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!

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!

10 Ways You Know You Have a Winery Dog

Visitors to the Walla Faces Vineyard have almost certainly met Angel, Rick and Debbie’s bubbly and lovable 6-year-old shih tzu. As the most good-humored member of the Walla Faces team, she has fully embraced her role as winery dog.

Angel was adopted as 6-week-old puppy by her original owner. When her owner sadly passed on last year, Debbie’s close friend began to spread the word about the vivacious animal. “Shirley posted about her on Facebook and in twenty minutes she was my dog,” Debbie laughed. In July 2012, she joined another winery dog, Red, an elderly greyhound rescue, who passed away in January.

Even beyond her wonderful personality, Angel epitomizes what it means to be a winery dog in at least ten ways.

Angel, the Walla Faces Winery Dog

Angel loves chewing on corks. It’s her favorite pastime!

10 Ways You Know You Have a Winery Dog

  1. Her favorite chew toy isn’t available at the pet store– it’s a wine cork from your favorite bottle of wine!
  2. You  trust her not to knock over an open bottle of Riesling.
  3. She gets her exercise running up and down rows of grape vines.
  4. If you spill a few drops of Cabernet, she’s always there to lick up the mess.
  5. Since dogs have 20 times more scent receptors than humans do, she can smell your wine better than a master sommelier.
  6. She loves resting under the shade of an oak barrel.
  7. She’s even more loyal than a wine club member.
  8. She sits in front of the door at the tasting room, eager to greet any customers.
  9. She has you worried about what pairs best with her kibble.
  10.  She loves the terroir so much that her fur is completely covered in it!

Angel the winery dog

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!

Winemaker Profile: Victor De La Luz

Drop by the Walla Faces winery during the week and you’re almost sure to see Walla Faces Assistant Winemaker Victor de la Luz hard at work. He’s the man responsible for the day-to-day operations at the winery and is equal parts cellar master, crisis manager, and barrel-top acrobat.

Victor de la Luz was born Pueblo Mexico, where he had no idea that he would end up in the wine industry. Indeed, he had a completely different talent. “I was a professional folk music dancer,” he laughs.

De la Luz immigrated to the United States in 2004 at age 24, where he went right into the restaurant industry, starting work at the Bonefish Grill. It was during this time that he met winemaker Matthew Loso, who let him work at Matthews Cellars in Woodinville, Washington. Victor was hired as the ‘cleaning guy’, tending to the barrels and tanks. However, his enthusiasm and hard work resulted in a quick promotion! A mere six months later he was already working with the wine, managing the pumps, taking part during “crush”, and driving the forklift. He worked at Matthews for four years.

Walla Faces Assistant Winemaker Victor De La Luz

Walla Faces Assistant Winemaker: Victor De La Luz

While working at Matthews, de la Luz met Hillary Sjolund, the winemaker at DiStefano Winery. Eager to expand his horizons, he took a part time job at DiStefano. Within one week, has passion and dedication was so clear that he was hired as a full-time employee. There, he worked in the winery’s chemistry lab. “I was allowed to do some practice in the lab and written analysis… I made so many mistakes!” he recalls.

In 2011, de la Luz made his first wine that was done all by himself: four gorgeous barrels of Petit Verdot Rosé. “I didn’t kill anybody, anyway,” he laughs. Despite his modesty, the wine showcased a natural talent for winemaking. Its combination of New World and Old World flavors, its minty notes, and its long, spicy finish showcased the best of Petit Verdot. The beautiful balance of sweetness and acidity showed that Victor had a gift.

Last year, in 2012, Walla Faces hired Victor as our new assistant winemaker. He has already contributed to the winery significantly, bringing a fresh perspective to our 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. Victor asserts, “I was following instructions before. Now, with [the 2007], I get to make the decisions.”

A Natural History of Syrah

Syrah is one of the most popular grape varieties in the world. Its wines are typically full-bodied and powerful, with peppery and fruity flavors. Although we all know why we love this grape, the question remains: how did Syrah gain the prominence it currently holds in the international wine scene?

Three Walla Faces Syrahs! 2008 Caroline Syrah 2007 Frank Syrah 2009 Bill Syrah

Three Walla Faces Syrahs!

In Australia, Syrah is referred to as Shiraz. This has spurred several myths about its origin. Shiraz is a 4,000+ year-old city in Iran that is known for its wine. Indeed, the world’s oldest sample of wine, dating from a staggering 7,000 years ago, was discovered in clay pots near Shiraz.

The most common myth suggests that the  Phocaeans brought Syrah from Shiraz to their colony in Marseille on the southeastern coast of France. From there, it gained popularity and began to move north, to the Rhone region of France. (The myth does not explain how the grape mysteriously disappeared from Marseille shortly afterwards!) Another variation on this myth attributes the grape’s origin to a French knight named Gaspard de Stérimberg, who participated in the crusades in the 1200s. He traveled to Persia (modern day Iran) and returned with the grape in tow. This also seems unlikely, as the crusaders certainly did not travel all the way to Persia!

DNA testing by Dr. Carole Meredith, a geneticist who heads the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis revealed the truth about this beloved grape. It is a cross between two little-known varieties: Dureza and Mondeuse blanche. Dureza is grown exclusively in the Rhone region of France. Although it has been used historically because of its heartiness and high yields, Dureza has fallen out of favor in recent years. By 1988 only a single hectare (2.47 acres) of the grape was left growing. That’s as if the only Syrah on the planet was what we have on the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard! Dureza is also not on the list of allowed wines by the French AOC. Mondeuse blanche is similarly rare. A mere five hectares (12 acres) are left, all in the Savoy region of France.

