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.

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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!

Cheers!