How Warren Winarski and Marketta Formeaux Inspired the Creation of Mi Sueño Winery: A Mexican-American Dream Come True in Napa Valley

(July 2017) Last Saturday evening my husband and I were invited to the 20 Year Anniversary Dinner Celebration of Mi Sueño Winery. Given that I knew the wines of Mi Sueno were very delicious and that the dinner was being held at Michelin star restaurant L’Auberge de Soleil, we were very pleased to be on the guest list. However, I didn’t expect to be brought to tears by the speakers, and completely awestruck by the support and mentorship of Warren Winarski and Marketta Formeaux in helping Rolando and Lorena Herrera to start Mi Sueño Winery.

The Herrera Family

The Herrera Family, Owners of Mi Sueño Winery, Napa Valley

A Double Anniversary of Wine and Romance

The dinner began with a reception on the patio where we were treated to a chilled glass of 2013 Mi Sueno Chardonnay Los Carneros and many tempting appetizers. Then, as the sun was slowly setting over the Western mountains of Napa Valley, the more than 200 guests in attendance were ushered into a sparkling dining room with white orchids on each table and a sea of wine glasses at each place setting. Champagne was poured as Cristina Londono with Telemundo gracefully stood to propose a toast to Rolando and Lorena Herrera. Not only were they celebrating ownership of Mi Sueño Winery, which was launched in 1997, but they were also celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary.

As Rolando stood to address the crowd, he had a large smile on his face. “Thirty-five years ago I started working here at L’Auberge de Soleil as a dishwasher,” he said, “and today I can truly say my dream has come true.”

Mi Sueño 20th Anniversary at Auberge du Soleil

Private Dining Room at L’Auberge de Soleil for Mi Sueño Dinner

 

The American Dream is Alive in Napa Valley

Then Rolando proceeded to tell the story of how he had left Mexico in 1982 at age 15 to attend high school in Napa Valley and wash dishes at night. He took on other part-time jobs, including building stonewalls for Warren Winarski at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. One day Warren saw him building walls, and was impressed by his determination, so he decided to offer him a cellar job. Three years later, Rolando was promoted to cellar master, and during this time began taking winemaking classes at Napa Valley College. Over the ensuring years, he also had the opportunity to work at Chateau Potelle and Paul Hobbs wineries before starting his own very successful Mi Sueño Winery.

Rolando pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and expressed his appreciation:

  • “To Warren, thank you for giving me the opportunity and opening the doors to the wine industry. I loved you from day one.”
  • “To Marketta, thank you for your trust in me and hiring me as a winemaker.”
  • “To Paul Hobbs, you gave me wings to fly, and took me to South America”
  • “To my wife and children, you are everything.”
Rolando and Lorena Herrera thank their guests

Rolando and Lorena Herrera Thanking Their Guests

Warren’s Mentorship

When it was Warren’s turn to address the diners, he confidentially took the microphone and told a story that brought tears to my eyes:

“The day I first met Rolando, he was cutting and placing stones on a wall at my Stag’s Leap property. It was the summer of 1985, and I didn’t know that the workers had been told: ‘Don’t look up at El Senor when he passes. Keep your eyes down and stay working.’ But one worker looked up at me, and I looked down at him. There was something in his eyes that said, ‘I am not a stone cutter.’ It reminded me of myself when I started out as an apprentice. So I fell in love with this man who looked up at me, and I saw myself in that look.”

Warren went on to describe how he offered Rolando a job in the cellar. “Not only did he have to learn English, but he had to learn the vocabulary of wine. This is difficult because you have to find words to describe what you taste on your tongue.  Wine has its own vocabulary, and without it you cannot talk the language of wine. But Rolando excelled at all of this. He is filled with passion, dedication, consciousness, and courage. He was recognized at the Smithsonian this May, and his wines have been served at the White House. He produces the highest level of fine wine.”

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Warren Winarski and Rolando Herrera

Marketta Formeaux of Chateaux Potelle Offers Rolando a Chance to be Winemaker

After many cheers and much toasting over Warren’s story, Marketta Formeaux, former owner of Chateau Potelle took the microphone. She explained how she had approached Rolando and offered him the position of Assistant Winemaker at Chateau Potelle in 1995:

“I came to Napa Valley from France in 1980,” explained Marketta in her charming French accent, “and was a partner in launching Chateau Potelle. In 1995 I wanted to hire an Assistant Winemaker, and I met Rolando. As a woman in the wine industry, I know how difficult it can be at times, and the courage and hard work it took for him to achieve what he had done at Stag’s Leap. So we hired him, and he worked for us for two years. Rolando was an exceptional winemaker and perfectly understood our motto that ‘we don’t make wine, we make pleasure.”

Massive applause erupted after Marketta’s speech, and much clinking of glasses and wine toasts “for pleasure.”

Rolando Herrera, Marketta Formeaux, Lorena Herrera, Warren Winiarski, Barbara Winiarski

Rolando, Marketta Formeaux, Lorena and Warren

Flying Winemaker and the Launch of Mi Sueño

Rolando also had other jobs with Vine Cliff Winery and Paul Hobbs Winery. While working with Paul, he had the opportunity to fly to South America to assist with winemaking there. Paul Hobbs was not able to be at the dinner celebration due to his travel schedule, but I’m sure he would have had an equally compelling story to tell as Marketta and Warren.

Cristina took the microphone again, and we learned that Rolando’s story continued with his marriage to Lorena in 1997, after a decade of courtship. Lorena is the oldest daughter of the famous Robledo wine family, who own more than 350 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties. So in addition to marrying the love of his life, Rolando had access to high quality wine grapes. Therefore, they decided to start their own winery the same year that they married. They christened it “Mi Sueño,” which means “My Dream” in Spanish.

