Walla Walla Valley is Washington State’s “reddest” appellation. A recent study shows the area is 95% planted to red wine varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah leading the way.

So why aren’t there more white wine grapes grown in Walla Walla?

“It’s an economic thing,” says Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41, one of Washington’s founding wineries.

Clubb says the disparity between the prices of red and white wine grapes make the latter challenging to plant.

“You’re seeing the better vineyard sites able to charge $3,000 to $4,000, [or] even more per ton [for red wine grapes],” says Clubb. “White wines, the most you’re getting per ton—and I mean the most—is like $1,800. If you do the math on that, there’s a thinner profit margin with the whites, unless it’s an estate-driven deal.”

L’Ecole, though, has been doing just that. It’s made high-quality, estate-grown white wines from Walla Walla since 1999. However, the winery has had little company.

Megan and Marty Clubb, co-owners of L'Ecole No. 41 / Photo courtesy L'Ecole
Megan and Marty Clubb, co-owners of L’Ecole No. 41 / Photo courtesy L’Ecole

Cult producer Cayuse Vineyards has long made a top-quality Viognier, but the wine is sold by mailing list allocation and nearly unobtainable. The same goes for Reynvaan Family Vineyards, which makes extraordinary, but allocated, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and a white Rhône-style blend.

Recently, however, things seem to be changing in Walla Walla Valley, as an increasing number of winemakers are trying their hand at white wines. Though the numbers remain small, there has been enough success to convince skeptics.

“I have always said Walla Walla is too hot for whites—stick to reds,” says Chris Figgins, president/wine director at Figgins Family Wine Estates, which includes the valley’s first winery, Leonetti Cellar, founded in 1977. “Now I’m starting to taste some really fun wines.”

In particular, Figgins says he’s excited about the potential for white Rhône varieties like Grenache Blanc and Roussanne.

“They’re lively. They are interesting. They’re well balanced and have some nerve.”

Vineyard at the Figgins Family Wine Estates / Photo courtesy Figgins
Vineyard at the Figgins Family Wine Estates / Photo courtesy Figgins

What’s changed? In part, it’s been the steady drumbeat of Tim Donahue, instructor of enology at Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology and Viticulture.

Donahue laughs when asked what’s contributed to the recent changes. “It’s been 10 years of me beating everyone over the head,” he says.

Donahue has encouraged students and area winemakers to consider white wine production, given the quicker turnaround time for their release and lower overall cost to make.

“From a portfolio perspective, Walla Walla wasn’t particularly diversified when I got here,” says Donahue. “It was all big reds, which is great if you have the capital and cash flow to make those happen. With white wines, it really helps wineries meet that immediate cash need to keep them afloat.”

“It’s been 10 years of me beating everyone over the head.” –Tim Donahue, instructor of enology, Walla Walla Community College Institute for Enology and Viticulture

However, it’s not just cashflow that has Donahue championing Walla Walla Valley whites. Growers have also explored higher-elevation sites that can offer cooler temperatures and longer hang time compared to many areas of the larger Columbia Valley.

“A number of regions in Walla Walla are really some of the best places in Washington to grow white wine,” says Donahue.

Perhaps most intriguing, while irrigation is required to grow wine grapes in most of desert-dry eastern Washington, areas of the valley near the Blue Mountains that see greater rainfall might provide an exception.

“There may be some places in the foothills of the Blues where they can dry-grow white wine [grapes],” says Donahue. “That’s a new frontier that’s just being explored.”

With Homegrown Expansion and Boldfaced New Talent, Walla Walla Enters its Third Wave

Recent high-quality white wine offerings include Viognier, Grenache Blanc,

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Source: Wine Enthusiast

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