January 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

The Walls Vineyards

A new wine company in Walla Walla has transformed the former Whitman Cellars winery

by L. M. Archer

Microsoft attorney Mike Martin wasn’t planning to buy a winery when he and a buddy stopped for a quick round at the Wine Valley Golf Club in Walla Walla, Wash., a few years ago.

But when he hit an unexpected hole-in-one, the ensuing 19th-hole celebration left an impression. Over time, Martin’s appreciation for the region and its wines led him to purchase a vacation home in the low-key wine community nestled in southeastern Washington state. Luck and opportunity conspired again when Martin met former Long Shadows enologist Ali Mayfield at his housewarming party, leading to the formation of a winery project christened The Walls—the name a nod to Walla Walla’s infamous state penitentiary.

In short order, The Walls launched an inaugural vintage in 2014, acquired a 20-acre estate vineyard parcel in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA, purchased Charles Smith’s former tasting room and eatery in downtown Walla Walla, and assumed ownership of Whitman Cellars’ former winery in the town’s industrial wine-production area.

Commitment to sustainability
“Our main issue that we had with our space upon moving in was that it wasn’t environmentally efficient,” admits office manager Allison Kelly. “We were racking up enormous numbers initially on power usage, and we really wanted to become efficient. We made quite a few updates before we moved in, including solar panels and updating all of the light fixtures.”

After closing on the Pine Street production warehouse in spring 2016, The Walls engaged Hays Electric from Walla Walla to install Lithonia 220CRF LED lights in the office areas and Lithonia 235YK LED lights in the barrel rooms, capitalizing on Pacific Power’s “wattsmart” incentive program with its lighting retrofit. The winery tracks usage and savings of the new system with the aid of the wattsmart net-metering program.

During the retrofit project, the winery also partnered with Walla Walla Electric to install a rooftop solar panel array on the building’s exterior at a total cost of nearly $200,000. Initially, the company attached a 480-volt three-phase solar production meter, a 480-volt three-phase solar disconnect, and a 200-amp 277/480-volt three-phase solar combiner panel on the building exterior adjacent to the existing power company’s electrical meter.

Next, they positioned an 80kW solar array comprised of 250 Canadian Solar CS6X-320P 320-watt solar modules and 84 APS YC1000A-3-NA-480 micro inverters atop the roof behind the solar modules, mounted upon a Sunmodo racking system containing 10 rows of 25 solar modules that ended up covering 5,120 square feet of roof area.

A crane lifted the panels into place, and local vendor Gillespie Roofing installed the mounting brackets as well as a rubber boot around the panels to ensure compatibility with the existing Firestone roof. An APS ECU-Z W/Zigbee communicator ties into The Walls’ existing local internet system to allow for 24-hour online viewing from an in-house PC monitor, delivering an entire history of the winery’s solar system production at a glance. 

“In the approximately 10 months it has been operational, it has generated over 61,000 megawatt hours of green energy, representing the power for nearly 185,000 lights,” according to Kelly. “This has saved nearly 45 tons of CO2 from being emitted in the air, and been the equivalent of planting nearly 2,300 trees for carbon absorption.” 

In addition to production infrastructure investments, The Walls’ sustainability commitment extends to its 20-acre estate vineyard in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA. “We anticipate incorporating vineyard practices to make our wines as sustainable as possible,” Kelly said. “All 20 acres will be planted at the same time (spring 2018) by hand with Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Merlot and some Rhône white varietals. It’s worth the investment to plant all at once, because we want to plant everything organically. We know we’re going to make better wine and feel the quality of organically grown fruit is superior to conventionally grown fruit. We want to farm organically to help improve the sustainability of the local ecosystem as well.” 

Blueprint for collaboration
Already an impressive blueprint for efficiency, the winery also strongly supports innovation and collaboration. “The Walls is very much a team effort,” says Mayfield, the winemaker. “During harvest these roles change a bit. We are a small team, we all pitch in where needed. Mike has such a brain for business.…He is the heart of what we do at The Walls.” 

Mayfield’s brother, Jake Mayfield, serves as director of winery operations and ensures the production facility functions seamlessly, including maintenance, improvements, innovations, team management, distribution and direct-to-consumer sales. “While we certainly have our sibling differences of opinion,” Ali Mayfield said, “we work in congruence.” 

During harvest, Jake Mayfield’s role shifts to focus more upon the vineyards and grape transport to the facility.

Enologist Peter Urian oversees the in-house lab. “Peter focuses on the science and runs vineyards samples to assist me in making good picking decisions,” Ali Mayfield said. “ETS is a great resource for analysis we aren’t able to run in our own lab and also checking the consistency of our lab.”

Cellarmaster Roman Ferrer oversees the cellar, including topping wine barrels and making sure the winery is prepared to receive grapes during harvest. “We work very hard during harvest to create the wines, and maintaining high quality year-round is very important,” Mayfield said. “Roman is the key in this role.”

