Walla Walla sits in the South East of Washington. You have to mean to go there to get there. Luckily the easiest route is through the spectacular Columbia River Gorge. We ended our last episode with a bit of this Zen beauty…seems appropriate to kick off this episode with a little also. I mean, we could all use a little more Nature and Zen in our lives.
Leaving the Portland area, you drive through the Green portion of the Gorge, and gradually, the landscape changes to high dessert, as you head further east and cross the Columbia River Gorge into Washington.
This part of Washington was once mostly wheat, rolling hills of waving grain that seemed to extend forever. Now it is dotted with the green of vineyards.
Walla Walla translates to “Water water” or “many waters”. The valley is filled with tributaries, although this is a dry climate. This is a place where Bordeaux varieties thrive and can compete on a world stage.
While the city of Walla Walla sits firmly in Washington, the Walla Walla AVA straddles the border between Washington and Oregon, and in fact, many of the vineyards sit on the Oregon side of the state line.
Our next two episodes will be on The walla Walla area, but we will also focus on wine with food.
Our stop on this “Scenic Route” journey took us to Caprio Cellars.
Caprio sits just south of the City of Walla Walla, but is indeed on the Washington side of the state line. Caprio Cellars’ tasting room and hospitality feature pairing local foods with their wine to create a Wine Experience.
The property that is now Caprio Cellars was once covered in wheat. In 2003 Dennis Murphy bought this former wheat field and began his dream of starting a vineyard. This vineyard is named for his grandmother Eleanor and the winery is named Caprio, her last name and the name of generations of his Italian family.
His grandmother grew grapes for wine in her yard. She was the first of their family to immigrate to the United States. Her nickname was Grandmother Grapes.
Caprio Cellars is all about hospitality
While many wineries pivoted to private tastings and social distancing in tasting rooms over the pandemic, this model has always been the Caprio method. They intend for each guest to arrive and be given the VIP treatment.
You are greeted with sparkling wine as you arrive and are allowed to roam the property finding the perfect seating area for you or your group. There are seating areas around the patio, with views of the blue mountains, as well as conversation areas inside. All allow you to get comfortable and encourage conversation. This is not a belly-up to the bar kind of place.
In addition to the seating, the hospitality continues with small courses to accompany the wines. Made by their on-staff Chef, these feature local products and are complimentary.
Dennis Murphy, the owner, and winemaker explained why he decided to set up his tastings this way. Mostly this came down to watching closely how customers behaved in tasting rooms.
People coming in wanted their own space, they didn’t want to sit down with others. So he designed his space to seat 60 guests inside with additional seating outside. They only take 20 guests at a time, so everyone has lots of space to feel like they have their own corner of the tasting room. This also means that the staff is not overwhelmed.
Reservations mean that they control the flow. 20 guests in 90 minute intervals, so there is never a rush where service levels might drop.
Food with the wine, is simple with 2 reasons. His grandmother Eleanor would never allow you to invite someone for wine and not offer them food, and…no one else nearby is serving food, so guests often schedule to stop here so that on their wine tasting journey they get some food in their bellies, and what amazing food it is!
As to not charging a tasting fee? This comes back to the equity theory he learned in business school, as well as what he was seeing in tasting rooms. When people each spend $20 on a tasting, then they have to figure out which wine they need to buy to get out of there. Invite them in for free, feed them, and they are more than happy to buy into this experience and take multiple bottles home with them.
It must be working, because he has not found the financial need to add a tasting fee!
Our pairings at Caprio
These pairings change weekly, so if you go check the website for the weekly menu. They will always be delicious, beautiful and locally sourced.
Caprio Cellars 2020 Estate Rose with Burrata over stone fruit
Caprio Cellars 2018 Eleanor with Bruscetta with local tomatoes
Caprio Cellars 2016 Eleanor with Keftedes meatballs with Walla Walla Sweet Onions and tzatziki
Food and Wine Pairing!
So food and wine…here at Caprio it seems so easy, but when you are at a restaurant with friends or having a dinner party, choosing a wine can be stressful.
There are old adages about white wine with fish and red wine with red meat, and those hold true, but there are exceptions to play with. Here are some basics.
Using the color of a wine to guide you in a pairing
Let’s start with that theory on color. There is sense in this, white wines tend to be lighter and more aromatic with citrus, and floral notes. These delicate aromas and flavors would be overpowered by a big steak, but with a delicate fish, the wine has room to sing, and the fish, is not overpowered by the wine.
