Walla Walla: The Heart of Washinton's Wine Country

August 29, 2016

Several wine experts have stated that Walla Walla has the best wine in Washington! That is certainly a bold statement so to investigate, we left the Seattle area for a five-hour drive to the southeast corner of the state for some research, testing, and tasting.

We started the investigation as I drove, while my wife deployed her smartphone and quickly found that the first wine production in Walla Walla was in the late 1860’s. However, another source says the French Canadians made the first batch in the 1820’s.

An ambitious Italian immigrant, Frank Orelli, made 42 oak barrels yearly, mainly from Cinsault, called Black Prince grapes in the 1860’s. The wine was sold at a small bakery in town and perhaps paired well with some of savory bakery treats.  Much of the wine was consumed by the gold miners from nearby Idaho.

Many other farmers migrated from Italy as they heard of the rich soil. In making fine wine the major focus is terroir. One can find about 100 different descriptions of the word terroir. Here is the best, and shortest description:  climate, soils, and aspect.

Let’s begin with soil, as that is one of the more unique features for Walla Walla, largely due to a series of massive floods of water rushing at 65 mph and at a height of 300 feet.   We saw the first evidence of this on our field trip just to the north of Walla Walla at Palouse Falls State Park. The view was stunning, with 190+ foot falls and deep carved out landscape called channel scablands. A true treasure to enjoy while you hike around! 


Much of the landscape of Walla Walla and the rest of Eastern Washington was carved out by the Great Missoula Floods. These occurred about 12,000 years ago as the ice age retreated. Lake Missoula in Montana was dammed by a huge ice sheet. At times the ice sheet retreated and a huge surge of water followed.  This happened at least 100 times, creating a powerful force that effected everything in its path.  


(Flash back to the present for our next stop, a little over an hour drive south to Twin Sisters Rock).

All the water from the aforementioned floods was funneled through the Wallula Gap before it went to the ocean. Thus it overflowed at times and craved out rock structures like buttes and mesas. Twin Sisters Rock is an example. However, the Native American legend is interesting.  When the animal spirit, coyote, fell in love with three wives’, he eventually became jealous and turned two into the rock formation of Twin Sisters Rock and the third into a cave. Which story do you prefer?

Additionally, all of these floods swept away the soil and left pebbles, cobbles and boulders in place. Is this good for growing wine grapes? Definitely, stated Dr. Kevin Pogue. Dr. Pogue is professor of geology in Walla Walla at Whitman College. He is the expert on terroir in this great wine region. We learned a lot from him as we walked through the wine landscape.

This gravel soil profile is also found in the Left Bank region of Bordeaux. Gravel provides excellent drainage and encourages the roots to burrow deep into the soils for nourishment, which forces the roots to absorb the minerality of the bedrock. In Walla Walla the basalt of the bedrock provides the minerality that we enjoy in these wines.

My soil slogan for Walla Walla is loess is more. The loess is silt that was originally deposited by the glacier 15,000 years ago, then blown by the wind to top the bedrock. Thus we have a soft rich soil that the vines grow through before getting to the bedrock.

Are we done with terroir? No! Climate is a key element and Walla Walla is a sweet spot for that. The warm summers bring out the best in their popular Cabernet Sauvignon. Also helping Walla Walla is its location so far north at 46 degrees. Therefore, just like Bordeaux at 44 degrees, it gets 30 minutes a day more sunlight during the summer than the Napa/Sonoma area.

Rainfall at the right time is critical and Walla Walla gets most of its precipitation during the winter as snow in the nearby Blue Mountains. Thus, irrigation is available during the growing season while the lack of rainfall minimizes mildew issues. Also the dry summers force the roots deep, which greatly enhances the rich flavors of the grapes. And of course, dry conditions during harvest are perfect.

Climate, loess top soil, and gravel (alluvial) soil are parts of the terroir that presents some of the finest wines in Washington. The last consideration of terroir is the aspect (compass direction of the face of a slope) of the terrain and this AVA has lots of rolling hills. First, the vines planted above the valley bottoms, where the cold spots are, avoid many frost issues in the winter and early spring. Equally important, the south facing slopes soak up extra sun in the spring.  

So we were ready to taste the results of all this excellent terroir so Isenhower Cellars was our first stop. Brett and Denise Isenhower have a great tasting room just south of town surrounded by farm land. Their history of winemaking is romantically intertwined and one can say they had the right chemistry in multiple ways. Before deciding to go into the wine business, they worked together as pharmacists in a hospital in the Midwest.