Mi Sueño Winery Today

Today Rolando and Lorena produce seven major varietals, including chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, malbec, syrah and petit verdot. To honor their six children, they created a second brand called Herrera, naming each wine in this line after one of their children. For example there is Herrera Perla Chardonnay and Herrera Rolando Jr. Cabernet Sauvignon, for their children, Perla and Rolando Jr.

Mi Sueño and Herrera Wines

Mi Sueño and Herrera Selection Wines

 

The Wine and Dinner Menu at L’Auberge de Soleil

In addition to being moved to tears by the speakers, we were also treated to an incredible meal by Executive Chef Robert Curry and Pastry Chef Paul Lemieux. Many of the wines were poured from magnum. The menu is listed below:

Sauteed Day Boat Scallop

2010 Perla Chardonnay, Herrera Selection

 

Grilled Kurobuta Pork Chop

2006 Mi Sueño Russian River Pinot Noir

 

Filet of Beef with Wild Mushrooms

2010 Rebecca Cabernet Sauvignon, Herrera Selection

2010 Rolando Jr. Cabernet Sauvignon, Herrera Selection

 

Valrhona Chocolate Mousse Torte

Hazelnut Custard

 

On the drive home my husband and I discussed the evening and how magical it was. It gave us both hope, that though we live in a time now where immigration to the USA is becoming tougher and tougher, there is still opportunity in wine country.

Later, I found out from Amelia Ceja, President of Ceja Winery, that there is a Mexican-American Vintner’s Association.  Currently they have around 13 members, but Amelia estimates that there are around 25 wineries started by Mexican-Americans in the US today. Five of these wineries, including Ceja and Mi Sueno, were honored at the Smithsonian earlier this year in a special ceremony focusing on food and wine.

Mi Sueño 2013 Los Carneros Chardonnay

 

Magnificent Meals at Domaine Drouhin, Serene and Penner Ash Wineries in Oregon

(May 2017) In addition to elegant food-friendly pinot noirs, the Willamette Valley is also well known for fresh farm produce grown in sustainable ways. So in addition to experiencing beautiful vineyard landscape and exquisite wine tastings, the 42 MWs on the tour organized by the Oregon Wine Board were treated to a variety of magnificent meals. Following is a recap of some of these delicious meals.

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Local Oregon Appetizers at Domaine Serene

Cellar Lunch at Domaine Drouhin

On the second day of our Oregon wine tour we were welcomed to Domain Drouhin. Established more than 25 years ago by the Joseph Drouhin family from Burgundy, the winery’s motto is “French Soul, Oregon Soil.” I had visited here twice in the past, and this time was just as welcoming as the prior visits.

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Entrance to Domaine Drouhin in Willamette Valley, Oregon

Even though it was raining lightly when we arrived, the terrace overlooking the vineyards had a stunning view and we enjoyed a variety of fresh appetizers before being ushered into the cellar. There amongst the stainless steel tanks we were able to partake of a buffet of fresh salads, fruits, and brick oven pizzas. Afterwards we enjoyed the “stories of the winemakers,” over a tasting of more amazing pinot noirs.

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Winemaker Story-Telling Lunch at Domaine Drouhin

Gala Dinner at Domaine Serene in New Estate Club House

That evening we dressed up to attend a very elegant dinner at the new tasting room/club house just opened at Domaine Serene. Again, I had visited this winery several times in the past, but in their original building. The new clubhouse is stunning with a large welcoming fountain in front of the Spanish style architecture with melon stucco walls and red roof tiles.

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Entrance to Domaine Serene, Willamette Valley, Oregon

As we entered, we were handed a glass of rose and invited to see the view of the vineyards out the wall of windows. Next we headed into the magnificent cellars made of white limestone. There we enjoyed a walk-around tasting of more Oregon wines, as well as a tempting table of Oregon cheese, meats, oysters, vegetables and other charcuterie items.

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Walk-Around Tasting and Appetizers in the Cellars of Domaine Serene

Dinner was held upstairs in a baronial ballroom with massive white stone fireplaces. We sat down at tables of eight, including two Oregon winemakers joining us at each table. Again the meal was comprised of fresh Oregon cuisine, including roasted beets, apples, sunchokes, breads, nuts, foie gras, and tuna as starters. The main course was a choice of Korean BBQ or Roasted Pork Leg. Dessert was Rhubarb compote with vanilla ice cream. Of course, every table was filled with mixed bottles of Oregon wine.

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MW Wine Dinner with Winemakers at Domaine Serene

The piece de resistance was a jeroboam of Domaine Serene 2005 Evenstad Vineyard Pinot Noir. It made me think of the 750ml bottle of this I had brought to a Masters of Wine dinner in London when I was still studying for the exam. We were each asked to bring a bottle of wine from our country that we were proud of. I brought the Domaine Serene Evenstad and it disappeared quickly – which made me feel good – considering there were also many lovely bottles of Burgundy on the table.

 

The evening concluded with the winemakers each providing a brief welcome and explanation of their winery. The chef and serving staff also were greeted by much applause and thanks. A truly magnificent and elegant evening in the Willamette Valley.

 

Baked Salmon Farewell Dinner at Penner-Ash Winery

The final evening of our trip we all gathered at the stunning Penner-Ash Winery with its modern architecture of wood, stone, and steel set atop a hill. Vineyards and pine trees surround the winery, and there is a large stone terrace with fire pits. We met here and in the great room inside, for a walk-around tasting and a debrief of our 3 day MW tour of Oregon wine regions.

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Penner Ash Wine Cellars. Photo Credit: Willamette Valley Wineries

Penner-Ash Wine Cellars was started in 1998 by Lynn Penner-Ash, winemaker, and her husband Ron. After studying at UC-Davis and working at Stag’s Leap and Rex Hill, Lynn built the gravity flow winery and focused on making award winning pinot noir. Recently the winery was acquired by Jackson Family Farms as part of their expansion into Oregon wine. Lynn is still actively engaged in winemaking, and is fortunate enough to work with the legendary Eugenia Keegan, who is the General Manager of Operations for Jackson Family Wines in Oregon, and winemaker at Gran Moraine Winery.

