Sunday, January 16, 2022

Caprio Cellars Aims To Establish New Walla Walla Winery Benchmark

Changing the rules equals a great addition to the Walla Walla wine landscape.

By Dave Nershi, CSW

Caprio Cellar’s winemaker and owner Dennis Murphy has a goal: to create a wine experience like no other. In the late 1990s he first tasted wine from Eastern Washington and it “blew his mind.” It compelled the home builder to begin his wine journey and relocate to the Walla Walla area.

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He decided if he was in the area and made some friends in the industry, he could work harvest, learn, and find a nice piece of property for a vineyard. The plan worked out well. In 2003 he bought the wheat fields in Walla Walla Valley where Caprio Cellars now stands. “Eleanor Caprio was my grandmother and she taught me a lot about hospitality and being part of a family,” said Murphy during our recent visit to Caprio. “It was only fitting that we named the winery after the Italian side of my family.”

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Murphy designed and built the tasting room, which boasts a 360 degree view of the valley. “I really agonized over every square foot of it,” said Murphy. “It’s 2,400 square feet, which is about two or three times the size of the average tasting room here in the valley.”

The size isn’t all that’s different. Inside it is set up like a home – if your home happens to be stocked with premium wines, upscale finishes, and an expansive bar. You can lounge by the fireplace or choose from one of several seating areas inside or out. It fits Murphy’s vision of creating an unmatched wine experience.  

“We all know the general principles that most tasting rooms operate by,” said Murphy. “There are already plenty of those in the valley.” Instead, Caprio offers something unique. The tasting room is by appointment only, with a maximum of 20 people at a time at four different time slots. “We’d rather delight 80 people a day than have 200 come through and leave and say, ‘It was okay.’”

The experience starts at the door with a glass of proprietary Caprio sparkling wine. It’s just the beginning of a delightful customer journey that includes a tasting with food pairings prepared by Caprio’s executive chef Ian Williams. During our visit, we enjoyed a stone fruit salad burrata, bruschetta, and keftedes (Greek pork and lamb meatballs). Each scratch-made dish is created to pair wonderfully with Caprio’s stellar wines. An effort is made to support local farmers and source organic and sustainable products.

The truly amazing thing is that there is no charge for the wine tasting or the food pairing. Yes, that is correct – but hard to fathom especially in light of the magnificent hospitality. “Most people think I’m crazy,” said Murphy, “but I would challenge anybody to tell me another industry that operates like most tasting rooms. The analogy I use is if you had a restaurant and you’re walking by and somebody says, ‘Hey, give me $20 each of you and have an appetizer. If you like it and order more, I’ll give you $20 back.’ It just didn’t make sense to me. We are all grownups and we all like wine, so just come on in. If you like my wine, buy a couple of extra bottles.”

Using the equity theory, the guest gives value for value, Caprio can then pay it forward to the next guest. Giving is a central part of Murphy’s philosophy for Caprio. “Giving has been part of the everyday fabric of my life,” said Murphy. As opposed to giving back, he prefers to frame it as “giving as you go.” Caprio focuses on a couple of charities, including Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, an organization with which he has been involved for 18 years as a Big Brother and a board member.

Murphy recently partnered with Tom Maccarone, owner of TMACS restaurant in Walla Walla, to raise money for restaurant workers affected by the pandemic-induced lockdown orders. They worked in conjunction with Blue Mountain Action Council, a local non-profit that helps people in the community struggling with poverty. Through the matching program, $5,000 was contributed.

The appeal of Caprio far exceeds a stunning building and a philanthropic ethos. Few Walla Walla wineries own estate vineyards. Caprio Cellars is one of them. The Caprio Estate comprises three sites: the Eleanor, the Octave,
and the Sanitella. All sites are in the heart of the Walla Walla Valley and enjoy ideal sun exposure and vine-loving soils, yielding grapes of the highest quality and complexity for their estate wines. In addition, Murphy recently purchased the Goff family ownership in Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars (two of our favs!), which includes the Walla Walla winery and tasting rooms in Woodinville, Walla Walla, and Vancouver, Washington.

The Caprio story really begins at the Eleanor Vineyard, the winery’s first three-acre vineyard. It is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Octave Vineyard is a 16-acre site and joint ownership includes several of Walla Walla’s top wineries. It is planted to red Bordeaux varieties. The Sanitella Vineyard is actually on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA and is planted in deep fractured basalt soil.

Fifty acres of fruit from these exemplary sites are annually crafted into 1,600 cases of Bordeaux-style estate blends. Eleanor is the flagship red. At this point, I must digress to disclose that Eleanor is also the name of my grandmother, mother, sister, cousin, and niece. We tasted the 2018 and 2016 vintages of Eleanor. The 2018 Eleanor is 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 15% Malbec and 7% Cab Franc. In contrast to the Sanitella site, which looks like lumpy granite stones, the Eleanor Vineyard is glacial loess soil, which looks like powdered cocoa. Here are brief notes from our tasting:

2020 Estate Rosé – 100% Cabernet Franc, this rosé gets stainless steel aging to preserve its fresh flavors of tart cherry and mellow melon. This comes from the Sanitella Vineyard and features a flowing minerality. SRP $28.

2018 Eleanor – This signature red is aged for 18 months in French oak, which adds cedar tones to the flavor. This is a beauteous Bordeaux-style blend with plum and blackberry notes. It has a nice complexity that includes currant tastes working nicely with the tannins and acidity. Great now, but better in a couple years. SRP $60.

2016 Eleanor – This older vintage of Eleanor shows how aging can round the edges and integrate tannins. The blend differs slightly from the 2018, with 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 7% Malbec, and 5% Cab Franc. The bulk of the grapes come from the Eleanor Vineyard with additional fruit from Octave. The oak and cedar notes are more subtle with beautiful dark fruit flavors to savor. This is sold out, but if you want to contrast and compare, pick up the 2019 and the 2018 vintages.

2018 Sanitella – A reserve red estate wine coming from the 20 acres planted in the Sanitella Vineyard. Made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Cab Franc, this sophisticated wine blends fresh berry flavors with herbal and mocha notes. It features a boldness born of basalt soil and has a satiny finish. SRP $88.

This is a first-class experience that is, unbelievably, free. For those seeking a wine experience, and not just a drink of wine, we can’t recommend Caprio highly enough. Savor the possibilities at Caprio Cellars during your next Walla Walla visit.

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