Great Northwest Wine: Walla Faces is “Excellent”!

It’s always an honor to receive good reviews, whether for our hotels or our wine. This spring, Walla Faces won the TripAdvisor 2014 Certificate of Excellence for the second year in a row, and today, we’re excited to share two excellent reviews of our wine from Great Northwest Wine!

Great Northwest Wine is an online magazine about wine in the Pacific Northwest, featuring industry tidbits, news about wine, and wine reviews. The project of Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue, two seasoned journalists and wine writers, it updates daily with new content, and is a must-read website for wine enthusiasts, particularly those in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

We sent Great Northwest Wine two samples of our wine–a bottle of the 2012 Tempranillo and a bottle of the 2012 Estate Syrah. The reviews, we’re happy to say, were sparkling.

2012 Syrah and 2012 Tempranillo

The review of the 2012 Tempranillo compliments the choice of fruit–grapes from the “stellar” Stone Tree Vineyard in Wahluke Slope, WA. It describes the wine’s dark fruit flavors and the “splash of cola and creaminess” before settling on a final rating: “Excellent.” Similarly, the review of the 2012 Estate Syrah describes its aromas as “enticing” and its entry and finish as “rich”, and also rates the wine as “Excellent.”

We’re very honored to receive such praise, and want to congratulate co-winemakers Rick Johnson and Victor de la Luz, as well as consulting winemaker Chris Camarda, for a job superbly done!

All About Rhône Wine Country

As anyone who has experienced the wines of Walla Walla knows, Syrah is one of the flagship wines of the region. Its deep color and full flavors have made Syrah one of the most notable grapes of the Walla Walla Valley. The history of the Syrah grape is long and mysterious, and while the Syrah grape–surprisingly–did not originate here in Eastern Washington, the region it comes from is a fascinating site of wine history as well as an exciting counterpart to our own home here in Walla Walla.

This, of course, is one of the oldest wine regions in the world — the Rhône, located on the Rhône River in southeastern France.

Rhône Valley

The Rhône is legendary for wine–although its scenery is breathtaking as well. Photo by Peter Gorges.

The Rhône is impressive simply for the sheer length of history that wine has in the region. As far back as 600 BCE, Greeks and Romans were enjoying and writing about the region’s wine. The varieties they described could either be Syrah or one of its parent grapes.  Scientists hypothesize that the grape we know today as Syrah was most likely cultivated for the first time in this region. One thing’s for certain: two thousand years later, the Rhône’s popularity and renown have only increased!

Generally, the larger Rhône wine region is broken up into two distinct sub-regions, the Northern and Southern, each with its own identity and flavor of wine. These fascinating regions combine the fertile climate of the south of Europe with the rugged chill of the north, to produce a variety of wonderful wines. They showcase the importance of climate on wine, and illustrate how even a small difference in location can yield vastly different grapes.

The northern Rhône region is hilly and full of steep, stony slopes carved by the river over thousands of years. It has harsh winters and mild summers, with a climate largely dominated by the powerful mistral wind, which brings in the cool air of northwestern Europe. This climate is ideal for Syrah grapes; in fact, Syrah is the only pure red wine that may be labeled an official regional product of the northern Rhône. Here, some of the worlds oldest and highest quality wines are grown and produced. It’s fair to say that the northern Rhône was the first Syrah country on Earth!

The larger Southern Rhône is a broad valley that straddles the river as it enters a more Mediterranean climate. This means warmer winters and hot summers, and a larger variety of grapes that can be grown. Reflecting this, the most popular reds from this part of the region are blends—which of course, almost always include Syrah.

As lovers of Syrah, we find the Rhône to be an inspiring parallel to Walla Walla. Hot summers, cold winters? Mountain hillsides and warm valley floors? A thriving industry with strong Syrah and a community that cares deeply for the quality of their wine? Hopefully in 2,000 years, we will still be singing the praises of Walla Walla wines as well.

Interested in exploring Walla Walla, the “Rhône” of Washington? Book a stay at our Walla Walla hotels to experience Washington wine country firsthand.

 Rhone Valley photo by Peter Gorges, released under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. Thank you, Peter!

