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A Walla Walla Retrospective

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 30, 2009 12:22pm ET

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.

Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  March 30, 2009 8:17pm ET
Thanks for sharing, Harvey. I was just in Walla Walla last weekend and stopped by WWV to taste. You couldn't ask for a more down-to-earth, unassuming place with great people and excellent wines.
Jim Lee
March 30, 2009 10:35pm ET
I've worked my way through all my older WWV vintages (except one '97 Windrow Vine. Cab), and they were all great. I also like their Cab Francs a lot. Yes, great winery, great folks!
Kim Waddle
March 31, 2009 10:24am ET
Walla Walla is my go to for great wine, and WWV is one of those at the top of my list. Love Myles & Gordie, so much fun is to be had at the tasting room.
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA —  March 31, 2009 6:12pm ET
Your notes about the older wines getting fragile and refined, makes me ask about the Columbia Vineyards 1999 Cab Otis Vineyard David Lake Signature. You gave it 92 points, but both bottles I've tried (about 3 years ago and two months back) were lean. My notes were "Thin and dilute with a green tobacco and green pepper notes along with purple berry. Touch of tannins and acidity in an elegant body. Almost Pinot Noir like in feel." These were not at all fruity or rich like a $12-$20 Columbia Crest or Ch Ste Michelle cab. Do these sound like bad bottles or did these bottles seem representative and these wines were just not my style?
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  April 1, 2009 3:43pm ET
Did you happen to try the Cuvee? Last I had it was a few years ago, but it had beautiful flavor while being medium bodied or perhaps as you say, fragile. I would love to hear a retro on that wine.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  April 1, 2009 5:48pm ET
This tasting was Merlot only.
Myles Anderson
Walla Walla, WA —  April 2, 2009 2:46pm ET
Walla Walla Vintners was honored to have Harvey Steiman join us for the twelve-year vertical Merlot tasting at the winery --- a total of 13 wines. There were two fights: 1995 to 2000 and 2001 to 2007.Harvey was joined by two other wine writers Paul Gregutt, Seattle Times, and Bob Woehler, WinePress Northwest.We wanted to learn about the ageworthiness of our Merlots and discovered several important things: 1. the early vintages 1995 to 2001 were still alive and well, the 1995,1997s,and 1998 were fading, yet,the 1999,2000 and 2001 were at their peak;2. the flight from 02 to 07 are going to age longer than the early flight of Merlots because of better vineyards and lower yields; 3. eight years of aging seemed to the right time to enjoy the Merlots at their peak in the early flight; 4. vintage, vineyards and yields influenced quality the most of all of the elements considered at the tasting. Everyone had their favorite vintage --- some liked the older and some liked the more recent vintages.The 2007 Walla Walla Valley Merlot which was just released was my favorite and in my view the "best of the best" of the 13 Merlots we have crafted.The vertical tasting was great fun and the feedback from these great palates was priceless! Myles Anderson, Winemaker
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  April 2, 2009 7:14pm ET
Myles, great to see you posting here. Maybe you could address how the Cuvee is doing at this time? I looked at the Spectator Reviews and saw the '02 but no follow-up notes. Also, wasn't there a Cuvee in '96 when you used what very little merlot you got in the Cuvee? How is that wine doing?I have not made it over to Walla Walla in close to two years so it's about time. What is the best date in the next couple months?

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