Brett’s first foray into spirit making was some home brewing. While he enjoyed the resulting beer, he soon branched out into wine making.

One of our favorites was the first that we tasted, the Snipes Mountain Viognier, which was wonderful on this warm, sunny day. The light fruit notes of apricot made for easy sipping alone or paired with some tasty shell fish.

Denise’s favorite is the Road Less Travelled, a Cabernet Franc. We also enjoyed the light cherry notes of this one. We sampled and enjoyed their other wines, making this stop a perfect prelude to the main event: “Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine.”

This is a yearly event held in June and for 2016 the theme was: “The World of Cabernet Sauvignon”. We were fortunate to get there before the event officially started so we could attend the Winemakers Dinner at the Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen. This dinner was indeed special with the tasty Mediterranean foods pairing perfectly with Walla Walla wine.  There were eight local wineries participating, known as the Walla Walla Elite Eight or the Godfathers.

The first dish was Tonno Napolitano Flatbread, with albacore tuna, tomato and arugula. The Waterbrook Winery Chardonnay, which has won much acclaim, was a perfect match. Winemaker John Freeman, raised and trained in Napa, brought his expertise to Walla Walla in 2003. John took over the wine making from founder and first winemaker Eric Rindal who had started in 1983.  We also sampled and enjoyed their award winning Merlots.

The reviews of Saffron are over the top. We can certainly attest to the accuracy of these reviews, especially after the Carne Cruda. The ground lamb and beef tartar mixed with capers and savory vegetables of shallots, and parsley was unique and delicious. The wine for this course was provided by the guru (aka Godfather) Myles Anderson of Walla Walla Vintners. Myles served his Malbec which is just one of the excellent wines which has resulted in his winery being named as Northwest Winery of the Year 2016 by Wine Press Northwest.

Myles’ visionary work goes back to when he spearheaded the enology and viticulture program at Walla Walla Community College (WWCC). Some sixteen years later, this program has over 1,600 students who have completed this program, many of them still working in the community.

The next course to arrive was octopus, paired with Jerusalem artichokes (also known as sunchokes or sunroots). The Jerusalem artichoke is not an artichoke, and has no connection with Jerusalem. The plant is actually a species of sunflower. The Italian word for sunflower is girasole, thought to be the origin of the ‘Jerusalem’ part of the name. Whatever it is called, this root vegetable mixed with cumin and other fresh herbs, all sourced from a local farm was delightful! The Columbia Valley Chardonnay with light tropical fruit notes went well with the octopus and was from L’Ecole No 41. Let us not forget the dessert, Chocolate Hazelnut Torte! 

Martin Clubb and his wife Megan Clubb are the owners of the winery and the family wine roots run deep. Founded in 1983 by Megan’s parents, Jean and Baker Ferguson, L’Ecole No 42 is the third oldest winery in the area. While Jean was the winemaker, Baker helped the effort by officially getting Walla Walla on the wine-making map by assisting in the AVA process. The roots should continue to run deep as the third generation, Martin and Megan’s kids, Riley and Rebecca, are also involved in the wine business.

This evening really showcased the complex and fine wines, and the diversity of the culinary experience here. The deliciousness continued, with our favorite being the Washington Beef Hanger Steak. Yes, the wood grilled beef was tender but what made it really special was the adobo sauce that the beef was marinated in. This Spanish style sauce made with different chilies, and spices such as cinnamon, cumin, cloves and a touch of vinegar really enhanced the taste. Of course so did the signature wine of the area, Cabernet Sauvignon from Figgins Family Wine Estates.

This estate includes Leonetti Cellar, Figgins Valley Wine, Toil Oregon, and Lostine Cattle Company. Chris Figgins walked us through their illustrious history. Chris’s father Gary founded his first winery here in 1977, Leonetti Cellar. Prior to that, Gary’s grandparents, Francesco and Rosa Leonetti, had started farming the Leonetti Farm in 1906.

Chris became winemaker in 1981 and wanted to make wine from a single estate vineyard, thus Figgins Valley Wine was born in 1983. The Estate Red (clone of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Merlot) was definitely my favorite. My wife’s was the Sangiovese from Leonetti Cellar, with its light fruit notes pairing beautifully with the beef.

