Washington has seen a meteoric rise in the number of wineries in the state since the start of the new millenia. There were approximately one hundred and fifty wineries in Washington in the year 2000. By the end of 2009, there were more than four times that number. Washington now boasts more than six hundred and fifty wineries with a new one added almost every ten days. Of the many wine regions across the state, perhaps no area has been as integral to this increase – or has been producing such exciting results – as the Walla Walla Valley.
Walla Walla Valley’s recent wine history dates to the late 1970s when Gary Figgins established Leonetti Cellar. More than thirty years later, the valley has over eighty-five brick and mortar wineries and approximately one hundred and twenty wineries total – close to one fifth of the total number of licensed wineries in the state.
Originally most of the wineries in the Walla Walla Valley sourced grapes from vineyards throughout the state. However, plantings in the area have increased dramatically in the last ten years. The results have been equally dramatic, with grapes from Walla Walla Valley vineyards producing some of the state’s finest wines. Vineyards are now planted throughout the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), an area that stretches from the southeast section of the state across the border into Oregon. And therein lies the problem.
Some of Walla Walla Valley’s finest wines are not from vineyards in Washington. Rather, they are from vineyards are in Oregon. Prominent vineyards on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA include Cayuse Vineyards and Seven Hills Vineyard to name just two.
Surprisingly, despite the fact that part of the AVA lies in Oregon, Washington has been able to lay claim to the Walla Walla Valley designation all by itself with little fuss from our neighbors to the south. Many wineries in Oregon use fruit from Walla Walla Valley and designate their labels as such. Ironically, regardless of where the vineyards or wineries are, a Walla Walla Valley designation seems to continue to build Washington’s brand in general and the AVA’s brand in particular.
So what’s the problem? Who cares whether the vineyards and wineries are in Oregon or in Washington if the wines are good, especially when everyone thinks they are from Washington anyway?
The problem comes when different areas in the Walla Walla Valley become increasingly distinctive and people decide to seek sub-AVA status. For example, in the past several years, no area in the Walla Walla Valley, or even in Washington in general, has generated as much excitement as ‘The Rocks’ area of the Walla Walla Valley. This area was established by vigneron Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards in the late 1990s. ‘The Rocks’ area is located on a historic, cobblestone-strewn riverbed. A number of wineries, such as Buty and Reynvaan Family Vineyards, have recently established vineyards in this area. The wines coming from The Rocks regions thus far have been as distinctive and terroir-driven as any coming out of Washington. Given this, the area seems sure to merit its own AVA designation in the future.
The problem is that The Rocks region of the Walla Walla Valley AVA lies wholly in Oregon. Every single inch of it. How can Washington retain its hold on the Walla Walla Valley brand if The Rocks region gets sub-AVA status and all of the grapes are coming from Oregon? Worse, what if Washington’s most distinctive and recognized wines come from vineyards in – gasp – Oregon?
There are many possible ways to address this problem. One would be to stretch any sub-AVA boundaries to include a tiny portion of Washington, although in the case of The Rocks area, this would be a considerable stretch. Another is to simply prevent sub-AVA status from happening, although that is not in anyone’s best interest. Increasing specifity and identity, to the extent that it speaks to something genuine, is in the long run, critical to the region’s success. What about labeling every bottle ‘The Rocks, Walla Walla Valley?’ Isn’t it enough if people still think the wines are coming from Washington even if they are really coming from Oregon? Nay, while many wine lovers might not know the difference, in our hearts, we would know.
My personal solution is for Washington to annex the Oregon section of the Walla Walla Valley AVA and rightfully claim it as our own. While Fort Walla Walla has not been used in quite some time, perhaps soldiers could billet at the historic facility during the brief scuffle for old times’ sake. In my experience, Oregonians are a friendly lot, so I anticipate no more than a two or three day battle.
However this problem is eventually solved, know this. Washington retaining the ‘brand identity’ of Oregon areas of the Walla Walla Valley such as The Rocks region will be critical to the state continuing to build its reputation as a world-class wine region. Hopefully we can accomplish it without any bloodshed.