A surprising number of wineries headquartered in the Willamette Valley of Oregon regularly make the long trek to Walla Walla to purchase grapes.
Even under normal circumstances, this is a serious time commitment, and these are not wineries that have any shortage of great grapes close to home.
So what’s the attraction?
In order to find out, I asked several Oregon winemakers to comment on their dedication to making Walla Walla wines.
Michael Fay is the director of winemaking and viticulture at Domaine Serene in the Dundee Hills. The winery produces a deep portfolio of single-vineyard, estate-grown Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, as well as a Champagne-method sparkling wine.
But perhaps Fay’s most unusual wine is the Grand Cheval, a blend of Walla Walla Syrah and Dundee Hills Pinot Noir.
Though many red grapes are excellent in blends, Pinot Noir is rarely used in this way.
Fay explains that “while we believe that Pinot Noir on its own pairs very well with steak and other heavier foods, the reality is that not everyone agrees with us. “We started making Grand Cheval in 2007 with the idea to create a heartier, more savory red wine blend, something for steak houses.”
The proportions are adjusted each vintage, most recently about two-thirds Syrah. It’s an interesting fusion of flavors; initially bursting with juicy raspberry fruit, then adding blueberry, lemon rind and a touch of orange marmalade.
“We rely upon our grower partners for so many aspects of this wine,” Fay said, citing yield estimates, grape analysis, sending grape samples, harvesting and shipping on refrigerated trucks.
Big Table Farm is the pride and the passion of husband and wife Brian Marcy and Clare Carver.
Set in lovely isolation west of Gaston in the Coast Range foothills, the winery produces small amounts of outstanding rosé, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The surprise in the group is a vineyard-designated Funk Vineyard Syrah from the Rocks District.
“We started working with Rich Funk (owner of Saviah) in 2016,” Marcy explained. “I have worked with Syrah for a long time and have always loved it. I think it is complementary to Pinot Noir on the table, but works differently with foods.
“When our source of Syrah from southern Oregon went away in 2015, it opened up the possibility of working with fruit from the Rocks District. Rich was kind enough to show us all around Milton-Freewater, and we have purchased about three tons a year from his estate vineyard ever since.”
Big Table Farm’s Funk Vineyard Syrah nicely captures the unique flavors of the Rocks District — dare I say its notable funkiness — yet retains a certain delicacy not always apparent.
As an unusual footnote, the complex rules of the federal government forbid Funk himself (and Saviah) from using the Rocks District American Viticultural Area (which is in Oregon) on his labels, because Saviah — just five minutes away — is in Washington.
James and Andrea Frey own Trisaetum winery on Ribbon Ridge, specializing in as many as eight different Rieslings, a half dozen Pinots and a growing portfolio of sparkling wines.
Along with winemaking, Frey is an accomplished painter, whose works are displayed in his tasting room/art gallery. And yet he finds time to make a Bordeaux-style blend called 18401, from grapes grown by Chris Figgins.
Confessing that he’s “always loved the wines coming out of Walla Walla,” Frey explained that “it was a back-burner dream to work with fruit from this area until one day in 2013 my friend Chris Figgins called and proposed we trade some grapes from our respective vineyards.”
Seven vintages later, both projects are still going strong. Figgins makes Pinot Noir under the Toil label, and Frey makes the 18401 blend along with a pure Cabernet Sauvignon.
Working with totally different varieties poses interesting challenges at the winery, Frey said. Trisaetum doesn’t own a crusher, so after trying hand-crushing, Frey decided to go with whole-cluster fermentation.
Frey ages his Bordeaux wines in Burgundy barrels. Though he recognizes that Walla Walla Bordeaux varietals “are certainly different animals than Willamette Valley Pinot Noir,” he’s happily embraced making them “with a little bit of Pinot’s soul.”
The current 2017 vintage of 18401 is 41% Figgins vineyard Merlot, 46% Seven Hills Cabernet and 13% Loess vineyard Petit Verdot. As lovers of Figgins and Leonetti wines might surmise, the fruit is impeccable; here reflecting a different hand at the wheel.
Elegant, precise and complex, it’s a savory wine that will reward your contemplation and cellar well for a decade or longer.