The next wine offered, which also shows well in the area, is the Syrah from Northstar Winery Winemaker David “Merf” Merfeld’s roots are relatively new, as he migrated here from Iowa in 1990 to try his hand at micro brewing, and then turned to wine making in 2001. Their Syrah has an earthy taste with some light spice and paired well with the Upper Creek Ranch Leg of Lamb. Walla Walla fresh and tender!  Northstar’s specialty is Merlot, with its nice full, but not overly heavy taste.

The evening was starting to get late and there was still plenty of wine flowing, but it was time for us to curtail the wine tasting. We know that the others in the party enjoyed the other cast of characters of this event:  

Pepper Bridge Winery
Woodward Canyon
Seven Hills Winery

The fun continued the next day with Dr. Pogue enlightening us about the terroir of the new (2015) Rocks District AVA, which is a sub-appellation of Walla Walla. This is technically located in the small Milton-Freewater Oregon. The small community is just 17 miles due south of Walla Walla. Before this new AVA was created it was known as Muddy Frogwater Country or a “Toadly Awesome Place To Live.” For many summers they had the Muddy Frogwater Festival, but now with this new wine district they have “Milton-Freewater Rock” and I think Kevin agrees that this is an excellent name change.

After this field trip we enjoyed wines from Watermill Winery. We certainly enjoyed the wines but a special treat was sampling some of the ciders at their sister company Blue Mountain Cider Company. My favorite was the Estate Newtown Pippin, very refreshing and just touch of sweetness. This apple was first harvested in the 1700’s in what is now known as Queens New York. We learned that this was a favorite cider of many of our founding fathers, so I’m in good company.

After the tasting we retired to a private room for some delicious offerings by the catering expertise of the Wine Country Culinary Institute, part of the Walla Walla Community College. Executive Director Dan Thiessen grew up about 100 east of Walla Walla in a tiny (1,200 resident) community of Asotin. Luckily for the institute, Dan has returned home after working restaurants in Switzerland, along with many in Seattle. The Institute offers catering and also has a food truck, with all the profits going back to the program. So far their record shows that 100% of graduating students who want to work in the food industry are successful at finding jobs. We can see why, with the tasty servings of fish tacos and all the other greats that were rolled out

Dean and Elizabeth Fagin (editor)All the aforementioned events were before the official start of the; “Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine.” Two things were clear, one was a surprise and the other not. The surprise was the culinary delights from top notch chefs in the area; there is no shortage of diverse dining! The non-surprise was the wine. We had already heard about the excellence of the area wine. Also not surprisingly, one of the top professional wine organizations is in the process of seriously looking at a return visit to sample the delights. I can’t wait for that.

Our last culinary delight was hosted at Spring Valley Vineyard. Located just about 25 minutes north and west of town, getting there is half the fun. The endless view of rolling hills and wheat fields is a sight that is hard to describe.  My wife just couldn’t keep herself from singing the first verse of America the Beautiful! The amber waves of grain were just too inspiring. Eventually we arrived at the Vineyard/Ranch. We were greeted the host and local legend Dean Derby. Dean was a standout star as captain of the University of Washington football team and former NFL player star. The other owner is his wife Shari Corkham Derby. The seeds of their relationship go back to 6th grade in Walla Walla and they have certainly grown the business. Shari’s family can be traced back to the 1860’s when they homesteaded in the Walla Walla Valley, Washington Territory.  A cabin was built and farming soon ensued.

Dean and Shari planted the vineyard in the 1990’s and now have others run it, but you can always find them, checking on the wheat fields and chatting about wine and football.

The excellent dinner was catered by Olive Catering, and paired with Spring Valley wines. This was more of an epicurean experience than just another normal wine dinner. My wife’s challenge was to just choose one course to name as our favorite.  Well, The Wagyu Coulotte Steak won out. This is “Kobe Beef”, which is bred for more flavor, tenderness and moisture. Then add the Frederick Red Wine, which is a perfect blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. This highly acclaimed wine (Wine Spector gave it over 90 points) was just right with that steak

Well, as always, the sad part of this visit was that we had to head back home. We will be back soon, as there is a lot of unfinished business, such as Fall Release Weekend, Holiday Barrel Tasting, and the Spring Release Weekend, along with a couple of tasting events in Seattle and Portland in February 2017. Details can be found here.