A Growth Industry
By Dan Radil | Dan The Wine Guy
The explosion of wineries in the Walla Walla Valley mirrors the impressive growth of wineries in Washington state. How impressive? Consider this: According to the Washington Wine Commission, there were 163 wineries statewide in the year 2000. Today the state boasts over 900 total wineries… and nearly 125 of those are in the Walla Walla Valley.
The Walla Walla Valley has a rich agricultural history, but today’s wine grape industry didn’t really begin taking shape there until the mid-1980s.
THE WALLA WALLA VALLEY APPELLATION
Designated by the federal government, an appellation is a specific geographic area with defined soil and climatic conditions. For the Walla Walla Valley, appellation status (also referred to as an American Viticulture Area or AVA) was established in 1984 and covers acreage that extends from southwest Washington into Northeast Oregon.
Today, the valley is home to about 3,000 vineyard acres, a disproportionately small percentage of the state’s more than 50,000-acre total. That’s created a minor kerfuffle in terms of wine grape availability and led to sometimes higher wine prices within the region. It also hasn’t helped that many Walla Walla wineries are making excellent wines, increasing the demand from both within and outside the state.
Fortunately for Washington wine lovers, there are still plenty of affordable options available. And even better news for those west of the Cascades; many Walla Walla wineries distribute their wines here or have satellite tasting rooms in the Woodinville/Seattle area. That means with a little creative purchasing, you can easily get a piece of the Walla Walla Valley in your wine glass without paying a small fortune…or traveling across the state to get it.
CONNECTIONS THROUGHOUT THE STATE
There are essentially three ways to enjoy Walla Walla Valley-connected wines. First, from a winery both based in and using grapes grown in the Walla Walla Valley AVA; second, from a Walla Walla-based winery using grapes grown outside the AVA; and third, from wineries located outside the AVA (such as Bellingham’s Dynasty Cellars) that source their grapes from the valley and produce their wines locally.
If you’re a regional purist, look for the words “Walla Walla Valley” on the label. That’s your level of assurance that at least 95 percent of the grapes inside the bottle—a requirement of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board—were grown within the Walla Walla Valley AVA.
QUALITY AND AFFORDABILITY
Even though there’s a relatively small quantity of vineyard acres within this region, there are still great wines, at great prices, for those looking for selections where both the grapes and the winery are Walla Walla Valley-based.
Start with the Bergevin Lane Vineyards 2016 Linen Rosé (about $15). This blend of 50 percent Malbec, 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25 percent Merlot is nothing short of amazing. There’s a gentle, savory, cherry tomato quality to start, with juicy red cherry and strawberry fruits on the mid-palate and a vibrant splash of white peach on the finish.
Also notable is the Gifford Hirlinger 2014 Stateline Red (about $20) from winemaker Mike Berghan, whose winery and vineyards are located just a stone’s throw from the Oregon border. This unconventional blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Tempranillo, and Petit Verdot is an incredible value for a Walla Walla red wine at this price. Blackcurrant and plum flavors with nuances of espresso are packaged in a beautiful balance of fruit, tannins, and acidity.
Scan the aisles of your grocer’s wine section and you’ll find the majority of wines produced by Walla Walla wineries are still sourced from grapes grown outside the region in the Columbia Valley AVA. Despite this “outsourcing sticking point” for some wineophiles, Walla Walla wineries are enjoying great success producing and selling these wines.
The Boomtown 2016 Pinot Gris (about $19) is a perfect example. This tasty white wine from Walla Walla-based Dusted Valley Vintners is packed with mouth-watering pear and Fuji apple flavors along with a touch of citrus and bracing acidity on the finish.
Another Columbia Valley-sourced standout is the Eternal Wine “Perspective” 2016 Grenache Blanc (about $30) from Walla Walla winemaker Brad Binko. He’s taken this newer-to-Washington Rhone white grape varietal and crafted it with subtle complexities and a near-elegant quality. It opens with apple, citrus, and white flower aromatics, followed by understated apricot, melon, and orange zest flavors and a slightly creamy finish.
For wineries located outside of Walla Walla, acquiring grapes from the Valley’s AVA can be a challenge. For those fortunate to have secured vineyard sources, the time and work involved has resulted in some truly spectacular wines.
Tim and Kelly Hightower have been using Merlot grapes from Walla Walla’s Pepper Bridge Vineyards at their Benton City winery since 1998. Their latest release, the Hightower Cellars 2013 Pepper Bridge Merlot (about $30) is another simply amazing effort. Lovely black cherry aromas and flavors fill the glass, with a dusting of cocoa powder on a lengthy, velvety finish. Outstanding!
Finally, be sure to try the 2014 Syrah (about $28). Bellingham winemaker Peter Osvaldik uses grapes from the Walla Walla Valley’s Les Collines Vineyard, which he refers to as his “one-stop shopping” location for varietals such as Viognier, Semillon, Merlot, and Malbec. This gorgeous Syrah is a sensory delight from beginning to end, with a fruity, oral nose, a base of red cherry, and hints of licorice, hazelnut, caramel, and toasted oak on the finish.