Josh West of Elephant Seven Wine in downtown Walla Walla has a pretty good idea what he’ll hear from vineyard manager Kenny Hart when the news breaks about the best wine at the 2020 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition.
The E7 2018 Yellow Bird Vineyard Grenache cruised through the sweepstakes and stood out on top, picking up a double gold medal — an uncommon unanimous vote for gold by a five-judge panel — along the way. In the world of Grenache, it’s rare to find a bottle from the Pacific Northwest priced at $30, especially one that carries magic from famed Mill Creek Road and farmed by Hart.
“Kenny has been griping that I’ve priced that too low,” West said with a chuckle. “I suspect that will change a bit next year, but it’s important for us to keep our prices reasonable and competitive.”
West, 41, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated with degrees in economics and mathematics at Kent State and the University of New Mexico. He maintains a career as a commodities trader to help fund Elephant Seven, a project he operates in downtown Walla Walla with his wife, Cheryl.
“Along the way, we’ve visited wine regions around the world and always have loved the big hitters from the Rhône Valley, especially Syrah because of the sense of place that you get in them,” West said. “To me, terroir is the single most romantic thing about wine.”
A shared interest in those French varieties grown in this famous corner of the Pacific Northwest prompted the Wests to launch E7 with 400 cases from the 2014 vintage and ultimately lured them to the Walla Walla Valley. The 2018 vintage also will be remembered for West’s invitation to the Winemaker Picnic and Barrel Auction for the Auction of Washington Wines in August.
That same month, he and Cheryl realized their dream of opening a tasting room in downtown Walla Walla. In 1905, the brick building at the corner of Fourth and Poplar was the new home of the McDonald Feed & Sale Stable. Today, it is home to Elephant Seven and its 2,200 cases of wine.
“We love the building and the fact that we’re not part of ‘the pub crawl’ so to speak,” he said. “We’re a little bit off the beaten track so people have to intentionally seek us out and we like that.”
Binko’s Eternal Wines amasses 4 gold medals
The Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition serves as a scholarship fundraiser for College Cellars, the teaching winery at Walla Walla Community College, and the talent among its alumni shined brightly again this year. West graduated from the program, led by instructor Tim Donahue, in 2014.
Brad Binko, Class of 2016, earned four gold medals for his Eternal Wines project at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition. His total was matched by iconic Woodward Canyon Winery, which won Best Chardonnay and stood out for its 2018 Estate Vineyard Merlot, 2018 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon and 2018 Estate Vineyard Barbera.
“I love it,” Binko said. “That’s great company, and I’ll take that news any day of the week.”
Included in that showing by the sommelier from New York was his Eternal Wines 2019 Lust Albariño, which won the award as the best white wine of the judging. He’d never worked with the Spanish variety before last year, but his friend, Sean Tudor of Otis Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, talked him into it.
“I had no plans of making it, and now he’s got me hooked on it,” Binko said. “With the Albariño, I was going for something a bit fuller than the Grenache Blanc that I make because I didn’t want two wines that were so similar. So I fermented in a pair of 1-year-old French oak barrels to give it a bit more body.”
The Eternal Wines 2016 Eternal Echo Syrah from Gamache Vineyard in the proposed White Bluffs American Viticultural Area near the Hanford Reach was voted as the best Syrah of the judging. Binko’s 2016 Eternal Discovery Cabernet Sauvignon, which he pulled from rising star Discovery Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills, was in the running for the judging’s best Cab. The 2016 Eternal Optimism GSM – a Grenache-led blend from Cecil Zerba’s Cockburn Ranch Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley – merited a gold medal.
Binko’s thoughtful and focused exploration of some of Washington’s top vineyards spans 23 bottlings under Eternal Wines and seven under his wide-ranging Drink Washington State tier.
