Our daughter lives in Silverdale, Washington. We live in Tacoma. There is one main road that goes from just north of our house to just west of hers. It’s Washington state route 16 which, 30 miles up the road, makes a big ol’ dogleg and becomes Washington state route 3.
Just before the dogleg, there is a big highway department sign; one of those that tells you about local attractions you’ll find at the next exit.
We’ve driven past this sign at least 100 times, even read it, and generally ignored it. This particular sign is for Olalla, a tiny…well, not even a town, really. Olalla is an area, just south of Port Orchard, WA, a waterfront city just across Sinclair Inlet from the Bremerton Naval Shipyards. In an area that includes Seattle and Tacoma and Bellevue and other cities of some size, Olalla is about as invisible and remote as a place can be. It’s not remote like Reindeer Station, Yukon, but you can miss it easily and you probably would.
On that sign, marked “Tourist Attractions”, there is a large and very visible placard that reads “Olalla Vineyards”. That’s been there since before our daughter moved to Silverdale. I’ve read it dozens of times. But, to my great shame, I did that thing that I decry every time I meet someone who says it: “Well, it’s a little rural winery. It’s probably all fruit wines and bad Chardonnay.” I’ve even lectured people on that sort of ridiculous assumption, which wine weenies make about whole regions and whole countries, noting that, nowadays, great wines are being made everywhere.
But last month, in reevaluating what The Pour Fool is going to be all about, I decided that it’s about time I stopped assuming anything and get out to visit some of the hundreds of tiny wineries, breweries, and distilleries that are tucked away, here in the juice-soaked Pacific Northwest, producing God Knows What, and being enjoyed by God Knows Whom. And the first place I thought of was Olalla.
It’s really not too much homerism to observe that Western Washington – with its Olympic Mountains, thousands of miles of waterfront, abundant (even excessive) forests and vegetation, quaint little towns, and roads planned around scenery – is one of the most beautiful regions on the continent, the embarrassing 2015 US Open not withstanding. The landscape that brackets WA Route 16 is lush rolling hills, small farms, orchards, a few cattle ranches and dairy farms, and a whole lot of green. Olalla sits in a narrow valley, just over the hill from Colvos Passage, a broad channel that runs between Vashon Island and the Kitsap Peninsula.
Sure enough, as we turned into the driveway – which you also might miss – we see that Olalla Vineyards actually has…vineyards. Right there, on their own property. This part of Washington is NOT noted for grape-growing. A few wineries do it but most, because of our nine months of cool and WET, can only grow a fairly narrow range of cool-climate grapes, almost all of those white.
So, we make the safe assumption that Olalla has some estate whites and , yep, there they are on the tasting list.
But the reds…given my oft-stated preference to not taste The Same Ol’ Shit, over and over and over again, the Olalla reds got me a tad…uh, excited. Malbec. Sangiovese. Grenache. Mourvedre. A GOLUBOK(!), which they are sadly not pouring, having sold out of it almost instantly. They grow a Madelaine Angevine, which is an obscure French/German white varietal that I dearly LOVE but that, too, is gone. Ditto for a Tempranillo(!) (Gotta come back here, I think, if these are any good at all…)
A nice lady comes by to check on us and take our order, out on their shaded patio, next to a small show vineyard, and she turns out to be one of the owners, Mary Ellen Houston, who, along with her husband, a gruff but affable Scotsman named Stuart Chisholm, lives in this gorgeous Brigadoon, in a lovely old home right next to our table. Stuart drops by to ask a question and introduces himself and we have a brief chat before our tasters arrive.
Stuart Chisholm and Mary Ellen Houston
During that chat, it comes out that their winemaker is none other than Matthew Loso, former founder/winemaker at Woodinville’s Matthews Cellars and now a roaming consultant for several of the state’s best and most celebrated wineries. NOW, I’m intrigued.
WELL…we start tasting and the shocks come at about the same rate as an aftershock cluster along the tectonic plates under Olalla.
Matt Loso – who made his bones, like 99% of all other Washington winemakers, on the small universe of Bordeaux varietals – is branching out like a boss at Olalla. First comes a Sangiovese…then a Malbec…then a Barbera…then a Grenache and a Mourvedre…and a White Bordeaux blend and a Pinot Gris…Finding these grapes at this tiny rural winery is like hiking in the Cascade Mountains and bumbling into a roving band of genuises who have been lost in the wilderness for twenty years, minus the beards and bad hygiene, of course.