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Stunning Architecture of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars. Photo Credit: Waterleaf

I was fortunate enough to sit with Eugenia for part of the magnificent dinner in the barrel room of Penner-Ash. We enjoyed a family style meal of baked Oregon salmon, fresh vegetables, salads, breads, and delectable desserts. Of course, again we were treated to many amazing Oregon wines, and were joined by some of the winemakers from the Columbia Gorge and Southern Oregon Winery Associations – a true testament to how well the Oregon Wine Industry works together to support one another.

Departure from Portland International Airport

The next day we all awoke early to take cars and vans to the airport in Portland. Several of us had a last coffee together before jetting off to all parts of the globe. For me, it was just a quick flight to Santa Rosa, back home in Sonoma County. For others it was off to Hong Kong, London, Paris, Munich, and all of the many other locations around the work in which MWs work. Thank you Oregon for a magical visit!

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Enjoying Oregon Wine.  Photo Credit: Oregon Wine Board

 

Southern Oregon Wineries Focusing on Diversity

(May 2017) The wineries of Southern Oregon have always held a special place in my heart because I have been visiting them for two decades. Ever since most of my relatives left California in the early 1990’s to move to Medford, I have made many trips to the area. Each time we have visited the charming towns of Jacksonville, Ashland, and, of course, the wineries of the Rogue and Applegate Valleys.

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Vineyards of Southern Oregon.  Photo Credit: Southern Oregon Winery Association

In the beginning there were not that many wineries, but today there are more than 120 in Southern Oregon. The landscape is delightful with rolling hills, streams, and great swaths of green verdant vineyards. The wineries themselves are small, and housed in charming old houses, barns, or other unique structures. There are innovative wine tourism options, such as wine and rafting or wine and hiking. Each valley makes a fun day trip for wine tourists, but also makes for a great week long vacation if you want to visit all of the major appellations (AVAs).

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A Tasting of Southern Oregon Wine in Portland

Because it was too far to drive to Southern, Oregon – a good five-hour drive south of Portland, a contingent of the Southern Oregon wineries kindly came to meet us in Portland at a conference facility called Flexspace.

A panel of four winemakers and Doug Frost, MW/MS as moderator explained what makes Southern Oregon so unique and allowed us to taste 16 delicious wines.

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Summer in Southern Oregon Vineyards. Photo Credit: Southern Oregon Winery Association

Key Facts about the Southern Oregon Wine Region

We learned there are 6 AVAs in Southern Oregon, with the oldest established in 1984 and the most recent in 2013. They are as follows:

  1. Umpqua Valley AVA (1984) – coolest region
  2. Rogue Valley AVA (1991) – warmer region
  3. Applegate AVA (2001) – warmer region
  4. Red Hill Douglas County AVA (2005)
  5. Southern Oregon AVA (2005) –encompassing all the other AVAs
  6. Elkton Oregon AVA (2013) – small AVA within Umpqua Valley

19059771_10154461839856898_7532125227228902500_nWith a warmer climate than the Willamette Valley, many Southern Oregon wineries have the opportunity to ripen varieties such as tempranillo, malbec, and Rhone whites like viognier, roussane and marsanne. At the same time, they still plant cooler climate varieties such as gewürztraminer and pinot noir, because as many vintners there will tell you – “Tourists known that Oregon is known for pinot noir, so they ask for it. Because of this, we grow it.”

But the pinot noir from Southern Oregon is different than that of the Willamette Valley – which is to be expected. It is generally more concentrated with larger tannins and riper flavors. For me personally, they are more reminiscent of wines from the Cote de Beaune villages of St. Aubin, St. Romain and sometimes, Pommard. Whereas, Willamette has the elegance and crisp acidity of some of the Cote de Nuits wines.

Altogether Southern Oregon wineries farm over 6000 acres of vineyards, producing 70% red and 30% white grapes. The largest production is pinot noir at 40%, syrah at 6%, and tempranillo at 5%.

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Agate Ridge Vineyard in Southern Oregon. Photo Credit: Agate Ridge

The Dilemma of Too Much Diversity

Because they produce more than 70 different types of grape varieties, Southern Oregon vintners profess that they are masters of diversity. “We don’t have a signature varietal….We believe in diversity….We don’t want to be fenced in.”

However, one of the members of our group challenged the panel on this position. “But if don’t have something that you’re known for, how will you attract attention?” asked one MW. “Just because you advertise a signature grape or two, doesn’t mean you can’t make other types of wine as well. For example, Napa Valley makes zinfandel and chardonnay, as well as cabernet sauvignon, but they attract the most attention and highest prices for cabernet sauvignon. What is it that Southern Oregon does very well?”

 

 

Favorite Wines of the Tasting

In order to answer this question, the simplest process for a new wine region is to keep track of which types of wines win the most awards and receive the highest ratings. At the end of our tasting of 16 wines, the panel asked the MWs to provide feedback. Interestingly the wines that received the most positive feedback were Rhone varietals: syrah and viognier. Following are some of my top scoring wines:

  • 2015 Kriselle Viognier
  • 2015 Quady North Viognier
  • 2013 Quady North Mae’s Vineyard Syrah
  • 2013 Cowhorn Reserve Syrah
  • 2013 Abacela Reserve Tempranillo – this was one of my favorites, but many others thought it had too much oak

The dilemma of a signature grape is an interesting one. On the one hand, it helps a region to be known for something and attract more tourists. But if the signature grape is not selling well on the market, then it is difficult to make a living producing wine. With syrah and viognier not doing so well in the US market, it is much more tempting to produce Oregon pinot noir, which sells quite well!

