Last weekend, Peter and I visited the city of Walla Walla which is located in the heart of Washington’s wine country. We decided to drive across the state of Washington and visit Walla Walla at the last-minute after reading an article written by a chap from Bend, Oregon. Said chap packed up his bike, drove to Walla Walla, and spent a weekend biking to various wineries. I thought, “We love Bend, Oregon so that means we love this chap. We love wine. I love the sunshine. Peter loves biking. Walla Walla is where we need to be.”
Our first logistical issue was getting our bikes to Walla Walla. We do not have a bike rack for our car and there wasn’t a shop in Seattle that could install a hitch and get us up and running with only four days’ notice.
We had three options:
- Rent a bike rack that hooks to the trunk of the car (too risky for potential damage)
- Rent bikes in Walla Walla (too expensive and could not be returned until the day after we would depart)
- Dismantle the bikes and stuff them into the car
We decided on option 3 and proceeded to do a trial run of deconstructing the bikes and verifying that two adult-sized bikes actually fit in the car. They fit but it wasn’t an easy (or clean) task. Bikes are greasy and bulky.
We departed Seattle around 3pm on Friday. I collected Peter from work and intended on driving the first half only, as per our verbal agreement made the day prior. What a fool I was.
We literally were not out of Seattle city limits before Peter started dozing off. One of my favorite views in Seattle is the view of Lake Washington and Mt. Rainier as you exit the I-90 eastbound tunnel. The sky was very clear last Friday and we had a good view of Mt. Rainier and I said, “Look at Rainier! He’s got almost no snow left!” This startled Peter because he was dozing off and I knew that there would be no sharing of driving duties.
I have found that the best way to plan for a trip such as this one is to create a custom map in Google. Some itineraries are better planned with a visual representation than a bulleted list and this was one of those itineraries.
I added wineries to the map and color-coded them based on their source of information. As an example, the orange wineries were derived from the Bend, Oregon article I read. Once we had our bird’s-eye view of potential wineries to visit, we focused on the clusters and began planning the itinerary for our first day of biking!
Protip: Walla Walla’s tourism board has done a good job of categorizing Walla Walla Valley wineries into a few sub-regions.
- Southside & Oregon
- Downtown (aka city centre)
- Airport (a large warehouse district with tasting rooms is located near the Walla Walla airport)
The bulk of the wineries are located in the Southside & Oregon region so this is the most logical sub-region to get your wine-on if you fall into any of the following categories:
- you want to minimize drive time
- you want to bobblehead around from winery to winery without doing much research beforehand
- you are going on a wine tour and want to get the most bang for your buck
- you are biking
We zoomed in on the map for the main cluster in the Southside sub-region and renamed our selected wineries in the legend using the naming convention of Day#.Stop#. As an example, “D1.1 Gifford Hirlinger” was our first stop on day 1.
As extra credit, I included the hours of operation in the legend too. It’s a small bit of information but was very helpful to have at our fingertips.
Here’s that map legend again.
Temperatures in the Walla Walla Valley during our visit were very hot (100°F!). Add in the heat firing off the asphalt and the blazing sun beating on our backs and it was a very hot weekend of biking whilst drinking wine. Red wine [mostly].
- Brekkie at Bacon & Eggs during the Walla Walla parade
- Gifford Hirlinger Winery
- Va Piano Vineyards
- Solemn Cellars
- Sleight of Hand Cellars
- Amavi Cellars
- Dusted Valley
We biked from our hotel to breakfast and found ourselves in the middle of the Walla Walla parade. Walla Walla is a small city located in the middle of a rural farming area. It’s charming and the people are friendly. When you hear someone talk about crop dusting, they are literally talking about dusting crops in a field with pesticides. They are not talking about a person walking through an office cubicle farm while farting. I expected a lot of horses, tractors, and plaid in this parade and was not disappointed.
Below is one of the few photos I took of the parade. It was 10:40am when I took this photo as we were getting back on our bikes bound for Gifford Hirlinger. Horses sauntered by, kids scurried to retrieve thrown candy, and moms drank wine. Yay, moms!
It took us 30 minutes to bike from city centre to Gifford Hirlinger. Google took us on a roundabout route which made the journey an estimated seven minutes longer than it should have been.