“What I’ve learned is that those 2016s, like the Discovery and Echo, benefited from more time in the barrel and the bottle,” Binko said. “Some of the earlier released reds from 2016 were in barrel 18 and 22 months, but I was able to have some of these have more time to mature. The Discovery was 30 months in barrel, and Echo was 34 months. I think that definitely helps, and it is showing right now.”
Meanwhile, the early success of the Otis Vineyard Albariño will help raise the awareness of Binko’s work with white wines.
“We’re pouring eight different white wines at the tasting room, and I probably make more different types of white wine than anyone else in the valley,” he said. “And even though we haven’t even officially released the Albariño, it’s almost sold out because a wine club in California bought 25 cases for their members. To have a sale like that is great for me, especially in these times.”
Hart’s Tulpen Cellars claims Best Cab honor
For Hart, the list of vineyards he manages goes well beyond Yellow Bird Vineyard, which is owned by Seattle physicians Greg and Darlene Chan. Hart also serves as the vineyard manager for Dunham Cellars and his Appellation Management Group oversees a dozen other sites.
His own brand, Tulpen Cellars, also shined in the competition as he won best of class with his 2016 Tokar Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a tiny but venerable site along Mill Creek Road that charmed Walla Walla Vintners founders Myles Anderson and Gordy Venneri. Hart’s dry-farmed Cab led a strong field filled with some of the region’s most famous wineries in a showdown with what has become Washington’s signature grape.
de la Luz pays homage to mother with rosé
Victor de la Luz has been making wine in the Walla Walla Valley since 2012, but he recently took over as the head winemaker at Gordon Estate, a historic vineyard that overlooks the Snake River near Pasco. He began working for the Gordon family in 2017, and his responsibilities span an annual production of 14,000 cases.
He charmed the judging panel with his fresh 2018 Carmen Rosé, which he made with Grenache from Lawrence Vineyard in the Columbia Basin and named for his mother.
“She is an amazingly strong woman, and I am honored to be able to name my first de la luz Wine rosé after her,” he said.
The skill, patience and grace displayed in the 2018 Carmen Rosé from the proposed Royal Slope AVA would seem to reflect de la Luz’s approach to his tiny 200-case brand that’s not quite released.
“I never touch my wine if I’m having a bad day, you know?” de la Luz said. “because I want only the best energy going into my wines. And I’m always looking for balance.”
The former professional dancer from Mexico also scored a gold medal for his 2016 Golden Ridge Vineyard Reserva Merlot.
Golden Ridge responsible for 3 gold medals
Golden Ridge Vineyard is in its third decade of life along Highway 12 northwest of the Walla Walla Regional Airport, and de la Luz got to know the site when he was working with adjacent Johnson Ridge Vineyard during his time with the now-defunct Walla Faces brand.
Walla Walla attorney Michael Rasch purchased Golden Ridge in 2007 with wife, Cindy, and immersed himself in both the vineyard and winemaking, graduating from the College Cellars program in 2009.
That education graded out to delicious levels during the 2020 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition as Rasch, mentored by Jason Gorski of DeLille Cellars, won two gold medals for two of his own Golden Ridge Cellars reds. His 2016 Estate Merlot was selected best of its class.
Fiona Mak, a 2015 graduate of College Cellars, otherwise dominated the rosé category at last week’s competition as all three of the 2019 releases under her young SMAK Wines program garnered gold — the Summer Rosé of Pinot Gris, Spring Rosé of Sangiovese and Fall/Winter Rosé of Syrah.
Other producers to receive three gold medals included John Freeman of Browne Family Vineyards and Waterbrook Winery, L’Ecole No. 41 and Tamarack Cellars.
And there were only two double gold medals awarded — to the best of show Grenache and to the DAMA Wines 2016 Cabernet Franc by Mary Derby.
In the eight year history of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition, more than $12,000 for student scholarships has been raised for WWCC’s Institute of Enology at Viticulture. Because the campus remains closed as a result of the pandemic, this year’s judging was staged at a private home in the Columbia Valley with social distancing and face masks when not scoring the wines.
