“Cab is King.” At least that’s what people say. But, what kind of king do you want to hang out with? King Bordeaux is grand, wise, and distant. Sometimes he smells like an old castle, but in a good way. King Napa is handsome, athletic, and a tad predictable. The “Parkerazzi” snap his picture and tell him he is the best. Entering his court is easy, provided you are willing to pay the price. King Washington will invite you for a party and generously pour you another glass of his royal cuvee. He is his own man, and a fine man his becoming.
Washington Cabernet Sauvignon is why hundreds of people will journey from across the kingdom – okay North America, anyway – to Celebrate Walla Walla June 16 – 18. There, all will enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon fit for a prince, that will not (necessarily) leave you a pauper.
In its fourth year, Celebrate Walla Walla is an entertaining and educational tasting event. Each year a different one of three key varietals is featured. It began with Cabernet Sauvignon and is celebrating this grape again with the momentum of a now established and growing three-day event. Approximately 600 people are expected to attend in 2016.
Why IS Cab King in Walla Walla? Gordy Venneri of Walla Walla Vintners explains that young winemakers aspire to emulate the “King of the Hill” – Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon. “The 100 point Cabernet Sauvignon is the gold ring in Washington,” says Venneri.
The grape has historical value in the AVA. Cabernet Sauvignon was already widely planted in other parts of Washington when Gary Figgins researched the soils and climate around Walla Walla. He deemed that the area which would become the Walla Walla AVA was a good place to plant the grape. Figgins founded Leonetti Cellar – the first post-prohibition winery in Walla Walla – and his very first Cabernet Sauvignon, vintage 1978, caused quite a stir. In 1981 Wine & Spirits Magazine sent a out a call for samples. Figgins recalls, “We wondered if we should submit, and then damn if we didn’t win the whole thing.” The 1978 Leonetti Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon was named “Best Cabernet in the Nation.”
Whitman College Geology Professor, Kevin Pogue Ph.D. points out the gratitude owed to those early producers of Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon: Leonetti Cellar, Seven Hills Winery, Woodward Canyon, Waterbrook Winery, Pepper Bridge Winery and L’Ecole. Dr. Pogue also attributes the success of the grape to Walla Walla’s growing conditions. Cabernet Sauvignon is late to bud and to ripen and usually hangs through late September/early October. “Shorter days and less heat allows the grape to retain varietal characteristics and ripen with balanced sugar and phenolics,” explains Dr. Pogue.
Wine experts agree there is something distinctive about Cabernet Sauvignon from Walla Walla. Most speak about warm, ripe, yet balanced fruit flavors, but even so, generalities do not always apply. Venneri offers this comparison: “French Cabernet is more herbaceous, and Washington Cabernet has more spice; except from higher elevations, like Walla Walla Vintners, where we can offer more herbal notes.”
Doug Frost, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, uses terms like “tenseness” and “age-worthy.” Frost spoke about that inevitable and cringeworthy question wine experts are asked, “What’s your favorite wine?” Like most he tries to avoid answering, but shares: “I feel Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are more fascinating with age. If you look in my cellar you will find a lot of age-worthy Washington wines.”
Master Sommelier Thomas Burke of Chateau Margaux points out the price advantage Walla Walla Cabernet has over Napa. Even King Napa agrees about Washington’s quality and favorable price point. Many note Washington’s ability to reign in fruit ripeness and strike a balance in structure and flavor. Burke points out, “Washington does a great job offering savory characteristics under the fresh ripe fruit creating intriguing wines. True wine lovers looking for a sense of place in wine can find that in Walla Walla.”
The discovery of a sense of place is a huge part of Celebrate Walla Walla. Frost and Burke will open the weekend at The World of Cabernet Sauvignon Kick Off Event with a global perspective of the grape. Dr. Pogue will explain the regional factors that contribute to differences in the wine.
Veterans of Celebrate Walla Walla know that the comparative tasting panel discussion is a highlight. Attendees will hear the perspectives of the winemakers themselves while experiencing the differences in the glass. This year the panel is slated to include: Patrick Valette of VIK in Millahue Valley Chile, Burke of Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux, Thomas Rivers Brown of Rivers-Marie in Napa. They will be joined by the “Home” team composed of Walla Walla winemakers John Freeman of Waterbrook Winery, Chuck Reininger of Reininger Winery, and Venneri of Walla Walla Vintners.
Vintage Pour, another high point, offers an historical perspective of Cabernet Sauvignon in Walla Walla as vintners open older bottles. Hint for those attending: visit the tables of the founding wineries mentioned earlier…
The best way to experience Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon is to attend Celebrate Walla Walla and taste for yourself. Details can be found at celebratewallawalla.com and tickets can be purchased for individual events or the entire weekend.
The best part of Celebrate Walla Walla may be the spirit of the town itself. Guests inevitably mingle with locals at the end of a wine tasting day, and you are likely to run into the event speakers, who just like you, are out for a refreshing beer. Remember, Walla Walla is the King of Cab with whom it is fun to hang out.
And if you have time to hang around a bit longer… We recommend you find lodging among the vines. During Celebrate stay in town. You will be able to walk to restaurants, tasting rooms, many of the Celebrate events. But if you have an extra night we highly recommend Girasol Vineyards and Inn, properly in wine country but only about 8 minutes from the action in Walla Walla. Innkeepers Michele Rennie and Edward Lewis go out of their way to make guests comfortable. A cheese and charcuterie plate awaits upon check in. The fridge is stocked with complimentary soda and beer. Rennie offers excellent concierge service including a list of restaurant recommendations noting those requiring reservations and those closed during the stay. A gourmet breakfast is offered each morning – fortification for another day of tasting at nearby wineries.
Part of this article originally appeared in Oregon Wine Press.