Perhaps Southern Oregon should focus on pinot noir, and celebrate how different it is than the pinot noir made in the Willamette. Then also continue to make the complex syrahs, tempranillos, and white Rhones that also taste very delicious, as well as the tempranillos, albarinos, gewurtraminers, etc.

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A Welcome from Michael Donovan of the Southern Oregon Winery Association

Visiting the Unexpected Beauty of the Columbia Gorge Wine Region

(May 2017) As the bus slowly approached the town of Hood River, I became more excited because it was my first time to visit the Columbia Gorge wine region. Whereas I have visited the Willamette Valley many times in the past, this smaller, less well-known wine region of Oregon was new to me. Looking out the window, I was pleased to see how charming the scenery was with trees filled with pink blossoms, tall pines, and the glittering blue of the massive Columbia River weaving through the town.

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Waterfall Rushing Down to Meet the Columbia River

We stopped at the Columbia Gorge Hotel, and immediately everyone rushed outside to peer over the stonewall at the mighty river below. From here the water was a dark navy blue with small white caps, and I could sense the power and grandeur of the river that has been an important conduit for commerce and travel over the centuries. Near-by a waterfall cascaded down the cliffs, and the sight and sound of the white rushing water was invigorating. Someone pointed across the river to the bluffs on the other side and we could see vineyards dotting the hillside. Immediately I thought of Germany, and the many vineyards that cover the hillsides of the Rhine River in the Rheingau region.

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Gazing Down at the River from the Columbia Gorge Hotel

Who knew the Columbia River Gorge wine region was so enchanting? Suddenly I was more curious about the wines from this region, because I had never tasted them before. Calling us back inside, we were introduced to Brian McCormick, President of the Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association, and a panel of winemakers who proceeded to walk us through a flight of wines.

About the Columbia River Gorge Wine Region

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Courtesy of Columbia Gorge Winery website

Ideally situated one hour east of Portland, the Columbia River Gorge is an ideal wine tourism location for a day or weekend trip. Filled with stunning river scenery, quaint restaurants and hotels, and around 30 wineries, it is a very pleasant vacation spot. We also learned that the Columbia Gorge is one of the top five wind surfing locations in the world – thus the white caps we could see on the river.

Brian told us that the Columbia Gorge AVA was established in 2004, and that most of the wineries are small family-run establishments. The largest winery is Maryhill Winery, which produces around 50,000 cases per year. The AVA actually spans both the Oregon and Washington borders.

Highlights of the Columbia Gorge Wine Tasting

Since this wine region is relatively new, many of the winemakers are still experimenting with the types of grapes that grow best in this particular terroir. Therefore we were treated to a smorgasbord of different types of wines. However, with a cooler climate and varied soils, plus the river influence, I found that the wines that stood out for me were the whites, pinot noir, and cabernet franc. Some of my favorites were:

In summary, this was a delightful stop, and I will definitely encourage others to visit this wine region in the future. Especially since it is so easy to travel here from Portland.

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Map Courtesy of Winesnw.com

 

An Eye-Opening AVA Tasting of 30 Oregon Pinot Noirs at Adelsheim Vineyards

(May 2017) I was very much looking forward to meeting the legendary David Adelsheim, Chairman of Adelsheim Vineyard, with over 40 years of experience making Oregon wines. As one of the original winemakers of the Willamette Valley, he also helped to establish the Oregon Wine Board and has mentored many newcomers over the years.

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Finally Meeting David Adelsheim

David did not disappoint us, because he was a very charming host and welcomed us with the utmost hospitality to his cellar, which was set up with a sea of tables for the most comprehensive and amazing tasting of Oregon pinot noirs I have yet encountered. Over the next few days, he continued to join us at the various events, and was consistently friendly, helpful, and fun.

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Pinot Noir AVA Tasting at Adelsheim Vineyards

Climate and Appellations of Willamette Valley

After we were comfortably seated, David proceeded to provide us with a brief overview of the climate and AVAs of the Willamette valley. He explained that the climate is cooler than California, but because of 15 hours of daylight in the summer and the same latitude as Burgundy, the Willamette Valley is able to ripen pinot noir and chardonnay grapes perfectly. Protected by the rain shadow of the coast range mountains, they receive around 100 centimeters each year of rain (39 inches). They do not get the thick coastal fogs that California pinot noir regions rely upon to keep their grapes cool in the evenings and mornings.

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Vineyards Near Adelsheim Winery

The soil is primarily a combination of basalt lava flows from volcanic eruptions and marine sediment from the Missoula Floods. It is a “layer cake of soil,” according to David. The valley is 250 kilometers long, and 84% of the acreage is pinot noir.

The first grapes were planted by David Lett in 1965.  David Adelsheim and his wife established their winery in 1971. Most vineyards are organic or sustainably farmed. The main certification for sustainable vineyards/wineries in Oregon is called LIVE – Low Input Viticulture and Enology.

Today there are 6 smaller AVAs in the Willamette Valley (see slide below). These are: 1) Dundee Hills, 2) Eola-Amity Hills, 3) McMinnville, 4) Yamill-Carlton, 5) Ribbon Ridge, and 6) Chelhalem Mountains – where Adelsheim Winery is located.

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Six Sub AVAs of the Willamette Valley

Tasting 30 Willamette Pinot Noirs Blind by AVA

After David’s overview presentation, a panel of experts described each of the six AVAs in detail. After each AVA presentation, we tasted a flight of pinot noirs from that region. Since the tasting was blind, it was fascinating to learn the name of the winery at the conclusion of the tasting. All wines were from the 2010 vintage, one of the coldest on record. This was probably a wise choice with so many European MWs in the crowd, because the wines had the high acidity and earthiness that many of them prefer. Following are my notes on the tasting.

