Washington Wine Region: Walla Walla Valley AVA

As we continue through Washington Wine Month, our tour takes us deep into Columbia Valley to the Walla Walla Valley AVA.  It is located in the far southeast portion of the state, just east of junction between the Columbia River and Snake River.  It's one of the oldest wine producing regions in the state, sees the most sunlight, and also encompasses some of the greatest vineyards in the country.  A good portion of the valley stretches into Oregon, is that state's warmest region, and produces great Syrah.  Now let's check out some of the vineyards, wineries, and what makes this AVA different:

Walla Walla River Valley is a great place to grow wine grapes.  It sees between 190-220 days of sunlight per year along with hot days and cold nights.  The temperature range give great wine balance and the sunlight allows grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon (which makes up 41% of the region's varietals) enough time to mature.  Other varietals grown are Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc.  The soil composition is of loess, which is wind blown sand and clay, giving the soil excellent drainage.  The vines will dig deep for water and struggle, giving more concentration to fruit clusters. 

The charge to bring Walla Walla back to wine promenance after Prohibition began with the founding of Leonetti Cellar in the 70's, followed by Woodward Canyon Winery and L'Ecole No. 41 in the early 80's.  Shortly afterward, the region gained AVA status in 1984 with but three wineries and just over 60 acres planted.  Now there are over 100 wineries and 1800 acres planted!  Some of my favorite wineries include Tamarack Cellars, Dusted Valley Vintners, Dunham Cellars, K Vintners, Pepper Bridge Winery, Seven Hills Winery, and Isenhower Cellars, to name just a few.  Some of these wineries get their grapes from and own some of the best vineyards in the country like Cougar Hills, Woodward Canyon Estate, Seven Hills, Buty Rockgarden Estate, Mill Creek Upland, and Girasol.

All of this surrounds the city of Walla Walla.  If you get a chance, make your way up there, stay at a vineyard and visit these great wineries!

Washington Wine History

Washington Wine Month continues with a bit of Washington wine history.  So everyone knows that Washington has become one of the greatest wine producing states in the US, but how and when did it start?  Well, it began all the way back in 1825, when traders from the Hudson's Bay Company brought in the first vines to Fort Vancouver. 

Eventually, Italian and German immigrants brought in their own wines and produced wine in the 1860s and 70s.  Italians from Puglia brought in the Ottavianello varietal, which is related to Cinsault (a French Rhone blending grape).  This little known grape is no longer grown in Washington (though Cinsault is), but a recent indigenous grape revival has put it back into production in Puglia.  In the Ostuni DOC, wines are made up of no less than 85% of the Ottavianello varietal!

Wine production continued until Washington became one of the first states to begin Prohibition in 1916 and all Vitis Vinifera vines were lost.  After Prohibition, Concord grapes were planted, mainly by the Nawico and Pommerelle wineries, and used to create fortified sweet wine.  Finally, in the 1950s, Washington State University began to replant Vitis Vinifera vines (Grenache being the first) and test which varietals grew best in local climates and soils.  Some professors eventually banded together in 1962 to create what is now Columbia Winery, while Nawico and Pommerelle combined to form Chateau Ste. Michelle, and both began to produce premium wines. 

In the 1970s, Washington found a new home for Cabernet Sauvignon.  This grape brought them national acclaim, with Leonetti Cellar being the best example in 1978.  More notariety would come with Chateau Ste. Michelle being named Best American Winery in 1988 and five Washington wines making Wine Spectator's Top 100 for the very first time in 1989.  Today Washington has 650 licensed wineries and countinues to grow every year.  The state has a colorful wine past and a bright future!