Wine 101: What’s the Deal with Vintage?

“Vintage” means one thing when you’re talking about dresses from the forties or that cool thrift shop you’ve always meant to visit, but it means something entirely different when it comes to wine. I’ve always been vaguely aware of this, but unsure of how what exactly it means or, more importantly, how significant it is to making and choosing the perfect wine.

What makes a wine a vintage?

“Vintage” comes from the French “vin,” meaning simply wine. A wine’s vintage refers to the year its grapes were harvested. In France, the USA, and Canada, to be labeled as a vintage, a wine must be made from 95% of grapes harvested that year. Wines from other parts of the world sometimes have up to 15-25% of grapes from other years in their “vintages.”

Why does the vintage change the quality of the wine so much?

“Vintage variation” is the difference in taste between same wines from different years. Sometimes it is barely noticeable and others it can be very striking! This variation all depends on the way the weather influences the grapes during a given growing season.

A good vintage means the weather was well-balanced throughout the entire year. Not too much rain, not too cold or too hot, no unexpectedly harsh hailstorms… This type of balance allows the grapes to ripen evenly and slowly. Too much rain can cause the grapes to rot, while too much intense heat makes them overripe and increases the taste of alcohol in the wine. Lots of rain right around the harvest can leave grapes flavorless and watery. Even the smallest imbalance of weather, be it “too much” or “too little” of any factor, changes the wine.

Interestingly, a bad year for reds could be a good year for whites. A “cooler vintage,” meaning a year growing season with colder temperatures and perhaps more precipitation, can be a death wish for full, spicy red wines but create whites that are pleasantly crisp and acidic.

a quick look at vintages in the last ten years from

A quick look at vintages in the last ten years, from

Likewise, as this “overly simplified” vintage chart from Wine Folly illustrates, a bad year in France could be a good year in Washington, since weather varies so much between regions.

Does the vintage always matter?

To some extent, yes—wine is an agricultural, not an industrial product, and thus the climate and weather will always influence the way grapes turn out.

However, very decent wines can be made from not-so-decent vintage years, which is often where the skill and craftsmanship of winemakers comes in.

Wines that aren’t from the best vintage years often benefit from aging and can turn out great if they are cellared and stored for a few more years!

Further, some regions have less volatile climates than others. California, for example, is one of the biggest producers of wine in the world, but the weather is so dependably, consistently good that the vintages do not change much from year to year. For California wines, the vintage is not always important.

On the other hand, the famous Bordeaux and Burgundy regions in France are places where the vintage matters very much—and their good vintages are so well known that wine merchants often find it difficult to sell Bordeaux wine from an “off” year, even if it is quite good!

Here in the Pacific Northwest, vintage also matters. While the weather is a little easier to count on in the Walla Walla Valley than in the western part of the state, Washington in a place with lots of variation in our weather. Sometimes it snows in the winter and sometimes it doesn’t, and spring doesn’t have an arrival date—it pretty much comes whenever it feels like it!

While it is definitely not the only factor that makes a wine “good,” vintage is a great thing to know about when tasting or buying wine in Walla Walla!

A Happy Accident: Our Guest House Renovation

One of the most exciting happenings at the Walla Faces Vineyard this season was the recent opening of our newly renovated guest house! However, it was somewhat of a last-minute addition to our spring to-do list…

In February, what you might call a “deep freeze” hit the Walla Walla valley. The winter’s icy temperatures were perfect for winemaking, and made a unique contribution to the production of our new rosé–but unfortunately, they were not so kind to our guest house. Before long, we discovered that a pipe had frozen and burst, flooding the building and ruining the floor, walls, and some furniture.

A team from local First Choice Restoration, led by Randy Wisdom, was there doing cleanup within the hour. Meanwhile, owners Rick and Debbie decided to turn the mess into an opportunity.

Instead of a mere reconstruction, the guest house received a full remodel, to give it an updated, cleaner, and more sophisticated atmosphere. It boasts all new drywall and a new white-washed oak floor. A larger, tiled fireplace is the centerpiece of the rearranged living room, while the bathroom has brand new tiling and fixtures. The updated space is airy, modern, and luxurious.

Our guest house was already one of our favorite places at the Vineyard. It is the largest available space, with a full kitchen and a hot tub. Even better, the windows and private patio have spectacular views of the vineyards and surrounding Blue Mountains. Now it’s more beautiful than ever, and it’s hard to think of a more peaceful place to spend a vacation.

Thank you, February! It turns out that pipe bursting was the best thing that could have happened to our guest house after all.

If you want to see the new space, now is a great time to book it for a few days! Go to for details.

