Why Concrete Eggs for Riesling?

The Walla Faces 2010 Riesling is “Concrete Egg Vinted”. The futuristic appearance may be snazzy, but the real benefit is its myriad of effects on the wine.

Like oak, concrete is porous. Thus, the wine is able to breathe, facilitating richness and complexity without leaving an oaky flavor behind. Like barrel aging, the porous nature of the concrete allows the wine to slowly aerate, providing layers and softness. Concrete-fermented wines also typically maintain a lot of fruitiness.

Additionally, the tank imparts a minerality that lingers on the palate. Because Walla Faces used both concrete and stainless steel for our 2010 Riesling, it took on the characteristics of both stainless steel- and concrete-vinted wines. Like stainless steel-vinted wines, this vintage has a crisp, refreshing effect, without sacrificing its rich complexity.

The Walla Faces Concrete Egg Fermenter, produced by Marc Nomblot.

The Walla Faces Concrete Egg Fermenter, nestled in some barrels!

Concrete has been used in winemaking since the early 19th century, when some wines were fermented in huge, rectangular concrete vats. Although the material is a classic, the egg shape is an innovation! The first concrete egg fermenter was commissioned in 2001 by Maison M. Chapoutier, a winery in the Rhone region of France. French manufacturer Nomblot, who has been producing concrete tanks since they opened in 1922.

Nomblot’s tanks are produced using washed sand from the French river Loire, gravel, non-chlorinated spring water and cement. They are treated with tartaric acid before use. Because the tanks are unlined, they are able to provide an effervescent mineral flavor to the wines they contain.

The egg shape provides in important function: it facilitates circulation. Because there is a one degree temperature difference between the top and the bottom of the egg, the wine slowly circulates through the tank. Since there are no corners, the wine won’t get stuck in every nook and cranny. The result? The wine stays more uniform throughout the fermentation process. As a result, the finished product will be more structured. No one wants a flabby Riesling!

Because the wine is slowly moving through the tank, it also has more contact with the lees, the dead yeast. As the lees break down, they release many compounds such as amino acids, polysaccharides and fatty acids. This so-called “lees aging” helps create additional complexity, as well as an appealing mouthfeel and aroma.

Given the benefits of the concrete egg fermenters, why are they still so rare in the United States? Concrete egg fermenters are a lot of work! For starters, winemakers must take special precautions to prevent the acidic wine from corroding the concrete tank. The length of fermentation is also longer in concrete, as opposed to stainless steel. Finally, with Nomblot as the exclusive maker of concrete egg fermenters, it can be difficult to access them. We had to import the tank from France. As Walla Faces co-owner Debbie put it, “[It] cost a fortune to get it here.”

The concrete egg may add some additional work, but the best things in life are worth working for! The best wines in life? Doubly so.

Walla Walla Wine History

Walla Walla has a rich history of winemaking that traces back to 1859, when A. B. Roberts established one of the first grape nurseries. This nursery contained eighty European grape varietals that had been imported from Champoeg, Oregon.

The wine industry quickly took off in the 1860s and 1870s, when a gold rush in Idaho brought miners through the Walla Walla Valley. Because of their lush vineyards, supply posts were able to sell not only traditional supplies, but grapes and wine to satiate travelers. Even these early vineyards were able to harvest 50 tons of grapes per year.

This locally-produced wine was also sold at local storefronts. For example, Frank Orselli, an Italian immigrant, established a winery at the height of the gold rush. He annually made 42 oak barrels of wine from Muscat, Black Prince, and Concord grapes. His wines were sold at a small bakery right downtown, on the intersection of Second Avenue and Main Street.

Additionally, by 1882, locally produced wine was available in all of Walla Walla’s 26 saloons.

Unfortunately, deep freezes in 1883 and 1884 viciously wiped out the majority of the local grapes. Walla Walla typically experiences a very cold freeze about every six years. Although these freezes do harm the Walla Walla wine industry today, we now plant vines at higher elevations and bury shoots to help mitigate the damage.


The Walla Faces Vineyard in the Snow

Even more devastatingly, by the turn of the century, the Idaho gold rush had ended, putting a huge damper on the influence of the wine industry. When Prohibition came to Washington state in 1917, thanks to the Anti-Saloon League, the influence of the formal wine industry completely disappeared.

