By Duane Pemberton
Let’s face it, American Viticulture Areas are a “brand” – they’re a brand of a geographical area that grows grapes. They help customers become familiar with the various regions and sub-regions of vineyards all over the country and the reason wineries love them is because they can bottle wine, stamp a specific AVA on the bottle and assuming the potential customer knows the “brand” of that AVA, it could help sales.
There’s a strong argument that consumers around the USA and perhaps the world, know the “brand” of Walla Walla better than Columbia Valley – it’s cool to say and it’s a way cooler city to visit then the seemingly lifeless towns that litter the Columbia Valley. I know, personally, of many wine lovers who when given a bottle of wine from Washington that ask “is this from Walla Walla”? I can’t recall – ever – having someone from out of Washington State ask, “is this from Columbia Valley”? So I guess in that regard, the brand of the Walla Walla AVA is well on its way.
They say that the “devil is in the details” and when it comes to telling the story of the Walla Walla AVA, nothing could resound more true. While it’s true that the AVA bears the name of a Washington State city, the truth that’s not really being told per se is that 60% of the fruit from that AVA comes from Oregon and closer to 70% will be coming from there in the next year or so – how is that you ask?
AVAs are not at all bound by man-made boarders – they follow geographical areas and the Walla Walla AVA is only one of two in the entire USA that crosses state lines. So why is this a big deal? Well if you’re a grower or winery in the great state of Oregon then you’d want to make sure that people realize what’s going on in the Northeast corner of that start and can hopefully rid themselves of the notion – once and for all – that Oregon only does great Pinot Noir.
Having the tremendously huge “brand” of the Willamette Valley is a blessing and somewhat of a curse in that the Pinot Noir produced there does in fact seem to overshadow all the great things Oregon is doing with other grapes – Bordeaux and Rhone varietals to be a bit more specific.
There are a couple of things to bear in mind when thinking of the Oregon side of this AVA – “the hills” and “the rocks” – if you ever hear those terms when speaking of wines made from the fruit of this region then you should know that “the rocks” is the area where wines such as the famous Cayuses Vineyards are made – i.e. tons of fruit, silky smooth but not very high acids. To the contrary, the grapes that come from the southern-most vineyards have higher elevation and low rock-counts have higher acids and tend to be a bit more food-friendly.
Here’s a quick run-down of some of the players who are helping to make this such an incredible wine area:
Seven Hills Vineyard Site:
Norm McKibben is one of the most prolific people in the Washington wine business – he’s been at it for longer than most, has invested millions of dollars and countless hours into making northwest wines better – he’s an owner in Pepper Bridge Winery as well as being often referred to as a “founding-father” of Walla Walla wine. But more importantly to this story is his backing of the Seven Hills Vineyard site just outside the town of Milton-Freewater.
Sitting at 235-acres, one of the things that makes this site so incredible is the various soil types and many micro-climates it encompasses. As you can see from the two pictures below, it starts out with an incredibly rocky, basalt-laden form of the earth near the top of the vineyard and as it drops down towards the valley floor turns into much softer soil.
Of course the views from up top are great, however, they also can help provide a sense of what the greater part of this AVA looks like from a topographical standpoint. One can easily see all the lush, green, almost endless land that abounds here so I hope it helps imprint a nice visual of what things look like the next time you sip on a wine from the “Seven Hills Vineyard” in the Walla Walla AVA.
This view is looking down the hill in a northwest direction towards the Tero Estate Winery (located just to the direct west of those grain silos).
Looking back up the hill of Seven Hills Vineyard, one can sort of get an idea of the levels of elevation we’re talking about here – anywhere from 850-1050ft.
Here we see one of the Estate Vineyards of Zerba Cellars – Cecil and Marilyn Zerb started this winery years ago, right near the heart of Milton-Freewater. Today it produces wines from a massive selection of varietals, many of which are sourced from their fruit on the Oregon side of the AVA. Just a few short years ago they hired winemaker Doug Nierman and have been winning tons of awards for his careful handling of their tasty fruit.
Located in downtown Milton-Freewater is the Watermill winery owned by the Brown family which got its start decades ago, growing apples in the local area. Today they have a cidery which produces around 80,000 cases of cider and of course the Watermill winery which is churning out around 4,000 cases.
Watermill’s passion, know-how and “get er’ done” mindset has placated very well for this relatively newcomer to the wine scene. Andrew Brown is the winemaker and as you can see from the video above, is about as down to earth as anyone gets.
Tero Estate Winery:
Another winery in the greater Milton-Freewater area is Tero Estate – started just a few short years ago by Doug and Jan Roskelly, this is a winery that has been garnering a ton of high praise for its ability to produce wines that reflect its own Windrow Vineyard and really showcase the terroir of that area just right down the hill from Seven Hills Vineyard.
I had the chance to sample their wines produce from their estate vineyards with Ashley Trout and can tell you, first-hand, that they are doing an admirable job on their wines and I’m excited for what their future holds.
Don Carlo Vineyards:
Tim and Lori Kennedy started this small winery not too long ago and have really done a great job making headway – yes, that is Tim of “Tim’s Cascade Style Chips”. This duo has Lori making the wine and Tim helping in the vineyard and in the sales. They produce only four wines at this time – a Cab, Merlot, Cab Franc and Chardonnay – all estate-grown.
Wrapping it up:
The next time you pick up any bottle of wine that is stamped with the “Walla Walla Valley” AVA you should get a hold of the winery and find out a bit more of where the fruit came from. Doing so may help give better insight to its origin and ultimately help everyone understand that the great state of Oregon is far more than just world-class Pinot Noir.
I’d encourage everyone to try a bottle from the wineries mentioned and make sure to ask if the wine is from the Oregon side – and ultimately anyone serious about Walla Walla wine owes it to themselves to visit the Milton-Freewater area and get to know the fruit and the people who are directly responsible for helping the Walla Walla “brand” look as good as it is.