The Olalla Sangiovese Ancient Lakes Columbia Valley is first and I could not have been more surprised if I had suddenly blacked out and woke up in Tuscany…which is where I’d have to go to find a more authentically Italian Sangio than this. Sangiovese, in its own way, has been almost as badly abused in the US as Merlot. It, too, has been over-extracted and picked over-ripe and had sneaky residual sugars left in and several of those other sins committed by American winemakers who have reasoned that, since Cabernet is the most popular (read: marketable) red grape, uh, maybe everything should be made like Cabernet? Yes? No?
(Correct answer: “HELL, NO!”)
MANY said “Yes!“
Trouble is, Sangiovese is a fairly light-bodied wine, when not overamped and allowed to come to its own realization and, at Olalla, Matt Loso has NAILED – as with a very large hammer – the Tuscan-ish grace and bright, slightly tart red berries and rhubarb and suggestions of sweet herbs and currants and pie cherries and that beautiful Columbia Valley mineral signature – and left nothing at all over-wrought or even really Americanized, beyond the simple fact of the fruit used being of distinctly Eastern Washington origins, which gives the resulting wines, in most cases, a fatness and depth that can sometimes be lacking in the Italians, especially in some minor Chianti appellations. This is, to me, as good and authentic a bottle of this workhorse Italian grape as is made by anybody in this bounteous end of America, right now. 95 Points
The Olalla Barbera Ancient Lakes Columbia Valley was possibly even more of a revelation than the Sangio. Barbera has literally been whiffed on more than Clayton Kershaw sliders by most (certainly not all) Northwest wineries. It is usually stingy – if given its head and, I suspect, made by someone trying to do non-interventionist winemaking but not understanding it well. It’s fairly acidic, in excess of the deliberate acidity that the Italians, especially in Piedmonte, build in for purposes of food matching, which results in its red berry, bramble, Bing cherries, juicy strawberries, and a bit of blackberry lurking in its garnet red depths being somewhat Lost in The Pucker. The Olalla version has all of this opulence, minus the Pucker. In the glass, Barbera is notably darker than Sangio and there is an alluring richness that doesn’t quite jive with its light body, an aspect of this grape that has bewitched drinkers for centuries. Whatever the magic is in its two main Barbera regions – Asti and Alba, in Piedmonte – Loso trapped it in this bottle and it blossoms on your palate with a quiet intensity and gorgeous clarity. Pure, clean, a whisper of tart, and captivating. 95 Points
The only bottle of Olalla wine for which Matt Loso ventured back into Bordeaux territory is the Olalla “Woo-Woo White Bordeaux” Ancient Lakes Columbia Valley, a classic blend of some bell-clear Sauvignon Banc and Semillon, sourced from the second most northern growing sub-region in the Columbia Valley, the Ancient Lakes, which perches atop the dramatic, vertiginous Columbia Gorge, wrapped around The Gorge Ampitheater, in tiny town of George, Washington. Some of this state’s best white wines have emerged from this region, almost as soon Vince and Carol Bryan saw their first viable crop, at the area’s original winery, Champs de Brionne, just two years after their 1980 planting. For my money, the best Riesling in the Northwest comes from here and this bottle offers evidence that both Sauv Blanc and Semillon do equally well. This is, unlike some lesser WA white Bordeaux, elegantly dry and crisp, like its French counterpart, but fatter in its mid-palate and gorgeously balanced and conceived. For those, like me, who are a sucker for that blend’s brainy, palate painting dryness, this is one American white Bordeaux that delivers French bloodlines with a nicely-restrained American accent. 94 Points
Loso wanders down into the Rhone Valley (and beyond) with just as much facility as he showed with Italy. The Olalla Mourvedre Wahluke Slope shows off the ripeness and fleshy opulence of Washington’s warmest growing region. This is stylistically a seamless marriage of the minerally dryness of the Southern Rhone and the more explosive berry ‘n’ spice richness of Spain’s more northern Mourvedre regions like Madrid and some of the nameless sub-regions sitting along the Southern flank of the Pyrenees. The raspberry and black pepper and licorice and blackberry and cinnamon of the Euro versions are all here, with a lovely purity that sometimes is absent in its French and Spanish cousins. For over a century, Mourvedre/Monastrell fell into neglect and abuse in Spain and was somewhat eclipsed by the richer, darker Syrah, in France. Its relatively recent resurgence in southern Spain spurred a rekindling of interest among Rhone growers who has abandoned it and also, happily, boosted its profile in Provence, its primary Rhone stronghold. It’s clear that Loso has spent some time enjoying both countries’ take on this big, generous grape. This is a replete, thoughtful, immaculately balanced bottle and one that promises even more fireworks with a bit of aging. 93 Points