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Panel of Presenters on Willamette AVAs

Dundee Hills AVA – named for a location in Scotland. Slightly warmer, protected from winds, mainly volcanic red soil – clay/loam, very slippery when wet. Produces red fruit character – red cherry, red raspberry. Label must be 95% from Dundee Hills. There are currently 45 wineries in this AVA. At the conclusion of the tasting, I learned that my two favorite wines from here were:

  • Archery Summit 2010 Pinot Noir – Medium ruby, spicy, muted red fruit. Red raspberry, fine grained tannins, concentrated, long, a bit of warm earth, well balanced, allspice, oak.  92
  • Sokol Blosser 2010 Pinot Noir – Floral, red cherry, earthy, bigger tannins, higher acid. Long juicy finish. 91

Eola Amity Hills AVA – lowest point in coastal range, a bit cooler. Marine and volcanic soils, but different on each side of hill. Wind and cooler in the evenings. Last on the margin of viticulture, especially during cooler vintages. Usually higher acidity and elegance. Around 30 wineries. At the conclusion of the tasting, I learned that my three favorite wines from here were:

  • Antica Terra Antikythera 2010 Pinot Noir – Ripe, black berry jam, floral, rich, velvety, structured tannins, long finish with an energetic vibe running through it. A truly amazing, and mind-blowing wine. Utterly delicious – wow! 96
  • Evening Land 2010 Pinot Noir – Cherry cola, supple, rich, concentrated, long. Lovely! 92
  • Christom 2010 Pinot Noir – Floral, stemmy (earth), black cherry, truffle, dirt, well-balanced, complex, tempting – 92

Yamhill-Carlton AVA – on the map it looks like two crab claws. Maritime climate, cooler, more sedimentary soils. They don’t plant on the north slopes because they can’t ripen pinot there. Known for bramble berry, blue berries, and some blackberry; Christmas spice, savage notes, and some salinity. At the conclusion of the tasting, I learned that my two favorite wines from here were:

  • Big Table Farm 2010 Pinot Noir – Spice, oak, smoke, and black cherry, deep, juicy, complex, earthy – yum! 94
  • Sotor 2010 Pinot Noir – Ripe berry nose, spice, grippy, yet supple tannins, inviting – 91

McMinnville AVA – mix of soils, but primarily volcanic. Furthest west, closer to the ocean, but further south. The town of McMinnville is not in the AVA. Known for bright acidity, black fruits, ash, deeply colored and concentrated larger tannins. At the conclusion of the tasting, I learned that my two favorite wines from here were:

  • Hyland Estates 2010 Pinot Noir – floral, raspberry, juicy, long, black cherry, earth, well-made. 91
  • Brick House 2010 Pinot Noir – spice, ash, burnt cherry, big tannins, chewy – 90

Ribbon Ridge AVA – a spine that runs like a ribbon along the top of the ridge; has had its own community for years. All sedimentary soils – drains down the ridge. 5.3 kilometers long. Some spheres of basalt. Close to Dundee Hills. More red fruit with some black cherry. At the conclusion of the tasting, I learned that my two favorite wines from here were:

  • Beaux Freres 2010 Pinot Noir – Rich, ripe, raspberry, luscious and approachable.  Very satisfying! 93
  • Ayres 2010 Pinot Noir – Muted nose, black cherry, more concentrated tannins, earthy, long – compelling, 92

Chehalem Mountains AVA – Mixed geology and soils. Not a clear signature style, due to mixed soils, but seems to have more concentrated tannins. At the conclusion of the tasting, I learned that my three favorite wines from here were:

  • Ponzi Aurora 2010 Pinot Noir – black cherry, earth, chocolate, chewy tannins, good acidity – delicious! 93
  • Bergstrom Silice Single Vineyard 2010 Pinot Noir – cola, earth, mixed berry compote, wonderful juicy acidity, fresh – tempting – 92
  • Le Cadeau Winery Rocheux Vineyard 2010 Pinot Noir – Lovely rose perfume and raspberry, jammy,  juicy, concentrated tannins, texture – very approachable. 92
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Discovering My Favorite Wine of the Blind Tasting

A Three Day MW Wine Tour of Oregon

(May 2017) Though Oregon and Washington State border one another, and even have overlapping appellations, they are like two different countries when it comes to wine. After spending five days touring Washington wine country, and then crossing the border to Oregon, the only thing in common between the two famous wine regions is their friendly and hospitable welcome.

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The Beauty of an Oregon Vineyard, Willamette Valley

Indeed, as the 42 MWs on this trip soon discovered, Washington State, with its massive cabernet based blends and warmer weather could easily be compared to Bordeaux, whereas Oregon, with its focus on elegant earthy pinot noirs birthed from its cooler climate has aptly been likened to Burgundy. Viticulture methods and philosophy are also similar to these two French regions, with Washington focused on efficiency and quality control in large manicured vineyards, whereas Oregon vines are prone to be farmed in an organic fashion in smaller designated vineyard sites.

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42 MWs on Oregon Wine Tour, Temperance Hill Vineyard

Key Facts About Oregon Wine

According to the Oregon Wine Board, in 2016 there were 702 wineries in Oregon and 1052 vineyards. The cooler climate, coupled with 15 hours of daylight during the summer, allows Oregon wineries to ripen grapes with high quality, good acid, and vibrant flavors. There are 72 varieties of grapes planted in Oregon, but pinot noir is dominant at 62% of the production, followed by pinot gris at 13% and chardonnay at 5%.

Oregon boasts 5 major regions (see map below), but the Willamette Valley produces more than 50% of the wine.  Altogether, Oregon has just over 28,000 acres of vineyards, or 11,345 hectares and is still growing.  The number of vineyards has nearly doubled since 2005, but most wineries are very small with 70% producing less than 5000 cases per year.

