My most recent exploration of Oregon wineries brought me to the eastern side of the state; to a place where arid desert butts up against the fertile farmland of the Walla Walla River valley. Taking advantage of a trip to visit my in-laws in eastern Washington, Hunter and I set off (without child in tow) to conquer Milton-Freewater, a small town this side of the Oregon/Washington state line, just eight miles south of Walla Walla, Washington.
Milton-Freewater was originally two independent, agricultural towns that merged in the mid-1800s. Thriving on water runoff from the Blue Mountains to the mighty Columbia River, the long growing season and the fertile volcanic and sedimentary soil, the small town farms wheat, apples, cherries and wine grapes and now boasts four wonderful wineries to visit. We started our tour at Zerba Cellars, which was founded by Cecil and Marilyn Zerba, who both grew up in Walla Walla and whose local lineage dates back to the 1850s.
Zerba Cellar’s tasting room is located right off the main road in a charming and eco-friendly log cabin made from massive, already-fallen Western Juniper logs, designed appropriately by Storm Carpenter of John Day, Oregon. There was an expansive deck with hewn log benches overlooking the vineyards, which were all still netted to protect the past season’s grapes from bird predation. Zerba recently finished completion of a large cave for underground wine storage and they intend on expanding the outdoor seating with a new patio as well. Zerba owns three vineyards within three separate and distinctive AVAs, allowing for a variety of grapes, character and unique flavors to come through in their wines.
Tasting Room Manager Paul Samson was pouring wines in the cabin, and for but a few precious moments before a large bachelorette party arrived, we had his complete and focused attention. While an adorable Australian shepherd named Ranch Dog sauntered about taking tummy rubs from anyone offering, Paul poured us through his impressive and rather extensive portfolio.
With more than twenty wines in production, we didn’t taste them all, but we still sampled quite a few too many to mention, so I will just taper it down to the highlights, which will be challenging enough. The first was a very memorable 2008 Semillon. Completely dry (though they also make a late-harvest sweet version as well), aromas of Golden Delicious apples, figs and honey wafted up from my glass. In my mouth, I tasted clean, bright citrus and honey, which transformed into lingering aftertastes of white peach and dried apricots. I also loved Zerba’s 2008 Viognier. Blended with 25% Chardonnay, the wine had a beautiful golden hue, a fragrance of citrus, honeysuckle and peach and a creamy mouth full of green apple, citrus and green melon. The next wine that caught my fancy was a 2007 Mourvedre that was blended with ten-percent Syrah and ten-percent Grenache. This was a big, red wine indicative of what this region is able to grow. Rich with plums, currants, raisins and black cherry, the wine had firm tannins that will continue to soften out with time, but was lush, fruity and ridiculously enjoyable. Zerba’s highest production wine is their Wild Z, a Bordeaux and Syrah blend, the 2006 vintage showed strawberries and pomegranate on the nose, while blueberries, blackberries, earth and white pepper showed strong on the palate. A fruit-forward wine, that I call a no-brainer—one that doesn’t require too much thought—it pairs well with a variety of foods and just drinks great on its own. Paul told us about and gave us directions to another Oregon winery that just opened a tasting room nearby, so we added it to our itinerary, said our goodbyes and continued on into downtown Milton-Freewater.
You wouldn’t think it would be difficult finding a street in a town with less than a dozen of them, but somehow with my husband’s keen sense of direction, Hunter and I took the scenic route through town a bit before finally discovering the old Watermill building. Located just in front of the old landmark is the newly built Watermill Winery. Founded by Earl and Lorraine Brown and established in 2005, Watermill is one of the first wineries in Milton-Freewater. Now third-generation farmers, they produce apples, award-winning hard apple cider (which you can also taste in their tasting room), wine grapes and world-class wines crafted by Rich Funk (of Saviah Cellars) and Andrew Brown.
Crystal was slinging wines from behind Watermill’s smooth and ultra-sleek concrete bar with an obvious love of the product and extensive knowledge of both her region and her brand. She started us off with a 2007 Viognier which I thought displayed aromatics of lemon zest and floral notes with flavors of honey, grapefruit and lemon and acids that did a little jig across my tongue.
