Wine and Walla Walla Valley
In the 1840s French fur trappers began settling around a Hudson Bay Company’s trading post. Italian and German settlers followed in the 1850s. Drawing on their home country’s heritage, settlers planted grapes (mostly concord and island belle, rather than vinifera) to make sweet wine for personal consumption.
The wine industry was jumpstarted when another settler, A.B. Roberts established a nursery and brought in grape vines from Oregon, although commercial production remained minuscule. And then came prohibition which shut down the wine industry.
Washington’s commercial wine industry was generally born in the mid-1930s following Prohibition’s repeal when Walter Clore’s wine-growing research (see our post on the Yakima Valley Wine Country) and William Bridgeman’s efforts to bring irrigation to the minerals and volcanic soils west of the Cascade Mountains.
Still, it took until the late-1970s and early-1980s for commercial winemaking to take hold in the Walla Walla Valley. This began with planting and production by Gary Figgins (Leonetti Cellars), Rick Small (Woodward Canyon), and Baker Ferguson (L’Ecole No, 41). By 1984, Walla Walla was recognized as an AVA and the region’s wines began winning national and international competitions. Still, even by the late 1980s, the valley had barely a dozen wineries. It took till 2017 for the number to hit 150 and for 3,000 acres to be planted with vines.
Two States, One Region
Two-thirds of the Walla Walla AVA is in Washington State stretches from Walla Walla Washington down to Oregon. The remainder of the AVA goes into the northeast corner of Oregon. Plantings include not only grapes but everything from wheat to the region’s sweet onions. Today it now boasts more than 150 wineries and is second to the Yakima Valley in both the number of wineries and total wine production in Washington State.
This is largely due to a combination of the region’s soil and its weather. The loess soil (a loosely packed, wind-blown, sedimentary soil) provides good drainage while its location between mountains and two rivers moderates temperatures and helps produce the large diurnal shifts (between hot days and cool nights) that quality vines require. Irrigation addresses the lack the rainfall needed to grow healthy vines and grapes. As a result, the region is well suited to produce high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc required for the Bordeaux-style varietals wines for it is best known, as well as for Syrah (the second most widely planted grape, after Cabernet Sauvignon), Sangiovese and Chardonnay.
Although the vast majority of the Walla Walla AVA is in Washington State, Oregon accounts for almost 45% of the 3,000 planted acres and is home to several of the most prized vineyards in The Rocks sub-AVA. These include the Seven Hills Vineyard and especially those in around the town of Milton-Freewater. The Rocks region accounts for 11% of Walla Walla’s total plantings and is particularly noted for its basalt cobblestone and gravel soil which provides excellent drainage. This forces the vines to grow long roots and stresses the vines, resulting in highly concentrated, minerally fruit.
While The Rocks sub-AVA is prized for all its red grapes, it is actually more heavily planted with Syrah (40%) than it is with Cabernet Sauvignon (32%), followed distantly by Merlot at 10%.
Still, grapes can have a tough life in this climate:
- Unpredictably cold spring temperatures can destroy buds;
- Rain and hail, particularly in the spring (as in 2020) and around harvest can devastate crops;
- Excessive heat (such as the off-the-chart record temperatures of 2021) can devastate yields–although it does tend to improve the quality of those grapes that survive; and
- Fire is becoming a larger threat, as in 2020 when some wineries lost their entire harvest to smoke taint.
Walla Walla Wineries
But with all this, Washington in general and Walla Walla, in particular, continue to produce highly regarded wines—a reputation with which we concur after our limited tasting experience. The most interesting stops we made in the town and surrounding area are:
- Woodward Canyon Winery is a short drive west of downtown Walla Walla. Founded in 1981, it is Walla’s second-oldest winery. It produces Chardonnay, Barbera, and a range of Bordeaux varietal grapes from its estate vineyard. We were especially impressed with its premium Cabernet Sauvignons. The 2018 “Artist Series” (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 7% Petite Verdot, and 3% Syrah) had some nice minerality and baking spice. We also enjoyed the 2019 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (93% Cabernet and 7% Petite Verdot) and the 2019 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon (93% Cabernet, 4% Petite Verdot, and 4% Malbec).
- L’Ecole #41 conveniently has a satellite tasting location winery at Heritage by L’Ecole Wine Bar in downtown Walla Walla. L’Ecole #41 is the valley’s third oldest winery. We passed on the Rose and the Semillon in favor of the Bordeaux-based reds. Our favorites were the dark fruit and tobacco flavors from the basalt hills of the Estate Ferguson Vineyard and the 2019 Ferguson blend of 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec, and 6% Petite Verdot.
- Seven Hills Winery is Walla Walla Valley’s seventh oldest winery. At its tasting room in Walla Walla, we tasted Bordeaux varietals and blends from grapes grown on a portion of Seven Hills original vineyards called “The Rocks” (the winery retained this area for its own use after it sold much of its land to other wineries). Our tastes gravitated toward the 2018 Merlot (from its oldest 1982 “Santrain” vineyard) and two of its Bordeaux blends: a 2019 Pentad (35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 15% Malbec with smaller amounts of Petite Verdot) and especially its 2015 Ciel du Cheval (41% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 13% Petite Verdot.)
- Spring Valley Vineyard is now run by the third generation of the valley’s pioneers (planting in 1993 with its first vintage in 1999). It produces Viognier, Syrah, and Bordeaux varietals, primarily from the Oregon side of the valley, and especially from “The Rocks” sub-AVA. In its downtown Walla Walla tasting room, we were most impressed by the 2013 Uriah Blend (45% Merlot, 34% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petite Verdot, 8% Malbec, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon), the 2014 Derby Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2014 Nina Lee Syrah (with 3% Viognier).
- Canoe Ridge Vineyard where we again leaned toward the Bordeaux grapes with two Merlots (a 2016 LTD Ciel du Cheval and 2019 Intrepid Unfiltered) and a 2014 Benches Cabernet Sauvignon.
- The Walls Vineyard. We particularly liked the restrained, crisp, Burgundy-style 2018 McAndrew Chardonnay, the subtle, slightly peppery 2016 Concrete Mama Grenache, and the subtlety and the fine-grained tannins of the 2019 Bellamy Cabernet Sauvignon (79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc). We also enjoyed its 2017 Grenache which we had at dinner the previous night.
Walla Walla Restaurant
Our options were somewhat limited for the one lunch that we had while in the area. We stopped at AK’s Mercado where we had a 16-hour smoked brisket sandwich on a hoagie roll and a plate of nachos with black beans, pickled onions, mozzarella, cheddar cheese, and chicken with salsa verde and crema on the side. While both were acceptable, neither was memorable.