Looking Up in Walla Walla

Winemakers eye vineyard sites with higher elevation

by Peter Mitham
wine vineyard high elevation walla walla
Cut Bank Vineyard owned by Walla Walla Vintners is planted at an elevation of 1,500 feet.
Walla Walla, Wash.—When it comes to accumulating growing degree-days, the Walla Walla Valley AVA is in the middle of the pack.

Washington State University extension staff track data for 13 AVAs excluding the Columbia Valley and Lewis-Clark Valley but including the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, located entirely in Oregon (a station in College Place provides data for the AVA, which lies entirely within the Walla Walla Valley AVA). The long-term median is the Rattlesnake Hills AVA at 2,942, while Walla Walla checks in at 2,841.

But come winter, cool air drains onto the valley floor and can cause significant damage. Conditions can be treacherous for those who haven’t done their homework around site-specific air flows, and even for those who have there’s often a price to be paid when winter sweeps in with extra force.

That was the case this past winter, one of the most difficult in five decades. While the damage ultimately proved less than what early indications suggested, it was a reminder that success is a direct result of how weather interacts with the local topography.

This is why it’s taken so long for Walla Walla Vintners, which underwent a change of ownership this past spring, to release a wine made solely from the 11.5-acre estate vineyard it established in 2008 on the 20-acre property where it’s been producing wine since 1995.

“There was a bit of a hesitancy with our two founders to plant early, because they wanted to see higher elevations provide out,” said Scott Haladay, who purchased a stake in Walla Walla Vintners earlier this year with the retirement Myles Anderson, who co-founded the winery with Gordy Venneri.

The success of the adjacent Mill Creek Upland vineyard that Leonetti Cellars planted in 1997 about 100 feet further up the slope from Walla Walla Vintners persuaded Anderson and Venneri to pursue an estate vineyard. Other wineries have since done likewise, Haladay said, pointing to projects by Reynvaan Family Vineyards, Tertulia Cellars and Cayuse Vineyards.

Recent purchases by Willamette Valley Vineyards on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA also have focused on air drainage, including a 37-acre parcel at the entrance to The Rocks District.

“It’s a higher elevation site, so it makes it a little less risky,” Christine Collier of Willamette Valley Vineyards told Wines & Vines earlier this year. “The elevation is above 900 feet, so it does give us a little bit more protection, so at least we wouldn’t have so much winter damage.”

Speaking in 2013 about his work with data loggers in the foothills of the Blue Mountain, Kevin Pogue, a geologist and principal of Vinterra Consulting PLLC, said that understanding how air moves through the valley could open growers’ eyes to new vineyard locations. Higher elevation sites weren’t just viable, they could yield distinctive new styles of wine.

“I’ve stuck monitors up to 2,000 and 3,000 feet up in the foothills of the Blue Mountains here in Walla Walla, and I get great numbers,” he said. “They’re not enormous heat accumulations, but they’re very long growing seasons. They start to look like Burgundy or the Mosel. There’s potential if you move to higher elevations to limit your frost risk and have more balanced wines.”

Haladay, for his part, is embracing the new knowledge.

Walla Walla Vintners’ Cut Bank Vineyard, as the estate property is known, sits at 1,500 feet elevation and is planted to a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and Syrah. Despite a prolonged stretch of cold weather this past winter, it lost just 5% of its Merlot.

“I think being up higher is a benefit to ensure that you have quality year in, year out and consistency of output,” Haladay said. “Everybody has a little bit of freeze damage from this really cold winter, but folks that are down on the valley floor were significantly more affected than vineyards up higher.”

Grapes for the debut releases from its estate vineyard—a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Sangiovese blend christened Vottavo—were harvested in 2012 and represent 154 and 175 cases, respectively, of a production that runs approximately 8,000 cases per year.

Looking to the future, Haladay expects Walla Walla Vintners to shift from sourcing 80% of its fruit from non-estate vineyards to sourcing just half from other properties. While estate-grown fruit will make a bigger contribution to Walla Walla Vintners’ wines, Haladay doesn’t expect them to become a primary focus.

“We enjoy a wide variety of different fruit sources, and that gives us some nice complexity in the wines that we put together,” he said. “Our style has always been to blend the same varietal from a number of different sources using a number of different coopers to add interest to our products, and that’s across the whole range of products: Even our Cut Bank Cab has clones 4, 6 and 8 of Cab to keep things interesting.”

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