I often find myself in a Jabberwocky-type quest, searching for something that, when announced aloud, makes me chortle. Right now, I'm talking about Walla Walla wines. Seriously, say that fast and try not to smile.
OK, maybe it's me. But a few days in Walla Walla, Washington, and I'm suppressing giggles like beamish kiddies during a long church service.
Walla Walla invites good times. Even the onions are sweet here.
The valley, an old, volcanic world at the base of the Blue Mountains, spreads a welcome mat out across wheat fields, orchards and, of course, vineyards.
The Walla Walla Valley wine region, which impetuously ignores state boundaries and drapes over southeast Washington and northeast Oregon, has a history and setup similar to Southern Oregon's. The first plantings went in the ground in the 1850s, sparking a twinkling of success. Then Prohibition dried out the industry.
In the 1970s, wide-eyed Walla Walla dreamers believed self-rooted plants tethered to wind-blown silt and sediment resting on basalt bedrock could deliver a valuable bounty.
Today, second-generation family members are tending cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot vines planted by ponytailed fathers and strong-hearted mothers.
Chris Figgins of Figgins Family Wine Estates can't talk about his 2009 Cab ($90) without speaking of his parents, Gary and Nancy Figgins, who planted one acre of vines in 1977 to launch Leonetti Cellar.
They were followed by Woodward Canyon in 1981 and L'Ecole No. 41 in 1983. The next year, the region became a sub-appellation of the ginormous Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area.
I could burble off the names of the big Walla Walla players — Waterbrook/Precept Brands, Charles Smith Wines/K Vintners — that fuel the county's $502-million wine industry.
But for the most part, when you walk into one of the 100 or so tasting rooms, you're within earshot of the owners.
Casey McClellan's family has farmed in eastern Washington since 1880. He planted vineyards 101 years later, founded McClellan Estate Vineyard and launched Seven Hills Winery. Since then, he has made it possible for other wine producers to buy his grapes and create award-winning wines.
Now, 700 acres of his neighbors' vineyards surround McClellan's old-vine block.
To tease out a broader spectrum of flavors and create "kick-ass, nuanced fruit," McClellan experiments with the way he trains the vines to grow. Only a fourth are positioned in the common, vertical-shoot way. In some blocks, he fans his cabernet canes, choreographing them to slant upward and outward from the base to draw in the perfect balance of sun and shade.
Speaking of the weather, wine touring is year-round in Walla Walla, except maybe in winter, when the temperature can drop to 20 below zero.
To avoid any kind of cold reality, I explored the region's wine offerings by attending the three-day Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine event in late June. The spotlight this year was on America's most prized grape, the kingly cabernet sauvignon. In a bold move, Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance invited winemakers from Napa Valley to compare their 2009 vintages.
"Without Napa, Walla Walla would not have had success," said Wine & Spirits Magazine wine critic Patrick Comiskey at the event.
He called Napa cabs "luxurious" with aromas driven by fruit. "You have to work hard not to like them," he said.
He said he finds most Walla Walla cabs have a savory quality and lightness as if he were "tasting the wind."
"There's an edginess that courses through the wine," he said, standing not too far away from hilltops whirling with wind turbines.
One day during the celebration, I galumphed over to the Corliss Estates tasting room and saw dozens of winery owners dusting off library bottles. Then they let festival goers see how the valley's Bordeaux blends and cabernet sauvignons were holding up.
Ron Coleman of Tamarack Cellars broke into the last 10 cases of his 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon. I asked him if it's painful to open the past.
"That's what the wine is for," said Coleman, whose tasting room is in a restored World War II airplane hangar. "Everyone here is a wine appreciator."
They get it, he seemed to say, looking me up and down.
Outgribing — that is, replying with a sound that was a cross between a bellow and a whistle, with a sneeze in the middle — I jumped into a stretch Model A limo and skedaddled to the other side of Walla Walla.
EVENT: Independence Day calls for independent thinking. Thankfully, Oregon wineries have firecracker ideas to add sparks to your long weekend. Call up your favorite tasting room or just jump into your car and gyre, that is in Jabberwocky-speak, to go round and round like a gyroscope. But then, you knew that.
TASTED: No one wants to work hard to cool off. So Bryan Wilson of Cuckoo's Nest Cellars has a solution: melon shooters chilled by his Fizze, an aromatic, fizzy, sweetish wine made from early muscat grapes (available at the Medford and Ashland Co-ops, Ashland Shop'n Kart, Ashland Wine Cellars, Market of Choice, Gary West Artisan Smoked Meats, The Jacksonville Inn, Rogue Creamery, Elegance and Oregon Outpost for $15).
Wilson, who also is winemaker at Foris Vineyards in Cave Junction, said the naturally low alcohol (7 percent) and effervescent flavors make Fizze a great choice for brunch served with fresh fruit and light, fruit-based pastries, or as an aperitif paired with white Stilton, ginger and mango.
His wife, Sunny, makes a Bicyclette cocktail-inspired Fizzari from equal parts Fizze and club soda or sparkling water poured over ice with a Campari splash. Her tweaked mimosa mixes Fizze and a dash of orange juice. She drizzles Campari on top "to kick it up a bit as well as make it pretty."
Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org