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Inside Walla Walla's Booming Wine Scene
By Tina Caputo
Oct 27, 2009
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When people think of Walla Walla, Washington, the first locally produced product that comes to mind isn’t always wine. Often, it’s onions. Or, if you’re Wile E. Coyote, and a frequent customer of ACME, it could be anvils. That’s a shame, since some truly delicious wines are produced in the region.  

Set in the southeastern corner of the state and extending a few miles south into Oregon, the Walla Walla appellation occupies nearly 350,000 acres. The AVA, established in 1983, is home to more than 100 wineries and 1,800 acres of wine grapes.

The first vines were planted in the Walla Walla Valley by Italian immigrants in the 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that winemakers began to realize the true potential of the region’s climate and soils.

Geology, Soils and Climate

The Walla Walla Valley’s terroir is the result of a unique geological history. During the ice age, the region was inundated by a series of cataclysmic floods, which deposited mineral-rich sediments derived from granite bedrock located hundreds of miles away. After the floods, winds came in and swept flood-deposited silts called “loess” onto the surrounding hills, and the eruptions of Cascade Range volcanoes dropped ash throughout the region. This series of events has resulted in a complex combination of soils. 

While many people think of Washington as a rain-drenched state, the eastern part of Washington is actually very dry. The average annual rainfall in Walla Walla is only 12.5 inches – about half that of the Napa Valley. Summer days are long and hot, and nights are cool, resulting in grapes that have both ripeness and acidity. Temperatures and sunshine diminish rapidly in the fall, which allows the fruit extra time on the vines before harvest.

With the acclaim of Cayuse Vineyards, Syrah has become the darling grape variety of the region, but it is also known for producing excellent Bordeaux varieties – particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

While Walla Walla doesn’t quite have the grape-growing fame of, say, Red Mountain or the Yakima Valley, many of the state’s most talented winemakers have chosen to set up stakes in Walla Walla. And if you’ve ever visited Walla Walla, with its lovely rural landscape and charming historic downtown, it’s easy to see why.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time visiting wineries in Walla Walla, and I found the region’s wines to be as impressive as its scenic wine-country charm.

Here are highlights from my whirlwind Walla-Walla wine tour:

Dusted Valley Vintners

Founded in 2003 by brothers-in-law Corey Braunel and Chad Johnson, Dusted Valley specializes in small-lot wines made from Bordeaux and Rhone varieties.
 
Before moving to Walla Walla from their native Wisconsin, Braunel and Johnson worked in the biotech industry. Eventually, their recreational wine-tasting trips to the Northwest and California got the better of them, and they decided to start a winery.

It wasn’t long before the pair decided that it wasn’t enough to make wine: They needed to have their own vineyards. Today Dusted Valley farms more than 100 acres of vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley. The winery’s four estate vineyards are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petite Verdot, Syrah, Grenache, Chardonnay, and a long list of other varieties. With an annual production of only 4,000 cases for Dusted Valley and 12,000 cases for the winery’s entry-level brand, Boomtown, much of the fruit is sold to other wineries, such as Northstar, Three Rivers, Syzygy and Seven Hills.

It should come as no surprise the Dusted Valley wines are vineyard-focused.

“We are farmers first,” Johnson says. “We are extremely conscious of sustainability, borrowing from many philosophies and not subscribing wholeheartedly to a lot of what other organizations are pushing and selling. We’re walking the line between many Old World practices and modern science, with good sound judgment.” 

What does that translate to in the bottle? Ripe-yet-balanced wines, with pure fruit flavors. Some of the winery’s best offerings include a lively, subtly oaked old-vine Chardonnay and a Walla Walla Syrah.

In the spirit of experimentation and as a nod to their Midwestern roots, Johnson and Braunel use barrels made from Wisconsin oak trees harvested on family-owned land.

The Dusted Valley tasting room features picnic tables with views of the mountains, along with some seriously good wines and a dose of the owners’ irreverent humor.

Corliss Estates

Corliss Estates was founded in 1999 by Washington native Michael Corliss, a developer, and Lauri Darnielle. The couple spent nine years renovating a 100-year-old bakery building to transform it into a stunning showplace, with their home and offices above ground and a no-expense-spared winemaking facility below.

The winery owns 34 acres of vineyards in Red Mountain and 41 acres in Walla Walla, planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The remaining fruit is sourced from local growers.

Because he felt it was important to hire a winemaker who understands Washington, Corliss recruited former Chateau Ste. Michelle winemaker Kendall Mix to make the wines: a Bordeaux-style blend, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah. The total annual production of the winery is around 2,000 cases.

“I was looking to transition to something new,” Corliss says, “and I came to Walla Walla (to start the winery) because I saw an energy there.”

Right about now you might be thinking that you’ve heard this story before: wealthy couple makes a career change and starts a winery, hand-crafting the finest possible grapes into ultra-premium wine at their state-of-art facility.

