Sometimes you go to a place for the first time and it doesn't seem new. I felt that way the first time I drove into Sonoma County nearly 30 years ago. There were cows and rolling hills and barns that were just a 2x4-shy of falling down. It wasn't all that different from the Midwest where I grew up.
The feeling was similar as I drove around Walla Walla, Wash., for the first time a few weeks ago. I was there with my colleague Harvey Steiman, who knows eastern Washington better than Google, and has been going to the region for 40 years. Walla Walla, for me, is "Sonoma meets the Midwest." Maybe that's why it feels a bit like home.
If you're vague on the wine regions of the Pacific Northwest, Walla Walla is part of the greater Columbia Valley wine region, which straddles the Washington and Oregon state lines in the eastern edge of the states.
The region has been an agricultural hub since the late 1800s; the major crops are onions and wheat—lots and lots of wheat. Silos tower over the rolling hills and the town of Walla Walla, population 30,000, has seen better days, but it's coming back. Storefronts, which were mostly vacant a decade ago, are becoming tasting rooms and restaurants.
Most of the winemakers there started out as farmers. Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar planted vines in 1974, but it wasn't until the mid-1990s that Washington and Walla Walla started getting the attention it deserved. Bordeaux varieties dominate: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc, although Syrah is garnering particular enthusiasm in the past decade.
American consumers know Washington wines largely from two labels: Chateau Ste. Michelle and its sister brand, Columbia Crest, which harvest grapes throughout Columbia Valley. Few companies in America produce a more impressive combination of quality and value.
Anyone who follows Washington wines knows the classic producers. There's Leonetti, of course, and Woodward Canyon. Quilceda Creek, which harvests from Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain regions west of Walla Walla, opened an impressive vertical of the winery's Cabernet Sauvignons, which Harvey recently wrote about.
As far as the "new" players, well, they've been at it a while, but they're really just getting started. Charles Smith is the wild-haired brain trust behind K Vintners and other high-end labels, which produce dozens of rich and compelling wines from Walla Walla and beyond. Then there's Christophe Baron, the Champagne-born vigneron of Cayuse, who pioneered The Rocks, a slice of Walla Walla with soils chunky with baseball-sized rocks.
I could go on but that's what makes Walla Walla, and Washington in general, exciting wine regions. Things are only just moving into high gear, and we're all going to be learning more about it.