WALLA WALLA — For decades, serious wine lovers and collectors have flocked to Walla Walla during the first weekend in May for “Leonetti Weekend,” the only time of the year that iconic Leonetti Cellar opens its gates to invited buyers.
Officially, however, the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance refers to it as Spring Release Weekend. This year, it runs Friday through Sunday, a time frame that’s also a harbinger of deliciously famous crops such as the Walla Walla sweet onion, asparagus and artichokes.
When it comes to pairing them with Northwest wines, however, sometimes the results can be awkward.
“I had a fear about asparagus,” said sommelier Shawn Smith, who doubles as the tasting room manager and restaurant manager at Waterbrook Winery in Walla Walla. “In the past I would have said, ‘Get me a fino sherry or I’m dead.’ ”
Waterbrook is the Walla Walla Valley’s fourth-oldest winery, dating back to 1983 when Eric Rindal founded it at age 23. He sold it to Precept Wine in 2006, and it stands as the jewel in the crown for the Seattle-based company led by CEO Andrew Browne, who grew up in Spokane.
Last year, Precept hired Sierra Grden as its corporate chef, and now that wine touring season is in full swing, Waterbrook is open for dinner on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“I’m the food program manager, too, so I need to bring food to all of the other properties as well,” she said.
A decade ago, Grden, whose name is of Polish-Hungarian origin and pronounced “Grr-DANE,“ left a career in Manhattan as an industrial designer of kitchen products for Lifetime Brands to return home to the Walla Walla Valley.
“I was really unhappy, and I always wanted to be a chef,” she said. “And I’ve always loved wine.”
Grden, 40, spent time at French-themed Brasserie Four, the now-closed The Ox & Cart and catered throughout the valley before stepping away from the commercial kitchen.
“I took time off to write a book on edible root vegetables of the world to help educate children,” the Western Washington University graduate said. “Then a year ago, Precept found me. It was a surprise, and I’m almost done with my book, but this is such a perfect job for me.”
This spring, she collaborated with Smith to create a series of dishes featuring spring vegetables that pair with a selection of Waterbrook, Browne Family Vineyards and Canoe Ridge Vineyard wines — three of the most important brands in the Precept portfolio.
All but one of the wines came from the cellar of John Freeman, one of the most affable and overlooked winemaking talents in the Walla Walla Valley, and his tenure as Waterbrook’s head winemaker goes back to 2005, which precedes the sale to Precept.
While these dishes are not regularly featured on the seasonal menu, they are reflective of the imagination, execution and talent Grden is bringing to the culinary program at Waterbrook and Precept.
“Between the restaurant, our catering and special events, these dishes will find their way on tables,” said Smith, whose career includes years at the famed Greenbrier in West Virginia.
All of these wines are available online. The Browne Family Vineyards wines can be sampled at the downtown Walla Walla tasting room and in its Seattle’s Pioneer Square tasting room. Canoe Ridge Vineyard recently moved its Walla Walla tasting room downtown on Main Street, and Waterbrook’s remodeled tasting room stands a stone’s throw from Highway 12 and a chip shot from Freeman’s winery.
Walla Walla Sweet Onions
from local farms in Walla Walla
Entrée: Opposite Soup with Icon by Waterbrook 2016 Dolcetto
Grden used Waterbrook Mèlange Founder’s Red Blend in the red onion prep and Waterbrook Mèlange White for the white onion prep. Other ingredients include cream sherry, pearl onion flowers, strawberry, begonia flowers and thyme.
Smith described the wine as meaning “little sweet one.” The Icon by Waterbrook 2016 Dolcetto ($34) is actually dry with hints of dried cherry and strawberry, lingering tannins and balanced with bright acidity.”
Dessert: Onion and Waterbrook Wine Ice Cream with Waterbrook 2017 Mèlange Founder’s White Blend
Sweet red onions are boiled to extract sugar from the bulb, and this is presented in a red and white chocolate onion cup, along with fermented honey sauce and orange blossom candy.
The key with any wine pairing with dessert is that the wine must be sweeter than what’s on the spoon or fork. In this case, the Waterbrook 2017 Mèlange White ($12), which leads with sauvignon blanc and muscat, comes in between off-dry and semi-sweet, and Smith hit the mark. The Onion and Waterbrook Wine Ice Cream is delicate, complex, slightly savory and only lightly sweet.
“This offering has a balanced approach to sweetness and fruity characteristics of pineapple, kiwi, starfruit and mango,” he said. “This wine plays well with the ice cream and the sweetness from the sugars extracted from the onions along with the hints of orange really make this item stand out.”
from Larsen Farms in Pasco
Entrée: Asparagus and Two King Duo
Larsen Farms asparagus shares the stage with spring chinook salmon from the Columbia River and white king salmon from the Pacific Ocean. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, about 5 percent of king salmon have white meat and have been dubbed “the Ivory Kings.” They don’t carry the gene that allows them to metabolize pigment in their food and store the red-
orange carotene in their muscle. Many of these white Kings come from the Fraser River in British Columbia.
Grden built the umami-filled dish around white asparagus, blonde and forest morels, slightly spicy green garbanzo beans, fiddle ferns, English peas and fava beans. She accented it with asparagus flower and her Asparagus and Rhubarb Sauce. “When you sauté asparagus, a natural lemon flavor comes out,” she said. “And rhubarb has a similar texture to asparagus.”
The pairing with the Canoe Ridge Vineyard 2015 Canyon Vineyard Ranch Limited Edition Roussanne ($20) was spot-on with the spring chinook. Interestingly, it didn’t quite click with the white king, which is more prized by restaurants. “It’s a bit pricey, but I wanted to have it,” Grden said with a chuckle. Smith’s lean toward the full-bodied Roussanne made by Bill Murray from this Yakima Valley site highlighted notes of tropical fruit, pineapple and honey while offering a grassy, sweet and tart kick to Grden’s Asparagus and Rhubarb Sauce. “A little spice goes well with the Roussanne,” she said.
Dessert: Creme Brûlée
Indeed, Larsen Farms asparagus contributed to Grden’s imaginative and beautiful custard that came with violet sorbet, Parmesan jasmine cookie, toasted pistachios, fennel frond and even a thimble-sized shot of absinthe.
For the wine pairing, Smith mixed in a curveball that produced a hit with the Browne Family Vineyards 2016 Malbec ($35), playing well with each phase of this dessert. Freeman’s delicious work with Malbec has been somewhat unheralded, but perhaps that is about to change as his Waterbrook 2016 Reserve Malbec won best of the class recently at the Cascadia International Wine Competition. “The Browne malbec is supple yet strong enough to form a warm cocoon of beautiful currant and blackberry fruit immediately and long-lasting tannins are flanked by a creamy texture and vanilla tones.”
• Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.