Nestled in a lush valley, Walla Walla in Eastern Washington is home to more than 120 wineries, a number that continues to grow as more and more world class wines emerge from this distinct region. With so many wineries to choose from, selecting the right ones to visit on a weekend getaway can take a bit of research and planning to fill your time in Walla Walla with memorable experiences. Typically tasting room experiences have many similarities no matter which winery you visit, the biggest is walking into the tasting room, stand at the bar or try to grab a table, and taste wines usually for a fee that is waived if you purchase wine.
A side by side tasting of two vintages, Eleanor Estate Red Wine, 2018 and 2019. Enjoyed by one of the many seating areas available at Caprio Cellars.
So what if a winery came in and shook things up a bit with a new focus on hospitality and a distinctive “wine tasting experience” that completely changes the way that visitors taste wine in Walla Walla. Even better, what if they made your wine tasting more of a personal discovery in an elegant indoor or inviting outdoor seating area and paired it with locally prepared food, delivering an individual experience to your tasting? This is what Caprio Cellars has done, filling a unique niche and doing something a little avant-garde when it comes to hospitality and how people experience their Caprio Cellars wines.
Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to travel to Walla Walla and after reading so many five star reviews about Caprio Cellars I was delighted to visit and experience their food and wine pairing first hand. Caprio Cellars is a small producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc
located in the heart of Walla Walla Valley, WA.
I was also fortunate enough to chat with owner and winemaker Dennis Murphy. Our conversation covered so many topics from his personal wine journey, how Caprio Cellars got it’s start in Walla Walla and so much more. I hope you enjoy the interview along with highlights from my visit to Caprio Cellars.
What was your initial connection with wine? Was wine something that other member of your family enjoyed as you were growing up?
“Growing up in a large family with Italian roots, there was always wine present for any celebration. The stories of the “Mustache Pete’s” in New York making wine like the home country of Italy was regularly told. When I was in college, I learned how to cook for myself and incorporated wine into any special event. Once I could afford some good bottles of wine, I started to collect wine.“
When did you actually “fall in love” with wine? Do you remember the wine that was “the one” that started it all? Is there a story behind it?
“I fell in love with wine and the Walla Walla Valley at the same time. In the late 90’s, I would drive to Walla Walla for my construction job. I passed a few wineries and thought there was no way anyone was making decent wine in Eastern Washington. I saw a bottle of L’Ecole No. 41 on a wine list while visiting Seattle and I asked if it was any good. The waiter said it would “blow my mind”. The waiter was spot on, the L’Ecole No. 41 merlot blew my mind. I then started stopping to visit the Walla Walla wineries and decided to move to Walla Walla in 1999 to get involved in the emerging wine scene.“
Dennis purchased the land which was previously wheat fields, for Caprio Cellars in 2003 and the first vines were planted in 2005. The first vineyard was named “Eleanor, in tribute to his late grandmother Eleanor Caprio. The first harvest took place in 2008, and once the first wines were bottled, the name Caprio Cellars was chosen.
“The name “Caprio” Cellars came from my grandmother, Eleanor Caprio. My grandmother Eleanor was an amazing women. She had a zest for life and loved her children greatly. On top of that she was beautiful and a great Italian cook. I would love to go to her house, get a big hug from her and then a plate of manicotti.“
In addition to being the owner and winemaker of Caprio Cellars Dennis still owns a construction business. I was curious how he juggled these two careers.
“This is certainly a story of two careers. The winery has mostly consumed evenings and weekends. Fortunately I have a great team at the winery so I can lean on them. I would describe myself as equally right and left brain, so Caprio is largely my creative outlet. There have been many hurdles along the way, I would say that understanding the patience involved in the production of wine was something I had to learn and ultimately have appreciated.“
There are nearly 3,000 acres of vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley but only a few of the areas wineries own estate vineyards. Caprio Cellars is amongst them with three sites Eleanor’s, Octave and Sanitella that each take full advantage of the warm sunny days in the valley along with the array of vine loving soils found there.
I asked Dennis why being an estate winery from the start was so important to him.
“When I was learning to make wine, I worked on the sorting table and noticed that the winemakers were mostly excited when their estate fruit arrived, but when the contract fruit arrived it was either picked too early, too late or was not clean enough. I learned early on that if Caprio was going to make world class wines, it had to own vineyards that produced world glass grapes.“
Caprio Cellars was born with the intent to produce world class wines from Bordeaux varieties. On the Eleanor site they are growing 2 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and 1 of Merlot. Octave which was planted in 2007 has 22 hillside acres with 16 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 2 acres each of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as well as 1 acre of Malbec. The newest vineyard with high elevation, Sanitella, has Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and some Sauvignon Blanc.
