When thinking about the wines of Washington state many wine drinkers may lump Walla Walla together with wines from the Columbia Valley. The former is a wine region at the southeast corner of the state with a total of 1800 acres planted (which is small). The latter is basically the entire middle 1/3 of the state. Columbia Valley is where large producers like Chateau St. Michelle produce hundreds of thousands of cases of value-driven wines. Conversely, Walla Walla is a region full of small producers crafting smaller amounts of higher quality well-priced wines.
The two regions are cut from a similar cloth, but they’re personalities are as different as two siblings can be.
On #CabernetDay 2011 there was a massive tasting in Napa valley with close to 200 winemakers, sommeliers and other professional wine palates. Close to 100 world class Cabernet-based wines were tasted over four hours from regions like Bordeaux, Napa, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Loire Valley and Washington state.
Wines on display that day were wines like Penfold’s Bin 707, Chateau Montelena, second growth Bordeaux’s, Vilafonté from South Africa, Cullen from Margaret River, Frog’s Leap, Couly-Dutheil Clos de L’Echo Chinon from Loire valley and Jordan to name a few.
At the end of the event attendees were asked to pick their favorite favorite wine, and wouldn’t you know it the most popular wine was 2001 L’Ecole No. 41 Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon, which sold for about $30 retail upon release.
The following year on #CabernetDay 2012 again there was a large tasting, and again there were high caliber wines from different regions. And again L’Ecole No. 41 was a favorite—this time it finished in the top 3 with the 2005 vintage (1995 Ridge Monte Bello came out on top).
It was a glimpse into the untapped potential of Walla Walla’s true ranking on the world stage of wine regions. Perhaps none of us realize how good Walla Walla wines can be because it’s such a young region. The oldest wineries have only been around since the mid 1980’s and the region wasn’t officially established as an AVA until 1984.
“I love cellared wines! One of the great things about making wine in Walla Walla is occasionally going back in time with an older vintage. This ’97 surprised me with its color, aroma, texture and fruit. Both vineyards were actually rather young in 1997, yet still they offered a glimpse into what they could or would produce several decades later, absolutely amazing! This is agriculture in its purest form, plain and simple and I love it.” – Rick Small, Woodward Canyon
There are no vast libraries of older vintages for us to look at. Only a few coveted library wines from Chris Figgins at Leonetti, Marty Clubb at L’Ecole No. 41 or Rick Small at Woodward Canyon offer any glimpse into Walla Walla’s ageability. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough of the older vintages in existence.
To put it in context, there were less than 5 wineries in Walla Walla in 1984, 11 wineries in 1995 but now there are well over 100 and that number is growing. You’d be hard pressed to find red wines from before the mid-1990’s. In wine years that was like, yesterday.
Walla Walla’ Rich History
After WWII a U.S. census showed Walla Walla had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country. Back then, rolling hills of wheat were a consistent crop for large breweries, Budweiser being the biggest customer. Anyone with land and wheat could sell their product hand over fist, especially land in the rain shadow of the nearby Blue Mountains where wheat was harvested three times more than other places.
The early influx of wealth helped establish the region and city of Walla Walla. But the history of winemaking goes back even further than that. According to Norm McKibben, one of Walla Walla’s forefathers, French traders came to the region in the early 1800’s by river to trade wares at the Fort Vancouver and Hudson Bay outpost. Apparently the French brought grape vines with them wherever they went. They would plant and cultivate vines in their explorations. To this day, there are still french streets names and family names rooted in Walla Walla’s long history.
Italian immigrants also played a large role in the region by bringing vines with a tradition of growing, making and drinking wine. They planted vines with the intent of making homemade wines. The Pesciallo family is credited with starting the first bonded winery, Blue Mountain Vineyards in the 1950’s.
Walla Walla World Class Wines are Underpriced
In youth, most Walla Walla wines exhibit dark, purple-hued fruity wines with a vein of black cherries, ripe plums and an iron component that can best be described as lemon butter cookies. Grapes are picked with brix in the mid-20’s when skin to juice contact will be concentrated. The resulting wines offer a seamless evenly textured wine with equal balance between fruit and acid.
A shorter growing season with longer days of sunlight where the sun sits lower on the horizon due to Walla Walla’s distance from the equator, combined with schist covered Basalt gives the wines power and finesse without angular edges. By nature, the wines will be opulent with an inherent silky texture upon release. Maybe that’s why we don’t see older Walla Walla wines—they’re so good upon release who wants to wait?
Over time, the ripe fruits start to show more dried fruit characteristics, and that initial seamless texture only gets softer and silkier. While that might sound good, the best part is the price. Walla Walla’s wines are very well priced at around $35-$50 a bottle on average compared with $50-$200 in Napa or Bordeaux. They may be some of the highest quality, lowest priced wines from anywhere in the world.
For me personally, I like Walla Walla red wines around 8-12 years old. That’s when the power and finesse really converge to a sweet spot unlocking an “X -factor” in the wine. Where many regions hang their hat on one grape, Walla Walla seems to have a hard time picking one because so many do so well. And that’s a good thing.
