Wine Ink column: Wash-Italian—A trip to Italy in the Pacific Northwest

by Kelly J. Hayes
Todd Bernave / Courtesy photo |


Walla Walla Vintners 2012 Cut Bank Estate Vottavo

What can I say? This wine is a Washington State “Tuscan Blend” led by sangiovese (42%) and followed by near equal thirds of merlot and cabernet sauvignon, made by one of the Walla Walla region’s pioneers. And it is spectacular. This wine is among the first two releases from fruit grown on Walla Walla’s Cut Bank vineyard. Rich and lush on the palate, the wine married the spice and brightness of the sangiovese with the tannins of the Cabernet, while saving a space in the middle of the ménage a trois for the lush merlot which tied them all together. It was an honor to have been able to taste this wine in its youth.

It began with the premise that two of the best places on the planet for making and experiencing wine are Italy and the Pacific Northwest. While the former defines “Old World” and the latter “New World,” both regions produce epic wines.

So it was that on a recent trip to Washington state, I endeavored to merge the two by sampling a selection of wines grown and made in Washington from grapes with Italian origins. Initially, I thought that procuring wines made from grapes like sangiovese, barbera and nebbiolo might prove a difficult task. But, as I quickly discovered, there exists a treasure trove of Italian varietals in a state that is the second largest producer of wine in America, trailing only California.

And that makes sense. Draw a line around a globe and you’ll see the growing regions of Washington are just a few miles north of their counterparts in Northern Italy. That is to say that, while Walla Walla is a half a world away from Piemonte, it sits at 46 degrees north of the equator, just about 70 miles north of where Piemonte basks in the same sun. And both regions benefit from unique soil structures. Much of Washington has been blessedly influenced by the great “Missoula Floods” which, at the end of the last ice age, deposited tons of sediment and created the fertile soils on the lands that are now home to outstanding vineyards.

With the help of the Washington State Wine Commission, I was able to acquire a number of wines for my venture. They included a pair of sangiovese-based wines and a nebbiolo from Cavatappi, a barbera from the Walla Walla based Saviah Cellars, a Washington “Super Tuscan” blend (sangiovese/merlot/cabernet sauvignon) from Walla Walla Vineyards and a trio of wines from Geno Cuneo that are, well, unique. I’ll address the Cuneo wines in a separate column.

To embellish the experience, I had arranged to pair our wines with the cuisine of one of Seattle’s most renowned Italian chefs, Walter Pisano of Tulio, which occupies a cozy corner in the wine-themed Hotel Vintage. For wine-lovers, the Kimpton-branded Hotel Vintage is a destination in itself. Each room is named for a Washington winery. Each evening sees a tasting for guests of Washington wines in the intimate lobby that is ringed by a wine wall with the state’s best bottles. The décor in the elevator features handcarved wood relief maps of the AVAs of Washington. As perhaps the most wine-centric urban hotel in America, it’s a place that makes it a pleasure to drink local wines.

We (my wife and I) arrived at Tulio to find our wine selections sitting on a large table not far from Tulio’s impressive open kitchen. Chef Pisano sat with us and reflected upon the restaurant’s significant role over the past 25 years in Seattle’s evolved food scene. He looked at our wines with admiration and made a few suggestions from the menu.

We opted to start with the two sangiovese wines from Cavatappi, a 2016 Columbia Valley and the 2013 Molly’s Cuvee. Neither wine disappointed when paired with Penn Cove mussels prepared Sicilian style in a rich, slightly spicy broth. While the Columbia Valley wine, under screw cap, was a fine wine for say, Tuesday night pizza, the Molly’s — sourced from Red Willow — one of the world’s great vineyards, was brilliant. Bright red, big on fruit and with enough oomph to stand up to the spice, it was a great intro to the Wash-Italian wines I had come for.

The next course, a plate of sweet potato gnocchi, was a stunner. Crispy on the outside after a quick hit in a hot pan of sage butter, and pillowy soft in the center, these irresistible bites were sensational with the 2015 Saviah Barbera. The rich, earthy wine hinted of vanilla and chocolate, working perfectly with the gnocchi and enhancing it bite by bite by the subtle acidity.

The final wines inspired us to seek out grilled meat, so we ordered a bone in rib-eye, rare, accompanied by rich bone marrow butter. We poured a Cavatappi 2013 Madelena Nebbiolo sourced from 25-year-old vines from the aforementioned Red Willow vineyard. Cavatappi was founded by restaurateur Peter Dow and it was easy to see that this deep, purple gem had the vigor and strength to satisfy a marrow-loving carnivore. Spice and dark fruits were the notes underlying the power and passion of this wine.

As we noshed and nibbled on the last of the meat on the bone, we knew we had been offered stunning proof that this notion of Italian varietals excelling in the great Northwest was not just valid, but spot on.


Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at

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