Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cool Week...Heatwave & All

Dawn is my favorite time. With a huge white moon to the south, yesterday a rich red dawn rose up from the northeast, slowly spreading an orange glow across golden fields. Temperatures were already in the low 80's and the breeze felt like a velvet caress.

We spent lots of time on the chaise lounges during a wondrous week at Grape Hill. On Friday night, the moon glow across the just-harvested golden wheat made the vista look just like we were gazing toward the Sahara. Goodness, I can only imagine how Monet would paint that one view across time...the shifts in color are easily as dramatic as his haystacks.

On Sunday, the mercury hit 108 degrees. Hot, yes, but entirely dry and really charming in small doses. We certainly were glad for having built the house with double-thick walls, tons of insulation, and hearty air-conditioning. Between the ceiling fans and the insulation, the AC cooled everything to 72 degrees at only 1/3 output. (We could probably drop the interior into the 50's!) The magical warm nighttime breezes more than compensated for daytime highs. We were tempted to sleep outside, but then again we were also enjoying switching between channels to catch as many Olympic events as possible.

We have been developing the habit of impromptu exploration; who can resist turning down a road called Halley Gultch or Marvel Reach? I have determined to make a collage of these great road names. Sue is getting into photographing old barns and silos. We tease one another, but both pursuits are pretty neat. Since we are on a search for the perfect cupola, every new turn offers excitement. We are turning into people who others might easily make fun of, yet these jaw-dropping views are the real deal. Steve and Lisa came out for a very joyful two days and they were a little smitten, I think. Lisa has always wanted to have a home on the water. We could not possibly be more landed, yet she felt the ocean thing quite a bit while looking out over the expanses. One of our most fun times was a delightful meal on the terrace at The Whoopemup in Waitsburg. Great company, really good food, perfect views in every direction, and that amazing warm breeze!

Sue and I explored into the Blues by driving out Lewis Peak Road all the way south and east until we looped back along the ridges turning north to Waitsburg. These are real mountains! On some of the ridges we were able to look down across the Walla Walla Valley all the way to Touchet and Wallula and then turn our heads the other direction and look down steep slopes to deep green thickets a couple thousand feet below.

Another great outing took us to breakfast at the Oasis (Sue is a tough judge on biscuits and gravy...says it was outstanding). Neither one of us liked the stinky cigarette smells, but cut the place some slack, being that is it in Oregon (smoking inside remains legal) and it is seventy years old. We met the British owner, late of California, and he was great...loving his adventure in buying the old place two years ago and really proud of the food quality. They are sourcing local vegetables, carefully buying and handling all their own meats, and selling literally tons of their favorites, including the top prime rib in the Valley. I had the patty-melt. No joke, the sandwich was giant, the fries were perfect, and I ate every bit. Still hated the cigarettes, but the food was magic. Afterward, we visited local gardens for U-pick veggies and then drove out to the Seven Hills area to look over the vast vineyards. Very interesting to see that all the cab and syrah and merlot were deeply-colored. Far higher heat units in these vineyards, which will harvest weeks ahead of us. Sue pointed out, just today, our first cluster with one purple grape amidst the green.

I spent our final morning today working with Carlos to put up a new steel post where we will remount the radio dish for the broadband system that drives our internet and VOIP phones. As it turns out, the erratic on again-off again issues seem to be coming from interference off the metal building. So, we got out and set a pole into concrete, trenched out 60 feet and buried conduit, and now Columbia REA will be able to come back and use the line that I left in place through the conduit to pull through their cable. With a bit of good fortune, we will have a continuous uncorrupted signal!

During the week, we spent time with contractors to walk through the expansion plans. Now, it is up to them to bring the numbers in to make the addition a reality. Part of me will miss having things just as they are, but then again, there are some very cool surprises yet to come!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Shortcuts to Shopping, etc.

Grape Hill is five miles north of Highway 12, just about due north of the airport. The speed limit is 50 MPH on Middle Waitsburg Road, so the run is quick. Takes seven minutes to get to Starbucks, which is right at the center of old Main Street.

The easiest, shortest way to get in to Albertson's and other local shops and restaurants, is to take Middle Waitsburg Road along the airport fence and then take the first left turn as the road banks to the right. This leads immediately to a Tee and you will want to bear to the right. Follow this street (turns into Wellington) as it goes beneath the freeway and then turn left as you pass Lumberman's. In two more blocks you'll see Wilbur and Albertson's will be on your right. Albertson's is open 24 hours and there is an ATM at the bank in the same location. The Blue is open late and is right across the street at the corner of Wilbur and Isaac.

The big boulevard beyond Albertson's is Isaac. Turning right on Isaac leads to Whitman College, to downtown and Starbucks. Turning left on Isaac leads to the Community College and to the airport.