Oregon Wine Regions

Five Major Oregon Wine Regions. Photo Credit: Oregon Wine Board

Wine Tour Itinerary

Our transition from Washington to Oregon started in the morning at our hotel in Walla Walla where Tom Danowski, President of Oregon Wine Board and Oregon Winegrowers Association, ushered us onto a bio-fueled bus. It was a bright, sunny, and soon to be very hot day as we traveled down the Columbia Gorge to the town of Hood River.

The drive was stunning, as we followed the mighty Columbia River from the parched desert bluffs in the East to the fir-covered hills that sprang into sight as we came closer to the Pacific Ocean. On the bus we were treated to a lecture on the climate and geology of Oregon by Dr. Greg Jones. The schedule for the rest of the trip was as follows:

Day One: Columbia Gorge and Portland

  • Depart Walla Walla and drive to Hood River
  • Lunch and Tasting with Columbia Gorge Wineries
  • Drive to Portland and check into Hotel Vintage
  • Tasting with Southern Oregon Wineries at FlexSpace
  • Dinner at Clay Pigeon Urban Winery, Portland
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A Stop Along the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

 Day Two: Willamette Valley

  • Drive to Newberg in Willamette Valley
  • Oregon AVAs Session and Tasting at Adelsheim Vineyards
  • Lunch and Tasting at Domaine Drouhin, Dayton
  • Check in and rest at Comfort Inn, McMinnville
  • Walk-Around Tasting and Dinner at Domaine Serene Winery, Dayton

Day Three: Willamette Valley

  • Vineyard Hike at Temperance Hill Vineyard
  • Lecture and Tasting on Climate Change at Cristom Vineyards
  • Lunch at Zenith Vineyard
  • Break at Comfort Inn McMinnville
  • White Wine Tasting at Trisaetum Winery
  • Walkaround Tasting and Salmon Bake Dinner at Penner – Ash Wine Cellars

For more information on our Oregon adventures, please check out the following posts – coming soon!

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Entrance to Domaine Serene Winery in Oregon

 

Cayuse Vineyards – Horses, Rocks and a Crazy Frenchman

(May 2017) Probably one of the most unique wineries we visited in Washington State was Cayuse, located in the Walla Walla AVA on the border of Oregon. We arrived in the late afternoon and were met in the parking lot by an exuberant Christophe Baron, the colorful French winemaker who founded the winery in 1997. He was literally bouncing on his heels as he welcomed us with wide arms, and ushered us into the shade of the receiving dock where we each received an icy cold bottle of water. This was much appreciated as the temperature was hovering in the low 90’s F.

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Horses Plowing in the Vineyards of Cayuse Winery in Walla Walla

After a few minutes of rest, he motioned for us to follow him deep into the vineyards, which were covered with small round rocks, similar to the galettes found in Chateauneuf du Pape. Indeed we stopped in front of a three-foot tall pile of rocks, and Christophe surprised everyone by climbing up to the top of the pile and calling out, “Welcome to Cayuse.” He then proceeded to tell us the tale of how he found the site and built the winery. But he didn’t just lecture in a normal voice. His tone was enthusiastic, triumphant and laced with a thick over-the-top French accent, which I thought he would have lost after living so many years in Washington. However, it supported his reputation of being a “crazy Frenchman,” and I couldn’t help but think of Napoleon Bonaparte as he stood proudly on top of the pile of rocks gesturing wildly.

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Christophe Baron Lecturing on a Pile of Rocks at Cayuse

The Discovery of the Cayuse Field of Stones

Raised in the Champagne region, Christophe explained that his original intention when leaving France in 1996 was to establish a winery in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, but when he arrived there things didn’t work out, so he took a road trip up the Columbia Gorge. Eventually he arrived in Walla Walla, and began hunting around for land to plant a vineyard. Someone told him about a field of stones outside of town, and so he drove out to look at the field, and fell in love at first site.

He was able to purchase the land in 1997 at a good price, because no one else was crazy enough to buy land with so many rocks. They are made of basalt, and are part of the unique geological features of this part of Washington. Christophe started slowly by planting syrah vines and using biodynamic practices, including horses to plow and chickens to help with weed control and fertilization.

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The Rocky Soil of Cayuse Winery

Cayuse Vineyards Today

Today Cayuse has 41.5 acres of biodynamic vineyards (not certified), primarily syrah, but also some plantings of grenache, cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo. They produce around 4500 cases of the Cayuse brand, plus 1000 cases of the HorsePower brand and 1000 cases of the No Girls brand.  Christophe has 30 full time employees, which increases to 50 people at harvest time.

He continues to use massive workhorses to plow the rocky soil, and hires specially trained “horsemen” to operate the ancient plows that are harnessed to the horses. We were able to witness the horses plowing in the fields, and it was very mesmerizing as they moved slowly between the tightly spaced vines of one meter by one meter. We learned that the vineyards produce, on average, 50 hectoliters per hectare (3 tons per acre).

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Horses Plowing in Narrow Rows of Cayuse Vineyards

Christophe told us that most of the vines are planted on their own roots, because phylloxera is rare here, but he planted some on rootstock as an insurance policy. He mentioned that some years they have to bury the vines to prevent them from being damaged by the cold, as it does snow sometimes in Walla Walla. The vines are pruned to such low yield, that it takes three syrah vines to produce one bottle of wine. It is most likely due to this that the wines are so expensive – most over $100 per bottle.

We were told that the current price to install a new vineyard is around $30,000 per acre on the valley floor, but it rises to around $55,000 per acre on the hillsides or where the soil is very rocky. L’ecole’s Ferguson Vineyard was estimated to be around $55,000 per acre to install.

After spending about one hour in the vineyard and making a big fuss over the magnificent workhorses, we slowly walked back to the winery. On the way, Christophe explained that he has one mission: “ to produce true vin de terroir.” After tasting his wines, I had to conclude that he has achieved this goal very well.

