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Walla Walla Winemakers Eye Vineyard Sites with Higher Elevation

September 2017
by Peter Mitham

Walla Walla, Wash.—When it comes to accumulating growing degree-days, the Walla Walla Valley AVA is in the middle of the pack.

Washington State University extension staff track data for 13 AVAs excluding the Columbia Valley and Lewis-Clark Valley but including the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, located entirely in Oregon (a station in College Place provides data for the AVA, which lies entirely within the Walla Walla Valley AVA). The long-term median is the Rattlesnake Hills AVA at 2,942 growing degree-days, while Walla Walla checks in at 2,841.

But come winter, cool air drains onto the valley floor and can cause significant damage. This past winter was one of the most difficult in five decades.

This is why it’s taken so long for Walla Walla Vintners, which underwent a change of ownership this past spring, to release a wine made solely from the 11.5-acre estate vineyard it established in 2008 on the 20-acre property where it’s been producing wine since 1995.

“There was a bit of a hesitancy with our two founders to plant early, because they wanted to see higher elevations provide out,” said Scott Haladay, who purchased a stake in Walla Walla Vintners earlier this year with the retirement Myles Anderson, who co-founded the winery with Gordy Venneri.

The success of the adjacent Mill Creek Upland vineyard that Leonetti Cellars planted in 1997 about 100 feet further up the slope from Walla Walla Vintners persuaded Anderson and Venneri to pursue an estate vineyard.

Walla Walla Vintners’ Cut Bank Vineyard, as the estate property is known, sits at 1,500 feet elevation and is planted to a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and Syrah. Despite a prolonged stretch of cold weather this past winter, it lost just 5% of its Merlot.

“I think being up higher is a benefit to ensure that you have quality year in, year out and consistency of output,” Haladay said. “Everybody has a little bit of freeze damage from this really cold winter, but folks that are down on the valley floor were significantly more affected than vineyards up higher.”

Looking to the future, Haladay expects Walla Walla Vintners to shift from sourcing 80% of its fruit from non-estate vineyards to sourcing just half from other properties. While estate-grown fruit will make a bigger contribution to Walla Walla Vintners’ wines, Haladay doesn’t expect them to become a primary focus.

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