Walla Walla Wines Part 2 – Reds

Chef at work shelling peas
The fermentation process!
The fermentation process!

After our Walla Walla fall release trip we published an article highlighting the notable white wines of the trip. Fall release weekend is all about the new reds releases for the season. While we tasted whites, their numbers paled in comparison, so it made the job of selecting noteworthy whites rather easy. Now we are culling through our tasting notes of the hundred or so reds to select those to highlight and add to Coho’s wine list. It is like a giant jigsaw puzzle without any edges.

Three wineries – Rasa Vineyards, Ensemble Wines and Skylite Cellars – were serendipitous discoveries. We learned about them from other winemaker colleagues that would ask, “So where else have you tasted?” We would reply, “Who are we missing?”

We literally stumbled across Rasa Vineyards after our tasting with Mackey Vineyards, as they share a winemaking facility and tasting room. As we started tasting Rasa’s wine, we were awed by what was in our glass. We kept asking ourselves why we hadn’t heard about Rasa before. It is astonishing that they are producing such outstanding wines with complex structure and maturity in only their fourth year of production.

Meet Pinto and Billo, the two brothers behind Rasa’s wines. Both are technical geeks who worked in the computer field for the past two decades. Both were top of their field, Billo a graduate from MIT and Stanford and Pinto from the Stevens Institute of Technology. In 2007, they decided to follow their oenophile passion and start a winery. Billo ended up getting another degree in viniculture from UC Davis. And as they say, the rest is history. Before we were introduced to Billo, he was unassumingly walking around the tasting room with a childlike curiosity, peering in the open fermentation tanks and reading the dials on the giant steel tank in the corner of the room.

The brothers honed their palates traveling and associating themselves with like minds who appreciated great wine. This informal learning unknowingly imprinted their vision for their new label some 20 years later. With Billo’s formal winemaking education, access to some of the valley’s best fruit through a connection with a college roommate, their mathematical and scientific background, and their passion to follow their dream, they had the tool kit for success.

(A small shout out for a bit of shameless self-promotion….please save the date. We are hosting a winemaker’s dinner on March 28th featuring Rasa’s wine at Coho Restaurant.)

It is no surprise, given their background, that their big reserve Syrah, Principia, is named after Sir Isaac Newton’s mathematical principles that perfectly describes this complex wine.

Their 2010 Plus One is a single vineyard Cabernet from Red Mountain with notes of eucalyptus, rose petals, dried cherries and leather. It has lots of structure that will evolve for at least another 20 years. Pinto and his daughter, Karly, play a game about how much they love each other. She always tries to find a larger and larger number working her way to infinity. No matter what number she comes up with, Pinto responds, I love you that much, ‘plus one’. When Pinto and Billo fell in love with wine it was Cabernet that they fell in love with. So when they were creating their Cabernet, they both thought “Plus One” would be a fitting name.

Chris Nelson, the winemaker from Ensemble Wines, an engineer and former wine shop owner from Gig Harbor, Whidbey Island, has a

Ensemble Cellars
Ensemble Cellars

different take on the number one. His unique concept of wine production produces one red blend each year – a vertical blending of the best juice from three successive vintages. Instead of a vintage date on the bottle, he calls his wine Release Number X. He has just released Number 8, which is a blend of 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages. Using this technique, he is able to produce very consistent wines despite the weather variations from year to year.

Skylite Cellars, another small family winery, was established by Tom and Cheryl Hodgins. We met up with daughter Ashley at the winery one evening. She was wearing knee-high rubber boots as she and winemaker Greg Matiko hosed off the last of the equipment after crush. She is an energetic can-do type who wears multiple hats as marketing director, assistant wine maker and tasting room attendant.

All of their wines are well structured, aged and ready to drink, and value priced for the craft in the bottle. Their 2009 Soiree is a blend of Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot with notes of black current, anise, and violet with a bell pepper finish.

After we tasted through the lineup, Ashley bashfully mentioned another project they were involved with. She hesitated showing us, since she thought the label might be a bit off-putting for a fine dining restaurant. Her story goes something like this:

Tom, her father, had a long-standing career in AM radio, starting stations and building towers, before starting Skylite Cellars. His radio career introduced him to the “Hiney Wine Club,” a radio comedy started in the late 70’s that centered around a fictitious flip top can of wine. It seemed like a no-brainer for this radio guy, now winery owner, to produce a real hiney wine, as none existed to this point. His Hiney Wine is a blend of Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot. The big red buns on the front of the label bare the hiney trademark, no pun intended. The juice inside, worthy of the Gold Tri Cities wine award, is a great everyday table wine, particularly with the $15 price tag.

Hiney WinesAfter writing about these wines, I ended up opening their 2008 Cellars Reserve, a blend of Malbec, Cabernet and Carmenere for dinner. It was a feminine, velvety wine, made from dark, chewy red fruit with a chocolate and espresso finish. It needed an hour of decanting, or a quick shot through the venturi, but it opened up beautifully and was the perfect match to roasted chicken. At $47 retail, the wine drank like one that was at least double the price.

These three winemakers followed their passions. Each left lucrative careers to roll the dice and roll up their sleeves to work with this elusive fermented beverage. Not only do the labels and names of the wines show off their personalities and sense of humor, the juice within tells the story of their visions.


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