One of things I love most about wines from this region, aside from the exceptional quality and variety, is the tremendous value. Watermill’s most expensive wine (which earned 93 points from Wine Enthusiast) was only $30.00. That wine, the 2006 Praying Mantis Syrah (named for the jumpy creatures living happily in the vineyard that year) had a deep, dark jammy color, was well structured with medium tannins and was loaded with blackberries, tobacco and spicy anise. I imagined this wine would pair beautiful with barbeque, grilled meat or even with some chocolate at the end of a meal.
I also enjoyed a 2007 Malbec that wasn’t on the tasting menu yet, but showed beautifully with raisins, currants, wild huckleberries, vanilla and white pepper on the silky, long finish. Another standout was the 2006 Estate Midnight Red with 60% Cabernet, and 10% each of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot; a very pleasing blend with a nose full of blueberries, chocolate and oregano, abundant sweet tastes of marionberries with just a hint of smokiness on the finish. (By the way Crystal, Watermill’s Viognier was the first wine I opened when I returned home. And as you saw by my Tweet, it didn’t even last a week! But it was even better than I remembered.)
Leaving the downtown area and passing vineyards whose reddish-brown leaves had given up every drop of life and were hanging there, as if in suspense, waiting their turn to float gracefully to the cemetery of leaves on the ground below, we followed Paul’s directions and pulled into Milton-Freewater’s newest winery (opened for just their third weekend). Located just off the State-line, we found the breathtaking Castillo de Feliciana Vineyard and Winery. The estate vineyard was in its infantile stages and won’t be productive for a few more years, but the open expanse and magnificent view of Oregon’s Blue Mountains made the outdoor patio an oasis in the desert, literally.
Greeted by Spanish music and a brand new and majestic tasting room that somehow exuded an Old-world quiet beauty, winemaker Ryan Raber told us the beautiful story behind the wine. I hope I do it justice in my retelling. Owners Sam and Deb Castillo wanted the winery’s design to capture the ambiance of Andalucía, a region in southern Spain, where the brilliant blue ocean waters meet the stark white buildings with aging terracotta roofs.
The wines are inspired by their Spanish ancestry but also pay attention to what does well in this region. Castillo de Feliciana, whose name translates to “Castle of Happiness”, is named for the family and as a tribute to Deb’s great Aunt Feliciana who never had children of her own. When Deb was a small girl visiting her great Aunt, she would always get some gum from her Aunt's old black leather purse. One day, over a glass of red wine, memories of her Aunt and that purse flooded her. She smelled the fruit from the gum, roses like the floral face powder, mustiness from age, tobacco and leather. To Deb, these smells together evoked memories of her childhood and she began referring to that smell as “an old lady purse” smell—but not just any old lady’s purse smell, the smell of her Aunt Feliciana’s purse. That black purse has become an icon for the brand and is located prominently above the logo like a crest.
The wines were simply lovely. The 2008 Pinot Grigio was 100% stainless-steel fermented and bright with pear, lychee fruit and white flowers. There was an interesting minerality in the mouth and bright acids that carried this wine well. The 2008 Viognier, aged partially in neutral oak, at first smelled of fresh brioche and then opened up with nectarines and cream and a suggestion of lasting tropical fruit (kind of like an Ever-lasting Gobstopper!). The 2007 Semillon exploded with a bouquet of honeysuckle, apricots and rip figs. The 2007 Tempranillo was superb, with black fruit flavors of plum, cherry and currants. The flavor, spice, acidity and tannins were brilliantly integrated and left me longing for a bottle and a big bowl of paella. Ryan finished us off with the 2007 Miercoles, an everyday red and blend of Cabernet Sauvignon an Syrah with fruity tastes of red raspberry, cassis as well as lots of pepper, chocolate, smoke and sweet herbs. I admire the Castillo’s vision and see how they have courageously made their dream into reality. Buena suerte.
Our final scheduled stop was at the Otis Kenyon tasting room located on Main Street in Walla Walla (Otis Kenyon’s vineyards and winery are in Oregon, so I figured it counted). The old-west town was crowded for Parents Weekend at Whitman College, and if you looked down the street with the original brick structures dating back the late 1800s to the early 1900s, it was easy to imagine the once dusty streets, horse-drawn carriages, saloons and even the occasional shoot-out. With deep historical ties to the Walla Walla Valley, the Otis-Kenyon family is no stranger to the ghost stories of this region.