Wine Grapes Vs. Table Grapes: A Comparison

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting our vineyard just before harvest, you might be surprised at the dramatic differences between wine grapes and table grapes (the grapes you might buy in the grocery store)! Although both wine grapes and table grapes are the same genus, Vitis, they have many disparate characteristics.

Wine grapes are always one particular species of grapes: Vitis vinifera. This is a species that is native to the Mediterranean region, ranging from central Europe to northern Iran. Table grapes, on the other hand, vary. Some table grapes, such as Red Globe grapes, are also Vitis vinifera. Others are a cousin of the traditional wine grape. Concord grapes, for example, are Vitis labrusca, a vine that is native to the Eastern United States.

Table grapes and wine grapes have been selectively bred for different qualities, meaning that the grapes are pretty dissimilar! In comparison to table grapes, wine grapes are very, very small, closer to a centimeter in diameter. They have very thick skins, which will ultimately impart a lot of flavor onto the wine. Table grapes tend to have thin skins that are easier to munch on, meaning they’ll pop delightfully in your mouth. Wine grapes also have big seeds, which take up a huge part of the fruit. As a result, when you bite into the thick skin of a wine grape, they’ll sploosh open, leaving you with a big, hard seed.

Table grapes vs. wine grapes Walla Faces

Table grapes vs. wine grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon from the Walla Faces vineyard)

Wine grapes are also much sweeter than table grapes, since that sugar is necessary for fermentation. Wine grapes are harvested when they are around 22-30% sugar. Table grapes might be closer to 10 or 15% sugar.

In addition to the genetic differences between wine grapes and table grapes, the vines are also treated differently. The T-shape of the grapevines maximizes their exposure to the sun. Table grapes use a trellis system in which the grapes hang under the vines. They get less exposure to the sun this way, but they don’t rub against each other. This increases the amount of fruit they can produce, yielding up to thirty pounds of grapes per vine. (For comparison, wine grape vines would be lucky to get to ten pounds!)

Worldwide, there are 75,866 square kilometers dedicated to grapes. A solid 71% of these grapes are used for wine. 27% are consumed fresh fruit and 2% as dried fruit. Thus, it seems that even though wine grapes aren’t as delicious right off the vine, their unique characteristics make them the more popular of the two!

Walla Faces 2013 Syrah: Harvested!

At the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard, we grow two of Walla Walla’s signature grape varieties: Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. These two grapes ripen at different rates, meaning we need to harvest on different dates. The Syrah grapes are always ready to pick before the Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Cabernet grapes are usually 2-3 weeks behind the Syrah in terms of being ready to harvest.

As predicted, the warm summer weather bumped up the date of harvest significantly.  Last year, we harvested our Syrah grapes on Halloween. As the Tasting Room staff handed out candy to swarms of Walla Walla youth, Rick, Debbie (owners) and our vineyard staff were hard at work harvesting the grapes! This year, we harvested the Syrah almost a month sooner: on October 5th.

As winemaking has progressed, it has become increasingly scientific. In centuries past, vineyard owners decided when to harvest based on taste alone. Now, most wineries use quantitative analysis to ensure that their grapes are top-notch at harvest. At Walla Faces, we do a bit of a hybrid. On Thursday, October 3rd, we brought our grapes to ETS Laboratories, an analytical lab that provides services to Walla Walla wineries. There, we measured the sugar, acidity, and pH. Our grapes tested at 26 Brix (26% sugar), suggesting that harvest should be imminent. These slightly higher sugar levels help us ensure that the flavors of our wine are fully developed before we start crush. However, we feel that you cannot harvest based on numbers alone. Our second step is to go through the vineyard and taste! We are immortalizing this flavor, so it has to be perfect. Rick and Victor de la Luz (Assistant Winemaker) tasted the grapes and found them excellent.


“We spent Friday rallying the troops!” Debbie, a Walla Faces owner, noted.

Victor called our vineyard crew to see if they were available to pick on Saturday.  Fortunately, they were available to pick Saturday morning.

On Saturday, the weather was brisk, but sunny, in the high 60s. Ten people, including Victor and the two owners, Rick and Debbie, hustled. They managed to harvest our grapes in three hours. From there, the grapes were brought to the Walla Faces Winery for crush. Rick, Victor, and helpers sorted the grapes and crushed them, finishing at one thirty Sunday morning!  The Syrah grapes are now fermenting on their way to becoming our 2013 Syrah.

Although the Walla Faces 2013 Syrah is well on its way to your table, the big task is still yet to come. We have 7.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon that are yet to be harvested.  We will start harvesting these grapes next week.

