By Hannah McIntyre, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Wash.
Sounds of clinking glassware and quiet chatter in tasting rooms ushered in another season of wine-savouring in the Walla Walla Valley during Spring Release weekend.
Despite the somewhat gloomy skies, downtown Walla Walla and its rural surroundings were teeming with locals and tourists, all eager to experience the latest from the renowned wine landscape.
Among the visitors were a family from Chicago, a famous movie star and a couple who’ve been returning to the Valley for years.
TruthTeller Winery sits in the heart of downtown Walla Walla and is co-owned by Chris and Dawn Loeliger and Rob Wohr. The winery has two labels, namely TruthTeller and The Miscreant Project, and boasts two tasting rooms — one in Woodinville and another in Walla Walla.
Laura Rose-Grabinski, marketing and wine club manager for TruthTeller Winery, poured The Miscreant Project’s Hedonista, a 100 per cent Albariño white wine. Rose-Grabinski said Friday morning had started off slow, but by 3 p.m. the tasting room would be bustling.
The Markley family — Karla, Jerri, Jacob and Meghan — flew all the way from their home in the south of Chicago for Spring Release weekend and to celebrate a birthday.
“We love Washington wine,” Jerri Markley said.
At the start of their tasting, the Markley family had asked for tasting notes only to find out none existed. “The owner came down and said there weren’t any because a wine tasting and how a wine tastes is different for everyone,” Markley said.
TruthTeller Winery was the family’s sixth stop on Friday. “Pretty much all of the wines, from here to where we also went, were outstanding,” he said.
Jerri and wife Karla Markley had previously visited Walla Walla for their 40th wedding anniversary in 2019. For the rest of the group, it was their first time in the Valley.
“Washington wines brought us back,” he said. “We love the history here.”
READ MORE: Washington winemakers hopeful for successful year in Walla Walla Valley
Pursued by Bear
Growing up in rural Yakima, actor Kyle MacLachlan spent his days picking apples, canning peaches and fishing in the Yakima and Naches Rivers. Now, as the proprietor and vintner of Pursued by Bear, he continues to draw on his upbringing and connection to the land in his winemaking endeavours.
He said the Walla Walla area reminds him of his childhood.
“There’s a lot of great things about Walla Walla,” MacLachlan said. “Firstly, the vistas and the geography. Coming from Yakima, they are very similar … the smells and the way the sun shines, all remind me of where I grew up on the east side.”
MacLachlan has stared in films such as Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986) and has had roles in TV shows such as Portlandia and Twin Peaks.
At this year’s Spring Release, Pursued by Bear poured a Rosé, Syrah and the Pursued by Bear Cabernet Sauvignon.
“With the consistency we see with the tasting room right now, because we’ve only been open for a short time, we’re doing well,” he said. “It’s a success.”
MacLachlan said the next step for Pursued by Bear — now that the winery has a brick and mortar tasting room — is to find some estate fruit and land to plant it.
“There is a genuine love of wine in this community,” MacLachlan said. “I feel very welcomed and embraced into this world of wine.”
READ MORE: A taste of Oregon: Rustic charm, robust wines and regal farmland found in Willamette Valley
Long Shadows, established in 2002 by the late Allen Shoup, is known for producing high-quality, premium wines in Walla Walla.
In the past, the winery brought together a team of world-renowned winemakers to create wines that showcase the unique terroir of the state.
Some of the renowned winemakers who have worked with Long Shadows Vintners include Michel Rolland, Philippe Melka, and John Duval. The winery produces a range of red and white wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Gilles Nicault, director of winemaking and viticulture at Long Shadows, said this year’s Spring Release was a time of festivity as 2023 marks one step farther away from the pandemic.
“Since COVID, getting back to normal has been difficult for everybody,” Nicault said. “Now, we are able to start feeling like how everything used to be. We are able to be next to each other and embrace the opportunities to sit in the sunlight and drink wine. I don’t think people took that for granted, but I think more people are seeking that now.”
Having grown up in southern France, Nicault refined his winemaking expertise in the hillside vineyards of Côte du Rhône, Provence, and Champagne. In 1994, he journeyed to Washington State to broaden his winemaking abilities, and eventually became a member of Long Shadows in 2003.
He said when he first came to Walla Walla, downtown was “quaint.” Nothing compared to what it is now with its impressive food and restaurant scene.
“Now, with the food and the wine, I think Walla Walla has been revived,” Nicault said. “The food and wine scenes have come together to create this gastronomic tourism like you see in Tuscany or Burgandy in the Pacific Northwest and in Walla Walla.”
Pat and Jim Thielman, longtime wine club members of Long Shadows, came to Walla Walla from their home in Richland to pick up their wine order.
The couple smiled as they sipped a 2022 Rosé called Julia’s Dazzle.
Pat Thielman said they both came to love wine when they moved to the area. “We started coming here and just fell in love with the wines,” she said. Jim, her husband, added that it was the Long Shadow’s Pedestal Merlot that first got him hooked. The couple said they love reds much more than whites.
Nicault came over and refilled the couple’s glasses with a 2020 Dance Chardonnay and greeted the Theilmans as old friends. Nicault said the best part of being a winemaker is the ability to work with nature, create something new and bring people joy as he gazed out at a scene of tasters enjoying wine at the tasting room.
“The epitome of my job is when everyone is tasting my wine with a smile on their face,” Nicault said. “It’s incredible to go from the ground to bringing happiness to everybody.”
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