Way down in the cocoon of Melbourne there isn’t a lot of North American wine available. It’s mostly either Californian, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, or Inniskillin. So in this environment I had no idea that the Walla Walla Valley is the most exciting place for wine in the entire United States. In doing research just before I came across I found a video of online wine phenomenon Gary Vaynerchuk stating that Walla Walla is the best region for wine, angering many in the Napa Valley. Having visited for the first time yesterday I am tempted to agree with him. The Walla Walla Valley had grapevines introduced by Italian migrants back in the mid-1800s but like everywhere else, the first bonded winery wasn’t founded until after prohibition in 1950. The Pesciallo family who founded Blue Mountain Vineyards were certainly way ahead of their time, as they didn’t survive and vines weren’t then planted until the 1970s. Walla Walla went unnoticed for almost thirty years until the mid ’90s when there were less than 10 wineries, and a number of wines started to get rave reviews. This started a serious boom in the region, to the point that there are now about 160 wineries sourcing fruit from the entire Columbia Valley & Walla Walla AVA. This is a region seriously on the move, so pay attention.
|L’Ecole No 41 Tasting Room|
One of the oldest wineries in the region is L’Ecole No 41, founded in 1983. Possibly the most prominent Walla Walla winery in the market, they are named after the schoolhouse that is located on the same property as the winery, which was originally built in 1915. L’Ecole were one of the wineries that put the region on the map, and have grown significantly in the last 10 years to meet demand. The tasting room is located in the schoolhouse, and has a very studious feeling to it. There are two ranges of wine, one which uses Columbia Valley fruit at an entry-level price-point, and the Walla Walla Valley wines which range from $19 to $49. It was great to be introduced to the region with such a solid and established performer, particularly as I was given some great advice on where to visit, and had an appointment lined up for my next visit.
|L’Ecole No 41 Schoolhouse|
Allen Shoup is considered a true pioneer in the Washington wine industry, working at Chateau Ste Michelle for 20 years. He established Long Shadows in the Walla Walla Valley in 2002 with with a visionary ideal; to identify the best sites for the best varieties and wines in Washington. In an effort to achieve this he designed a built a world-class winery, and then invited world-class winemakers from around the world, famous for particular wine styles. To make his riesling he invited a German (Armin Diel), to make his sangiovese blend he invited a pair of Tuscan brothers (Ambrogio & Giovanni Folonari), and to make his merlot blend he invited a Pomerol expert (Michel Rolland). John Duval makes the syrah, as he is famous for crafting Penfold’s Grange for 16 years. Each wine has a distinctive brand identity and is designed to be the best in its class. The wines are exceptional, showing the potential of this area. The riesling and merlot stood out for me, as did the very classy modern tasting room.
|Long Shadows Tasting Room|
Reininger is a winery not far out of Walla Walla that make a large range of wines that are all very well priced. They are using varieties that are both common (classic French), and uncommon (sangiovese and carmenere). The tasting room is quite large and well located by the freeway, on the way into town I could imagine it would be quite busy on weekends. I may have been a bit too abstract as I was tasting as my host was not used to the Australian sense of humour.
My timing in Walla Walla wasn’t great, as not only are they in the middle of vintage, but most tasting rooms are only open Thursday to Sunday. Even tasting rooms in downton Walla Walla were depressingly closed as I drove past. One of the exceptions is the King of Walla Walla, Charles Smith. With about $5,000 in his pocket and a crazy dream Charles Smith came to Walla Walla to start a wine company. He is now one the most important figures in the Washington wine industry, and one of the most striking with his Sideshow Bob hair and frank attitudes. Charles Smith is my kind of crazy, a truly intuitive (self-taught) winemaker and marketer. His wines and their packaging reflect his character, very wild and against the mainstream. He undeniably has a well deserved ego, but thankfully these don’t intervene in the wines themselves, they are balanced and textured with great food-friendly elegance. I’m sure working for Charles would be both challenging and thrilling, as he seems like the kind of passionate person who demands the best that he aspires to. If I could compare him to someone in the Australian wine industry, it would be Phil Sexton.
|King Coal and The Creator (aka Charles Smith)|
|Charles Smith Tasting Room in downtown Walla Walla|
The awesome Kristin Fish at the Charles Smith Tasting Room made some calls on my behalf to various winemakers around the area, and so I headed off to the Artifex commercial wine making facility on the outskirts of town. This custom crush house is designed to accommodate a number of smaller wine brands that cannot afford their own facility but need access to equipment and barrel storage. It is amazingly collaborative and very progressive, a theme I consistently picked up in the valley. I met with Brian Rudin, the winemaker for Middleton Family Wines, who produce brands like Cadaretta and Clayhouse. A young, energetic and honest winemaker, Brian sources fruit from all over the Columbia Valley for his wines, like most of Walla Walla. I got the opportunity to join Brian and his team as they assessed many of their ferments in various stages, and it showed how variable the vintage conditions were. I also got to crush some cabernet to check the brix, perfect ripeness.
|Brian Rudin and his team check some ferments|
Click here to see more photos from Day One in Walla Walla.