Legend has it, in the early 1900s, James Otis Kenyon was a struggling dentist in Milton-Freewater who literally burned his competition to the ground. Ostracized and ashamed, his wife told their two sons their father was dead and moved to Walla Walla. Nearly 50 years later, James Otis Kenyon’s grandson Steve unearthed the truth and discovered his grandfather was alive and living on the Oregon coast. James Otis Kenyon was later reunited with his two sons, witnessed the birth of his first great-grandchild Muriel (who told us this fantastic story) and happily lived to the ripe old age of 101. The label is a tribute to James Otis Kenyon; and with burned edges and bearing his silhouette; his story and memory truly live on.
Muriel mentioned some startling statistic about how much Oregon fruit is in the Washington wines and I realized it’s all six of one, a half dozen of the other. How many Oregon wineries buy their fruit from Washington? What it comes down to is a very simple premise: premium fruit knows no boundaries; state lines are figments of our own creation.
Muriel poured a 2006 Merlot that was the perfect combination of robust, sweet cherries, tart cranberries with added layers of smoke, caramel and spice on the finish. The 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon was aged for 19 months in new and neutral oak and showed off plums, pomegranate, cinnamon and clove that warmed your mouth and conjured up images of snuggling by a cozy fire on a cold winter’s night. The 2006 Syrah was a delight with complex elements of blackberry, cassis, cocoa, pepper and baked earth coming through in every sip and smell. Lastly was the 2006 Malbec (destined to be for their wine club members only), which had an intense deep purple, inky color, complementary dark flavors of dark plum, black cherry and raspberry and interesting notes of peppery spice and cured meat.
World-class wines and small-town hospitality, another winning combination. After we had a conversation about Wine Wipes (a product that removes purple wine stains from your teeth) wondering if it would work for Wine Horns as well (the Welch’s grape-juice looking extended smile) and neon-purple teeth that glowed in the dark, Muriel made a few dinner suggestions and then went to the added trouble of writing the restaurant’s phone numbers down so we could try to get an early reservation… the exceptional service was greatly appreciated.
Taking Muriel’s advice, we walked over to Saffron, who at 5:00pm, was already booked solid for the night. Much to our elated surprise (but perfectly in line with a day where every little thing seemed to fall magically into place), the beautiful hostess squeezed us in anyway. Saffron was like a little slice of the Mediterranean, focusing on using seasonal, local, organic and all natural ingredients whenever possible. They make their own bread, flatbread, pastas, cured meats and sausages in-house — and those quality details didn’t go unnoticed. The wine list was a good mix of local and Mediterranean wines that paired brilliantly with their flavorful food and the open kitchen, with exposed brick and Champagne riddling racks for tables, created a warm, sophisticated and inviting atmosphere.
While enjoying our dinner of tapas, Hunter and I were reliving the day, recapping some of the best moments. The conversation turned to Zerba’s Paul Samson and his great sense of style and when I admitted I thought he was handsome, Hunter remarked how he liked Paul’s cute cap and then even confessed he had his own little man-crush on Paul. Some wine, some food and all the secrets come pouring out.
With bellies full and eastern Oregon wineries visited, we returned once again to the bosom of our family. One of the many things I enjoy about visiting my in-laws in Richland, Washington (aside from their pampering ways) is their proximity to some of the best and virtually undiscovered wine regions on the West Coast. Just minutes from my husband’s childhood home is the Red Mountain AVA (think Seth Ryan, Fidelitas and Col Solare) and wineries of the Tri-cities (Bookwalter, Barnard Griffin…), Prosser (Hogue and Snowqualmie…), Yakima Valley wineries and of course Walla Walla (home of the legendary Leonetti, Abeja and Woodward Canyon, just to name a few). With all that amazing wine nearby, what I find myself coming back to again and again in this post (and so I guess my lesson) is the stories and the importance of family. I’ve been beautifully reminded this weekend through wine labels (with indelible black purses and burned images) to not only hold dear memories close to the heart but share them with others, paying tribute to each of our family stories… and through subsequent generations, those memories can live on forever. Until we sip again…