“Birds in Distress” Soundtrack Humanely Controls Pests

Visit the Walla Faces vineyard this time of year and you’ll be greeted with an inelegant soundtrack. “SQUAWK, SQUAWK, SQUAWK.” An audio recording called “Birds in Distress” is our method of keeping hungry wildlife at bay.

Walla Walla’s bird population is beloved by nature-enthusiasts, but is less appreciated by those of us who tend to vineyards. This region hosts a variety of resident birds, such as Song Sparrows, Bewicks Wrens, Downy Woodpeckers, and Great Blue Herons. During the fall, though, the bird population skyrockets. This is because Walla Walla is smack in the middle of the Pacific Flyway, a migratory corridor that runs from Siberia to Patagonia. Most species of bird pass through Walla Walla between late summer and autumn. This means that Walla Walla is saturated with birds at the exact time that our grapes are particularly succulent.

House Finches, American Robins, and European Starlings are especially likely to pose a threat. At the Walla Faces vineyard, we usually see perky Starlings. European Starlings are an invasive species that was introduced to the United States 1890. A wealthy Shakespeare-lover named Eugene Schieffelin released a flock of starlings in New York’s Central Park as a part of an ill-thought-out plan to introduce every bird mentioned by William Shakespeare into North America. By the 1940s, starlings were common in the Pacific Flyway. In Walla Walla, we see these migratory birds every year.

European Starlings are kept at bay by "Birds in Distress" noises.

European Starling

For obvious reasons, this migratory pattern can result in significant crop losses. (We don’t blame the birds; our grapes are pretty darn delicious!) In response, vineyard growers have been forced to come up with creative solutions to help reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides for wine grapes without sacrificing their crops. Some alternative methods of pest control, such as netting, can be costly and frustrating. It’s also quick to tear, difficult to store, and needs to be replaced every three years or so.

At the Walla Faces Vineyard, we project the distress calls of birds. This audio recording, called “Birds in Distress”, is our only method of bird-control. (We also have a couple of scarecrows, but the birds don’t seem too concerned by them. The scarecrows seem to be less of a pest-control method and more of an accidentally-festive decoration.)

“Birds in Distress” is played during daylight hours. When the birds hear the various distress calls, they feel threatened, and avoid what they assume is a dangerous area. According to the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, broadcasting alarm and distress calls substantially reduces the percentage of crops that are lost to avian munchers.

Anecdotally, we can definitely say that we’ve seen an effect. Thanks to our bird distress-call recording, we’ve been able to keep birds away from the vineyard in the least intrusive, most humane way possible. We’re pretty sure that this is cause for a toast!

Want to feel like you are at the vineyard with us? You can listen to a “Birds in Distress” audio recording here.

Warm Weather Indicates an Early 2013 Harvest

If there is one word to describe the summer of 2013 in Walla Walla, it is hot. It’s been the second warmest summer on record. The blazingly sunny days have only been outmatched by the incredibly warm nights. As the Washington State University Agricultural Weather Network noted, “Warm, warmest, and warmer is the best way to characterize the 2013 summer season.” This weather pattern suggests that we’re likely to see an early 2013 harvest.

Washington state as a whole averaged more than two degrees above standard weather. The heat also started early this year. In Walla Walla, we were hitting high temperatures by the beginning of July. August was equally hot; it was the warmest that it has been since 1991. During this time, Walla Walla stayed characteristically dry, with only 0.15 inches of rainfall in August. This dry weather is ideal for wine growing, since it allows winemakers to completely control the amount of water that grapes are exposed to.

What does the summer heat mean for the Walla Faces 2013 Harvest?

Rows of Cabernet Sauvignon. Taken at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard on September 9, 2013.

This heat decreases the amount of time that it takes for grapes to ripen. After veraison, the grapes throughout the Walla Walla Valley began to ripen quickly. This quick ripening process means that the berries are smaller than usual, making their flavor more concentrated. This will create an intense, flavorful wine.

The Walla Faces Estate Vineyard is at a higher elevation than the rest of the valley. As a result, we have a more temperate climate. Consequentially, veraison and harvest are usually a little later for us than they are for the rest of the valley. However, the warm weather is definitely bumping up the date of the 2013 harvest.

A few storms and some anticipated cooler temperatures will probably slow down the ripening process in the next few weeks. Still, we expect an early harvest date and some bold, fruit-forward 2013 vintages thanks to the weather!

Veraison at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard

If you’ve stopped by the vineyard in the past few days, you may have noticed a beautiful thing: Veraison has finally come to the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard!