The aspect that sets Corliss Estates apart from other producers is the winery’s aging program.

Because Corliss and Darnielle prefer to drink mature wines, they hold the Corliss Estates wines for up to five years before release. The wines are aged two years before bottling, then aged another two or three years in the bottle. (The 2004 wines are just being released.) Due to space and cash-flow limitations, most U.S. wineries must release their wines into the marketplace much sooner – often long before they’re at their best. “Wines change dramatically in the first 24 months,” Corliss explains, so he likes to keep them close at hand during that period.

In style, the Corliss wines are ripe, powerful and opulent, with lots of black fruit character. Yet they also have a surprising amount of acidity and freshness.

Corliss Estates isn’t open to the public, but the winery does offer winery tours for its mailing-list customers.

Leonetti Cellar

Leonetti Cellar is the winery that set the stage for Walla Walla’s modern industry. The winery was founded in 1977 by Gary Figgins, a self-educated hobby winemaker whose great grandparents landed in Walla Walla from southern Italy in 1905. Figgins fell in love with wine as an army reservist, making side trips to California wine country during stints in Northern California. This experience inspired Figgins to plant a vineyard back home in Walla Walla, and eventually to start a winery there.

Gary’s son, Chris, joined the winery in 1996, and today he’s in charge of vineyard and cellar operations at Leonetti Cellar.

If you want to see a guy get excited, ask Chris about soil biology.

Chris is a passionate advocate of vineyard biodiversity, because it brings in beneficial insects. He strongly believes in chemical-free soil nutrition and natural vineyard inputs, and he works hard to put structure back into the soils through composting, teas and cover crops. Rather than working out fruit kinks on the sorting table or in the cellar, Chris strives to perfect the wines in the vineyard, before harvest.

The winery’s hilltop estate vineyard, Loess (named for its soil), covers 28 acres. Leonetti owns an additional 186 acres of vineyards in different areas of the Walla Walla AVA.

The winery produces a total of 6,500 cases per year, divided among four wines: a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Bordeaux-style blend called Reserve, a Merlot and a Sangiovese. The style of Leonetti Cellar wines falls somewhere between Bordeaux and Napa Valley, displaying bright fruit and good acidity.

The winery does not have a public tasting room.

Long Shadows

Allen Shoup, former president and CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest wineries, is the man behind Long Shadows, one of Washington’s most ambitious winemaking projects. His goal: To bring acclaimed winemakers from around the globe to Washington to create wines – made from Washington fruit – that would be among the world’s finest.
The idea was to emulate the achievement of Robert Mondavi in bringing Baron Baron Philippe de Rothschild to Napa Valley at a time when the region was striving for recognition.

“Washington had its moments in the sun, but it wasn’t known widely,” Shoup says. So in 2002 he created Long Shadows in the hope of shining a global spotlight on Columbia Valley wines. 

Shoup has managed to recruit an all-star lineup of winemakers for the project – no small feat, considering that they don’t get paid for their efforts. Instead, they receive a 25% stake in the wine they help create.

Each winemaker is brought in to produce a particular wine – his or her specialty – in collaboration with Long Shadows’ house winemaker Gilles Nicault, who was formerly the winemaker for Woodward Canyon. Production for each wine is around 5,000 cases.

The wines include:

- Poet’s Leap (Riesling): Armin Diel, Schlossgut Diel, Germany
- Sequel (Syrah): John Duval, Australia; former maker of Penfold’s Grange
- Chester Kidder (Red Wine): Gilles Nicault, Long Shadows winemaker
- Pedestal (Merlot): Michel Rolland, Pomerol vintner and famous consultant
- Pirouette (Red Wine): Phillipe Melka of Vineyard 29, Lail and Hundred Acre; and Agustin Huneeus, Sr., Quintessa, Napa Valley
- Feather (Cabernet Sauvignon): Randy Dunn, Dunn Vineyard, Napa Valley
- Saggi (Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon): Ambrogio and Giovanni Folonari, Tuscany

Shoup’s vision is for each wine to eventually have its own winemaking facility, but until then, the wines are produced at the 40,000-square-foot Long Shadows winery. Each winemaker gets to choose whatever equipment he or she desires in order to produce the wine.

“Then there are no excuses,” Shoup says. “The philosophy here is, ‘Whatever it takes to make a great wine.’”

Visits to Long Shadows may be made by appointment only.

An Exciting Time

Although these wineries represent only a small fraction of Walla Walla’s vintners, they present a good snapshot of the diversity and quality of the wines coming out of the region – and from Washington in general.

“I think all of Washington is special,” says Chad Johnson of Dusted Valley Vintners. “Quite simply it rocks. It's a ‘tweener’ that can ripen late-harvest varietals in the warm spots and early ripening varietals in the cooler sites. The possibilities are endless, and in time, we'll figure it out through open-minded experimentation.”