Of all the famous wineries in Walla Walla, Wash.—among names that include Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and Pepper Bridge—Walla Walla Vintners may not come to mind first. But Gary Figgins of Leonetti, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon and Jean-François Pellet of Pepper Bridge all showed up last week to join me and a half-dozen other people to taste through a vertical of all the Merlots that WWV has made.
Myles Anderson and Gordon Venneri, who teamed up in 1995 to start Walla Walla Vintners after developing quite the local reputation for their homemade wines, organized the tasting. Since an 1,800-case winery is insufficient to support them, they still have their day jobs. A professor of psychology at Walla Walla Community College, Anderson also started the winemaking program there. A CPA, Venneri also sells insurance.
Their wines have real pizzazz, the style frankly modeled after Figgins’ ripe, oak-framed wines, but with a little more delicacy. They are not big-alcohol wines. With 10.5 acres of vines on the hillside east of town, Anderson and Venneri blend what they grow with grapes purchased from some of Washington’s better vineyards.
In 1995, when they started, they got grapes from Spring Valley, then a brand-new vineyard in the hills northeast of town, and Canoe Ridge, in Columbia Valley. Today, they use a lot of Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills fruit, vineyards that supply Leonetti and Woodward Canyon, among others, to supplement what they grow.
Aside from Merlot, they also make and bottle Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and several red blends. The “book” on Washington wines is to drink the Merlot within five years, but hold onto the Cabernets. As this tasting demonstrated, Merlot can do just fine in the cellar, too. And the price, which recently rose to $28 from its historic $25 level, is not too onerous.
I found a remarkable consistency among the wines in the non-blind tasting. Starting with the 1999 vintage, I rated all the wines up through 2007 either 90 or 91 points, except for the 2000. When I later checked my original reviews from when the wines were released, those ratings tracked very well with my current evaluation. The difference is what happens to the wines as they evolve in the bottle. Plush and generous in their youth, they become more fragile and refined with time.
Ten years on, the ’99 showed vibrant acidity, well-integrated tannins and a youthful burst of juicy cherry and blackberry fruit. Its mouthwatering balance wants food to complete it. I liked it a tad better than the 1998, which is starting to show more herbal qualities, but is still alive, delicate in style, its leafy, cherry and tar flavors lingering well.
The 2000 (87 points) lacked the sweetness but still felt solid. Much better was the smooth and refined 2001, with a nice juiciness to the cherry and floral flavors, moving toward raspberry on the finish, lingering nicely. Its sense of completeness and shape indicate it’s at a perfect stage now. I also liked the polished and lively ’02 and the soft, ripe and enticing ’03, with a nice touch of coffee and cream on the finish.
By contrast, the younger wines, starting with 2004, show more plushness and exuberant fruit.
The oldest wines, 1995 and two 1997s, reflected a winery still trying to find its style. Still alive and drinkable, they lacked the integrity and charm of the later vintages. The ’95 tasted candied, with biting tannins (84 points). There was no 1996 because of a winter freeze. The ’97s both were alive and vibrant, a bit on the tart side but retaining their plum and currant flavors. The acidity stuck out on the Yakima Valley bottling, so I rated it 88 points to the Walla Walla bottling’s 89.
Through 2000, the alcohol levels ranged from 13.2 to 13.8; in this decade they rose to as high as 14.3, still considered modest for ageable reds. Maybe that accounts for the sense of refinement they get with five to eight years in the bottle.