The panel of five was Kristine Bono, general manager/sommelier, Tertulia Cellars, Walla Walla; Phillipe Michel, founder of Oak Traditions and associate of Metis Northwest, Walla Walla; Ken Robertson, columnist, Wine Press Northwest magazine, Kennewick, Wash.; Paul Sinclair, Great Northwest Wine panelist, Bend, Ore.; and Gordy Venneri, co-founder, Walla Walla Vintners.
A number of the top wines in this judging are produced in small lots from boutique wineries, so the window of their availability is far from wide open. Such is the case with West’s best-of-show Grenache.
“We released it in May and it’s gone very quickly,” West said. “We made 150 cases of it, and probably about 75 percent of it is sold already. It’s always a crowd-pleaser.”
Eighth annual Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition
Best of show, double gold medal
Elephant Seven 2018 Yellow Bird Vineyard Grenache, Walla Walla Valley $30.00
Best white wine, gold medal
Eternal Wines 2019 Eternal Lust Albariño, Columbia Valley $29.00
Best sparkling wine, gold medal
Castillo de Feliciana Vineyard & Winery 2018 Brillanté Sparkling Albariño, Columbia Valley $41.00
Best rosé, gold medal
de la Luz Wines 2018 Carmen Rosé, Columbia Valley, $20.00
Best of class, double gold medal
DAMA Wines 2016 Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley $50.00
Best Cabernet Sauvignon, gold medal
Tulpen Cellars 2016 Tokar Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $42.00
Best Chardonnay, gold medal
Woodward Canyon Winery 2019 Chardonnay, Washington State $44.00
Best red blend, gold medal
Dunham Cellars 2017 Trutina 54% Merlot, 42% Cabernet Sauvignon 2% Cabernet Franc 2% Petit Verdot, Columbia Valley $29.00
Best Malbec, gold medal
Dusted Valley Vintners 2017 Southwind Vineyard Estate Malbec, Walla Walla Valley $45.00
Best Syrah, gold medal
Eternal Wines 2016 Eternal Echo, Columbia Valley $59.00
Best Merlot, gold medal
Golden Ridge Cellars 2016 Estate Merlot, Walla Walla Valley $40.00
Best Carménère, gold medal
Tertulia Cellars 2017 Phinny Hill Vineyard Carménère, Horse Heaven Hills $48.00
Abeja 2018 Chardonnay, Washington State $45.00
Abeja 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $60.00
Adamant Cellars 2017 Artisan Syrah, Walla Walla Valley
Adamant Cellars 2019 Philips Vineyard Albarino, Walla Walla Valley
Barons Winery 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain $60.00
Bergevin Lane Vineyards 2015 Moonspell Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $30.00
Browne Family Vineyards 2017 Tribute Red Blend , Columbia Valley $29.99
Browne Family Vineyards 2019 Grenache Rosé , Columbia Valley $24.00
Canoe Ridge Vineyard 2017 The Explorer Merlot , Horse Heaven Hills $22.99
College Cellars of Walla Walla 2017 Clarke Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley $25.00
de la luz Wines 2016 Golden Ridge Vineyard Reserva Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $60.00
Dumas Station 2016 Birch Creek Vineyard Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $55.00
Dusted Valley Vintners 2017 Stoney Vine Vineyard Estate Tall Tales Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $62.00
Eternal Wines 2016 Eternal Discovery, Horse Heaven Hills $59.00
Eternal Wines 2016 Eternal Optimism, Walla Walla Valley $44.00
Five Star Cellars 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $42.00
Foundry Vineyards 2019 White on White, Columbia Valley $24.00
Foundry Vineyards 2019 Acadia Vineyard Pét Project: Field Blend, Columbia Gorge $32.00
Golden Ridge Cellars 2016 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $45.00
itä wines 2019 sémillon – 2 of 2, Walla Walla Valley $25.00
L’Ecole No. 41 2019 Seven HIlls Vineyard Estate Luminesce Sauvignon Blanc • Sèmillon, Walla Walla Valley
