WALLA WALLA: Nouveau Red
Uncorking the chic side of rural Washington
MY AUNT PAM, A POLISHED, Gucci-wearing, Met-season-ticket-holding, 31-year-old financial headhunter, lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She's one of those New Yorkers who would never consider living in a borough as remote as Brooklyn or Queens. So when she broke the news that she was moving cross-country to Walla Walla, Washington, to help her husband open their own winery, I laughedlong and hard. Sonoma, maybe, but backwoods Walla Walla?
It turns out, the joke's on me. Walla Walla is emerging onto American oenophiles' radar screen as fast as the bottles of its award-winning L'Ecole No. 41 and Woodward Canyon Winery reds are being uncorked around the world. Although the area's oldest winery, Leonetti Cellar, opened in 1977, the rise of Walla Wallafrom sleepy college town to an oasis of hip in a decidedly rural part of the statehas taken place primarily over the past five years. Since roughly 2000, denizens of cosmopolitan coolyoung professionals in their mid-thirties, like Pam and her husband, Greg Harrington, a veteran sommelier of both Emeril Lagasse's and Wolfgang Puck's cellarshave moved here for the emerald-green rolling hills dotted with Wyeth-style farmhouses and a drier climate that's well suited to cultivating merlot, syrah, and cabernet sauvignon grapes. Along with urban sophistication, this influx has brought the talent and funding to open 70 wineries and counting. The new wave includes wine entrepreneurs of all kinds, from Pepper Bridge's Jean-François Pellet, a third-generation vintner from Switzerland, to Chuck Reininger, a former Rainier climbing guide. Considering that Walla Walla is a rising superstar in the firmament of American winemaking, I've decided to join the line of the young and urbane checking it outin the name of family, of course.
After a quick breakfast in my palatial two-story "cottage" at Basel Cellars, Greg picks me up to begin my tour of Walla Walla wine country. We bounce along the rural JB George Road on our way to Va Piano Vineyards, where Greg is making his first barrels of syrah. As he points out Saviah Cellars and Waters Winery, off in the distance, Greg explains what possessed him to start his winemaking career in the isolated southeastern corner of Washington, three hours from Spokane.
"I was impressed with the region," Greg explains. "Some of the syrahs they're making here are as good as in France." And he should knowten years ago, at age 26, he was awarded a diploma from London's Court of Master Sommeliers. It also doesn't hurt that the land here is more affordable than in California's classic wine regions. Greg recently closed on his ten acres on JB George Road, which will eventually be the home of Gramercy Cellars, named for the lush park in Manhattan; the first vintage will be uncorked in the spring of 2007.
In the morning, I learn the finer points of winemaking, including "punch-down," in which Greg jabs a huge vat of his blueberry-looking grapes with a metal pole, which releases the tannins to give the wine more flavor and color. Then I spend the afternoon strolling historic Main Street with 35-year-old mixed-media artist Squire Broel, a Walla Walla native who moved back to his hometown from Hong Kong and Seattle. Squire seems to know every one of the 30,000 residents. As we walk out the door at Starbucks, we run into Sarah, a friend of Squire's, who also happened to be my waitress at the CreekTown Café the night before. I've been in Walla Walla for less than 24 hours, and even I am running into familiar faces.
From friendly locals like Squire and fly-fisherman Skip Pritchard (the guide who helped me perfect my loop right before I fell into Mill Creek) to athletes like freeskier Ingrid Backstrom and Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe, the mix of folks who have savored the smart-country vibe is eclectic. Add to this the big-time chefs opening upscale restaurants26 Brix and Whitehouse-Crawford, to name a fewin a town that's full of public sculpture by such artists as Deborah Butterfield and local Jim Dine, and suddenly the idea of moving to the middle of nowhere to fulfill your dreams doesn't seem so crazy after all.