Walla Walla although becoming more of a wine tourism destination is still relatively an unexplored area to many wine enthusiasts. With his attention to detail and how he wants guests to feel when they visit Caprio Cellars, Dennis is doing his best to bring Walla Walla into the spotlight by putting hospitality in the forefront.
The ultimate goal at Caprio Cellars is for each guest to feel like they are getting VIP treatment when they arrive and I can attest to their success of achieving this after my visit. I asked Dennis if he could talk a little about the hospitality component of Caprio Cellars and how it compares to other wineries.
“Caprio has set out to deliver a level of hospitality in a unique fashion. We ask that you make
an appointment so we can prepare for your arrival. We greet you with our sparkling wine to set the tone
and cleanse your palate. We then invite you to find a comfortable spot in our well thought out
hospitality center. Once you are comfortable, we take you on an odyssey of food and wine.”
Dennis went on to share;
“Our Executive Chef Ian Williams along with our Customer Experience Director Emily Kiefer have hand curated
wine and food pairings for your journey. Along the way, our associates mindfully allow you to enjoy yourself and share the story of the winery, winemaking and the history of the area.”
Emily Kiefer, Customer Experience Director at Caprio Cellars.
Photo courtesy of Caprio Cellars
At Caprio Cellars the team believes that a shared spirit of generosity along with the European tradition of serving great food and wines together will transform how guests look at hospitality in the wine industry.
Tasting journeys at Caprio Cellars are by appointment only and though the tasting room has space to seat 60 guests inside with additional seating outside, Caprio limits their ninety minute wine tasting experience to about twenty people maximum. This allows guests to feel like they have their own private space and gives the staff more time to spend with each person or group.
Caprio Cellars greets each of their guests with a glass of Caprio Cuvee Sparkling Wine when they arrive for a tasting. I loved this welcoming touch and it really set the mood for a great tasting experience.
If the roomy space and welcoming environment isn’t enough, you may be surprised when you visit that you are treated to a food and wine pairing and there is no tasting fee. This alternative approach to delivering an excellent culinary pairing to compliment their wines and not charging for the experience is all part of Dennis’ vision for a Caprio Wine experience and how he believes his guests should be treated.
Although in high demand, Caprio Cellars does not sell their Caprio Cuvee sparkling wine but Dennis said that they are working on making a sparkling Rosé that they will sell.
Before becoming a premier wine-growing destination, Walla Walla has always been renowned as a powerhouse agricultural area in Washington. So, it only seemed fitting to feature in-season locally grown organic and sustainable small courses to accompany the Caprio Cellars wines. This challenge has been expertly achieved by executive chef and Walla Walla local Ian Williams.
In the Caprio Cellars Kitchen, Chef Ian strives to offer seasonally inspired plates to accompany every Caprio Cellars wine tasting with a menu that changes as new local ingredients come available throughout the year.
The first small course of the day was a beautiful Spiced Red Potato Salad with English peas, red grapes, Greek yogurt and micro celery. The hint of spice in the delicious fork tender potato salad was a fantastic addition to get your taste buds ready for the remaining courses, plus it was a true compliment to the Estate Rosé that it was paired with.
Though I am a big Cabernet Franc fan I don’t always enjoy it as a Rosé because of the somewhat bitter finish. This 100% Cabernet Franc Estate Rosé from Caprio Cellars however is a fantastic exception. This Rosé made in the Provence style expresses the high elevation basalt vineyard of Sanitella perfectly with its balanced fruit and minerality. Great acidity with fresh watermelon and just the right amount of tart fruit makes this Rosé a true crowd-pleaser.
“My style of winemaking is to let the fruit speak for itself.”Dennis Murphy
In regards to Washington wines and more specifically Walla Walla wines, I asked Dennis if he had a philosophy of winemaking—a style that he was aiming for and how he would describe it.
“The Walla Walla Valley is on a similar latitude as Bordeaux France. This has proved well to grow Bordeaux varietals and produce Bordeaux style wines. Caprio is known for their Cabernet Sauvignon based Bordeaux blends. My style of winemaking is to let the fruit speak for itself, use great French oak barrels and produce a layered wine with integrated tannins. An approach that I think will ultimately have Caprio as a world class red wine producer.“
When the stunning plate of Poached Prawn Nicoise arrived it was almost to beautiful to eat. These perfectly cooked prawns on top of a bed of vegetables and country olives with a sauce gribiche and garden thyme was a real show stopper and Savignon Blanc forward Estate White with a touch of Semillon couldn’t have been a better pairing for this dish.
