A comparison I often hear is that current day Walla Walla Valley resembles Napa Valley in the 1970s. There are, in fact, numerous parallels. There is a spirit of cooperation in Walla Walla that is said to have marked Napa during this time. Additionally, there is an almost continual influx of talent and aspiration. There is also, of course, explosive growth. One this is clear though. Walla Walla Valley will never become Napa Valley. Here is why.

Napa has a built-in tourist industry that Walla Walla will never have. Napa receives 4.7 million visitors annually. Over three million of these people are making day trips. Day trips are easy with about seven million people living in the Bay Area, about an hour and a half from Napa. Conversely, about 459,000 people visit the Walla Walla Valley each year with about forty percent of these people making day trips (Note: numbers from 2008). The two largest population centers near Walla Walla are Portland and Seattle, both a little over four hours away. These two cities combined are smaller than the population of the Bay Area. For people visiting the Walla Walla Valley from these cities, day trips are almost out of the question making it a weekend endeavor (the average stay for overnighters is 2.8 days). This is, of course, what gives the area much of its charm and appeal. While additional air travel to the area could increase visitation, this will never be the same as having a large metropolitan area within close proximity.

There are numerous other differences. Like most of Washington, Walla Walla is notable for its many small producers and few large ones. Napa, in contrast, has numerous mid to large-size wineries. Interestingly, both Walla Walla in Napa are home to a large number of their respective states’ wineries (1/5 for Walla Walla and 1/4 for Napa) but account for a very small percentage of total state production.

The differences in production between the two areas are substantial. The vast majority of Walla Walla wineries make less than four thousand cases of wine annually. This is less than many Napa wineries make of any single wine. One of my favorite examples of this comes from Napa Valley’s Joseph Phelps. Cabernet is king in Napa Valley and few do a finer job with it year in and year out than Joseph Phelps. The winery’s flagship bottling is the ‘Insignia’ which comes in at a cool $200 per bottle. The winery produces almost seventeen thousand cases of this wine alone. Think about those numbers for a moment.

While Walla Walla has new wineries coming on-line with each passing year and numerous grand projects are in the work, the valley will, most likely, never produce wine on the scale that Napa does. I will never say never because there is a lot of land there but it seems unlikely, although there will certainly be more mid-size wineries in the coming years.

Overall, Napa Valley and its growth over the last forty-years can provide instruction to Walla Walla Valley. There are comparisons to be made. But ultimately Walla Walla will never be like Napa Valley, nor should it be. Walla Walla is on its own unique path as a wine region. Only time will tell where it goes.

Note: See a recent post from Josh at DrinkNectar.com that includes some related discussion.