Innovations and protocols
During harvest, the team and facility function at efficient full-throttle, thanks to state-of-the-art innovations such as antimicrobial anti-slip floors, a floor-to-ceiling viewing window in the barrel room, advanced sorting and crushing equipment, plus top-of-the-line concrete, stainless and oak aging vessels.

Functional Surfacing LLC installed antimicrobial anti-slip flooring throughout the fermentation and barrel rooms. “We needed to either replace or resurface the floor, and resurfacing made the most sense. Anti-slip makes it safest in the cellar,” Kelly said.

Fruit arrives at the production warehouse’s covered exterior 1,872-square-foot crush pad by means of an open-bed truck and trailer using Macro 28s lugs.

Mayfield sometimes consults with mentor and friend Phil Coturri, a noted California organic vineyard manager, during harvest. “He does remind me to push my boundaries on pick decisions,” Mayfield said, “and wait as long as I can. Hang time is a plus, but nerve wracking.”

Picking usually commences with Chardonnay from Yakima Valley, moving to Syrah, Rhône whites, Grenache and Rhône reds from The Rocks, the Gorge (Ancient Lakes AVA) and Red Mountain, then circles back to Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain, before finishing with Portuguese varietals.

After hand sorting by seasonal and full-time staff, the grapes head to a Delta Oscyillis 100 destemmer by way of an incline conveyor. The winery uses a Bucher Vaslin basket press, which applies even, consistent pressure, thereby reducing harsh tannins. BDI (Basin Disposal Inc.) removes and composts all harvest waste, including the press pomace cakes.

“Fermentation lengths depend on varietal,” Mayfield said, “and what we are trying to achieve and what the vintage calls for. Reds (range) anywhere from 10 to 12 days. We will do extended maceration if it’s a good vintage for that. Our methods are also different per varietal. Whites, we’ll typically see fermentations last upwards of 30 days or longer. We make a decision in the beginning as to whether or not we want something to go native, or whether or not we inoculate it. Our temperatures vary depending on which yeast we use. Usually nothing is hotter than 86º F for reds, and whites no higher than 60º F, and potentially cooler if they can handle it. For malolactic fermentation, we go between 65º and 70º F for reds, (while) post-fermentation reds are at 55º F.”

Punchdown and pumpover proprieties also vary depending on varietal and vintage. The team uses a pneumatic punchdown system, while a flexible impeller pump agitates the juice and facilitates pumpovers. White wines undergo no fining; filtration occurs via cross-flow. JVNW 1,300-gallon stainless-steel tanks accommodate both red and white wine during fermentation. The tanks also serve as storage for cold-settled white juice, and during blending and bottling. A glycol chiller and heater from G&D Chillers controls heating and cooling for each tank. 

Upon completion of fermentation, red wines move to 30 hectoliter (hL) oak uprights by Tonnellerie Boutes and 49 hL and 21 hL Nomblot cubes, while whites settle into 11 hL and 7 hL eggs. Bottling happens in-house three times per year in March, May and August.

Aging and beyond
Racking transpires as needed, and topping takes place once per week. Typical oak aging lasts 10-11 months for whites, extending to 18-24 months for reds. 

“Oak is a fascinating subject,” Mayfield said. “For me, it varies a lot from wine to wine, even vineyard to vineyard. There are so many options for winemakers, but truly understanding forests and grain is an art. At The Walls, we work with both specific forests, stave thickness and grain. We work with traditional 225L (59 gallons) all the way to 650L (171 gallons).” 

Barrel-cleaning systems employ both ozone and steam, including an Aquatools high-pressure barrel rinser.

“Aging is an interesting subject as well,” Mayfield said, recounting a recent observation made to her by another mentor, Claude Gros, consulting winemaker at J. Bookwalter. “He said to me, ‘You created this wine, now you have to age it.’ Some wine is meant for small barrels, and some wines need bigger space for aging. The key is to find the balance and let the aging begin. The wines will tell us how they want to be aged.” 

While The Walls currently produces approximately 3,000 cases annually, owner Martin does foresee future expansion plans that may impact the current production facility configuration, including build-out of a second building with additional tank space, barrel room and library. Timing for such an expansion remains undetermined.

In the meantime, Delmas Winery, proprietors of SJR Vineyards in The Rocks District where The Walls source their Syrah, utilized the Pine Street production site for their own harvest in 2017. Mayfield appreciates the synergy of sharing her space with those who have the same commitment to quality “We have past experience in managing and working in custom-crush facilities, and we are able to maintain protocols.”

Ultimately, The Walls attributes its success to an appreciation for the community, coupled with strategic partnerships, teamwork, and a commitment to sustainability, including infrastructure investments such as energy retrofit rebate programs, solar power and technological innovations. 

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