The Oasis

This Northstar merlot was the very model of a modern new world wine. Supple to a nearly embarrassing degree, the sort of mouth-filling texture that traces a perfect bell curve across your palate. The aroma was rich black fruit, accented with the sort of earth that makes a cloud when you walk across it, and leafy nuances tucked into the fold

This Pepper Bridge cabernet sauvignon­–suffused with blackcurrant and plum, pencil graphite and that sunny herbaceous tone that makes me think of tomato and basil–hid Built Ford Tough tannins and a considerable amount of alcohol underneath layers of velvet and silk.

The Poet’s Leap riesling from Longshadows that smelled of lemongrass and apricot; on the palate the wine showed the classic tension between acidity and sweetness that most of the best rieslings have, flowers and limes and honey all over the place in a wine both tense and poised.

The Adamant Cellars Nalin, a Bordeaux style blend and perhaps the best balanced of them all, heavy with black cherry and tobacco and earth, managed to have at once a seamlessly smooth texture and layered flavor, polished at release the way wines usually have to age a few years to achieve.

None of these wines–supple, velvety, poised, and balanced–gave a hint of the sort of country they come from. These four wines come from the Walla Walla Valley, and it was hard to reconcile all the refined reserve in these wines with the post-apocalyptic scene out the tasting room window.

To be sure, Walla Walla is a beautiful place. The bright gold wheat draped over everything that isn’t irrigated makes the whole gentle bowl-shaped valley shimmer against a deep blue sky. The town itself is a pleasant mid-sized western town with a handful of pleasant restaurants. The Walla Walla River is a cute winding brook, banks lined with cottonwood and alder. The problem is–at least the problem when I was there was–that it’s 110 degrees. Walking out of each tasting room was like walking into an enormous microwave and I suspect at least two of the wineries we visited were heatstroke-induced hallucinations. We were told that this extremity is unusual in Walla Walla, that the region is tucked into the mountains just so, the heat rarely gets to such a degree of absurdity, and that about twice as much rain falls there than in the larger Columbia Valley. Of course, if you compare your rainfall to the surface of Mars, it’s going to look pretty generous. I think of Walla Walla as a real-life Ithilion, surrounded by low mountains and next to Mordor. The heart of the Columbia Valley is a moonscape of sagebrush and rock[1] so dry that the medium-sized thunderstorm we drove through on the way back to Portland managed to set fire to most of it. It is jarring to find a place as pleasant as Walla Walla, capable of producing such powerfully nuanced wine, surrounded on all sides by country defined by inhospitable extremes.[2] Walla Walla is a keen reminder of how delicately balanced the ecosystem of a great wine region can be.

[1] I’m convinced I saw Moses and the Israelites poring over a roadmap thirty miles west of Umatilla.

[2] Of course, lots of people live there. The massive irrigation system that sprawls on either side of the equally massive Columbia River has turned one of the driest places on earth into one of the most productive agricultural regions on earth. The bright, bushy green patches that dot the otherwise uniform cracked and brown landscape do little to dispel the terrible, beautiful emptiness of it.

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