Holiday Barrel with Walla Faces

Every winter, Walla Walla wineries ring in the holiday season with one of the biggest events of the year: Holiday Barrel Tasting! On the first weekend of December, wineries across the valley open their doors for special events and samples of upcoming wines. Walla Faces is celebrating Holiday Barrel on Saturday, December 7th, and we want you to join us!

Come to the Walla Faces Winery on Saturday the 7th for an afternoon of good wine, good food, and good company. For your standard $5 tasting fee, you can meet some of the faces behind Faces, like co-winemakers Victor de la Luz and Rick Johnson! We’ll be pouring our normal full flight of six Walla Faces wines, plus we’ll have exclusive barrel samples of our upcoming 2012 Syrah, 2012 Tempranillo, and 2013 Rosé, all served up by Victor himself. Bottles of these wines won’t be sold for another few months, so it’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity!

Co-winemaker Rick Johnson stands among barrels of Walla Faces wine

Co-winemaker Rick Johnson will be on hand to tell you the Walla Faces story from the vineyard to the bottle.

Victor and Barrel

Co-winemaker Victor de la Luz is eager to show off our barrels–and the wine in them!

In the mood for snacks? Treat your palate to scrumptious pairings, like gourmet cheeses, or cordials from Bright’s Candies, filled with our very own ’09 Syrah, “Bill”.

To top it all off, we’ll hold a drawing at 3pm, and the winner will go home with a free night at one of the Walla Faces Inns – your choice of the location! All of this, for only a $5 tasting fee. What better way to celebrate Holiday Barrel?

Wine Club Benefits

Members of our wine club not only get free admission to this event, but can also bring along up to three guests free of charge! This event is the perfect opportunity for wine club members to taste an early sample of the wine they’ll receive in their spring shipment.

If you aren’t a wine club member, it’s easy to sign up! Visit the Join Our Club page on our site or visit our downtown tasting room to learn more and join.

Holiday Barrel – Event Details

  • What: Holiday Barrel Tasting
  • Where: Walla Faces Winery, 598 Piper Way at the Walla Walla Airport
  • When: Saturday, December 7, 11am-4pm
  • Cost: $5 per person
  • Details: Taste sneak peeks of our upcoming Tempranillo, Syrah, and Rosé, enjoy wine-filled cordials from Bright’s and gourmet cheeses, meet the faces behind Faces, and enter to win a free night at one of the Walla Faces Inns!

Walla Faces 2013 Syrah: Harvested!

At the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard, we grow two of Walla Walla’s signature grape varieties: Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. These two grapes ripen at different rates, meaning we need to harvest on different dates. The Syrah grapes are always ready to pick before the Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Cabernet grapes are usually 2-3 weeks behind the Syrah in terms of being ready to harvest.

As predicted, the warm summer weather bumped up the date of harvest significantly.  Last year, we harvested our Syrah grapes on Halloween. As the Tasting Room staff handed out candy to swarms of Walla Walla youth, Rick, Debbie (owners) and our vineyard staff were hard at work harvesting the grapes! This year, we harvested the Syrah almost a month sooner: on October 5th.

As winemaking has progressed, it has become increasingly scientific. In centuries past, vineyard owners decided when to harvest based on taste alone. Now, most wineries use quantitative analysis to ensure that their grapes are top-notch at harvest. At Walla Faces, we do a bit of a hybrid. On Thursday, October 3rd, we brought our grapes to ETS Laboratories, an analytical lab that provides services to Walla Walla wineries. There, we measured the sugar, acidity, and pH. Our grapes tested at 26 Brix (26% sugar), suggesting that harvest should be imminent. These slightly higher sugar levels help us ensure that the flavors of our wine are fully developed before we start crush. However, we feel that you cannot harvest based on numbers alone. Our second step is to go through the vineyard and taste! We are immortalizing this flavor, so it has to be perfect. Rick and Victor de la Luz (Assistant Winemaker) tasted the grapes and found them excellent.


“We spent Friday rallying the troops!” Debbie, a Walla Faces owner, noted.

Victor called our vineyard crew to see if they were available to pick on Saturday.  Fortunately, they were available to pick Saturday morning.

On Saturday, the weather was brisk, but sunny, in the high 60s. Ten people, including Victor and the two owners, Rick and Debbie, hustled. They managed to harvest our grapes in three hours. From there, the grapes were brought to the Walla Faces Winery for crush. Rick, Victor, and helpers sorted the grapes and crushed them, finishing at one thirty Sunday morning!  The Syrah grapes are now fermenting on their way to becoming our 2013 Syrah.

