One of the first times I visited the town and wine-growing region of Walla Walla in Washington State was for a holiday barrel tasting in early December of 2002. It was late afternoon, and my husband and I were wandering down Main Street in the dark. Darkness falls as early as 4:30 pm In the Pacific Northwest at that time of year. We noticed small groups of people congregating on the sidewalks. Soon the street was cleared of cars, and we found ourselves part of the audience for a Christmas parade. Pickup trucks adorned with twinkle lights, kids on bikes, riders on horses decorated with jingle bells…it was a beautiful, slow-moving portrait of small town America. No wonder Fodor’s named Walla Walla one of the Ten Best Small Towns in America in 2013.
Agriculture has long played an important role in the region’s economy. Historian William Lyman wrote in 1901 that, "The beautiful city stands as a monument to the wealth that has been dug out of the ground by means of wheat; furthermore, the per capita wealth of Walla Walla was only surpassed by Hartford, Connecticut; Helena, Montana; and Portland, Oregon.”
Wheat is still an important crop in the rolling hills surrounding Walla Walla, but wine grapes have become a big contributor to the area’s economy. The Walla Walla Valley AVA (or American Viticultural Area), was established in 1984. At that time there were four wineries and 60 acres of grapes, according to a report prepared for the Washington Wine Commission by Stonebridge. Walla Walla now boasts 120 plus wineries--the largest concentration of wineries in the state--and 1600 acres of vines according to the Walla Walla Wine Alliance.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted variety at 41 percent, with Merlot at 26 percent and Syrah at 16 percent. The remaining 17 percent includes Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Viognier and a smattering of others. If you look at the AVA boundaries on a map, it’s shaped like a triangle with rounded corners. The southern third of that triangle is in Oregon, where arguably some of the best grapes are grown.
Leonetti Cellars opened in 1977, and was the first successful post-prohibition winery in the area. Owner and first winemaker Gary Figgins’ 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon put Walla Walla on the USA wine map in dramatic fashion when it won the award of best Cabernet in the USA from Wine and Spirits magazine. Figgins had an ingenious sales strategy that remains in place today. He sold only to subscribers on his mailing list. An additional provision was that subscribers had to pick up their wine allotment at the winery. Minimizing marketing costs allowed Figgins and Leonetti to focus their efforts on grape growing and wine making, which was exactly the optimal strategy for achieving excellence. The pick-it-up-onsite provision also brought people to visit the winery--many of whom wouldn’t otherwise make the four-hour drive from Seattle or Portland.
Other wineries started scheduling their spring releases to coincide with Leonetti’s, and before long, those driving in from metropolitan areas were visiting and tasting with multiple producers in the area.
I once asked Gary Figgins if he was concerned that Walla Walla might become like Napa Valley, which had 3.3 million visitors in 2014. He quickly dismissed the idea, as did others to whom I posed the question, on the grounds that Walla Walla is much less accessible than Napa. Nevertheless, it seems entirely possible to me that Walla Walla will still grow dramatically in terms of wine tourism, and my suspicion was supported when Wine Enthusiast magazine named Walla Walla in a list of the 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations in 2014 (also including Barossa in Australia, Mendoza in Argentina, and the Languedoc in France).
I’m not the only one considering comparisons between Napa Valley and Walla Walla. In June, I attended an event organized by the Walla Walla Wine Alliance called, “Celebrate Walla Walla Valley: The World of Merlot.” The weekend public event offered seminars and tasting events focusing on Merlot. Fred Dame, MS was a keynote speaker at the kickoff session. He is one of the first Americans to pass the rigorous Master Sommelier exam and established the American Branch of the Court of Master Sommeliers. He is also Vice President of Prestige Accounts for American Wine and Spirits of California. In his presentation, Dame recounted that early in his career he was able to learn about wine from some of Napa Valley’s greatest vintners like André Tchelistcheff and Robert Mondavi. He noted that the Napa wine community in the 1970s and ‘80s was very accessible, cooperative and collaborative--attributes that are very much in evidence in Walla Walla today.
Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Napa was still finding its way regarding the best grapes to grow in the best locations, just as Walla Walla is doing now. At least Walla Walla has the advantage of advances in viticultural knowledge that have been achieved over the past 25 to 35 years. Dame encouraged all those involved with Walla Walla wine to enjoy the current state of the business, and to continue working together to improve quality and understanding of the unique terroir of the region.
Distinctive growing conditions in eastern Washington regions such as Walla Walla include the virtual absence of phylloxera, the root sucking louse that kills classic vitis vinifera vine varieties such as Merlot and Chardonnay. The soils are sandy, and the louse doesn’t thrive in sandy soils. This means that in eastern Washington grapes grow in their own roots rather than being grafted onto phylloxera-resistant, native-American rootstock. Many believe this results in purer varietal flavors. The growing season may be slightly shorter than regions to the south of the state, but in the growing season the days are longer, with as many as 16 hours of daylight at the summer solstice, enabling vines are able to ripen their grapes.
Eastern Washington also experiences marked differences between day- and night-time temperatures during the growing season. This allows vines to ripen their fruit during the consistently warm or hot days, but then rest and retain natural acidity during the cool nights. A big downside to this is tha--roughly every six to eight years--the region experiences extreme cold that can freeze and kill the entire exposed portion of a vine. The prevention strategy is to bury one or two canes, or even the entire vine during the dormant winter season.
During the “Celebrate Walla Walla” weekend, we learned about two new developments in the region, both located to the south of the town of Walla Walla in the Oregon part of the AVA. Norm McGibben of Pepper Bridge Winery and Marty Clubb of L’Ecole 41 told us about the relatively new Sevein Vineyards development, a project they started in 2004 with partners Gary and Chris Figgins of Leonetti and Bob Rupar of Nelson Irrigation Corporation. All of the partners own vineyard plots in Sevien, and they plan to sell vineyard plots to other as well. To make the vineyard plots more attractive, they have created a vineyard management company, North Slope Management, to provide services to owners. They’ve tapped into a water source 1000 feet below the surface and created the Sevein Water Association, owned collectively by all Sevein Vineyards plot owners and intended to manage the water and related equipment. When the vineyard plots are fully planted, they project an increase in planted acreage in Walla Walla of up to 50 percent.
After learning about the Sevein project, Marty Clubb took us to see his 42-acre Ferguson Vineyard, situated at 1500 feet in altitude. Marty noted that the lofty elevation protects the vines from winter freezes. The topsoil in this vineyard is only about a foot deep, layered atop a mountain of fractured basalt. It is an amazing vineyard, and apparently is already producing some amazing fruit. The first vintage of L’Ecole No. 41’s Ferguson Vineyard red, a Bordeaux-style blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Franc, won the International Trophy for Bordeaux Varietals over £15 at the 2014 Decanter Wine Awards. To place this in context, the wine sourced from this vineyard didn’t just win a gold from the US wine panel--it beat out all the other Bordeaux blends from around the world.
The second new development happened in February 2015, when the newest AVA within the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA was established, namely, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. Perhaps French native Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards gets credit for recognizing the importance of the big, round, river rocks in this area as a great place to plant vines. The stones look very much like the galets in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône Valley. One hitch with this newest AVA is that--unless a Washington winery with grapes in The Rocks also has a licensed winery facility in Oregon--they cannot use the AVA on their label.
I have a great appreciation for Walla Walla wines, and I tasted many admirable examples during Celebrate Walla Walla. They show the ripe fruit and lively acidity characteristic of eastern Washington wines, but many of them also have a savory, sandalwood note that wends its way through the juicy fruit. That’s what I love about Walla Walla wines.