In 1974, working out of the back of his ’67 Chevy pickup, Gary Figgins planted a few hundred Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling vines on a tiny, south-facing slope on the farm his Italian-immigrant grandparents had established in southeast Washington early in the century. Three years later, with that fruit, Figgins launched the first commercial winery in Walla Walla Valley: Leonetti Cellar (honoring those Italian grandparents with the name). By 1984, the region was officially declared an AVA—an American Viticultural Area.
While Walla Walla Valley is generally considered a Washington wine region, its sweeping golden wheat fields now in stark contrast to the brilliant green vineyards tucked against the base of the Blue Mountains, it actually straddles the border with Oregon (where some of the most exciting vineyards are now being developed). As they say, the vines don’t know which state they’re in. The region as a whole, located on the eastern edge of the larger Columbia Valley, was long known for those wheat fields and for Walla Walla Sweets, the onions infamously so mild you could eat them out of hand. But in the last 15 years or so, as the number of wineries has burgeoned to well over 100, attention has been riveted on the stellar quality and character of the wines this AVA is so clearly capable of producing.
So far north of the typical West Coast wine-growing reference points in California, Walla Walla enjoys significantly more sunlight hours in a day during the heart of the growing season. Those warm days and cool nights make up the diurnal swing that great regions in the West require to achieve pinpoint balance between ripe fruit and good acidity. Figgins hit on one of the region’s great varieties with that first planting—Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon delivers vibrant, intense fruit flavors. But Merlot deserves top billing here, as well, its muscular tannins demanding to be taken seriously. In fact, area winemakers are known to splash a little Cabernet into their Merlot to soften it, instead of the other way around. A third variety that is truly excelling in Walla Walla is Syrah, with a character that leans a little savory—looking toward France, if you will.
This exciting quality (and growing number of allocation lists) hasn’t gone unnoticed. Well-known California producers are beginning to invest in the region. We tapped a handful of influential vintners on the ground to tell us what they love about the wine Walla Walla is already producing and what they think it will be capable of in the future. Here is what the excitement is about, in their words.