Although the Walla Faces 2013 Syrah is well on its way to your table, the big task is still yet to come. We have 7.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon that are yet to be harvested.  We will start harvesting these grapes next week.

“Pairing on Main” Raises Money for Cancer Fund

September 21st was a busy day in the Walla Faces Tasting Room. (It was one of those days where your pace has to be consistently stay between a fastwalk and a sprint.) Not only did we have an endless stream of customers during our regular tasting hours, between 1 and 6, at 6pm the entering crowds became a veritable flood. It was time for “Pairing on Main”, a food and wine event organized by Providence Saint Mary Medical Center, a local full-service hospital.

2013 was the 9th annual Providence Saint Mary Gran Fondo. Gran Fondo, which means, “the Great Ride” started out as a bike riding event to help raise money for the Cancer Special Needs fund. This fund is essential for providing support to local cancer patients. Help ranges from medication to wigs and supportive undergarments for breast cancer patients. Since its advent, it has expanded, allowing participants to choose an event, including a walk, a motorcycle ride, a 5k fun run, a horse trail ride, and a cycling event. For the past five years, Providence Saint Mary has also organized a “Pairing On Main”, which couples local wineries and restaurants to create a series of culinary experiences as guests. This is Walla Faces’ second year participating in “Pairing on Main”.

100% of the money that is raised from Gran Fondo goes directly to Walla Walla patients and their care.

I sat down with Mardi Hagerman, the Providence Saint Mary Resource Nurse, who was the brains behind Gran Fondo. “I was the original act in town for it!” she proclaims. “We needed to make some money for the special needs fund… the idea came up in the hallway with a nurse who was a cyclist, working with the Whitman cycling team.” The addition of “Pairing on Main” was the brainchild of Walla Walla Chef and Caterer Ceil Blain. “It just took off!” Mardi notes.

Participants receive a wineglass and a map. They migrate from tasting room to tasting room, each of which provides a sample of wine and a perfectly paired bite-sized hors d’œuvre, catered by one of Walla Walla’s finest restaurants. The first “Pairing on Main” sold 75 tickets. Now, the capacity has been bumped up to 150. “We’re not going to go above that because we are cognizant of the generosity of our vendors on main street, who are donating their food and wine… the restaurants are still serving guests plus doing our event!” Mardi confirms. “Our downtown proprietors are so generous.”

Mardi continues, “[This year] was very successful.” The 2013 Gran Fondo raised a record-breaking $29,000 for the Providence Saint Mary Cancer Fund. “The first year, we made $900,” Mardi notes. “Every year, people are a little more familiar with us and a little more sensitive to our cause. After all, there’s no one that isn’t affected by this diagnosis, whether it is a personal diagnosis or a family diagnosis.”

Our Pairing on Main Volunteer, Mardi Hagerman, and Walla Faces Owner Debbie Johnson Pose for a Photo

Our “Pairing on Main” Volunteer, Mardi Hagerman, and Walla Faces Owner Debbie Johnson Pose for a Photo

Mardi is not only in charge of organizing the event, she is the brawn behind the operation as well! “I’m the waitress,” she says. “I help out where I’m needed. I got my food handler’s permit so that I could do the grunt work.”

This year, Walla Faces was paired with Whitehouse Crawford. We served both our 2008 Syrah, a library wine with a perfect balance of white pepper and blackberry notes, and our 2010 Riesling, an off-dry wine that’s as complex as it is crisp. After tasting our wine, Whitehouse Crawford Head Chef Jamie Guerin prepared a Capocollo, jalapeño, goat cheese, and arugula salad-stuffed gougères. These cheesy French pastries are a wine-pairing classic; in France, they are traditionally consumed in wine cellars as a part of a wine tasting. In addition to donating our wine, 25% of Walla Faces bottle sales during the “Pairing on Main” were donated to the Providence Saint Mary Cancer Fund.

“Every year, I am overwhelmed by the generosity of this community,” Mardi says. “I have met so many wonderful people thanks to ‘Pairing on Main’, who have a strong heart for what we do.”

A Natural History of Syrah

Syrah is one of the most popular grape varieties in the world. Its wines are typically full-bodied and powerful, with peppery and fruity flavors. Although we all know why we love this grape, the question remains: how did Syrah gain the prominence it currently holds in the international wine scene?