The owner, Mike, was running the tasting room at Gifford Hirlinger. He was a nice and knowledgeable guy and gave us the recommendation to visit Solemn Cellars which had just opened three weeks prior. Mike has been making wine since 2000. It’s just him, his wife, and a crew of about 10. He hates the bottling process because it is dreadfully boring.
I asked Mike how he came up with the name of his winery and he explained that “Gifford” is a surname way down in the tree on his dad’s side of the family and “Hirlinger” is a surname way down in the tree on his mom’s side of the family.
This was the view from the tasting room.
The vines were draped with nets to keep the birds from eating the grapes. The owner said that as soon as the grapes turn colors, the birds arrive and they will destroy his entire vineyard in a matter of days if the nets weren’t there. The windmill in the back of the field generates wind. Yes, generates wind. The wind circulates warmer air down into the field and prevents the grapes from frosting and freezing.
Gifford Hirlinger is on the outskirts of the main cluster of wineries in the Southside sub-region. It sits on the Washington side of Stateline Road which runs along the Washington/Oregon border. To the left is Oregon and to the right is Washington.
We purchased the following wine from Gifford Hirlinger:
- 2014 Stateline Red
- 2014 Obligatory Syrah
From Gifford Hirlinger we biked a short distance to Va Piano. Va Piano’s tasting room was extremely busy when we arrived. It had a Tuscan feel and I highly disliked their wine labels. First impressions were not great.
Peter and I were quite sweaty and smelly at this point even though we’d only spent about 40 minutes of biking. I think we tasted 11 wines between the two of us at Va Piano. I went with the Current Release tasting because it contained more wines to taste. Peter went with the Library tasting because they were higher-end wines.
The first wine on my tasting was a Rosé and I was scared. I’m not a Rosé girl. Until now! The Rosé at Va Piano was so lovely. Very light and refreshing. I loved it.
Overall, we enjoyed most of the wines we tasted at Va Piano. When we left I said, “Bad labels. Good wine.”
We purchased the following wine from Va Piano:
- 2012 Syrah (Estate)
- 2014 Syrah (Les Collines Vineyard)
- 2016 Rose
Next up was Solemn Cellars which is located next to Va Piano but still a five-minute bike ride away along the rolling hills. Their tasting room is located in the small building on the right in the photo below.
The owner, Justin, was working in the tasting room. He is the most chill dude on the planet. I bet he was a surfer prior to becoming a winemaker or perhaps he still is a surfer. He for sure looks like a surfer. Longish hair, baseball hat, shorts, flip-flops, etc. I wish I could be as chill as he is.
The wine at Solemn was good but wasn’t consistently good across all of the wines we tasted. This winery is brand new and I think they are going to be top-notch in a couple of years.
We purchased the following wine from Solemn:
- 2014 Syrah
Our backpacks were heavy at this point (a bottle of wine weighs 3-4 lbs and it adds up quickly).
From Solemn we biked further west to Sleight of Hand Cellars. What a mistake that was. Everything about Sleight of Hand sucked.
They make terrible wine. Their tasting pours are barely a sip. It was an awful experience and reminded me of a similarly awful experience at Red Car Wine in Sonoma Valley back in February.
The only upside to Sleight of Hand was that they had a food truck on-site (Plow & Vine, also terrible) and we were famished.
Protip: None of the wineries we visited had restaurants or food onsite except for Sleight of Hand. Some wineries like Va Piano had prepackaged meat and cheese trays but they were expensive $20+.
We spent $20 on two tastings at Sleight of Hand and did not buy any wine and left disappointed.
Next was Amavi Cellars and I was excited! I loved the photos of their tasting room so I thought Amavi was going to really be something special. Nope. Another dud as far as wine goes.
Upon entering the tasting room at Amavi, the first thing you do is pay for your tasting. This is the only winery of the 10 we visited which required prepayment. After paying, we were given two casino chips which could be turned in and the tasting fee refunded if we purchased a bottle of wine.
Personally, it is off-putting to demand money from a patron the moment the person walks in the door. We had a similar “unwelcome” experience at Sleight of Hand where they told us no less than five times that the tasting fee was $10 before they actually poured a dribble of wine into our glasses to taste. Sleight of Hand and Amavi are the only two wineries that were unwelcoming, were the only two wineries where we did not enjoy their wine, and the only two wineries where we did not buy any wine. This is no coincidence.
Our final winery of the day was Dusted Valley.
