In Washington’s Walla Walla Valley, Pair Wine Tasting with Food Trucks
Head to the eastern side of this Washington wine region for good eats and up-and-coming vintners.
Fiona Mak wants Rosé. Not just all day. Not just every day. But all year.
So the winemaker is exclusively producing the style at her Walla Walla Valley winery SMAK wines, nestled on the east side of this Washington state region. She started the brand after a visit to the French Riviera, where she found people drinking Rosé whenever the sun was out. “It was like a reflex, it didn’t matter what month it was,” Mak recalled. “They are treating it as a lifestyle and I thought, ‘Oh! What fun! I can do that!’”
She’s already made three—a spring Rosé of Sangiovese, a summer Rosé of Pinot Gris and fall/winter Rosé of Syrah—and plans to add a sparkling Rosé and Cabernet Franc Rosé later this year.
“I think it’s quite limiting to tell people they can only enjoy Rosé in summer,” Mak says. “It’s like telling people they can only eat chicken in spring. We promote the Rosé all-year concept because Rosé is a great natural pairing with food. On top of that, we drink Rosé all year because we can.”
Mak wasn’t planning on starting her own winery when she first arrived in the region nearly 10 years ago to attend the Institute of Enology & Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College. Every moment was “a learning moment,” Mak said. “They have taught a lot of us in the valley.”
That includes Kelsey Albro Itämeri, who opened her Itä Wines tasting room with limited capacity amid the pandemic. The Seattle native moved to the region to be closer to her parents’ home in the foothills of the Blue Mountains and found herself “obsessed with the uniqueness of the landscape here and the delicious wines that can be made on this land.”
“In global terms, Walla Walla is such a young wine region—we’re honestly just getting started!” Itämeri says. “There was such success here in the early years with concentrated Bordeaux-style blends, and then a wave of Rhone influence, and now loads of people are experimenting with lower-alcohol wines (myself included) and things like sparkling wines and pet-nats. There’s this feeling that we can really do anything here, just a palpable air of possibility. The challenge as a winemaker is to figure out what you want to focus on, what craft or style you want to master and hone.”
So we asked Mak for the can’t-miss spot throughout the region. Here are her favorite places to sip and savor on the east side of the Walla Walla Valley:
“What can I say? Rosé all day is not enough for me, I want Rosé all year!” Mak says. The SMAK Wines tasting room is open by appointment only Thursday through Saturday.
Hoquetus Wine Co.
Winemaker Robert Gomez, who is also a musician, is “one of the most down-to-earth and impressive people to taste wine with,” Mak says. Among Hoquetus wines that are “expressive and delicious,” the “Cabernet Franc is so good that I offered to make him hand-pulled duck egg noodles with Chinese cumin lamb.”
“It takes a lot of guts to open a winery during the pandemic. This tells you a lot about Kelsey Albro Itämeri,” Mak says. “Itä—the stem of her Finnish last name Itämeri—means ‘east,’ which is where Kelsey is dedicated to expressing the unique terroir of the eastern foothills of Walla Walla Valley.”
“John Abbott has a long history when it comes to making great wines in Walla Walla Valley and Napa Valley.” Abbott and his wife, Molly, produce wine with grapes from both sides of the Columbia River. While they don’t have a tasting room per se, you can book an appointment to taste outside when weather permits and in the cellar when it doesn’t, Molly says. “Each of John’s wines are carefully crafted, full of complexity and depth,” Mak adds. “It is worth a drive to Walla Walla just for these wines alone.”
Agapa’s Mexican Cravings
At this food truck, the tacos are “bigger than normal street tacos, with juicy, luxurious fillings of your choice filled to the brim,” Mak says. “My favorite fillings are chicken with green sauce, mushrooms, al pastor, or jalapeño with cheese.” The truck is located just outside Quirk Brewing, “so you can always get a beer to wake up your palette before more wine tasting.”
Where There’s Food… Eat It
“Nathan Carlson was the chef at Cameo Heights before opening his own food truck,” Mak says. “There aren’t many places in Walla Walla where you can order ahi tuna tacos, black truffle mac ‘n’ cheese, and a mixed plate with pulled pork, andouille sausage, and brisket all in one place.” Where There’s Food … Eat It is parked downtown at Burwood Brewing Co. or Quirk Brewing on the weekends.
College Cellars of Walla Walla
The Institute for Enology and Viticulture created College Cellars as “a teaching winery where the wines made by current and past students can be tasted and enjoyed. While there you may even experience something you’ve haven’t tried before, like Carménère or Aligoté.”
The Inn at Abeja
“Abeja offers a sense of peace and tranquility after a long day of wine tasting,” Mak says. “Their property is large and meticulously landscaped for maximum enjoyment and relaxation, inside and out. You can relax in your own en-suite room in the large farmhouse if you’re here with a group, or one of their beautiful bungalows as a couple’s getaway.”
JJ & Kelly Menozzi retired from the Air Force after more than 23 years of service and created Aluvé “to combine their passions of flying for our country and sharing great wine.” The views from their Mill Creek estate are “picturesque” and a newly built tasting room is “full of mementos from their Air Force years.”