Three Walla Faces Syrahs! 2008 Caroline Syrah 2007 Frank Syrah 2009 Bill Syrah

Three Walla Faces Syrahs!

In Australia, Syrah is referred to as Shiraz. This has spurred several myths about its origin. Shiraz is a 4,000+ year-old city in Iran that is known for its wine. Indeed, the world’s oldest sample of wine, dating from a staggering 7,000 years ago, was discovered in clay pots near Shiraz.

The most common myth suggests that the  Phocaeans brought Syrah from Shiraz to their colony in Marseille on the southeastern coast of France. From there, it gained popularity and began to move north, to the Rhone region of France. (The myth does not explain how the grape mysteriously disappeared from Marseille shortly afterwards!) Another variation on this myth attributes the grape’s origin to a French knight named Gaspard de Stérimberg, who participated in the crusades in the 1200s. He traveled to Persia (modern day Iran) and returned with the grape in tow. This also seems unlikely, as the crusaders certainly did not travel all the way to Persia!

DNA testing by Dr. Carole Meredith, a geneticist who heads the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis revealed the truth about this beloved grape. It is a cross between two little-known varieties: Dureza and Mondeuse blanche. Dureza is grown exclusively in the Rhone region of France. Although it has been used historically because of its heartiness and high yields, Dureza has fallen out of favor in recent years. By 1988 only a single hectare (2.47 acres) of the grape was left growing. That’s as if the only Syrah on the planet was what we have on the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard! Dureza is also not on the list of allowed wines by the French AOC. Mondeuse blanche is similarly rare. A mere five hectares (12 acres) are left, all in the Savoy region of France.

Because of the parent grape varieties are both from a very small region in southeastern France, we can conclude that Syrah originated there as well, probably in northern Rhone. The exact time of the cross is not clear. Historical documents by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder suggest, however, that the cross may have occurred around 20 AD.

Although Syrah is clearly a very old variety, it wasn’t until the 1700s that it began really making a splash. In northeastern Rhone, there was a hill topped with a hermitage (a chapel) built by Gaspard de Stérimberg, the knight of legend. Hermitage wines, red blends made up primarily of Syrah grapes, were consumed worldwide. (They were a favorite of Thomas Jefferson!)

Syrah was brought to Australia by a Scotsman named James Busby in 1831, who collected a wide variety of grapes for the land down under. As a result, he has been dubbed “the father of Australian viticulture”. By the 1860s, Syrah was one of the most popular Australian varietals. Syrah first came to America in the 1970s. It was planted in California by wine-enthusiasts who called themselves the “Rhone rangers”. It finally made its way to Washington state in 1986– almost two thousand years after the grape was first crossed in France.

Syrah is also frequently grown in Switzerland, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.

Syrah has even gone on to spawn its own offspring! An accidental cross-pollination between Peloursin and Syrah yielded Petite Sirah in a small vineyard in Tullins, France in the mid-1860s.

Now, Syrah has become one of the most popular grapes for wine production. At a staggering 142,600 hectares (352,000 acres) worldwide, it is the seventh most grown grape variety. In Walla Walla alone, 11,000 tons of Syrah are harvested annually… and that number is only increasing!

Veraison at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard

If you’ve stopped by the vineyard in the past few days, you may have noticed a beautiful thing: Veraison has finally come to the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard!

Veraison is the process by which grapes turn from green to red. Before verasion, the grapes are simply getting bigger; cells divide and expand, resulting in larger and larger grapes. After veraison, grapes begin to ripen: the acidity of the grapes decreases, sugars become concentrated, and chemicals that give off herbaceous aromas degrade, leaving you with a beautiful, fruity scent. The berries will also get much softer. Prior to verasion, the grapes are very firm. Afterwards, they become much more supple. This is also the point at which a keen observer may be able to discern the characteristics of different grape varieties.

We’ve seen veraison in other vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley for weeks now, but the signs are just now appearing on our grapes. There are a few reasons that we see this difference. The first reason is the grape varieties that we grow: Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, takes a very long time to ripen. Vineyards that grow varieties such as Merlot, which ripens much more quickly, will see veraison earlier in August. Indeed, only our Syrah is showing signs of veraison. The Cabernet Sauvignon is usually two or three weeks behind!

