Winemaking is still relatively new to the Walla Walla Valley—the first vines were planted there in the mid-1970s, and the federal government didn’t recognize the region as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) until 1984. Regardless, the city of Walla Walla, a town roughly the size of Hot Springs, has positioned itself as the region’s—even the state’s—unofficial wine capital, with over 40 wineries inside the city limits. The AVA itself is one of the few AVAs that straddle states lines, dipping south into Oregon, though you’re unlikely to see “Product of Oregon” on many labels. Currently, wines are labeled by the state they’re finished in, meaning that, so long as a wine is barreled and bottled in Washington, it’s a Washington wine regardless of where it was grown.
It might be new-ish, this winemaking industry, but its success is rooted in the waaay distant past. At the tail end of the last Ice Age, some 15,000 years ago, the entire Walla Walla Valley was flooded in one of the greatest natural disasters to ever hit North America: the Missoula Floods. Scientists estimate that over a weeklong period a glacial lake the size of Lake Huron flooded the valley, leaving behind thick deposits of sandy soils, ideal terrain for the vintners who’d plant grapes in the silt millennia later.
Those vintners took a unique approach. Unlike some of the better known wine growing hot spots such as California’s Napa Valley or Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where wineries own their own estate vineyards, most of Walla Walla’s wineries cooperate and share fruit from the area’s most prized vineyards. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Oregon-based Sevens Hills vineyard, which was first planted over 30 years ago and is now owned by four partners who oversee some of the area’s most prominent wineries. In 2004, Wine & Spirits Magazine named it one of the 10 best vineyards in world and it now serves as a source of fruit for over 40 wineries, many of which I got to sample at the auction.
As I tasted through both older vintages and new releases, I began to see the way these vineyards and the unique terroir of the valley shine through. Take, for example, the Perigee red blend ($60), one of the flagship wines from L’Ecole No. 41, a family-run winery whose owner and winemaker, Marty Clubb, is an owner of the Seven Hills vineyard. Tasting the 2008 and 2015 vintages back to back shows their ability to age gracefully. Whereas the 2015 was taut and lithe, a ballerino midleap, the 2008 was softer, rounder, a waltz of cocoa powder, fig and tobacco.
Cabernet sauvignon is king across the Walla Walla Valley, accounting for over 40 percent of vineyard plantings in the region. The styles of wine vary from winery to winery, vineyard to vineyard, allowing each winemaker to put their own spin on the classic varietal. At Amavi Cellars, a winery just north of the state line, the cabernet sauvignon ($33) is sleek and sporty—imagine noshing on ripe figs while driving at 100 miles an hour. Just across the street, Pepper Bridge Winery, whose hilltop winery overlooks acres of vineyards and cherry orchards, presents a cabernet sauvignon ($65) that’s broad and regal, with hints of blackberry and cardamom.
Just as wineries in the valley have mastered the traditional red grapes of Bordeaux, many also produce their own versions of Bordeaux blanc, a blend of the grapes sauvignon blanc and semillon. L’Ecole No. 41’s Luminesce ($23) blends the two grapes in almost equal parts for a wine that’s so full of tropical fruit flavors that they seem almost electrically charged. Notes of pineapple, lemon, and lime zest stand out like neon in the night sky. Amavi Cellar’s semillon ($24) is equally summery with a zippy nose of ripe honeydew and grapefruit that’ll have you longing for one final weekend at the beach.
As I visited each winery, I found something new to love about the region, but what I can’t stop thinking about, even now, some five months later, is the Walla Walla Valley’s sub-AVA, the Rocks of Milton Freewater. The so-called “Rocks District” is located in an alluvial plane left behind by the Walla Walla river. Over the centuries, the river deposited millions of insulating and heat-reflecting fist-sized stones in the soil. The wines coming out of the Rocks District are unlike anything else being produced in the United States. A single whiff is enough to reveal this telltale funky characteristic that these wines share.
Known predominantly for syrah and other grape varietals from France’s Rhone Valley, the Rocks District has attracted winemakers and drinkers who are looking to embrace the idiosyncratic in their glass. One of my favorite Rocks District wines is the Some Days Are Stones syrah ($50) from Two Vintners Winery. Sourced entirely from the Rocks District, drinking it is like hearing 1960s soul music for the very first time: It’s like nothing you’ve had before, but you just know it’s right, with sweet notes of cherry cola, ripe raspberry, lavender and thyme.
I left the auction empty-handed, outbid on two separate lots, leaving instead with only the few bottles I could fit into my suitcase. Reflecting back on my time in Walla Walla and the wines made there, I feel nothing but excitement about the possibilities. I can’t wait for people to discover these wines for themselves as more and more of these wineries come to Arkansas. Though Walla Walla may not have the instant “brand recognition” of Napa or Bordeaux, the Washington section of your local wine shop is the place to look for some of the best value wines on the market.