar wineries)

Cadaretta wine bottleFriendly downtown Walla Walla is a little larger and a tad less snooty than St. Helena. Everywhere we went locals stopped to ask how we were enjoying the conference. (We were easy to spot, because we carried our wine glasses with us.) But there are also some characters in the little valley. There is rumor that Cayuse Vineyard’s tasting room is rarely if ever open, using the “Sold Out, Come Back Next Year” sign as an effective marketing strategy. And there’s a mean side to larger than life Charles Smith (K-Vintners), who has a penchant for scheduling same day events, which compete with local winery association efforts.

Walla Walla characters aside, there was a palpable excitement at the Bloggers Conference. Social media has trumped the press release. Minute by minute wine news goes directly to the media and wine consumers who are most interested. Today’s wine bloggers are pioneers blazing a new way to talk about the juice. Most of us do blogging as a second profession, very few turning enough of a profit to live on. But that’s sure to change in the future. Bloggers were a jazzed, friendly, open and ebullient group. Okay, three days of tasting the best of several hundred wineries does tend to make a crowd giddy.

Like me, fellow bloggers were surprised and delighted to discover the delights of Washington wines. The W folks are a bunch of cup-is-half-full guys who brag about the unique growing conditions in their regions. What some would consider hardships, they consider attributes. Lack of water is viewed as a positive because it allows for control in irrigating the grapes. Extremely rocky soil reminds Christophe Baron (Cayuse Winery) of the “galets roules” [rolled stone] in southern France.

Higher latitudes yield harsh winters, but add two extra hours of daylight when it really counts.

Washington wines had a day in the sun with Walla Walla in the leading role. Be they vineyards, wines, branding or tasting rooms, Washington wines are showing favorably in every way. Better than California? Hard to say…after all, I do live in the golden state. One thing is for sure…look out California, we’ve got company.

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Paula Sugarman is owner and creative director of Sugarman Design Group, a California graphic design studio specializing in brand identity, wine label design and food package design.

- www.sugarmandesigngroup.com

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