New study gives clear picture of Walla Walla Valley vineyards

by | Aug 24, 2015 | Grapes, News, Oregon wine, Washington wine | 0 comments

Reininger Winery is in the Walla Walla Valley of Washington state.

Workers sort red wine grapes at Reininger Winery in the Walla Walla Valley. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

WALLA WALLA, Wash. – The Walla Walla Valley’s reputation for great red wines is no accident.

A study released today shows that of the valley’s 2,836 acres of wine grapes, 95 percent are red varieties.

While that shouldn’t surprise many of the winemakers here, a few other facts might. Here are a few of the most interesting tidbits from this new study, conducted by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance.

  • The Washington side of the valley contains a majority of the vineyard acreage – 57 percent – contrary to popular belief.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon is, by far, the most dominant variety in the Walla Walla Valley, with 1,036.8 acres planted.
  • Syrah has just barely overtaken Merlot as the No. 2 grape, with 491.7 acres (vs. 486.4 acres for Merlot). Statewide, Syrah is a distant third behind Merlot.
  • Cabernet Franc (161 acres) and Malbec (123.9 acres) are the only other two varieties that have at least 100 acres planted.
  • The most-planted white variety is Chardonnay, with 41.6 total acres.
  • The Walla Walla Valley has 112 vineyards.

Walla Walla Valley’s red wine obsession

Rick Small is the owner of Woodward Canyon Winery in Washington's Walla Walla Valley.

Rick Small, owner of Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden, Wash., says the Walla Walla Valley’s reputation for reds plays a huge role on what is planted here. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Only in the past three years has Washington tipped – barely – into crushing more red wine grapes than white. But even with that, it’s likely that Washington has more white wine grape acreage than red because varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay are able to carry much higher crop loads than reds.

The Walla Walla Valley has a similar climate as the Yakima Valley: Both are considered somewhat cool compared with such warm regions of the Columbia Valley as Red Mountain, the Wahluke Slope and the Horse Heaven Hills. But despite this, the Yakima Valley has a high percentage of white wine grapes planted, yet the Walla Walla Valley is nearly entirely red grapes.

Rick Small, owner of Woodward Canyon Winery in the Walla Walla Valley town of Lowden, Wash., said this might have as much to do with the region’s relative youth and reputation as anything.

“We planted a lot later than the Yakima Valley,” he told Great Northwest Wine. “When a lot of the Yakima Valley plantings went in 30 years ago, it was a lot cooler then.”

He said that a lot of the research conducted by Washington State University, particularly Walter Clore, convinced growers in the Yakima Valley to plant white varieties.

And while the Yakima Valley has had wineries since soon after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the Walla Walla Valley’s wine scene was all but dormant until the late 1970s. Leonetti Cellar started in 1977 and earned great acclaim for its 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 1981, Small launched Woodward Canyon – just the valley’s second winery – and made his reputation with Cabernet Sauvignon. L’Ecole No. 41 followed in 1983, again leading with red grape varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

“The red wine success in Walla Walla drove things,” Small said.

Ironically, the first vines Small planted were Chardonnay, which he put in the ground in the 1970s. Today, he has fewer than 4 acres of Chardonnay, along with a bit of Sauvignon Blanc, at his estate vineyard north of his winery.

Washington side leads – for now

Betz Family Winery is buying and planting a vineyard on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley at SeVein.

SeVein is a 2,700-acre vineyard development in the southern Walla Walla Valley near Milton-Freewater, Ore. It is one of the drivers of new vineyards on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. (Photo courtesy of SeVein)

A common misperception has been that the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley is the most heavily planted region. While this study has shown that to be a fallacy, most experts believe it will be true soon enough.

“There’s more land available in Oregon,” Small said. “It will shift that way. In the next five years, it will be weighted over to the Oregon side. I always knew the future was going to lean to Umatilla County.”

One of the Walla Walla Valley’s most famous vineyards is Seven Hills, which is a few miles south of the state line. So, too, are the 250-plus acres of vines planted in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area, which is just south of the the border.

“For the first time, we have a good feel for the acreage in the valley,” said Duane Wollmuth, executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. “We thought 60 percent of vineyards were on the Oregon side. This report will be eye-opening to people even around here.”

Corey Braunel, co-owner of Dusted Valley Vintners in Walla Walla, said that when he first heard the numbers, he scratched his head a bit.

“We went back and double-checked everything,” he said. “What were we missing? When we got the data, all the eyebrows raised around the table.”

He said the perception that the Walla Walla Valley is Oregon-heavy is because of The Rocks District and SeVein, a development that includes Seven Hills and several other vineyards. Braunel and his partner and brother-in-law, Chad Johnson, own vineyards on both sides of the state line.

Wollmuth, his staff and the valley grape growers worked with EveryVine, a company out of California that uses technology to produce hyper-accurate maps of winemaking regions across the country.

“This is the first comprehensive look at the valley,” he said. “It is a time-consuming process.”

Walla Walla Valley’s new marketing tool

Jean-François Pellet is the head winemaker for Amavi Cellars.

Jean-François Pellet opens a bottle of his Amavi Cellars Rosé, made from Cabernet Franc. Pellet also is the head winemaker for nearby Pepper Bridge Winery. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Wollmuth said that now that the heavy lifting is done, it will be a simple task to update the data each year. He looks forward to adding these new numbers to the valley’s already-glossy reputation with distributors, sommeliers and retailers across the country.

“Obviously, there’s a great story to be told,” he said. “I think this will be a great tool for us.”

Jean-François Pellet, winemaker and partner for Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars, said he is happy to have a more accurate picture of the valley.

“This is good for knowing the details,” he said. “Instead of shooting in the dark, we can tell a much more accurate story.”

Though the top three varieties – Cab, Syrah and Merlot – take up more than 2,000 acres of the valley’s 2,836 acres, the Walla Walla Valley still is quite diverse in its plantings, with 25 red varieties and a dozen white varieties planted.

Pellet said he believes the valley has the capacity to reach as much as 5,000 acres of grapes in the next five to seven years – with much of the growth coming in Oregon.

Compared with other regions, the Walla Walla Valley remains a small piece of the Washington wine industry. The state’s largest AVA is the Yakima Valley with more than 17,000 acres planted, followed by the Horse Heaven Hills with more than 12,000 acres of grapes. The Wahluke Slope has more than 5,000 acres planted. Red Mountain, the smallest AVA in the state at 4,040 acres, is closing in on 2,000 acres and has little room for expansion.

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About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is founding partner of Great Northwest Wine LLC and a longtime wine columnist. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books.

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