French Canadians weren’t the only wine lovers who put down roots in the Walla Walla Valley during the 19th century. Immigrants from Italy and their descendants also have played critical roles in the formation of the region’s wine industry.
The Locati family has been farming in the region for generations, and their diversification — beyond the famous sweet onions they helped establish in 1904 — included planting Mission Hills Vineyard in 2006.
Not surprisingly, favored varieties included Barbera and Sangiovese. In this case, Sangio makes up 6 of the 8 acres, and they planted the VCR 6 clone, the certified Brunello clone from Montalcino in Tuscany first planted in the U.S. at famed Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain in 2002.
One of the recent wines made from this parcel includes the SMAK Wines 2019 Spring Rosé of Sangiovese, a bottle that found its way to No. 1 ranking on The Seattle Times’s Top 20 Northwest wines for Under $20. The rosé program is the brainchild of Fiona Mak, a graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s Institute of Enology and Viticulture.
Connections to the college go deeper still. Those grapes were sold to Mak by Dan Thiessen, who spent six years as executive director of the Wine Country Culinary Institute at WWCC. Only recently did Thiessen rebrand the plantings as Wagon Wrench Vineyard within Thiessen Ranch, which the family has owned and operated since 2015.
“When my wife and I bought our farm and vineyard, we bought it from Mike Locati, who had Locati Cellars, and Jason Fox was the winemaker for Locati,” Thiessen said. “Jason was also a student at the E&V program at the community college when I was executive director of the culinary program.
“Our paths have been intertwined as we’ve run in some of the same circles, and he’s an incredibly talented winemaker,” Thiessen continued. “He’s worked with that fruit for quite a while and enjoys it. And it’s been fun for us.”
Thiessen Ranch is just off Mission Road, about two miles east of the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. And the Thiessens’ choice of the vineyard name is fitting. The family cattle brand, which originated in the early 1800s, came from Germany 140 years ago and depicts a wagon wrench.
While a tiny producer near Portland — Coe Cellars — bottled a 2018 Mission Hills Sangiovese, here Thiessen uses the new name on his own bottling. Other customers for his Sangiovese include Cascade Cliffs in the Columbia Gorge, Fox’s own Lagana Cellars, Sous Sol Winery in Woodinville and Locati. At the 2015 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the Locati 2012 Estate Barbera won best of class.
“Winemakers have had much success making wine from that vineyard, which has been fun for us to talk about,” Thiessen said.
Now, his approachable 2018 Wagon Wrench Vineyard Sangiovese (100 cases, 14.8% alc.) can be found on the wine list at Walla Walla Steak Co., alongside some of the region’s most famous bottles.
- Walla Walla Steak Co., 416 N. Second Ave., Walla Walla, WA 99362, WWSteakCo.com, (509) 526-4100.