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Wine Tasting in the Cellars of Cayuse

 

Winemaking at Cayuse

As we entered the cool winery, we were invited to sample some of the largest canelé I’ve ever seen – and they were incredibly tasty. The tables were spread out across the cellar in an impressive design, each place laid out with 12 glasses of wine. I marveled about the amount of planning and work that went into the set-up.

Christophe introduced us to his Assistant Vigneron, Elizabeth Bourcier, who was his stellar opposite with her soft voice and focus on the technical aspects of winemaking. She explained how they use concrete tanks for fermentation, native yeast/ML, gentle pump overs and a basket press. They generally use 20 to 30% whole cluster. The wines are aged in larger oak barrels. They try to keep SO2 at a minimum, and add 50 ppm at harvest, and then top up to 30 ppm free.

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The 12 Wines We Tasted

A Tasting of Twelve Cayuse Wines

It was a fascinating tasting with Christophe and Elizabeth taking turns presenting the wines and answering questions. Following are the twelve wines presented in the order tasted. I have included my personal shorthand notes along with my 100 point score. Pricing is, for the most part, the average price on Winesearcher. I have highlighted my favorites with a star (*) and in purple.

2012 God Only Knows Grenache, Armanda Vineyard (90%) – rich ripe nose of mixed berry; very concentrated with earthy notes. Juicy acidity. High level of complexity. Neutral oak – large puncheons. Finishes a bit bitter. $95/89

2013 Syrah, Cailloux Vineyard – original vineyard; co –fermented with 5 to 6% viognier every year.  Black fruit, burnt earth character, juicy acidity, fine-grained elegant tannins, fresh, long, 15% new French oak. Memory of the basalt stones are in the wine – perhaps that is the burnt earth character I taste?  $85/93

*2010 Cayuse, Bionic Frog, Coccinelle Vineyard Syrah – called bionic frog because this was Christophe’s nickname in Australia. Dark purple color. Cooler vintage, filled with extreme pepper, allspice, black olive. Richly concentrated, with large tannins and good texture. Same slightly burnt earth note, but more fruit – red and black berries. Extremely complex and compelling. $368/98

2006 Cayuse Armada Vineyard Syrah – red fruit, leather, tobacco, spice. Large but fine-grained tannins. Truffle and black chocolate on finish. 22 months of aging. $124/92

1999 Cayuse Cailloux Vineyard Syrah – cassis, bitter rhubarb, 50% new oak, more fruit, less earth, no burnt note. Elegant, more like a merlot or Australian shiraz. Bitter plum with milk chocolate finish. Quite different. Average = $126/89

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2003 Cayuse The Widowmaker, En Chamberlin Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon – notes of beet and burnt earth, chocolate covered berries, fine-grained tannins, good texture, juicy acidity, 50% new oak. $144/92

*2008 Cayuse Impulsivo En Chamberlin Vineyard Tempranillo – cherry cola nose, textured tannins, 50% new oak, spicy, 14.7 – tastes hot, but very seductive. 19 months aging.  $179/93

2009 Cayuse No Girls La Paciencia Vineyards Syrah – “No Girls” brand signifies the end of the bordello in the historic building in downtown Walla Walla where Christophe set up his tasting room. There is a sign there that says “no girls.” Same burnt earth note, plus rich red/black fruit, black tea, black olive, spice, higher alcohol, $75/91

*2013 Horsepower Sur Echalas Vineyard Grenache – spicy red cherry, sarsaparilla, sweet fruit, textured, salty, lavender – really fun.  New finds in each taste. Very high density planting. $120/94

2012 Horsepower Sur Echalas Vineyard Syrah – floral, black fruit, earthy, dirt, pencil lead, huge, complex, brooding, long, intense; 90% whole cluster. Not sure I like it but it makes a statement – $212/93

2011 Horsepower The Tribe Vineyard Syrah – deep, dark, complex, spicy, bigger, 100% whole cluster, fresh, more tannic, black anise – complex and interesting. $229/92

*2012 Horse Categorie Syrah  – vineyard on north Fork of Walla Walla – not near winery.  On very steep hillside, similar to Cote Rotie 3.5 x 3.5 feet. 60% slope. Extremely aromatic, floral, No oak, huge tannins, black cherry, burnt wood, ash. Meat, savory, juicy, long – truly quite amazing! $250/97 – but not for sell yet.

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Aging Barrels in the Cellars of Cayuse

 

Champagne and Tacos – a Unique Lunch at Kiona Vineyards, Washington

(May 2, 2017) Kiona Vineyards, located in the Red Mountain AVA of Washington State, was the first stop of the day. One of the oldest wineries in the region, established in 1961, it is famous for its big luscious cabernet sauvignons, old vineyards, and a panoramic view of the valley.

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Therefore it was only fitting that this was location of a master class tasting on Washington cabernet sauvignons. We spent several hours tasting 12 wines and listening to the fascinating tales of the winemakers who made them.  I must say that I have always enjoyed Washington cabernet sauvignons and red blends, because of the distinctive texture of the tannins on my palate.  They are more powdery, and remind me of the tannins found in the Bolgheri region of Italy.

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Washington Cabernet Sauvignon Master Class

After the tasting, we were treated to lunch on the sunny terrace. Walking outside we were welcomed by our hosts with a large ice bucket filled with Champagne, local sparkling wine, and Mexican beer. This was an excellent palate refresher after evaluating the delicious and tannic cabernets.