For the Olalla Grenache Red Mountain, we travel to Washington’s prime sexy wine destination, the enigmatic massive hill/tiny mountain that sits just beside Interstate 82, just north of Washington’s Tri-Cities. Red Mountain arguably does have some certain magic about it; there have simply been too many immortal and eye-popping wines trickling down off that windswept hillside, for too long now, to doubt it. What makes the wines different is the hot debate about Red Mountain, which has given rise to one of the most murky and inexact descriptors used in New World wine: dusty tannins. This phrase recalls Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion that “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…” Basically, “dusty tannins” loosely refers to a certain fine-grained texture of the wines but is pretty much whatever you think it is. Whatever that is, it is within the glass walls of this bottle and can be tasted and puzzled over at your leisure, if you just pony up the $44 it will cost ya. This wine is a complex, immediate, red fruit and mineral bounty, mouth-filling and engrossing and leaving nothing wanting. It’s not strictly French and it’s not strictly Spanish, either. It’s Red Mountain and rather cheap at its sticker price for wines from there and is a portable crash course in making Western hemisphere Grenache without screwing it up. This is DEICIOUS wine and offers immense Bang For Buck. 96 Points
Our tasting of Olalla Malbec Wahluke Slope requires a bit of a retraction: Malbec actually IS a Bordeaux red varietal but has been seldom used by the Bordelaise and has flown South to Cahors for its 21st century realization. But it was also smuggled off to Argentina, introduced by French agricultural engineer Michel Pouget in 1868. The modern day sex appeal of Malbec is 100% Argentinian in origin and, unless I’m mistaken here, the Wahluke vines that produced this wine were originally sourced from Argentina. The wine certainly shows a bunch of that gaucho swagger and panache and cloaks it in a rich, inky blackness that carries over onto a dense palate of blackberries, black currants, black cherries, a hint of black coffee and blackstrap molasses, black plums, (sensing a theme, here?) violets, chocolate, baseball mitt, and pipe tobacco. I’ve tasted a TON of Malbec, in the past twenty years, and while this would not land in my Top Ten Argentinian versions, alongside names like Durigutti, Qaramy, Bosca, Mendel, Catena, Fournier, and Archaval-Ferrer, it demands serious consideration for the title of Best US Malbec. This is a black, savvy, uber-serious Malbec, made by someone who really gets what’s up with this globe-trotting grape. 95 Points
Many of you, reading this, will never get to that “other side” of Puget Sound, even if you do make it to Seattle and I would not, for a moment, suggest that you skip Woodinville and maybe a swing over to the Yakima Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Walla Walla, Red Mountain, or any of the other WA wine regions to just find Olalla. But if you DO find yourself planning a trip to the Kitsap or Olympic Peninsulas, you can absolutely find wines the caliber of Eastern Washington and the Woodinville wineries over here. Not for nothing but Olalla is also one of the Kitsap Peninsula’s prime wedding destination places. They have a hook-up with one of the top caterers in the Seattle area and do tasting, seatings, and events right in the middle of their vineyard.
And the wine story outside of the Usual Suspect places is not even just at Olalla, though it really is sorta in a class by itself. In coming weeks, I’ll be revisiting the remarkable Wind Rose Cellars of Sequim, WA, and several other wineries not in Washington’s Glamour Spots.
For now, though, if you do see that sign along Washington Route 16, be smarter than me. Take an hour, step out of America for a while, and slide into a tiny Euro-style glen where great things are being done with so little fanfare that it’s almost a secret. Olalla Winery is The Real Deal.