Because of the parent grape varieties are both from a very small region in southeastern France, we can conclude that Syrah originated there as well, probably in northern Rhone. The exact time of the cross is not clear. Historical documents by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder suggest, however, that the cross may have occurred around 20 AD.

Although Syrah is clearly a very old variety, it wasn’t until the 1700s that it began really making a splash. In northeastern Rhone, there was a hill topped with a hermitage (a chapel) built by Gaspard de Stérimberg, the knight of legend. Hermitage wines, red blends made up primarily of Syrah grapes, were consumed worldwide. (They were a favorite of Thomas Jefferson!)

Syrah was brought to Australia by a Scotsman named James Busby in 1831, who collected a wide variety of grapes for the land down under. As a result, he has been dubbed “the father of Australian viticulture”. By the 1860s, Syrah was one of the most popular Australian varietals. Syrah first came to America in the 1970s. It was planted in California by wine-enthusiasts who called themselves the “Rhone rangers”. It finally made its way to Washington state in 1986– almost two thousand years after the grape was first crossed in France.

Syrah is also frequently grown in Switzerland, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.

Syrah has even gone on to spawn its own offspring! An accidental cross-pollination between Peloursin and Syrah yielded Petite Sirah in a small vineyard in Tullins, France in the mid-1860s.

Now, Syrah has become one of the most popular grapes for wine production. At a staggering 142,600 hectares (352,000 acres) worldwide, it is the seventh most grown grape variety. In Walla Walla alone, 11,000 tons of Syrah are harvested annually… and that number is only increasing!

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.

“Jazz and Wine Among Friends” to take place at the Walla Walla Incubators

Friends of Children of Walla Walla, a local non-profit dedicated to providing adult mentorship for Walla Walla youth, is holding their sixth annual “Jazz and Wine Among Friends” fundraising event. Formed in 1999, the organization has helped hundred of Walla Walla children build confidence, increase academic performance, and avoid delinquency. Embracing the vibrant music and wine scene in the Walla Walla Valley, executive director Mark Brown puts together a yearly weekend-long event featuring some of the best musicians and wineries in the area. The event is always a blast! All proceeds go to Friends to help vulnerable children in Walla Walla.

Walla Faces participated last year, hosting music at our downtown tasting room location. This year, we are upping the ante! On Saturday, August 24th, from noon to 3pm, “Jazz and Wine Among Friends” will at the Walla Walla Incubators, the site of the Walla Faces Winery!

Local artist Gary Winston will be among the artists playing at Jazz and Wine Among Friends.

Local artist Gary Winston will be among the artists playing.

The band, Soul Essentials, may be a new name, but the artists will be familiar to anyone who loves the Walla Walla music scene. Gary Winston, Gary Hemenway, and Doug Scarborough will be putting their own spin on soul-influenced jazz. The incubators will be rocking with their powerful tunes!

The Walla Faces winery will be open during this time. Guests are encouraged to drop in and purchase a glass of wine or do a wine tasting before, during, or after the music. It’s also a great opportunity to see a location where some of the most innovative new wineries produce their wares.

Tickets for the Saturday afternoon “Jazz and Wine Among Friends” event cost $10 and are available at the event or online at We hope to see you there!

Winemaker Profile: Chris Camarda

Joining as consulting winemaker, Chris Camarda may be the newest member of the Walla Faces team, but he’s hardly an industry novice. Camarda opened Andrew Will Winery in 1989. “I’d worked in the restaurant industry a long time,” he says. “I always ordered the wine!” Andew Will was named for his nephew, Andrew, and his son, Will. Will is currently working at Andrew Will Winery, making it a family affair.

Camarda was mentored by Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon Winery, and Alex Golitzin of Quilceda Creek Vintners, all of whom were founding figures in the Washington wine scene. Camarda recalls, “At first, I was copying them. They looked at my wines and gave me some critiques.” He quickly learned, however, to integrate their lessons into a style that was all his own. “They were three very different people and I got different ideas from each of them.”

Chris Camarda

Chris Camarda

His first vintage, sixteen barrels of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, was an instant success. “People liked the wine and that was a big help! Making wine is one thing but selling it is another.” His first cases were snatched up by Seattle Wine Shops, allowing Camarda a foot in the door of the wine industry.

From 2000-2003, Camarda put his methodological mind to work, testing vineyards to find the perfect grape source. “The weather and the vineyard are everything”, he asserts. Camarda looks critically at vineyards for detail work and other signs of a quality grape source. “It’s not like a vineyard, it’s like a garden,” he says. His work on these vineyards transformed his winemaking. He moved from making single-varietal wines to single-vineyard blends. By highlighting the unique attributes of the vineyard itself, Camarda was able to capture the essence of the location.

Andrew Will is still a small operation, making 5,000 cases a year that are quickly snatched up by wine lovers.

Although his vineyard-focused approach was revolutionary, Camarda has a classical eye for winemaking. “I have a lot of respect for tradition,” he says. “I think that although Washington was not a part of that tradition ninety years ago; now we are.” Using his unique blend of traditional methods and off-the-wall ideas, Camarda is able to create something truly unique. “There is a tendency for people to want to make their wines the same and I want mine to be different”, he says. “People just copy what wine critics have liked. In the end, it all ends up being the same. You have one wine and it’s all 100-point wine… It’s the depth, focus, layers, and complexity that makes the great wines, and that’s what I focus on.”

Given Camarda’s dedication to offering unconventional, high-quality wines, it’s no wonder that Into Wine named him as the 33rd most influential winemaker. The 2013 vintage will be his first wines for Walla Faces.