Washington State is home to some of our favourite wines anywhere in the world. It remains shockingly under the radar given the level of quality it produces year after year. For close to a decade, Washington wines have averaged the highest percentage of 90+ point rated wines versus every major wine producing region in the world. While we have several tried and true favourites that we regularly visit, our most recent trip south uncovered a genuine hidden treasure. Caprio Cellars is a winery not only crafting excellent wines, but they’re also using their exceptional hospitality to elevate the wine and food experience, all while helping to transform lives.
Owner and winemaker Dennis Murphy is the visionary behind Caprio Cellars. Wine has been a part of his family for generations. His great grandmother Sanitella was an arborist of grapes in Italy and when she landed at Ellis Island she was given the name “Caprio” because she hailed from Capri. Her daughter Eleanor settled in upstate New York and the family’s homemade wine was a means of getting to know their neighbours and surrounding community.
The belief in wine bringing people together was a philosophy instilled in Dennis from a very young age and as an adult he became an avid collector of Bordeaux style wines. Dennis first discovered Walla Walla wines in the early 2000s while travelling around the state building homes. His first ‘a-ha’ Washington wine realization was a bottle of 1999 L’ecole Merlot (talk about setting the bar high!).
Dennis’ travels regularly took him to Walla Walla, and it didn’t take him long to fall in love with the Valley. In 2003, he purchased the 3-acre property where the winery is today and planted the former wheat field with 2 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and an acre of Merlot in 2006. This first estate vineyard he named Eleanor to honour his grandmother.
The second estate vineyard, “Octave”, was planted in 2007 and is comprised largely of Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and a small amount of Malbec. Octave is part of the SeVein Vineyards complex and Caprio shares ownership of this 22-acre site with several of Walla Walla’s top wineries.
The last of the 3 estate vineyards is “Sanitella” which was planted in 2015 and is located just west of Octave on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla AVA.
Dennis produced the inaugural vintage of Caprio wine in 2008, made solely from the Eleanor estate vineyard. There were just a couple of hundred cases of that first vintage which were reserved for friends and family as a sort of focus group to give him honest feedback as to whether he should continue to pursue his winemaking dream. Their response was a resounding ‘yes’ and close to two decades later Caprio is now producing 4,000 cases a year.
That number is not expected to grow beyond 4500 as Caprio is one of the few wineries in Washington that is made up 100% of estate wines. It’s also a reflection of the Caprio approach—a focus on quality over quantity.
Which brings us to our conversation with Customer Experience Director Emily Kiefer. She hosted us at their hospitality center which is a beautifully sleek and modern designed building with large accordion floor-to-ceiling windows and ample indoor and outdoor space. While she assured us we were getting the same experience that any guest would receive, the customer experience was so superb, it was still difficult to believe.
So…no special treatment here…just a glass of wine and Roscoe the winery dog to greet you at the door, 3 very high quality wines paired with a terrific 3-course tasting menu, all in a private and tranquil setting. Oh, and did we mention the entire affair is complimentary?!
It’s clear to us that Dennis approaches everything very deliberately and methodically, all the while cultivating a strong sense of community. His bet on the reciprocity theory of one positive action creating another positive action has paid off from the start. With no cost attached to a truly wonderful wine and food experience, visitors are motivated to want to support or become part of, the Caprio family. The winery’s direct-to-consumer purchases make up close to 90% of their sales, and they’ve also received an astonishing 1600+ 5-star customer reviews on Google.
“We’re continuing to get more and more of that demographic that appreciates the experience and the quality.” says Emily. “We limit tastings to 4 per day, up to 20 people at a time, to really allow the time to enjoy the wine and food at a relaxed pace, maximize our visitors’ enjoyment, and understand the philanthropic side of the story.”
That side of the story is an important one that centres around the 2 organizations that Caprio has supported since 2010 through donating 5% of all winery proceeds: First Story & Big Brothers and Sisters of America. Dennis doesn’t just donate; he leads by example. He’s been a Big Brother for 25 years and has sat on the Board of Directors for several years. First Story is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating partnerships and programs to provide families opportunities for affordable housing. The aim was to complete one home per year; 13 years later, they just completed their 100th.
We’ve found that an experiential aspect at a winery can often be used to distract from the quality of the wine, but nothing could be further from the truth at Caprio as our tasting notes below will attest. They are very much wine-focused and it shows in the final product. They produce a Rosé of Cabernet Franc, a Sauvignon Blanc dominant white blend, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2 signature red blends (the Eleanor and the Sanitella), all produced from their approximately 24 acres of estate vineyards.
“It took us a long time before we even branched out into white wine and rosé,” Emily tells us. “We don’t do a lot of different varieties for a reason; we want to keep the wine centric.”
The winemaking philosophy at Caprio is a low-intervention approach and gentle handling of the fruit.
Everything is hand-harvested in the vineyard and in the cellar gravity-flow and pump overs are used over punch downs with fermentation occurring naturally.
In December 2020, Dennis purchased part ownership in Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars which includes the winery in Walla Walla and tasting rooms in Walla Walla, Woodinville, and Vancouver, Washington. With his vision and approach, we have no doubt this is not only good news for fans of those wines but also for the communities in which they’re based.
As Caprio Cellars continues to evolve, it remains committed to the values that have defined its success—quality winemaking, exceptional hospitality, and a dedication to community well-being. With each uncorked bottle, Caprio invites its extended wine family to join them on a journey that goes beyond the confines of traditional winemaking, embracing a lifestyle that celebrates the richness of both wine and community.
2022 Caprio Cellars Rosé
This is made from 100% Cabernet Franc. Pale, almost faint salmon orange in colour. A panoply of different flavours give this wine complexity and make it a real food-lovers rosé. Raspberry and cherry notes mix with spices to create lots of interest. The medium+ body and medium acidity take this up into the “serious rosé” category and separate it from so many other fun-in-the-sun style rosés. Certainly refreshing but so much more than that going on. The finish is long and mineral infused.
2022 Caprio Cellars Estate White
A classic Bordeaux-style white blend of 75% Sauvignon Blanc and 25% Semillon. Colour is a light green/gold. Body and acid are both medium+ giving the wine both texture and precision. We get notes of grapefruit, melon, wet stones and white pepper. The finish is long and fresh and leaves you with a sense of crispness. A great partner for all sorts of shellfish, cooked or cold.
2021 Caprio Red Label
This red blend is Cabernet Sauvignon dominant with supporting roles played by Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Medium dark red in colour. Black cherry notes dominate the the aromas and flavours. Secondary notes of plum, ribena and hints of vanilla come to the fore with a bit of swirling. The body is medium+ and the tannins are polished and round creating a velvety mouthfeel that makes it pleasure-driven now but showing potential for further development. The finish is long and tinged with hints of brown spices.
2021 Caprio Cellars Eleanor
This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. And what a stunner it is! The dark red, almost purple colour presages the power of the wine that is about to come. Black cherry, cassis, baking spice, and forest notes all take turns at centre stage and then back away to let another flavour grab the attention. Wonderfully complex with so much going on in your glass. Powerfully structured with full body and medium+ tannin. The balance is exactly where it needs to be to come across as a big wine but not a heavy wine. Think gymnast, not linebacker. On the long finish there are notes of vanilla mocha. This is what top Cabernet blends are al about.
Excellent/Extraordinary (USD$68 -particularly good value in today’s world of top Cabernet Sauvignon)
1603 Whitely Rd
Walla Walla, WA 99362
T: (509) 412-3054
*By Reservation Only: Wednesday to Sunday 11am-5pm