Walla Walla Wine Region
The Walla Walla AVA (American Viticultural Area) was established back in 1984 with a history of growing grapes that dates back to the 1850’s when Italian immigrants started cultivating grapes in the region. The town of Walla Walla, Washington itself is located in the southeast corner of the state. The quaint little town is home to two small colleges, Walla Walla Community College and Whitman College, where you can earn a degree in viticulture and enology. If you are looking to do some wine tasting, you are in the right spot. There is an abundance of tasting rooms in the historic downtown district belonging to some of the nearly 100 wineries in the region. Expanding on its long-running agricultural history of farming potatoes, asparagus, and onions; it is now growing mostly vines.
The region is unique in the fact that it belongs to two states: Washington and Oregon. Walla Walla is a sub-AVA of the larger Columbia Valley AVA. As you can see from the VinMap below; two-thirds of the AVA belongs in Washington while one-third belongs in Oregon. A majority of the grapes are grown on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla AVA, however, most of the winery facilities and tasting rooms belong on the Washington side.
While winemaking began nearly two centuries ago, many setbacks delayed the boom of the wine industry in Walla Walla. Settlers and immigrant workers came to the county for the Gold Rush and agricultural work. After the Gold Rush ended, the chance of building a railway bypassed, Prohibition began, and devastating bouts of frost set in; the industry didn’t get to see much growth until the 1970s and 80s. Now it is the second largest growing region in Washington. The county is out-of-the-way but has been a hot spot for destination wine lovers with crowds from the greater Seattle area, Portland, Lewiston and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Accurately deeming itself “Napa in Blue Jeans”, Walla Walla has a laid back and welcoming atmosphere. But don’t let that fool you, Walla Walla is home to many international award-winning wines. The region is home to many cult wineries like Leonetti Cellars, L’ECole No.41, and Woodward Canyon Winery who have led the way in creating a successful destination wine region.
Food and art are also a huge part of the counties culture. You will find an abundance of award-winning farm-to-table focused restaurants, utilizing all of the local produce and animals grown there. Art classes, auctions, and art shows are weekly events in Walla Walla.
The colleges there put on a large portion of the community events including plays and kids fairs. They even have their own winery that their winemaking students run where you can go tasting and buy their wine. Many of the local restaurants feature a rotating stock of local wines, including College Cellars.
Climate and Soil
Walla Walla County has an average temperature of 63 degrees, so it is fairly warm with cool nights. It is a warm climate, but it does have some threat of frosts in the early spring months. Luckily, it is quite breezy and dry so there are little issues with mold or mildew. The Oregon side of the AVA tends to be a bit warmer with less threat of frost.
Most of the soil around there is wind-deposited loess or silt. Silt retains water and heat, so it helps protect the roots from frost, but it can be hard to grow deep-rooted vines. These soils add to the highly aromatic and smooth-tannin profile of Walla Walla wines. Rolling mountains on the outskirts of the Valley are prime spots for growing vines. Many of the vineyards on the Oregon side are filled with large pebbles that surround the vines, radiating heat throughout the night which helps increase the vines growth.
Ample sunshine and an abundance of growing degree days lead the grapes to grow thicker skins, making a more tannic wine. This leads to the boldness and ageability you will find in most of the wines grown here.
Walla Walla is very red focused with a couple of wineries like Lagana Cellars specializing in white wines. With nearly 3,000 acres of vines planted; it is Cabernet Sauvignon dominate at 40%. Merlot and Syrah also have around 15% of the acres.
Other varietals you will see is Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Grenache, Tempranillo, Viogner, Pinot Noir, Sémillon, and many more. While most wineries have at least a couple of white wines, the white grape production cannot keep up with the demand so you will see that a lot of the wineries source their white grapes from other areas of the Columbia Valley AVA.
Walla Walla AVA still holds on to the French influence it began with in the 1850s. While most of the varietals are French, there are some wineries that specialize in Italian and Spanish wines. Many of the wineries hold on to Old World winemaking traditions with small New World twists.
Walla Walla is the perfect place to experience wine, whether you are just beginning to enjoy it or you have been collecting for years. The perfect blend of wine, fine foods, artsy shops, and welcoming atmosphere is quite dreamy. Many people come by for a three-day weekend of wine tasting. Booking a hotel or Airbnb at a vineyard and taking one of their wine tour buses will let you experience the wineries all over the county. Walla Walla is where fine wine meets American roots.