Dusted Valley’s tasting room is in the garage of the owner’s house. It was as odd as it sounds. They are in the process of building a proper tasting room mainly because the owners want their garage back and because tasting wine in a garage is weird.
Dusted Valley had one of the largest tasting line-ups with seven wines. We were the only people at Dusted Valley for about half an hour and before the “closing time” rush arrived just before 5pm.
I did not love or hate Dusted Valley. The ambiance definitely was not there for me and their wines were hit or miss but I may have felt differently if we had visited Dusted Valley earlier in the day before dehydration and drunkenness settled in.
We purchased the following wine from Dusted Valley:
- 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon
We were both pretty drunk by the time we left Dusted Valley which is hard to understand because we estimate that a single tasting amounts to one glass of wine and we each only had six tastings over six hours. That’s one glass of wine per hour.
We started our second day with breakfast in town at The Maple Counter Cafe. Both breakfast joints were very good. The portions at The Maple Counter Cafe are unbelievably large and can easily feed three people.
Whilst waiting for our table, we popped into a coffee shop across the street. We were seated at the window counter looking at the street when around the corner came our dog’s dog runner, Mel. It was the most unbelievable thing ever. Peter and I did not know Mel was going to be in Walla Walla but Mel knew we were in Walla Walla because I had posted the bike photo at Gifford Hirlinger on Facebook the day prior. Mel and her friend were on their way to The Maple Counter Cafe for breakfast too and saw us in the coffee shop and surprised us. It was so crazy!
Our first winery of day 2 was Kontos Cellars located a few blocks from where we ate breakfast. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to drink wine so early in the morning after yesterday’s wine fiesta but my first glass of wine went down especially well.
We purchased the following wine from Kontos:
- 2014 Syrah
It took us 30 minutes to bike to our second winery of day 2, Basel Cellars. This winery is a good distance away from the main cluster of wineries in the Southside sub-region but was worth the time and effort it took to bike there.
The grounds at Basel are beautiful. It’s a wedding venue in paradise. It’s a girls’ trip paradise. It’s a couples’ trip paradise. It is paradise. The house on the grounds can be rented as well as the pool house.
The bike journey was not the most majestic of rides nor was it the coolest of rides. The sun was masked by the forest fire smoke that had moved into the valley overnight which helped keep the temperatures down but it was still 99°F that day.
We purchased the following wine at Basel:
- 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2013 Inspired
From Basel, we biked to Balboa/Beresan. Balboa used to operate as two separate wineries (yet same winemaker and crew) and have only recently merged into one. The tasting room was very small and crowded.
Protip: Some wineries will deliver purchased wine to city centre hotels.
Peter went ballistic at Balboa/Beresan and purchased 11 bottles of wine. He was purchasing wine we did not even taste! Balboa/Beresan does not technically offer a delivery service, however, the woman pouring our tastings said that our hotel was on her way home and that she’d drop our wine off, no problem.
When we got our hotel, there were 12 bottles of wine in our box. The woman added a 12th bottle to our order because there is a 20% discount when purchasing a case, so the 12th bottle was essentially free. She didn’t tell us this when she rang up our purchase. She just took it upon herself to be kind. I want to find this woman again and give her a big hug.
We purchased the following wine from Balboa/Beresan:
- 2016 Mith (Balboa)
- 2014 Sangiovese (Balboa)
- 2013 Grenache (Beresan)
- 2011 The Buzz (Beresan)
Our fourth and final winery of day 2 was Pepper Bridge. If I knew then what I know now, I would recommend skipping Pepper Bridge and not just because it’s a sister winery to Amavi. The grounds are pretty but their wines were the most expensive ($50+ a bottle) of the wineries we visited and they weren’t nearly as good as most wines we tasted.
Somewhat out of guilt because the elderly owner was in the tasting room and was so kind, we purchased the following wine from Pepper Bridge:
- 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon
Peter and I agree that we would return to the Walla Walla Valley or any of the other lesser-known wine regions in Washington’s wine country before returning to Napa or Sonoma in California and here’s a shortlist of why:
- wineries are located in city centre and within a 10-minute drive from Walla Walla
- the laid back and relaxed culture
- an absence of wine snobs
- 120 wineries in the Walla Walla Valley; many in close proximity to one another
- wineries are small production
- less expensive than California wine country
- people are polite and happy
- winemakers and winery crew outwardly love what they do
Finally, this was our wine haul.