Walla Walla citizens turned to homemade wine. They were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year without a permit. Grapes came not only from Walla Walla, but from Marysville, Sunnyside, and Stretch Island. Grappa, a fragrant, grape-based brandy, was also frequently made in homes, although Federal agents were able to shut down some of these illegal distilleries.

At the end of Prohibition, Zinfandel grapes were shipped via train from California. The wine was made by Italian immigrants. In the the 1950s, a variety of winemakers attempted to start commercial wineries. The first attempt was by Bert Pesciallo. Unfortunately, another deep freeze in 1955 shut down many of the attempts to revive the wine industry.

Finally, in 1977, Leonetti Cellars opened, triggering a wave of commercial wineries. A mere seven years later, the area became federally recognized as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). At that time, it covered only 60 acres of vineyards and included just four wineries. As Walla Walla wines began to get national recognition, the wine industry began to flourish again. Now, over 175 wineries operate out of the Walla Walla Valley, including, of course, Walla Faces.

Malolactic fermentation and barrel aging at the Walla Faces winery!

Last weekend was the first time that Walla Faces was able to open our winery at the incubators to the general public. Winemaking is a complex art that involves many processes and a skillful hand to do well. Our tiny winery has many processes going at once, making it a bustling place to visit. Each step of the winemaking process affects how the wine tastes when it finally gets to your table!

The Walla Faces winery is divided into two big sections: a warmer area for malolactic fermentation and a cooler area for aging.

Malolactic fermentation takes place in the warmer part of the winery. During this process, bacteria convert malic acid, a natural part of freshly pressed grape juice, to lactic acid. Malic acid is very tart, with a taste almost like an under-ripe green apple, whereas lactic acid is almost buttery. Thus, malolactic fermentation helps reduce the sharpness and bitterness of the wine, improves the mouthfeel, and enhances the wine’s flavor.

Of course, during malolactic fermentation an even more crucial process is occurring: the sugar is being converted to alcohol! About 70% of the sugar has already been turned to alcohol by the time malolactic fermentation begins in a fast, frothy process called primary fermentation. During malolactic fermentation, the remaining 30% of the sugar is converted to alcohol.

After the wine has finished fermenting, it is time for it to age. A cooler section of the winery is reserved for the wine aging in the barrel. Immediately after fermentation has completed, the wine usually still tastes “green”. The porous oak allows for controlled oxidation, decreasing the astringency and adding greater complexity of aromas and flavors throughout the aging process. In addition, the tannins are softened and the wine begins to take on the character of the barrel.

Last weekend, for holiday barrel tasting, we opened up one barrel of 2012 Cabernet, which is currently undergoing malolactic fermentation, one barrel of 2010 Cabernet, which is currently aging in the barrel, and our Reserve Cabernet in the bottle. This offered winery visitors the opportunity to see how the wine progressed from

Thank you to everyone who came out and visited the winery last weekend!


Walla Faces is moving our production to the incubators at the airport!

Between 2006 and 2008, the Port of Walla Walla built five Dr. Seuss-colored “incubator” buildings to serve as functional wineries for up-and-coming Walla Walla entrepreneurs. Walla Faces is excited to announce that we will be joining four other innovative wineries at the incubators. We will be in the green building– right in the middle of everything! We are currently busy moving everything in, painting and decorating the space. When it is done, it will be like an industrial art gallery, with white walls and a dark cork floor.

Walla Faces is excited about our new winery location because it will allow us to be much more hands-on in the winemaking process. When Matthew Loso, the Walla Faces winemaker, learned that we were signing the lease, he breathed a sigh of happiness. “Finally,” he said, “a home.” Up until now, we have done something called ‘custom crush’ and our barrels have been stored at another winery. Now, we are doing it all on our own, offering new opportunities for innovation and creativity.

We are also happy that we will be able to share the winemaking process with you. Walla Faces employees are always ecstatic to have visitors in the Tasting Room, and we welcome Walla Faces hotel guests and other visitors by appointment at our vineyard. However, this is the first time we will be able to share the actual act of winemaking with our customers. It is fantastic opportunity to see the production of small, local wineries in progress. You can even do a wine tasting in the bustle of the winery itself. When winter comes, we will also offer barrel tasting at the winery, letting you taste the wine as it progresses.

We haven’t moved in yet and we are still unpacking all of our shiny new equipment, so you will have to wait a little longer to come take a tour. But keep an eye on our facebook and blog! We will tell you when this busy building is open for business.

In the meantime, you can always visit us at the Walla Faces Tasting Room at 216 East Main.