Walla Walla wineries: a place for exciting reds

Last summer, local winemaker David "Merf" Merfeld, of Northstar Winery threw a party at his home here in the southeastern quadrant of Washington state. It's fair to say that close to half of the town's young winemakers were crowded into Merfeld's kitchen and onto his patio that night, uncorking just-bottled Syrahs, pouring newly completed blends into each other's glasses, eagerly seeking opinions from their fellows, sniffing and swirling and spitting into sinks and buckets and nosing around for a taste of something else.
Vineyard location: In Wednesday's Food section, the caption accompanying a story about winemakers in Walla Walla, Wash., mistakenly said that Seven Hills Vineyard is located in Washington. It is located in Oregon. —

Until recently, this concentration of activity and camaraderie was rare in the eastern Washington wine community because the place is so sparsely populated that there weren't enough winemakers in one place to fill a kitchen. Most vineyards were huge and remote, as were many of the wineries, and the towns remained small and agriculturally driven, built around the harvest of apples or asparagus or winter wheat.

But in the last decade, a winemaking quorum has gathered to capitalize on the region's bounty. New vintners, drawn from the ranks of occupations as diverse as former onion farmers and former big-city sommeliers, as well as imported talent from France and Switzerland, have driven the quality of Walla Walla wine into unheard-of territory and created a community that's rapidly accelerating the learning curve.

If you leave Pinot Noir out of the equation (it's much too warm and dry here for Pinot), no region in the country is more exciting for red wines, including Syrahs, Cabernets and Bordeaux-style blends. Wineries such as Pepper Bridge, Abeja, Amavi and Tamarack are earning praise alongside well-established pioneers, including Leonetti, L'Ecole No. 41 and Woodward Canyon.

Acres to explore

Perhaps the energy is most palpable in the region's Syrahs, whose exotic flavors and velvet-glove textures are creating a buzz and staining teeth from Seattle restaurants to Pasadena wine bars. In fact, I'd venture to say Walla Walla may boast the highest concentration of quality Syrah outside of the Rhône Valley in France.

The Walla Walla appellation is a vast, bowl-shaped valley stretching 340,000 acres and extending several miles over the state's border into Oregon. The AVA (American Viticultural Area) was established in 1983, and then, like a sandlot waiting for a lineup, it stood nearly idle for a decade.

At the time of the AVA's inception, five wineries were producing; in the following decade, only six were added. Since then that number has risen to nearly 100. (Current producing vineyard acreage is still relatively small, about 1,200 acres -- the Napa Valley AVA, which is much smaller in area, has 43,000 vine acres.) More importantly, new vineyards are being planted in previously unexplored areas.

Like the rest of eastern Washington, Walla Walla draws upon some of the most dramatic geological history on the continent. During the ice age, it was overrun by cataclysmic floods that roared across the valley. Some of the soils that remain originated hundreds of miles away. Those deposits describe the soils of Pepper Bridge Vineyard (home to a winery of the same name), which supplies fruit to more than 30 wineries. In other spots, soils are composed of a light, wind-blown type called loess, which describes the dirt at Seven Hills Vineyard, supplier to 35 wineries.

The differences in soil make for very different wines. Seven Hills wines are lighter, leafier and more aromatic, while Pepper Bridge wines possess a more mineral structure and more concentrated fruit. Often the two sources are blended, as in the 2005 Cabs made by Pepper Bridge Winery and Leonetti Cellar. Both possess a fine, red-fruited aromatic top note, the hallmark of Seven Hills, yet both owe their structure in part to the stalwart textures of Pepper Bridge. To really taste the difference, pick up a bottle each of L'Ecole No. 41's proprietary Bordeaux-style blends, Perigee made with grapes from Seven Hills, and Apogee, made with fruit from Pepper Bridge, and pour them side by side.

For years, the yin and yang of wines from those two soil types pretty much defined the range of Walla Walla's flavors -- but no longer, thanks to the cobble of an ancient river on the valley floor.

Then came Baron

It took a Frenchman to see the potential in the rocks. Christophe Baron, a winemaker from a family with roots in Champagne, was driving on the Oregon side of the valley on a spring morning in 1996 when he stopped the car before a cobble-strewn field with rocks steaming off dew in the sun. In a flash, Baron saw the connection between this place and the rocky vineyards of France's Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where Rhône varieties such as Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre thrive.

The following year he founded Cayuse Vineyards and pick-axed a Syrah vineyard into the ground and called it Cailloux (French for pebbles). Since Baron debuted his estate wines in 2000, his wines have been a sensation; his cobblestone vineyards produce Syrahs of astonishing color, density and exotically spiced flavors -- carob, cardamom, anise, Mexican chocolate, dried meat -- and deeply mineral textures.

Baron's success inspired dozens of talented winemakers to the region, resulting in an epicenter for great Syrah. Outstanding Syrahs are being made by the likes of K Vintners, Basel Cellars, Buty Winery, Dunham Cellars, Gramercy Cellars, Powers, Three Rivers Winery, Va Piano Vineyards, Reininger Winery, Three Rivers Winery, Cadaretta, Isenhower Cellars and Forgeron Cellars -- granted, this is a long list, but it reflects how much good Walla Walla Syrah is out there. Some of these small, new wineries might be hard to find for now, but mark my words, before long their scarcity will be from sheer demand.

Meanwhile, new vineyards are being planted all over the region. In the northeast corner of the valley, among the gentle, wind-carved Palouse Hills, Spring Valley Vineyard is producing succulent, sensuous reds, while nearby, Leonetti has established a new estate vineyard in the foothills of the Blue Mountains called Mill Creek Upland, whose dense fruit amounts to a power source for its Reserve and Cabernet bottlings.

Comiskey is a freelance writer.