Strong contenders for Walla Walla’s flagship grape could be Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or maybe even Cabernet Franc.
Hillside plantings with wind blown silt known as loess provides ample drainage for red grape varietals. In a small strip of land on the Oregon side of the state line there’s a dried out river bed where large round rocks resembling golf balls make up “the rocks”. That’s where Christophe Baron of famed Cayuse Vineyards planted Syrah vines in ankle bending rocky soils resembling Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Newcomer Dusted Valley planted right next door several years ago, and their wines are just about to hit the market.
I’ve had a chance to taste a few older Walla Walla wines in 2012 and can say I might end up on the show, Hoarders. Here’s a few library tastings that show the beauty of Walla Walla’s graceful ageability:
1997 Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon ($40 release price) – Rick Small was in the right place at the right time when he started Woodward Canyon. He’s the Berry Gordy of Motown, the Dave Brubeck of jazz, the Henry Ford of cars…Rick was one of the first to do it right and set the standard.
He planted vineyards on family land in the 1980’s and really helped attract future winemakers to the area through mentorship and leading by example. This is one of the few wineries that has older library wines to show off, and the good thing is they’re located right next door to one of the other early pioneers at L’Ecole No. 41. Nowhere else in the valley are you going to find the older vintages that these two possess.
I’ve visited Rick a few times over the years, and each time we go out to the vineyard, not only to look at vines, but to pick fresh herbs from his sustainably farmed garden. Rick’s latest love is wood fired pizzas in his own pizza oven out in back of the winery.
The 1997 is from a bottling that would later become his Old Vines line of Cabs. Made from 60% Woodward Canyon vineyard and 40% Pepper Bridge vineyard this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is only 13.3% alcohol and might fool a blinder taster into thinking this was a first or second growth Bordeaux.
95% opaque garnet colors in the glass gave way to signs of age around the rim where the color lightens to a 50% opaque garnet/ruby color with a weeee bit of tear staining.
A clean, elegant moderate nose of baked choke cherries, baked black cherries, stewed plums and baked rhubarb pie at the core were wrapped together with a ribbon of lemon butter cookie, raisins and a slight sign of oxidation—the kind you like to smell in fine Bordeaux.
Many of those enticing aromas were confirmed on the palate—again with the baked cherries, cooked plums, baked rhubarb along with some damp tobacco leaf, jellied Thanksgiving cranberry and a slight showing of black olives. There was a little mocha thing happening on the finish that I thought might be from Merlot, but since none was added it’s most likely from oak.
I like Rick’s wines and have been drinking them over the years since living in Oregon. You don’t just put the empty bottle in recycling and forget about it—he gives you something to talk about and makes you think about the wines even hours after you’ve enjoyed them.
2002 Pepper Bridge & 2006 Amavi ($50 & $25 respectively) – There’s a few important things to know here. The first is both wineries are sister wineries to one another. The second is they were both created with the help of Walla Walla founding father, Norm McKibben. Norm had the vision to do a lot of things in Walla Walla, one of which was the buy a stellar plot of land known as Les Collines Vineyard. If you see that on the label—buy it, whatever it is!
Les Collines fruit is like the hot girl at the party—it’s pretty and everybody wants to get their hands on it. Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington sources Les Collines fruit for his highly acclaimed Gramercy Cellars wines.
In addition to bringing Les Collines online, Norm and the Pepper Bridge team also helped develop another important vineyard called Seven Hills. Located on the Oregon side of the border not far from the “rocks”, Seven Hills is where much of the growth is happening in Walla Walla. They have their own commercial on-site composting operation that, for anyone who grows plants, would blow you away.
If you look at the Woodward Canyon wine above, 40% of the fruit came from Pepper Bridge vineyard. So what I’m saying is these two wineries are making wines from some of the best fruit sources in Walla Walla, sources that they helped develop.
Winemaker, Jean-François Pellet opened the 2002 Pepper Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon when I visited in September. Much like in Napa and Sonoma, Mother Nature also smiled upon Walla Walla with a near ideal growing season. Jean-François notes, “this rich, polished and multifaceted Cabernet Sauvignon entices you with layers of sweet black cherry, ripe plum, licorice, cedar, and spice flavors with a subtle touch of mineral. This highly concentrated wine offers an incredible blend of power and finesse with a long and persistent finish.”
2001 L’Ecole No. 41 Cabernet Sauvignon ($35 release price) – This is it. This was the wine that stands head and shoulders above all the other world class wines presented during #CabernetDay. Marty Clubb of L’Ecole and Rick Small are next door neighbors. They’ve both been around and have seen the valley grow from a tiny industry with less than five wineries to a burgeoning region making world class juice.
The 2001 was right in the drinking window when we had it last year. Instead of giving all the wonderful tasting notes, I can just say this was a reminder of why we drink wine. Every now and then a bottle comes along and provides that “OMIGOD” experience. From novice wine lover to experienced taster, there’s something about this wine that pretty much anybody would love.
It was cashmere in a glass with plenty of X-Factor and personality. We had a few bottles but already drank them all like a bunch of piglets…we couldn’t wait!