Turning left coming out from Grape Hill, Middle Waitsburg Road runs north to Waitsburg. This is a lovely drive and there are some great spots in Waitsburg. (When winemakers are done for the day and hanging out, lots of the young ones show up at the brewery and at the jimgermanbar in Waitsburg. For architecture afficianados like me, Waitburg and Dayton have many great old homes and buildings to enjoy.)

When you come out from Grape Hill, you can also take Smith Road over to Sapolil and then out to the highway. This is the fastest route to Mill Creek, but have a map along unless meandering sounds like fun.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Favorite Restaurants & Wineries

This is tough...too many to cover and new places coming up all the time. But I'll try to be helpful so here goes: Breakfasts- Merchants has the tourist atmosphere and it can be fine, but I admire the straight forward efficiency and darned good food from Clarette's. Clarette's is my favorite for a really dependable American coffee shop breakfast. Luscious By Nature, on Colville, is entirely hit or miss...food can be excellent...service can be deplorably chaotic.

Lunches- Yungapeti on 9th just south of Poplar serves great authentic Mexican food to locals. The Albanil Burrito is outstanding. The taco truck outside the Napa Auto on Isaac is superb. Just off 9th, The Ice Burg is the place to go for great drive up burgers and killer shakes. The Destination Grill at the Depot, on 2nd, is doing good sit down lunch fare.

Here is a great way to go: lots of the wineries have outdoor eating areas...another superb way to make a day of it is to buy box lunches at Salumiere Cesario on 2nd, go by Colville St Pastisserie for desserts, then get a bottle of wine at the winery & borrow some glasses for a lovely picnic. Another perfect spot for picnics is going out to Bennington Lake...you'll see the signs off Mill Creek Road.

Dinners- You would be nuts to leave Grape Hill on a lovely evening...better to stay put and enjoy Big Table at Sunset. If you do go out, get reservations ahead whenever possible. Whitehouse-Crawford has great food and a wonderful setting. It's easy to run up a big bill here, but corkage isn't bad if you bring along your own wine. I like eating at the bar, where Avel is good company and conversations with strangers are more common than not. Chef Jamie Guerin is so experienced and so conscientious that he seldom disappoints.

Walla Walla has big time wine lovers who tend to congregate at 26 Brix and Whitehouse-Crawford. You'll hear them yammering about trips to Burgundy and who they know in Napa or about the special dinner that so and so made for them at Le Cirque. What these guys would not know is how Walla Walla has been quite a wealthy town for generations. Many of the locals know a ton about great wines and have trained in Bordeaux or other famous areas.

It's much better not to get caught up in all that bragging because the guys all around might just know a ton more than one might expect. Tell you what, you'll find farmers in overalls with Harvard MBAs and one fella down at the cement yard makes some of the finest beer you'll ever find anywhere. My electrician owns part of a winery and I would not want to compete with him in any blind tasting to identify what we're drinking.

Back to restaurants- Creektown seems always busy and service tends to be pleasant but slower than I like. When I can ratchet down to a really leisurely pacing, the food is really good and the terrace is perfect for summer dining. With a big group and planning ahead, the chef's table at The Marc can be great fun. We have had good meals at 26 Brix, too. I love the Whoopemup Cafe in Waitsburg and the jimgermanbar across the street. Saffron does delightful tapas-size dishes that are great. Don't go in hungry or plan to order lots of dishes and pay a big bill. T. Maccarone is quite popular. I found the food too bland for my taste on the two occasions when I ate there, but this may be a flawed sampling. The ingredients and the service were very good and I want to give this another try.
Backstage Bistro used to be a favorite, but prices went really high so I'd be more inclined to go there for a still-expensive lunch. Good food, but the ambiance doesn't support prices on line with the best restaurants in the area.

Places that are perhaps less memorable but easier on the wallet include El Sombrero on 2nd (American-style Mexican food...good fajitas & margaritas), PhoSho (Vietnamese noodle bar) next door to Saffron (same owners), Destination Grill at The Depot, & Sweet Basel Pizza on 1st across from Starbucks. Good sandwiches and other fare at The Blue Mountain Casino...with a very friendly game of Texas Hold'Em and some other gaming tables like Blackjack & 3-Car Poker. This is a fun local spot that seldom sees outsiders...not at all on the Wine Tourism Map. Another fun local spot, at a bit of a drive, is The Oasis on Stateline. Food, music, an eclectic crowd often ready with tall tales.

Wineries are basically located in five different areas (with a few very good ones peppered around at longer distances).