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Champagne and Tacos on the Terrace of Kiona Vineyards

Just beyond the drinks table was a food truck in the parking lot, specializing in tacos.  This was a great treat for most of the MWs who were looking forward to tasting Mexican food in the US.  Also, the trend of “gourmet food trucks” is sweeping the nation, and so it was enjoyable to have lunch provided by a taco truck.  The menu included the following delicacies:

Mexican Tacos – Shredded chicken, pork and vegetarian choices

Fresh salsa, cilantro and warm flour tortillas

 Elote on a Stick  – grilled corn on the cob with mayonnaise, powdered Mexican cheese, chili pepper and lime

 Mexican cold slaw salad

Refried beans with cheese

Tortilla chips

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The Taco Truck at Kiona Vineyards, Washington

Everyone lined up to enjoy the meal, with many people returning for second and third helpings of tacos. We enjoyed our meal at outdoor tables, overlooking Kiona’s rare cabernet sauvignon vineyard, planted in 1975 and using a unique 6-foot vertical fan trellis system. During lunch, we were joined by the six winemakers who had showcased their beautiful Washington State cabernet sauvignons during the morning seminar. In this way, we were able to continue our educational discussion.

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Delicious Meal of Champagne, Beer and Tacos

Guardian Cellars – A Unique Winery Started by a Retired Police Officer

Not only do they produce big, inky, chewy and high satisfying red wines from Washington State, this winery also boasts a very unique wine story. Started by retired police officer, Jerry Riener, the name “Guardian” is to honor the role of police across the country that protect and serve their country.

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Cop Turned Winemaker – Jerry Riener at Guardian Cellars, WA. Photo Credit: Guardian Cellars

When I met Jerry at the MW tasting in Woodinville, he told the story of when he served as an undercover agent for 3 years, living in a penthouse over-looking Seattle and driving a sports car. Though the assignment wrecked havoc on his personal life, in the end the taskforce was able to bring down one of the largest drug cartels in the US.

After this feat, Jerry decided it was time to pursue another dream – to start a winery.  Today Guardian Cellars, located in Woodinville, Washington, produces around 10,000 cases of delicious wines.  Jerry also was able to finally settle down with family and enjoy life.  However, he admits that he stills stay in touch with his buddies on the force, and that police officers around the country are one of his larger customer bases. Part of this may be because of the unique names for his wines.  We tasted:

The Informant 2014 Guardian Cellars ($30) – a dark inky syrah oozing with blueberries, black liquorish and spice with massive tannins and a very long finish.

The Wanted 2014 Guardian Cellars ($39) – a velvety Bordeaux Blend with 40% cab, 31% cabernet franc, and 29% merlot. Very rich red plum, cassis, and spice with smooth tannins. Delicious.

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Guardian Wines. Photo Credit: H. Young, Seattle Mag

Overview of Washington Wine – Major Grape Varietals, Appellations and Terroir

During our 5-day tour of Washington State, we learned many interesting facts about Washington wine. To begin, Washington is the second largest wine-producing region in the USA after California.  As of 2016, Washington has 681 bonded wineries (Fisher, 2017), and over 900 brands.

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Old Vines at Chateau St. Michelle in Washington State

The oldest winery in Washington is Columbia Winery, established in 1962. The second oldest is Chateau St. Michelle started in 1967. Today they are both the largest wine producers in the state, and are ironically located across the road from one another in the town of Woodinville, about one hour northeast of Seattle. Though their headquarters are here, the majority of Washington grapes are grown in the eastern part of the state, which is much warmer than the cool rainy region near Seattle.

In order to take advantage of the many tourists who visit Seattle, a large number of wineries have established tasting-rooms in the town of Woodinville. Today there are more than 140 places here where visitors can sample delicious Washington wines.

We stayed for one night in Woodinville, and enjoyed the luxurious surroundings of the Willows Lodge Resort. It was located within walking distance to Columbia Winery, Chateau St. Michelle, and Januik/Novelty Hill Winery, which we visited during our stay.

Columbia Winery, Woodinville, Washington

Columbia Winery in Woodinville. Photo Credit: Washingtonwines.org

Major Grape Varietals in Washington

According to Washington Wine.org, currently there are over 50,000 acres of vineyards planted with nearly 70 varieties, with 58% red and 42% white.  The five most planted grapes, according to Washington Wine are:

Wine Grape Varietal Acres
Cabernet Sauvignon 10,297
Merlot 8,235
Chardonnay 7,654
Riesling 6,320
Syrah 3,103

From a public perspective, Washington’s signature white grape is Riesling and signature red is a Red Blend, usually including cabernet sauvignon and merlot – sometimes syrah. However, its most distinctive red is Syrah, which is produced in a Northern Rhone style with earthy, black fruit, massive tannins and high level of complexity.

Appellations, Climate and Soil

Washington has 14 appellations (AVA’s), with 13 of them in the warmer Eastern part of Washington, and only one – Puguet Sound AVA – in the cooler Western region near Seattle (see map).  The terroir reflects these extremes with a maritime climate in the west with 35 inches of annual rainfall, and a continental climate in the east with an average of only 8 inches per year rainfall.  Eastern Washington has a hot, dry climate in the summer with an average of one more hour of sunlight, around 16 hours per day, compared to other wine growing regions.

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Wine Regions and AVAs of Washington State. Photo Credit: Washingtonwines.org

A unique feature is the large swings in temperature between day and night (diurnal shift) of up to 40 degrees F, allowing grapes to ripen longer and retain freshness.  Of the 14 AVA’s Yakima Valley is the oldest, established in 1983 and Lewis-Clark the newest in 2016.  Some of most well-known AVAs include Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, and Walla Walla Valley.

The soil of Washington state is a mixture of volcanic basalt, sandy loam, silt, and some caliche (limestone).  Its ancient geological past of multiple volcanic activity, megaflood, and winds created this unique composition, which for the most part has allowed the state to remain phylloxera free.  Because of this many of the vineyards are planted on their own roots, instead of grafted to rootstocks. Below is a photo at Ferguson Vineyard near Walla Walla showing unique basalt cliff.

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Our MW Group photo with unique vineyard geology (basalt cliff) near Walla Walla