Last weekend, after a great deal of thought, research and planning, my husband and I and another couple who’ve been part of our decades-long wine tasting group decided to trek to Walla Walla, Washington, for that region’s annual fall release weekend. We have attended many such events over the course of several years, when the area’s wineries take part in the semi-annual release of their latest vintages. The first weekend in May is the partner to this autumnal event and draws a much bigger crowd, at the start of the summer travel season, to indulge in the world-class wines produced there. We’ve always enjoyed this quieter, more relaxed first November weekend compared to its exuberant spring sister. Harvest and crush, the most frenetic time of year for winemakers, have just wrapped up, and everyone in the industry seems happy to be able to take a deep breath, reflect on the season just gone and look forward to the coming holidays.
Of course, 2020 has thrown “normal” out the window. Spring release weekend was cancelled entirely, and we weren’t at all sure for a while whether traveling this fall would be safe or feasible. We kept our hotel reservations, though, closely followed the case numbers and restrictions imposed on businesses and gatherings, and kept in touch with some of our go-to wineries in the area to see what they were planning. We’d also visited a few of our local wineries over the summer to see how pandemic-safe tastings could be carried out. Finally, we decided we could make the 550-mile journey from home safely if we were smart about where we stayed and followed all the recommended protocols. To be honest, we were also eager to lend our support to our winemaking friends and were in great psychological need, after long months of isolation and devastating wildfires nearby, to spend time with good friends.
After checking in to our hotel on Thursday afternoon in Walla Walla (and wiping down all surfaces and using a disinfectant spray!), we visited two tasting rooms downtown that were new to us. (All of our tastings were planned and reserved in advance.) Gård Vintners makes reds, whites, rosés and dessert wines from grapes grown in their estate vineyards in the Royal Slope area, Washington state’s newest AVA. The tasting room has a cozy vibe enhanced by exposed brick walls and warm woods, and our hostess greeted us with a small plate of nibbles along with a selection of about six of their wines. Here, as at all the places we visited that weekend, we were seated at our own table at least six feet apart from others and were served by a single, masked, designated server. There is much to be said for such an arrangement, rather than competing for space at a crowded tasting room bar and trying to make sure you don’t miss one of the pours from a harried, distracted host. We were off to a good start, but with lots more to taste in the days ahead, we held off making any purchases.
Just around the corner, our next stop was SuLei Cellars, a women-owned and -operated winery established in 2007. Our companions, Randy and Lora, suggested we stop in after having visited the winery’s tasting room in their hometown of Vancouver, Washington. I really liked their setup here: We received a nice wine glass, a sheet of information about the wines we’d be tasting, and five small chemistry-lab beakers, each holding one of the wines we’d be tasting. Genius! It would free up our host (Elaine Jomwe, one of the winery’s founders) to serve more than one table at a time, allow us to taste each wine at our own pace, and minimize the amount of contact time between visitors and the host. She was still available to answer questions and provide information about the wine, however, and we really enjoyed everything we tried . . . proven by the bottles we bought!
We had a busy day scheduled for Friday, so we limited ourselves to just those two wineries that first day. Although initially we were a bit nervous about traveling so far from home and wine tasting at this time, our first experiences left us feeling happy and confident we’d made the right decision.
— Patty Vanikiotis, associate editor/copy editor
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