Writing the rule book (Walla Walla Valley, Washington – Day Two)

As I mentioned in my previous post, the wine industry in Walla Walla is nothing if not progressive. A region that has really only been around for 15 years, they aren’t so much in a revolution as an evolution, not a renaissance but a birth. As Charles Smith said to me the previous day, there are no rules here. They are all just trying to figure out what does well here, and they are so far ahead of the curve it isn’t funny. Much like the winemakers in southern NSW these guys are getting access to amazing fruit in new viticultural areas and expressing wines that are both impetuous and yet refined. Is it any wonder that wine critics in Washington and the rest of the US are so excited about this place?

The Walla Walla Valley

Starting my day with the second oldest winery in Walla Walla, I tried the wines on offer at Woodward Canyon. Located right next door to L’Ecole, Woodward Canyon make two ranges of wine, the second under the Nelms Road brand. They are very classic style wines, the labels are certainly a reflection of this, as is the tasting room. They release a non-vintage red, not the first I have encountered so far, which is sensational for $20.

Woodward Canyon Red Wine & Nelms Road Merlot

Having visited several tasting rooms on the western side of town and in downtown, I headed south of town for some visits. The first was to visit Rasa Vineyards. Enamoured of the greatest wines in the world, brothers Pinot and Billo Navarane decided leave their careers in the computer industry to establish a world-class winery. Wanting to have their focus on syrah and bordeaux varieties, they searched many places throughout California and Washington, and decided to settle in Walla Walla. They are truly passionate guys, very pragmatic and scientific in their approaches, but understanding there is an art to viticulture and winemaking. Their philosophy and origins weave nicely into the wines, incorporating scientific principles into the names of their wines. The liquid contained within these bottles is gaining well-deserved attention, and they are going to get even better.

Billo and Pinto Navarane from Rasa Vineyards

Pepper Bridge and Amavi Cellars are connected by marriage, like so many great wine families in the world. The Goff and McKibbin families combined their businesses several years ago, and allowed Swiss-born Jean-Francois Pellet to oversee the winemaking for both brands. The focus for Pepper Bridge is on Bordeaux varietal blends, whereas Amavi tends to be a mixture of varieties. The vineyards at Pepper Bridge looked very fatigued and under stress, with very dry leaves and shriveled shoots. Apparently Pepper Bridge have suffered a number of devastating frosts which have destroyed vines. With quite significant diurnal shifts between day night temperatures being further from the coast, frosts are common in spring and autumn, very dangerous periods in the vine life cycle.

The new optical sorter in use at Pepper Bridge

Further confirmation of the progressive nature of Walla Walla was discovered to the east of town. In an area that used to be an US Air Force training base are a number of small wineries and tasting rooms. The grid on which the streets are located are either numbered like every town and city, or they are named after a plane model. The local council built five “wine incubators” for start-up producers to make their wine and sell direct to wine tourists. The lease lasts for six years, so they need to grow fast. The winery I visited had pretty poor wines, a nice reminder that not all the wines produced here are good.

Port of Walla Walla Wine Incubators
Walla Walla Airport Wine Incubators

Heading out through town I called on Corliss winery where the senior winemaker is Australian. Andrew Trio graduated from Adelaide Uni in 2005, and has spent several years working in California and Washington. He’s in a pretty enviable position, as Corliss is a winery that has had serious investment from its owners, and has some amazing toys. Apart from the standard French Oak fermenters, sorting tables, and bottling line, he also has the first cement egg fermenter I have ever seen. The winery was pretty busy processing fruit, and I wish I had been staying in Walla Walla to hang out, but I had to keep going.

Corliss winemaker Andrew Trio
I call him Humpty

The largest private-owned winery which makes numerous brands is located on the western side of town. The facility and tasting room are amazing, quite new. Waterbrook was the original winery in the Walla Walla Valley, but is now part of the Precept group, the second largest wine company in Washington after Chateau Ste. Michelle. The wines are very good commercial examples, but they taste better in the modern and spacious tasting room.

Waterbrook Tasting Room

Whilst visiting wineries in Walla Walla was really cool, and there are some awesome people in the this part of the world, I feel that there aren’t enough Walla Walla wines out there. Maybe they are all really hard to get and expensive. Hopefully I’ll try more in the future. For now I’ll have to remember this part of the world for it’s groundbreaking vintners… Click here to see more photos from my second day in Walla Walla.

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