The second reason that veraison occurs later for Walla Faces is because of the location of our vineyard. We are at a higher elevation than much of the Walla Walla Valley. Our vineyard is cooler during the Spring and Summer, but warmer during the end of summer, which helps give our wine a nice balance between sugars and acidity. (Our location also helps in autumn and winter. The warmer temperatures in cooler months help protect our grapes from freezing!)

In addition to being one of the later vineyards to see veraison, we are also one the last to harvest! This means we have many more weeks to admire our ripening grapes.

Photos taken at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard on August 16, 2013.

Walla Faces At the Woodland Park Zoo

Every year, the Woodland Park Zoo hosts a wine tasting event to raise money for field conservation, science education, animal care, and facility maintenance. The Woodland Park Zoo, a Seattle zoo opened in 1899, is a 92 acre property that is home to over 1,000 wild animals. This year, the “Tasting Flight” event took place on July 19th. Of course, Walla Faces trekked the five hour drive from Walla Walla to Seattle to be a part of it! The “after hours, adults-only” fundraiser turned out to be a blast!

We brought our 2008 Fusion Red, the Rick & Debbie, and our 2008 Syrah, the Caroline, to taste. Each of the 35 participating wineries had a table set up in the the zoo’s gorgeous North Meadow. The lovely, sunny weather was perfect for appreciating the beauty of both the zoo and the wines. Because the wineries were arranged alphabetically, we were neighbors with the wonderful Walla Walla Village Winery.

When the doors opened at 6pm, we were overwhelmed by the turnout of this sold-out event. We were also thrilled to meet so many Seattleites who had stayed with us in the Walla Faces hotel or who had visited the Walla Faces tasting room on their wine tourism adventures.

In keeping with the Woodland Park Zoo’s conservationist ideals, participants brought their own glasses to the event. We had a great time looking at the fun glasses that everyone brought! We saw everything from expensive Riedel glassware to mason jars, from light-up wine glasses to coffee cups. Regardless of the glassware used, Walla Faces was one of the evening’s favorites. Participants exchanged tickets for pours of wine, and we quickly found our decanter filled to the brim with yellow paper.

The penguin exhibit was open to wine tasters, and the penguins were happy to oblige viewers by sunning themselves and taking a dip. Wine and penguin-watching might just be my favorite wine pairing yet.

Our wines were available for sale in wine store, another tent that laid out each winery’s wares. Happily, at the end of the night, we found that we brought the perfect amount of wine; we came home with one bottle of each wine.

Thank you to everyone who visited us at the Tasting Flight event!

Flowering grape vines at the Walla Faces vineyard

Every year, grape vines go through an annual growth cycle that ultimately produces the ripe, juicy grapes needed for winemaking. June is a particularly exciting time at the vineyard because many of these steps occur in quick succession. We started June with some gorgeous budding grapes.

Budding grapes at the Walla Faces Vineyard.

Budding grapes at the Walla Faces Vineyard, taken May 30, 2013.

Wine grapes have high seasonal nutritional needs. As a result, when the buds first appear, we spray the grapes in the Walla Faces vineyard with a micromineral composition that helps them grow to their fullest potential. For example, spraying the buds with boron can help improve bud growth.

After the budding stage, the grapes will begin to flower. This is a a very-weather dependent step. During warm years, the grapes will flower early, whereas at cooler temperatures this step will be delayed. At our vineyard, we typically see flowering starting somewhere between the first and last weeks of June, depending on the weather. This year was pretty typical; flowering started a couple of weeks into the month.

Flowering grapes at the Walla Faces Vineyard.

Flowering grapes at the Walla Faces Vineyard, taken June 16, 2013.

Cabernet and Syrah grapes (as well as most Vitis vinifera grapes, the species used for winemaking) are self-pollinating. Sometimes wind and insects will help the process, but in general pollination is contained within the grape vine. Once the ovary is fertilized, the flower will begin to turn into a grape berry, surrounding a large seed.

Fruit Set at the Walla Faces Vineyard

Fruit Set at the Walla Faces Vineyard, taken June 30, 2013.

Both the Syrah and the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have stopped flowering now. They have entered the fruit set stage. These baby grapes will be the basis of the 2013 vintage.