Saturday, April 3, 2010

Why Walla Walla Became the Ultimate Washington Wine Country

Before you get a bug up your ass, nothing in this blog is meant to demean or disrespect the Walla Walla wineries or their wine. It is merely my perspective of how the phenomena came about and what the future may hold.

It all started with Dr. Walter Clore who noticed that Walla Walla had the mildest winter climate in Eastern Washington. Since winter kill is the main problem with growing grapes here, he surmised that the Walla Walla Valley would be the best choice for locating vineyards. He didn't check the actual highs and lows, just the average. When we have a polar outbreak, Walla Walla is the coldest place in Eastern Washington. In fact, in 1996 it was 61o on January 14 and -21o on February 2. That kind of swing is tough on grapes. Because it sits under the Blue Mountains, it is subject to late spring and early fall frosts.

Back in the mid '80s there were four very good wineries in Walla Walla: Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, L'Ecole 41, and Waterbrook. This made for a good reputation for the region as opposed to the Yakima Valley which had many more wineries in a larger area and quality was hit and miss. Sometimes more miss than hit.

Then Steve Burns arrived fresh from California to become the head of the Washington Wine Commission. Steve didn't like the Yakima Valley. What with its dry dusty climate, white-trash trailers, and barren hills, it looked more like Bakersfield to him than Napa. Walla Walla on the other hand with 20 inches average annual rainfall and forests on the Blue Mountains looks a lot like Napa. Well, as close as you can get in Eastern Washington. Steve was in love with Walla Walla.

The first year here he brought a bus tour of wine writers and other hot shots through the Yakima Valley to Walla Walla. As they passed the reservoirs that feed the irrigation canals that water the grapes in the Yakima Valley, they were aghast! Look at all those dead tree stumps exposed by the lake drained to grow grapes in the Yakima Valley. The Yakima Valley must indeed be an evil place. Steve never made that mistake again. The next year, he chartered airplanes to fly the buttheads directly to Walla Walla eliminating completely that scene of dead trees, dry lakes, and the hot dry ride through the Yakima Valley.

Steve was a product of the dot-bomb era. He said, "There is no end to the amount of high-priced wine you can sell and there is no limit to the price you can charge." I assume that he meant if it was from Walla Walla - not the Yakima Valley.

Articles (or should I say an article) began to appear in magazines and newspapers around the country. I say one article because it was the same article over and over. Just a regurgitation of the Wine Commission press releases. Californians in the industry must not have felt very threatened by the Washington wine industry which was comprised of a 1200 acre AVA, 4 hours and 30 minutes from any metropolis. Never mind there were 11,000 acres of vinifera in the Yakima Valley and lots of new plantings in the Horse Heaven Hills and Wahluke Slope. The story was Walla Walla.

More than a place to grow grapes, Walla Walla became a school of winemaking, a very popular one at that, making New-World style wines that the critics loved - high alcohol fruit bombs, dry (with some RS of course), soft integrated tannins, and boatloads of French oak. Just what Parker ordered. More than 100 wineries opened shop in Walla Walla on this good news. "We'll all get rich," they thought.

It became a standing joke in the Yakima Valley that all Steve could say was, "Walla Walla Walla Walla Walla……." Then Steve Burns up and moved back to California, so the cheerleader was gone.

Then came $4.00 gasoline. Walla Walla is 273 miles (4 hours 31 minutes) from Seattle. This really cut into the number of visitors to Walla Walla. Restaurants closed up.

Then came the new wine order. Ultra-premium wines for $20. Premium wines for $10. Good wine for $7.00 and everybody is buying high end Napa Valley Estate-bottled wines at Grocery Outlet for $5.00 ($4.00 with a 20% case discount).

Restaurant visits dropped sharply and sales of high end wines dropped even more dramatically. Wineries who based their sales on 'high-end restaurants and wine shops' found themselves without a market.

But the dream lives on (tongue in cheek) in this really funny (perhaps all too true) video produced by Gramercy Cellars in where else? Walla Walla. Enjoy!

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