2901 Old Milton Highway, Walla Walla
Basel Cellars Estate Winery
WALLA WALLA — It wasn’t the typical locked down Tuesday evening at Basel Cellars.
As part of an industry celebration of a new partnership between the southside winery and Olive Catering, a crowd of hundreds snaked from the swimming pool area, where a live band was performing, down to a bridgeway connecting into the property’s lavish 13,000-square-foot mansion, where wine was being poured from behind the Australian cypress bar.
Amid the packed masses near the pool, winemaker Ned Morris stood with hands on hips looking through the flood of guests. Marveling, perhaps, at the number of faces he didn’t recognize?
It’s not that the 96-acre estate with its sweeping views over the Valley has never hosted so many people. But it has rarely done so without asking for proof of an invitation or appointment.
If Morris has his way Basel — reputed in recent years as the most exclusive winery you’ve never seen — will be filled regularly with newcomers.
“We want people to enjoy the place,” he said. “That’s what it’s here for.”
Under the direction of new ownership and with Morris at the helm of winemaking operations the estate known outside of the community as one of the Valley’s best destination wineries is changing its approach to welcome locals. The first order of business: Unlocking the gates.
“It’s not what it used to be,” Morris explained during a visit to the tasting room earlier this year. “We’re serious about wine, but it’s not elitist.”
Its partnership with Olive Catering is one of many facets intended to encourage people to stroll the grounds on a casual afternoon.
As the winery’s official culinary partner, Olive and its executive chef and co-owner, Jake Crenshaw, will offer a regionally inspired menu on the weekends. A new event space is in the works at the tasting room portion of the property. Olive catering Manager and co-owner Tom Maccarone expects the dining area to include room for 18 people. Though the commercial kitchen is currently under construction, Olive has already started catering at the space with a winemaker dinner last week.
Without the kitchen, anything that involves cooking for more than 16 or so people has to take place off-site, and the food has to be transferred to the property.
In Maccarone’s and Crenshaw’s long-term vision, a seasonal café would eventually be opened at the winery. Much legwork, including a zoning change, would need to be done before that could happen. Maccarone said it likely couldn’t open until at 2014.
That hasn’t stopped Olive from jumping into the catering side, complete with dishes designed specially for presenting food and wine pairings and getting the kitchen constructed. A makeover of the tasting room is also on the menu with a transition from the current Tuscan-inspired aesthetic.
“This property has so much potential, and it has been really under-utilized,” Maccarone said. “We know that there’s a reputation that needs to be erased, so to speak.”
The transition started under owners Steve and Jo Marie Hansen, Morris explained. The Vancouver, Wash., residents had been co-owners in the business since 2004. But last year they became majority owners with Steve as managing partner.
They brought in Morris, a winemaker who had been at several Walla Walla wineries. Morris’ journey to Basel started in Australia.
A Walla Walla native, he grew up in the Willamette Valley and got a full-ride scholarship to Iona College in New York. There he studied marketing and competed on the then 13th- ranked collegiate water polo team in the nation.
After school he went semi-pro in Australia, got married and managed a high-end restaurant and wine shop. After work, the owner would open a bottle of wine, share it with his staff and discuss its properties. That’s where Morris realized the power of his palette.
He went back to school, studying as a sommelier at Penfold’s McGill Estate in Adelaide, the Napa of Australia. In the late 1990s he returned to the U.S. to be near his family.
He knew he wanted to stay involved with wine but not on the restaurant side. He commuted to Oregon State University, earning his master’s in food science “with the sole purpose of being a winemaker,” he said.
He made his way from the family home in Eugene back to his Walla Walla roots, training first under John Abbott at Abeja.
“He really taught me how to make the kind of wine I’d want to drink,” Morris said.
“I can make a wine that’s very tannic and oaked with grapes from everywhere in the world,” he said. “But I want to show off the fruit.”
His decision to leave Abeja after the 2006 vintage was tough, but he wanted to continue moving toward becoming a head winemaker. His next stop was àMaurice before moving on to Canoe Ridge. After Canoe Ridge was sold to Precept, Morris found out about the opening at Basel.
“I want to be here for a long time,” he said. “I’ve been bounced around.”
The position, ownership and partnerships are an opportunity to restore the winery as a “jewel of the Valley,” he said.
The estate house, with eight bedrooms, 41/2 bathrooms, theater, bar, stage, conference room and chef’s kitchen, is marketed for rent as a vacation home, corporate retreat space or special events destination at $1,200 a night Sunday through Wednesday and $2,400 a night Thursday through Saturday.
The culinary side will continue to build the space as a destination open to all, Morris said.
“There’s nothing like this in the Valley.”