This AVA has emerged on the world-class wine scene. What’s behind the region’s great bottles?

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.

FIGGINS Family Wine Estates

Leonetti Cellar is now part of FIGGINS Family Wine Estates—which includes several brands, including FIGGINS—and Gary’s son, Chris, is now president and director of winemaking. “I love that the wines from the Walla Walla Valley are capable of having power while maintaining levity,” he says, “which I believe is the holy grail of winemaking across varieties. Our soils and daily climate swings give us the ability to have true nerve in our wines, backing up the gorgeous purity of fruit. I believe we have only just begun to explore the possibilities in this magical valley. My goal is to see Walla Walla recognized globally as the finest region in the world to grow Bordeaux varieties outside of Bordeaux itself—but able to do so more consistently.”

L’Ecole No. 41

Founded in 1983, L’Ecole No. 41, located in the historic Frenchtown Schoolhouse, was the third winery in Walla Walla. Owner and managing winemaker Marty Clubb has played an enormous role in establishing top-quality vineyard sites, especially with his partnership in Seven Hills Vineyard and his Estate Ferguson. His 2011 from the latter was awarded the International Trophy for Best Bordeaux Blend in the World by Decanter. As Clubb describes it, “The cool mountain air drainage of the Blue Mountains and the ideal elevations of 800 to 1,500 feet produce incredibly balanced wines with nice fruitfulness, acidity, and structure. Wines from the Seven Hills Vineyard—one of the oldest—show pretty aromatics, cedar, and mineral notes, with an elegant silky structure. Ferguson Vineyard is planted at a 1,500-foot elevation in fractured basalt. These wines are immensely structured, with high natural acidity and dense texture.” And the future? “We only now have 40-year-old vines, and like most wine regions in the world, the older vines produce more consistent quality and balance. This alone points to an incredible future.”

Pepper Bridge Winery

Pepper Bridge Winery, a partner with L’Ecole and Leonetti in Seven Hills Vineyard (in addition to their own estate vineyards), built the first state-of-the-art, gravity-flow facility in Washington, and winemaker and partner Jean-François Pellet was the consulting developer on a new optical sorter. This is what gives the Swiss-born-and-raised winemaker great satisfaction: “We offer a nice blend between the generosity of the New World and the intricacy of the Old World. I really enjoy the wines’ purity and the freshness but also their distinct ‘Walla Walla character,’ which can be found in the dusty, healthy notes. As our vines get older, we will continue to improve the definition, balance, and concentration in our wines.”

Spring Valley Vineyard

Another local family with deep farming roots, the Derbys carved vineyard land out of wheat fields in the 1990s and began making intense, highly rated Bordeaux blends and Syrah under the Spring Valley Vineyard label. Winemaker Serge LaVille, who grew up in the northern Côtes du Rhône, loves the weather itself: “What I like about Walla Walla is the distinctive four seasons we have: hard winter, wet spring, hot summer, and Indian fall. The conditions are extreme sometimes. African heat and Siberian winter can be a little challenging. But the cool nights in the summer keep the fruit in balance. I love that we can make balanced wine with a lot of energy here.”

Gramercy Cellars

Master sommelier Greg Harrington is a much more recent player, having founded Gramercy Cellars with his wife, Pam, in 2005 after a career managing some of the country’s great restaurant wine programs. Impressed with the Syrahs he had tasted, he drew critical acclaim for his own first wines, taking a lean and savory approach to the Rhônes. Co-winemaker and partner Brandon Moss, who grew up in the valley, underscores the emerging theme: “The Syrahs in Walla Walla run a fine line between the intense fruit in new-world Syrah and the earthiness in old-world Syrah. And within Walla Walla, it’s amazing to see the vast differences between the Syrah grown in different sub-climates. We are making incredible wine off of fairly young vines. It’s exciting to think about how these vineyards will perform when they’re 50, 60 years old.”

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