Since I first travelled to Walla Walla Valley in 2004, the area has been in constant motion. New wineries are constantly starting up, new wineries are being constructed, and new tasting rooms are turning on their lights for the first time. This constant change – the almost tangible thrum that this town has – is part of what makes returning to the valley over and over again so rewarding.
When I visited the valley in September, this continual motion was very much in evidence. While much has changed downtown, between COVID-related alterations and the musical chairs of that area’s tasting rooms, I was most struck by three projects. They are each ones that I’ve discussed with winemakers over the years that are now in various stages of completion.
The first was at Figgins, the estate vineyard for FIGGINS wines, in the Upper Mill Creek area of the valley. There, construction is currently underway on a winery building.
President and director of winemaking Chris Figgins started out studying architecture and engineering at Washington State University before switching to horticulture and meeting his destiny. Figgins says his early studies made designing this winery from the ground up particularly appealing.
“I’ve been dreaming about it for decades,” Figgins says. “This has been really fun for me.”
The first part of construction was the wine caves, which began in May of 2021. Figgins describes the construction of the caves as “tedious and technical.” Located in the middle of the vineyard, construction is done top-down.
In contrast to a typical retaining wall for a building, which by its nature has a larger footprint, the walls of the cave are supported by rods that are grouted into the soil and ultimately the rock beneath. These rods are then “shot-creted” – a process that involves spraying a specially formulated concrete under high pressure.
“It’s like a cat hanging by its claws on a screen door,” says Figgins of the process.
Digging is done with a backhoe using a carbide-tipped hydraulic rotating head. This cuts through the soil and removes material, which is subsequently reused for vineyard roads. Over time, portals are established. More rods are put in, more shot-creting, and the process slowly continues.
Initially, the backhoe digs down into the loess – windblown sand and silt – that accumulated after the Missoula Floods, a series of cataclysmic events that occurred over 15,000 years ago. Beneath that, the backhoe digs into basalt bedrock. This basalt comes from lava flows that took place 15M years ago, covering much of modern day eastern Washington, northern Oregon, and western Idaho.
“This rock hasn’t seen the light of day in 15 million years,” Figgins says as we stand at the terminus of one of the tunnels.
Once digging is done, one is left with a series of tunnels in rock supported by concrete and steel rebar. The structure won’t necessarily be eternal, but it’s likely as close to it most can conceive.
“It’s a thousand-year construction,” Figgins says of the caves.
While wine caves are undeniably aesthetic, with barrels stretching out through the arms of the cave once construction is finished, they are also highly functional. The caves allow the winery building itself to have a much smaller footprint in the vineyard than an above-ground structure. This means more grapevines can be planted. The caves also provide passive cooling, with air temperature that is remarkably stable.
“This summer, it hasn’t gotten hotter than 58-60 degrees,” Figgins says. “I won’t have to cool it.”
Above ground, work has begun to create both a winemaking facility and a tasting room, which are being dug out of the side of a hill. Figgins has designed various gravity features to maintain quality at the highest levels. Once finished, the views from this tasting room and facility, which sit at about 1,700 feet above sea level, will be unparalleled.
I recall visiting this vineyard with Figgins over a decade ago when the first wine from the vineyard was released. We stood on a wooden platform, which at the time was the site’s only structure outside of a small stone building used for irrigation control. Figgins drew with his hands where the winery would eventually be and what it would look like. He talked about the caves he planned for the site.
Today those dreams are close to reality. Supply chain issues notwithstanding, Figgins hopes to have a soft opening for the new facility in summer of 2023 and to be open officially in the fall.
On this trip, I also visited with Matt and Kelly Austin at Grosgrain Vineyards. Grosgrain is in the process of establishing a new vineyard in the SeVein project in the southern section of the valley. The Austins first talked to me of this plan when they opened their winery and tasting room in 2019 (history will record that I was their first customer). Those plans are also now becoming reality.
The couple owns 80 acres near the Figgins family Serra Pedace Vineyard. It’s an area set off by itself, with spectacular views. It’s so quiet that the silence is almost deafening to these city ears.
Grosgrain currently has 16 acres planted. The Austins are in the process of planting a wide assortment of red and white varieties. These include Grenache, Mourvèdre, Macabeo, Xarello, Vermentino, Ribolla Gialla, Fiano, and Albariño. The earliest planting are fourth leaf this year, so expect to see initial offerings from this site in the near future.
Finally, on this trip I also visited the Rôtie Cellars tasting room down in the Rocks District. The tasting room, which opened in 2020, sits in the middle of the winery’s estate vineyard. There are 16 acres planted around it.
The tasting room sits a floor up. Owner Sean Boyd piled the rocks that this region is famous for up the sides of the structure. With walls of glass, sweeping views, and plenty of outdoor space, one feels as if they are floating above the stone-strewn vineyard.
The Rocks District has made a name for itself as one of the most distinctive areas for growing wine grapes in the world. Much of this reputation was built by vigneron Christophe Baron, whose Cayuse Vineyards is literally a stone’s throw (sorry) next door to Rôtie.
However, there are currently few tasting rooms in the Rocks District that are open to the public. Rôtie’s is open seven days a week, with stunning views and wines that are even better. It is sure to dramatically change visitation to this area.
Visiting this site too, I couldn’t help but think back to when Sean Boyd first purchased this vineyard, and talking with him over the years about what he was going to do with it. As his plans became more tangible, we stood in Rôtie’s production facility, and he showed me the blueprints for the building. Today, 15 years after Rôtie Cellars created its first wine, the structure and vineyard both stand as a testament to a dream realized.
At Northwest Wine Report, all scores come from blind tastings in varietal sets. Read more about this publication’s process for rating and reviewing wines. Read about the Northwest Wine Report rating system and special designations. Read about how to interpret scores.