Walla Walla: Grape A

By M.L. Lyke
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 27, 2002

Tumbleweeds somersault across the highway headed into little Walla Walla, Wash. The air is tangy, scented with sagebrush. Vistas seem endless, empty of people, with rolling hills that heave up in great earthen bosoms.

At a roadside pullout I find a sign warning: "Watch out for rattlesnakes." I half expect John Wayne to stroll out from behind it.

It looks like the Wild West out here in Walla Walla, like the kind of place where slow-talking menfolk in dusty ten-gallon hats drink whiskey, not some fancy fermented fruit drink served in high-falutin' crystal glasses with skinny stems.

But lucky travelers who belly up to a tasting-room counter in one of the Walla Walla Valley's small, artisan wineries are likely to get their socks knocked off, along with the Tony Lama boots they walked in with.

Grapes are growing in these dry lands of southeast Washington -- Vitus vinifera, fine European wine grapes -- and there's a posse of pioneering vintners making them sing. Their silky-throated merlots, sexy syrahs and operatic, oakey cabernets are seducing connoisseurs who describe Walla Walla as the next great American region for premium wines.

Vintners here aim high. "For some reason, people who are really passionate about quality have gravitated toward Walla Walla," says Wine Spectator editor-at-large Harvey Steiman. He has consistently rated the area's wines among the top in Washington, which has grown into the second-largest wine-producing state in the nation, after California.

Where fine winemakers gravitate, so gather wine lovers. Some, like me, are enthusiasts, eager to learn about the "ginger" and "candy apple" layers of the whites, the "blackberry" and "blood" of the local reds. Some are hard-core oenophiles with notebooks and personal spitting cups (sorry, buckaroos, these are for wine, not chaw). Drawn by the cachet of labels like Leonetti, Dunham and L'Ecole No. 41, they stroll streets where local talk centers on farming, livestock and weather and discuss nose, bouquet and palate feel.

Suddenly, Walla Walla is chichi -- the toniest tumbleweed town on the undulating horizon. "Walla Walla is cutting-edge Washington. It's definitely what people are talking about," says Doug Charles, owner of Compass Wines in the sea town of Anacortes, Wash. Charles collected cases of early local vintages before they became big-buck investments. People now trade them like stocks, he says.

The buzz is on. Small, high-demand wineries are selling out of every case and posting "sorry" signs on doors. Some have developed such cult status that they have waiting lists to get on waiting lists for mailing lists. Locals tell stories of divorce lawyers fighting in court to decide which spouse stays on that list. Those who make the cut flock in when new bottlings are released in fall -- a few arriving in private jets at the small Walla Walla Regional Airport terminal.

It's enough to crank up a good, coiled sneer on a leathery farmhand's face. But that smirk may fade. Even old-time clod-pickers are converting from alfalfa to vines. In an outback where wineries seem to pop up like prairie dogs, they know which way the wind blows.

The Anti-Napa

In less than a decade, the number of Washington state wineries has increased more than 300 percent, from 80 to more than 208. By 1990, the 303,500-acre Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area counted six wineries. By 2000, there were 22. At last count there were more than 40.

That's good news for travelers, who may feel like pioneers as they mosey from winery to winery, exploring an up-and-coming wine country that is still largely undiscovered, untamed and untrampled by the masses. This is not Napa Valley, not Sonoma. Not even close.

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