Red wines, on the other hand, would overpower the fish, whereas, with a steak, they can hold their own.
Color in this case is an indicator of the weight and power of the wine.
To get a little geekier, you remember I mentioned in a previous episode that most of wine’s intense flavors come from the skins. Red wines macerate on their skins to pull out that intense flavor making them darker and fuller in body. White wines rarely rest on their skins, so they have less of these notes
One more old rule (that you can break of course) with color. Pink with pink! Rosé wines love to pair with foods that are pink, think shrimp, ham, salmon, lobster…all these are great with a light rosé.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should always follow these rules! Rules are meant to be broken! But…this gives you a few easy-to-remember guidelines that will do in a pinch.
What grows together goes together!
Another great tip for pairing is “What grows together goes together”. We find this, especially in old-world wines, where the wine developed in a small village or region and of course was paired with the foods that they grow there. In the South of France, Picpoul de Pinet is a white wine grown on the Mediterranean coast. It is brilliant with oysters, which you find in beds right off the coast.
In Italy, Sangiovese (or Chianti) with Italian Pasta, in the Willamette Valley, Pinot Noir with Salmon (see here we broke that color rule!).
At Caprio Cellars, they are pairing local ingredients fresh from local farms with their local wines. Chef Ian finds what is fresh that day and uses that as his inspiration for pairing, then thoughtfully matches these ingredients with the Caprio wines. The plates are delicious, pairing beautifully with the wines. They are also elegant and beautiful, again, making you feel like a VIP in this beautiful tasting room.
History & winemaking at Caprio Cellars
While hospitality is at the forefront here, let’s not forget about the wines.
Dennis fell in love with wine, then discovered Walla Walla through a bottle of wine from L’Ecole No 41.
Fascinated by these wines he sought out the people making them. He found winemakers like Norm McKibben, at Pepper Bridge Winery and helped with the harvest, to learn in a hands-on way, then completed his formal studies at UC Davis.
The Estate Vineyards of Caprio span both sides of that Oregon/Washington State Line. The original vineyard is the Eleanor, named for his grandmother, that is planted on the property next to the tasting room. In addition, they have the Octave vineyard and the Sanitella vineyard named for his great grandmother, both of which sit on the Oregon side of the State Line.
We spoke a bit about the soils in these vineyards and how they influence the wines, with the Eleanor vineyard grown in deep glacial loess soils and the Octave and Santinella vineyards in fratured basalt.
A sense of commitment
Beyond the delicious wines and the VIP treatment of guests, the ethics here expand to include a staff that is respected and appreciated. Over the pandemic, Dennis kept the entire staff on. In his opinion, it was the right thing to do. Emily and Chef Ian devised Friday to-go meals, which sold out every week. Club members and others would order and drive out, just excited to see another human. Gloved and masked the staff would load dinner into the trunk for these guests, who typically ordered several bottles of wine also.
In addition they did 200 bag lunches for the local Blue Mountain Council for the food bank. They believe strongly in community here.
Watch these Caprio Cellars Extras
Walla Walla – things to do, places to stay and to eat!
Walla Walla is a great town. The pace here is slower, and the drivers are polite. In the downtown area, there are tasting rooms along 2nd Avenue and just off of Main. Plan to stroll, taking in the shops, parks, and tasting rooms, but leave room for something delicious to eat. We recommend AK Mercado, with Chef Andrae Bopp.
There are lots of great places to stay, but we will recommend two. The Marcus Whitman Hotel is a landmark in Walla Walla. It’s the building you see over the city as you drive in.
This iconic hotel opened in 1928 and hosts several tasting rooms on-site as well as a restaurant.
If you are looking for something a bit more casual and kitschy, The Finch is for you! Within walking distance to downtown, this boutique hotel has great sitting areas outside and the rooms are thoughtfully put together with everything you need and nothing you don’t. Rooms are simple and unique and the front desk staff is always ready with great “locales” tips for enjoying your time in Walla Walla.
There is more to see in Walla Walla. Stick with us on our next Episode where we visit L’Ecole No 41 and share a year’s worth of pairings with their wines. We will learn more about wine pairing and a bit about wine blending!
We’ve also added some extras on Caprio Cellars on our YouTube channel, so check those out!
Thanks for joining us on “The Scenic Route”
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine and WSET 3 Certified. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.