Veraison is the process by which grapes turn from green to red. Before verasion, the grapes are simply getting bigger; cells divide and expand, resulting in larger and larger grapes. After veraison, grapes begin to ripen: the acidity of the grapes decreases, sugars become concentrated, and chemicals that give off herbaceous aromas degrade, leaving you with a beautiful, fruity scent. The berries will also get much softer. Prior to verasion, the grapes are very firm. Afterwards, they become much more supple. This is also the point at which a keen observer may be able to discern the characteristics of different grape varieties.

We’ve seen veraison in other vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley for weeks now, but the signs are just now appearing on our grapes. There are a few reasons that we see this difference. The first reason is the grape varieties that we grow: Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, takes a very long time to ripen. Vineyards that grow varieties such as Merlot, which ripens much more quickly, will see veraison earlier in August. Indeed, only our Syrah is showing signs of veraison. The Cabernet Sauvignon is usually two or three weeks behind!

The second reason that veraison occurs later for Walla Faces is because of the location of our vineyard. We are at a higher elevation than much of the Walla Walla Valley. Our vineyard is cooler during the Spring and Summer, but warmer during the end of summer, which helps give our wine a nice balance between sugars and acidity. (Our location also helps in autumn and winter. The warmer temperatures in cooler months help protect our grapes from freezing!)

In addition to being one of the later vineyards to see veraison, we are also one the last to harvest! This means we have many more weeks to admire our ripening grapes.

Photos taken at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard on August 16, 2013.

Flowering grape vines at the Walla Faces vineyard

Every year, grape vines go through an annual growth cycle that ultimately produces the ripe, juicy grapes needed for winemaking. June is a particularly exciting time at the vineyard because many of these steps occur in quick succession. We started June with some gorgeous budding grapes.

Budding grapes at the Walla Faces Vineyard.

Budding grapes at the Walla Faces Vineyard, taken May 30, 2013.

Wine grapes have high seasonal nutritional needs. As a result, when the buds first appear, we spray the grapes in the Walla Faces vineyard with a micromineral composition that helps them grow to their fullest potential. For example, spraying the buds with boron can help improve bud growth.

After the budding stage, the grapes will begin to flower. This is a a very-weather dependent step. During warm years, the grapes will flower early, whereas at cooler temperatures this step will be delayed. At our vineyard, we typically see flowering starting somewhere between the first and last weeks of June, depending on the weather. This year was pretty typical; flowering started a couple of weeks into the month.

Flowering grapes at the Walla Faces Vineyard.

Flowering grapes at the Walla Faces Vineyard, taken June 16, 2013.

Cabernet and Syrah grapes (as well as most Vitis vinifera grapes, the species used for winemaking) are self-pollinating. Sometimes wind and insects will help the process, but in general pollination is contained within the grape vine. Once the ovary is fertilized, the flower will begin to turn into a grape berry, surrounding a large seed.

Fruit Set at the Walla Faces Vineyard

Fruit Set at the Walla Faces Vineyard, taken June 30, 2013.

Both the Syrah and the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have stopped flowering now. They have entered the fruit set stage. These baby grapes will be the basis of the 2013 vintage.

An Honor for Walla Faces

Tripadvisor certifcateWalla Faces Inns at Historic Downtown and Walla Faces Inns at the Vineyard have been honored with the esteemed TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence, an accolade that recognizes businesses for their exceptional hospitality.  Only 10 percent of the businesses on TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel site, receive this award, which is offered every year.  The award-winning properties range from one room bed-and-breakfasts to enormous hotels with over 6,000 rooms.

TripAdvisor calls the awards a “way of acknowledging the great work that many properties are doing, and helping them to stand out from their competition.”

To qualify for a Certificate of Excellence, businesses must be listed on TripAdvisor for at least 12 months and, during this time, maintain an overall rating of at least 4 out of 5. The award criteria also take into account the volume of customer reviews about a particular property.  Both locations have admirable ratings of 4.5 stars.

Reviewers who stayed at the Historic Downtown location rave about the sophisticated décor of the Suites and the approachability of the Inn owners, who are always willing to recommend restaurants and attractions.  Guests who experienced the Vineyard are equally enthusiastic, praising the beautiful, relaxing setting.

One reviewer recalls a stay several years later, noting fondly that “The memories are still as vivid as the day I left… it felt as if I were staying in a friend’s apartment.”

Another reviewer enthusiastically says of the Vineyard “don’t stay anywhere else in Walla Walla!”

Debbie Johnson, co-owner of Walla Faces, thanks her loyal customers for their support and for their role in creating the warm, familial atmosphere that makes Walla Faces special.   She says that many people who stay at the Inns are return customers.  “We have customers who have become friends…it’s like having people stay at your house.”

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.