L’Ecole No. 41 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $40.00
L’Ecole No. 41 2017 Pepper Bridge Vineyard Apogee, Walla Walla Valley $55.00
Lagana Cellars 2017 Eritage Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley $35.00
Lagana Cellars 2017 Nox Perpetua Carménère, Walla Walla Valley $45.00
Nine Hats Wines 2016 Malbec, Columbia Valley $25.00
SMAK Wines 2019 Summer Rosé of Pinot Gris , Columbia Valley $18.00
SMAK Wines 2019 Spring Rosé of Sangiovese, Walla Walla valley $18.00
SMAK Wines 2019 Fall/ Winter Rosé of Syrah, Columbia Valley $18.00
Tamarack Cellars 2018 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley $19.99
Tamarack Cellars 2017 Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley $30.00
Tamarack Cellars 2017 Firehouse Red Red Wine Blend, Columbia Valley $19.99
Tertulia Cellars 2018 Rivière Galets Estate Vineyard Grenache, Walla Walla Valley $35.00
Tulpen Cellars 2017 Yellow Bird Vineyard Merlot, Walla Walla Valley $42.00
Walla Walla Vintners 2017 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley $50.00
Walla Walla Vintners 2017 Walla Walla Merlot, Walla Walla Valley $28.00
Waterbrook Winery 2017 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon , Columbia Valley $24.99
Woodward Canyon Winery 2018 Estate Vineyard Merlot, Walla Walla Valley $52.00
Woodward Canyon Winery 2018 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington State $99.00
Woodward Canyon Winery 2018 Estate Vineyard Barbera, Walla Walla Valley $32.00
Adamant Cellars 2016 Don’t Be a Dull Boy Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $48.00
Bergevin Lane Vineyards 2015 Dreamweaver Malbec, Walla Walla Valley, $32.00
Canoe Ridge Vineyard 2018 Summit Series Dwelley Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon , Walla Walla Valley $45.00
Castillo de Feliciana Vineyard & Winery 2018 Albariño, Columbia Valley $27.00
Castillo de Feliciana Vineyard & Winery 2016 Graciano Red Wine, Columbia Valley $53.00
Castillo de Feliciana Vineyard & Winery 2014 Tempranillo Reserve Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley $59.00
College Cellars of Walla Walla 2017 Seven Hills Vineyard La Laurelia Red Wine , Walla Walla Valley $30.00
College Cellars of Walla Walla 2017 Anderson Vineyard Barbera, Walla Walla Valley $25.00
DAMA Wines 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $55.00
DAMA Wines 2015 Collage, Walla Walla Valley $45.00
de la Luz Wines 2017 Merlot, Yakima Valley
de la Luz Wines 2018 Alicante Syrah Red Wine, Columbia Valley
Dunham Cellars 2019 Sauvignon Blanc, Columbia Valley $22.00
Dunham Cellars 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon XXII, Columbia Valley $50.00
Eternal Wines 2016 RocketMan Red, Columbia Valley $39.00
Foundry Vineyards 2016 Artisan Blend Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley $38.00
itä wines 2019 rosé of primitivo, Walla Walla Valley $25.00
Lagana Cellars 2019 Breezy Slope Vineyard Pinot Noir Rosé, Walla Walla Valley $20.00
Lodmell Cellars 2015 Merlot, Columbia Valley $35.00
Tertulia Cellars 2018 Elevation Estate Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Valley $45.00
Tertulia Cellars 2016 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $45.00
Tertulia Cellars 2017 Estate Ryans’ Reserve Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley $45.00
Zerba Cellars 2017 Winesap Vineyard Estate The Rocks Syrah, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater $55.00
Zerba Cellars 2017 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley $36.00
Zerba Cellars 2018 Estate Wild Z Red Wine, Walla Walla Valley $24.00
Zerba Cellars 2018 Cockburn Vineyard Estate Equilibrio, Walla Walla Valley $55.00