A beautifully concentrated blend of 72% Sauvignon Blanc and 28% Semillon from the Santilella Vineyard, this Estate White Wine surprises and enchants with its delicious texture. White blossom floral notes combine with delightful layers of subtle spiced peach and pear aromas and flavors in this noteworthy Estate White from Caprio. Incredibly food friendly, this wine would be the perfect table wine for get togethers and family dinners.
When asked if his winemaking style has changed over the years, Dennis replied:
“My style of making wine has not really changed over time. Each vintage presents a new offering of opportunities and challenges, this demands that I address the vintage and honor the conditions.“
The week that I visited in July, Washington Cherries filled the farmers markets and Chef Ian took advantage of the cherry bounty by combining it with beets, smoked pork belly, caramelized fennel and golden raisins to create a stunning Castoldi Farm Beet Agrodolce that was an ideal companion to the Caprio Cellars Red Label 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon.
This Walla Walla Valley 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon from Caprio Cellars is the first vintage to welcome grapes from Sanitella vineyard into the blend. Comprised of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc this blend has a beautiful boutique of black fruit with soft floral and mineral notes, tying the best of these three grape varieties together. Soft tannins and gentle acidity create an incredibly well balanced sip. Really a lovely Walla Walla red.
While tasting wine I always wonder what influences the winemaker choices during the crafting of the wine. So I asked Dennis if aesthetic concepts such as elegance, harmony, character or finesse played a role in his decision-making process.
“I want my wines to balance between acidity and mouth feel. This is easier said than done. I have worked hard on raising the acid level and achieved it in the 2015 vintage of our Eleanor Red Wine. Since then, I have been able to achieve the mouth feel and longevity I have been looking to present in our red wines. I am gifted with a very sensitive taste and smell, so I use this to my advantage when blending. I blind taste the blends and rely on my first impression of smell and taste for the final blends.“
When traveling I always like to seek out back roads and off the beaten path destinations to explore so before I left Caprio Cellars I asked Dennis if he had any suggestions for an afternoon drive outside of Walla Walla. Dennis told me about a special lake up in the Blue Mountains about half an hour away and I knew it would be the perfect place to spend the rest of the hot July day.
The Blue Mountains, or as most people call them “the Blues,” cover more than 4,000 square miles of eastern Oregon and Washington. The mountains span from southeast of Pendleton, Oregon, over to the Snake River bordering Idaho, and then up into Washington, where they fill up much of the land east of Walla Walla. The blue hue of their pine- and fir-lined ridges inspired the name “Blue Mountains” by early settlers. After driving up past the Bluewood Ski Area and taking in this magical area, I think it is one of the Northwest’s best-kept secrets.
During the drive I couldn’t help but stop and take some photographs of the Caprio Cellars wine that would be going home with me. This beautiful lake in the Blue Mountains made the perfect backdrop to these lovely wines. Also, since two of the interview questions I asked Dennis mentioned the Blue Mountains I thought adding them now would be a fitting way to wrap up this article about Caprio Cellars.
Walla Walla is really such a great destination for wine lovers and I wanted to know what Dennis thought, besides Caprio Cellars, were the top things people should experience when visiting Walla Walla.
“The Walla Walla Valley is a great place to visit for wine lovers because of the high quality of wine and enthusiasm of the wine industry. With this comes some great restaurants as well. The other benefit of Walla Wall is the natural beauty of the area. For people visiting the area, the best places are a drive up Mill Creek, go all the way to the Forest Service roads if it is not the winter, the Blue Mountains are amazing. Another favorite place is Pioneer Park, the trees and flowers are beautiful. The down town of Walla Walla is a must see as well, the history and architecture are interesting and intriguing.“
The final question was one that I always have to ask, ‘Do you Have a Favorite Food and Wine Pairing?’
“I love to cook, so my favorite food paring with wine is
the 2015 Eleanor with a Snake River Farms Wagyu New York steak, topped with sauteed morel
mushrooms hand picked in the Blue Mountains. The steak needs to be smoked for a short period of time
and the Eleanor needs to breath for a few hours.“
Caprio Cellars is always thinking of new ways to disrupt the industry and push the envelope of
hospitality, this unparalleled hospitality is just one reason that they are a must visit for all wine enthusiasts coming to the Walla Walla Valley.
The Caprio Cellars Tasting Room is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. by reservation only. In addition, Caprio Cellars also hosts special events and regular winemaker dinners. Visit the Caprio Cellars Website for more information.
I will be sharing more of my trip to Walla Walla in an upcoming article, but for now if you are interested in exploring the Walla Walla Valley you can read some of my past articles, including; Walla Walla Wine Country: Dunham Cellars, Exploring Walla Walla Wine Country: Pepper Bridge Winery and Food & Wine Pairing Experience at Seven Hills Winery.
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