Walla Walla: Washington State’s Wine Region

Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper shares his knowledge of the Walla Walla wine region:

The Region

Walla Walla is the humorous name for a serious Washington State wine region. The name is Native American and literally means many rivers. Walla Walla is a quaint little town and valley of around 30,000 people, located in Southeastern Washington that extends into the Northern tip of Oregon. It is a scenic half day drive from Portland, Oregon or Seattle, Washington.

Beside wheat and the delicious Walla Walla sweet onions, grape vines thrive in this area. Grapevines are particularly suited in this

area for a several important reasons. The Cascade mountain range limits the amount of rain fall to about 12.5 inches a year, hence allowing the growers to control the amount of water which aids in producing a finer vintage. The Northern latitude of Washington allows for an extended growing season, long sunshine days, cool nights, and the higher elevation of 650 to 1500 feet, all combined to allow the grapes to ripen but keep fresh acidity. The soil is varied but with a lot of a unique soil called loess, which is windblown silt. I had firsthand experience with the loess soil as every day I walked in a vineyard it was necessary to clean an inch of the heavy dust like loess from my shoes.

The Vineyards

The vineyards are mostly own rooted, meaning the fruiting vine is not actually on root stock, hence considered to be the true expression of the fruit. Very few vineyards in the world are own rooted as they are very susceptible to a root louses called phylloxera. Another interesting aspect you will notice as you are walking through the vineyards are buried vines. Part of the grape vines known as canes are buried under the soil, this is in case the all too often frost destroys the part of the vine not buried and the buried cane  can then be pulled out of the protective soil and used for the following years harvest, more work but smart thinking, that can save vineyards. Windmill are almost ubiquitous in the hilltop vineyards of Walla Walla, they are there to capture the natural energy this great region provides. Combine all this with the natural beauty of the Blue Mountains available at almost every angle and you have a world class grape growing region. It is also an American Viticulture (AVA) area located in the larger AVA of Columbia Valley. Walla Walla is a truly an emerging wine region so much so that in 1984 when it was recognized as an AVA there was only four wineries and 60 acres of vines planted. Today there is over 27 times that amount totaling 110 wineries. Additionally the acreage planted has risen to 1600 acres.

The Wine

Grape growing began in Walla Walla in 1850’s mostly from Italian immigrants’ who started home winemaking and realized the quality which help lead to commercial production. The most famous wineries of Walla Walla where the first to really start after prohibition, Leonetti Cellars was the first present day winery founded in 1977 with Woodward Canyon following in 1981 and L’ Ecole N0 41 in 1983. The region is dominated by small family wineries. These small artisanal wineries of Walla Walla are noted primarily for its outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon (41%), Merlot (26%), Syrah (16%) and far less white wines but Chardonnay takes the lead. Single vineyards labeling is seen throughout Walla Walla but the one vineyard you see over and over again is Seven Hills Vineyard. Many producers use the fruit from this superior vineyard to produce their wines, there is a Seven Hills Winery that is financially separate from the vineyard but does use the vineyard as a fruit source.

Esprit de corps does seem to be pervasive in Walla Walla. Many of the wineries are in partnership in their vineyards and second wineries. While I am sure there is some sense of competition you really get the firm impression that they are all in it together. They are really trying to get there region both more widely known and help each other produce great wine.