Coming in on Highway 12, the first wineries are in Lowden. L'Ecole 41 produces a broad array of good to very good wines. Woodward Canyon is one of the first wineries to open in the area and retains a solid reputation. The cabs, in particular, can be excellent. Getting a little closer toward town you come to Reininger and Cougar Crest (lots of estate bottlings...some really bright, delightful wines) and Three Rivers (I'm a big fan of their Boushey syrah). Longshadows is about a mile up the road behind Cougar Crest...some very fine wines, but not open for tastings.

In town, more and more tasting rooms are showing up. Seven Hills & Spring Valley produce great wines and you'll discover many more as you go around. Sleight of Hand is getting quite popular...the wines that I have tasted have been light and pleasant, not significant. Trey, the winemaker, is using quite a bit of sangiovese. More and more sangio is coming on in Walla Walla and, for me, this is still a disconnect. Some would well argue that Walla Walla sangiovese is distinct and different from chianti's grapes, while I tend to find it watery and best suited for lightweight summer quaffing, but that is why we all have our own tongues and tastes and I should probably keep my tongue to myself, but this is my blog so what the heck! I have had some good wines at Morrison Lane, too. Cayuse makes excellent wines, but you will never find the tasting room open except on a couple specific days each year.

The airport is a hotbed of wineries. Dunham Cellars produces very good and great wines, including exceptional reserve cab and syrah. The cabs have proven to be amongst the most age worthy wines in Washington. Buty makes very good wines, including some of the few worthwhile Washington chardonnays and superb cab/syrah blends. Tamarack is popular and makes some of the best table reds. Syzygy also does good wines. Russell Creek sometimes hits very high notes, too. College Cellars, just south from the airport, is both a viticulture training college and an active winery, with wines made by students and faculty. Interesting and very worthy institution. We owe great thanks to the college for help in getting our own vineyard up and running.

Out toward Mill Creek, K Vintners is always a memorable visit (great syrahs and more), Walla Walla Vintners does many great bottlings including lovely cab francs, Abeja is doing lovely cabs and several other very nice bottlings (reservations needed, I think). We are partial to Grape Hill, of course, but if Grape Hill were unavailable and you wanted a great breakfast that somebody else was cooking, the rooms at Abeja would a fine place to stay.

South of downtown are Rulo, Isenhower, Dusted Valley, and Chateau Rollat (this is a serious winery offering a wonderful semillon and two great Bordeaux blends...Eduoard is extraordinary). Pepper Bridge does very fine wines, Northstar makes some delicious wines, there is Tertulia, Waters, Beresan, A Maurice, Va Piano...too many to list. Mostly in the smaller facilities you may get the chance to meet the winemakers...spontaneous tours of the barrel rooms, wine thief in hand, are not uncommon!

Covering the Airport and Mill Creek is plenty for a whole afternoon. Seeing the wineries south of town is another whole afternoon. Feel free to spit out the tastes (the pros all do so). When you don't swallow, your palate will last much longer. I used to sometimes come home with wines that tasted so good at the winery and wonder "what was I thinking?" when we opened them at home later on. By driving absolutely sober y
ou'll be better prepared to avoid the bad driving or others who did not use the spitting jar. BTW-don't leave your wine in a hot car for very long!

Plan ahead...limousines are available that are the perfect choice when you want to really have a big blowout. With advance notice, the limo drivers may be able to arrange tastings in some of the wineries that are closed to the public, plus they will keep your wine cool, too!

On weekends, there are some more distant wineries open that will take you further afield (literally). Dumas Cellars produces exceptional wines. Couvaison Cellars is a lovely drive up Middle Waitsburg Road, not too far from Grape Hill.

Most of the restaurants close by 9 or 10. Bars and taverns are open later. Some favorite spots are the Mill Creek Brew Pub on Main St near the Whitman campus, the Vintage Bar inside Marcus Whitman Hotel on 2nd (choice seats by the fireplace), and Vintage Cellars on 2nd.

OK. That's a start. http://www.wallawalla.org/ will offer lots more, plus maps and phone numbers.
With just a couple days touring around, most visitors tend to stick with the areas right off Main Street and 2nd Ave, but places like The Blue, The Oasis, jimgermanbar, and Yungapeti offer up local slices of life and may well be filled with Walla Walla natives who only go in to the Starbucks and places on Main St once or twice a year themselves. If you do drive home at night, take it slowly...there are no lights and lots of deer. Enjoy the stars and solitude.

When it comes to the wineries, with so many new releases, new styles, and whole new places opening up, the scene is always in motion and it is impossible for wine lovers to ever fall into a "been there, done that" attitude here. We could go out tasting for a whole weekend several times each year and still not keep up. Between bicycle weekends and rodeo weekends and ballon weekends and concerts and winemaker outings and harvest activities, there are not too many times to be bored in these parts. Humm...maybe early November is a bit dull? (I'll think about that in November and report back...)