We wanted to see what happened when we took two cities in the Pacific Northwest connected by Alaska Airlines flights and pursued a common theme across both. Could we comfortably pull off a wine tasting, trail running weekend? In this, the first of a series of City Pairs, we chose two notable wine regions and tasted our way through a three-day, two-state vineyard voyage. Mornings were paired with trails and seclusion. Afternoons were wine and food. The trip was out of the ordinary, but in my top five.
From Ashland Hills Hotel, it’s just a short drive to a runner’s or hiker’s bliss. Cross the highway and go left on Tolman Creek Road. Not knowing what to expect on the upwardly winding road, I stopped a mile short of a trailhead where I would begin the run next time, the Creek to Crest Trail—it was a beautiful run up Toothpick Trail to Catwalk and up from there. I lived the hermit’s dream of seeing no one during my hour-long outing.
This trip began with an element of the unknown—getting out on the back roads of the Rogue Valley. From the stylish retro-remake Ashland Hills Hotel, we got a hot tip and took a brief jaunt west through the rolling greens and browns of Emigrant Creek Road.
A relatively newcomer to Southern Oregon, Irvine & Roberts Vineyards has put that image to the side with its elegant wines and stunning tasting room. Above the vineyard, the back deck of the tasting room overlooks the a valley of dizzying greens, its outdoor gas firepits taking the chill from the air. As handsome as the tasting room is inside, with barnwood floors and wooden rafters, it’s the back deck where the experience is elevated by virtue of its setting. Co-owners Dionne and Doug Irvine, along with his sister and brother in-law, Kelly and Duane Roberts, first planted pinot noir and chardonnay in 2007. It was Irvine & Roberts’ pinot meunier, however, that stole the show. The chardonnay is neither steel nor oak, a clean profile that points me in a direction to which I’m stubbornly resistant. (I’ll drink white wine when I’m old.)
North along the highway but not quite to Medford, we passed vineyards galore—Grizzly Peak, Paschal, Pebblestone—until we came to 2Hawk Vineyard & Winery, the passion project of Ross and Jen Allen. On this 23-acre site, third-generation farmer Ross Allen brings years of California Central Valley farming methods to bear. Technology and nature are coming together in a renovation of the 2Hawk brand. A 50-kilowatt solar array powers nearly all of the winery’s operations, and Allen can micromanage each row of his grapes from an app on his phone.
Perhaps the best thing about wine tasting is getting to know the people and stories behind the brand. For years, I’ve been a fan of DANCIN Vineyards but never knew why. On this day, when the retiring sun painted slots and angles on the Rogue Valley, a lively group of people drank wine around outdoor tables in what felt like a small Italian town’s piazza.
Inside the tasting room, a woman cleared dishes from the few small tables while behind the bar a man checked in with his waitstaff and poured wine, occasionally looking up to make conversation with a patron at the bar. Dan and Cindy Marca, the owners and namesake of DANCIN Vineyards, could easily be mistaken for hourly help. This family-run business was the first vineyard to offer food full full time, Dan told me. From a wood-fired oven, perfect thin-crust pizzas arrive in a serving window as if pulled through a time warp from Old World Italy.
The 2015 Coda Southern Oregon Estate Pinot Noir is my preference among an array of good pinots and barberas. Coda is as elegant as its label, a ballerina dressed in a red wine splash. The lovely wines, the lighter-than-air pizzas, a piazza buzzing with conversations, this all seemed a world away as I flew into Seattle then on to Walla Walla.
The compelling thing about air travel in this day and age is traveling light and flying into the region’s smaller airports. It’s only a matter of minutes from when you alight from your flight to when you’re through the doors at Olive Marketplace & Cafe for lunch in downtown Walla Walla. I’d like to vouch for many of the other things on the menu, but sadly I can only testify to the oyster chowder and ginger-braised brisket house barbeque sandwich. I have countless more dining aspirations beyond my one stomach. Lamarckian evolution will one day acknowledge a second and third stomach.
Once Washington’s territorial capital, Walla Walla is today a farming community with a stunning downtown—classic American architecture flanked by other styles that could put you in boutiquey Southern France. In the flat places outside of town, wheat and sweet onions are crops grown on vast expanses. Closer in grows a crop that Walla Walla is increasingly known for—wine grapes. Where pinot noir is the varietal most planted in the Rogue Valley, merlot, cabernet and syrah are the most widely planted grapes in Walla Walla’s loess soil.
My second act in Walla Walla was to meet with Guy Glaeser, a world-traveled tour guide who now makes Walla Walla his home and the base of his and his wife’s business, InquisiTours, a regional guide service with wine on its menu. What I thought would take little more than fifteen minutes and an earnest handshake lasted all day, six wineries and many stories.
Downtown Walla Walla has more than twenty wine cellars and tasting rooms, with a density of them in a one-block perimeter bound by Main and Rose streets and Second and Colville. If one were disposed to making wine a short-distance urban affair, they would find this to be an easy pursuit in Walla Walla.
Henry Earl Estates and Mark Ryan Winery were our first stops, across the street from one another on Main Street. In a historic brick building, longtime wine growers Dick and Wendy Shaw opened Henry Earl Estates tasting room in 2014. The 2013 reserve cabernet sauvignon is exceptional, but second to its Bordeaux-style 2011 Homesteader cab-merlot-malbec blend, to my taste.
Mark Ryan McNeilly has a thing for classic motorcycles and good wines. Mark Ryan Winery opened a new tasting room in Woodinville this year as a cross-state cousin to its Walla Walla tasting room. The airy pop-modern decor is counterpoint to its small-case, 100 percent cabernet sauvignon 2015 Old Vines wine. In motorcycle parlance, this one is as soft as the arc ot turn in a winding road ahead.
Out of the fray and on the edge of town is Seven Hills Vineyard. A bright and airy tasting room inside a charming turn-of-the-century brick-built wood mill. Founder and winemaker Casey McClellan brings his craft to fore with Pentad, a 2014 Bordeaux-style blend that makes you happy to have flown in for this—a destination red.
Tasting is best when it’s done on the vineyard among the vines. Guy took me out to Ashley Trout’s Brook & Bull Cellars and vineyard, where the winemaker sat cross-legged on front porch, tapping away on her computer. Along with her Brook & Bull label, Trout is marketing another label—Vital—for which all of the fruit is donated and all of the proceeds go to the no-cost health care organization that serves the industry’s laborers.
Va Piano is an argument in many stages of why it’s better to go out to the vineyard than taste in town. In a wonderful setting on the southeast corner of Walla Walla Valley is the Va Piano Walla Walla tasting room. There are others in Spokane and now Bend, Oregon, as well, but this has the best views and effervescent general manager Derri Reid. She oversees the operations of the burgeoning winery that owner and winemaker Justin Wylie is behind. Since all wine is subjective to its taster, I subjected the 2014 Va Piano Syrah to my most rigorous tests, and it came out on top. It’s convenient that I can also pick it up in my hometown.
There are many great options for dining in this town—Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen, the French Brasserie Four, the gourmet Whitehouse-Crawford in the same building as Seven Hills Winery and the new Walla Walla Steak Co., in the renovated train depot. Dining alone takes an artful pick. You want an active bar setting—not a solo table—where conversation and good food coincide. Passatempo Taverna is just that—housemade bucatini carbonara and a bright red blend is a nice end to an amazing wine weekend.
The next morning, I woke up to a gentle rain and an easy run just east of town along the Bennington Lake trails. My hermit aspirations were dashed only by white-tailed rabbits scurrying from the blackberry underbrush and across the path, as if there were somewhere else to be.