So, Once Upon a Time, two sorta geeky Walla Walla guys, Gordy Veneri and Myles Anderson, started making wine as a hobby, in their garages. They got evermore absorbed in it and eventually went to school to study it, and then wound teaching winemaking at Walla Walla Community College. This eventually proved not to be enough stress and mania for the two so, in 1995, they bought an old building, on a gentle hill out on East Mill Road, a good bit away from most of the eventual boomtown community of Walla Walla viticulture and, fittingly, right on the edges of a great, hillside vineyard.
Sounds like one of those “begat” deals, doesn’t it? Kinda Biblical?
Not exactly…but in the neighborhood, fo’ sho’.
I have never met a single Washington state winemaker – or one in Oregon, for that matter – who did not immediately respond to the mention of Walla Walla Vintners with some variation on the theme or “Oh, GREAT winery!” and then go on to describe, usually in a sort of rapturous tone, a memory of their first WWV wine or their favorite or an anecdote about Gordy or Myles. There was a sort of, well, for lack of a better word, a reverence there; a recognition of great skill and maybe not even so much for Gordy and Myles – though I have yet to hear anyone say a bad word about either of them – but for the land and the grapes and the unerring judgement that percolated just beneath every WWV wine.
So, when Oregon native Scott Haladay – scion of a famed tech industry family, headed by his father, Portland legend Jay Haladay – stepped in to buy a half-interest in WWV, back in 2017, at the time of Myles Anderson’s retirement, many of us in the Washington wine culture had Reservations – complete with that capital “R”. After all, but for a scant handful of other Washington wineries, Anderson and Veneri had set an almost impossibly high bar. How the hell would – or even could – Haladay step in and not have the quality standard decline, at least a little, especially after Veneri announced his retirement just a few months later?
Well…the answer is…by not wandering too far afield. Haladay wisely hired a local kid, Derrek Vipond, a native of the Seattle area’s southern suburb, Puyalluyp, known mainly for scones and the Washington State Fair. Young Derrek somehow found out about wine and turned his gaze to the East, where nearly all of Washington’s grape production is located and where Walla Walla was already establishing itself as a major wine nexus for the Northwest and even the nation. He went from Puyallup to Walla Walla Community College’s muscular oenology program and then to the local behemoth, Abeja Winery, to Louis Martini and Long Shadows, and eventually on to the West Coast giant, Columbia Winery. Along the way, Vipond worked alongside such luminaries as Gilles Nicault, John Duvall, Michel Rolland, and Randy Dunn, so his experience base was somewhere between “epic” and “rock solid”.
It did not go unnoticed. When Haladay started looking around for a young winemaker to replace outgoing WWV winemaker, William von Metzger, the name “Vipond” kept coming up. And the rest?
Well, that currently resides in two handsome bottles that are sitting on my desk as I write this – empty, of course, because how the heck was I supposed to keep my hands off ’em?
The 2017 vintage of WWV wines is the first one made entirely under Haladay family ownership, and they are not only up to that lofty Veneri/Anderson altitude, they breathe quite comfortably in that thin and rarefied air.
Sangiovese from Washington state has always been a subject of some consternation and lots of controversy. On one side is the Tuscanophile crowd, loudly kvetching about the size and body and fruitiness of all American Sangio and muttering darkly that the grace and restraint and light-bodied, expressive character of Italian Sangiovese is being ruined by the audacity of New World growers who would DARE even try this most Italian of varietals in our sub-standard soils.
You know: wine weenie bullshit.
The simple FACT is that grapes grow in different ways when planted in different places. This “terroir” aspect of wine is not just limited to wine. Whiskeys made in Scotland, with native grains, are radically different from those made in Canada, from Alberta barley, or from those made in Kentucky, from midwestern or southern grains. Even if the exact same species of barley, wheat, or rye is used, in exactly the same amounts and proportions, the finished product will taste different. In grapes, the differences are even more dramatic. The old, tired, aggravating debate about Burgundy versus Oregon versus California has been raging among die-hard wine Pinot weenies for better than a century and, of course, picked up steam after the movie “Sideways” dragged Pinot Noir out of its comfy hidey-hole.
Burgundy freaks sneered openly at Oregon wineries as “Wannabes” and at California as “Oh, WAAAY too big!” and “soda pop“. Oregonian winemakers circled their wagons and decided to…worship Burgundy. (If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, amirite?) California Pinot geeks just sorta made their own wines and donned sackcloth and ashes and endured the slings and arrows. And it still goes on today, like thousands of winos locked in a small closet.
Mercifully, the Sangio fracas has been quieter, mostly because we were not growing vast quantities of Sangiovese grapes in the US. Pinot was everywhere, especially in Cali, where it was made into cheap jug wines for almost a century before anybody Got Serious. American winemakers admit that they’re still learning Sangio…but if what’s in this bottle is any indication, Derrek Vipond already knows.
Walla Walla Vintners Columbia Valley Sangiovese 2017 calls to mind a greatly underappreciated term: deft. Webster’s defines “deft” as, “characterized by facility and skill“. It also implies an effortless command of one’s craft. Facility and skill and an effortless grace suffuse this wine. Along with maybe three other American Sangios I’ve tasted in the past fifteen years, it shows a definite and emphatic respect for the grape’s Tuscan roots but not a whiff of slavish imitation. It stands with one foot firmly planted on Italian soil and the other unashamedly grounded it its Columbia Valley roots. The winery’s tech sheet lists this as “33% Sagemoor, 26% Seven Hills, 24% Kiona, 5% Los Oidos, and 5% Cut Bank Estate” giving this wine Pedigree, with tendrils in that neat little all-star list of the CV’s better vineyards. It’s, again, a deft blending of 93% Sangiovese, 5% Syrah, and 2% Malbec and retains a lightness of character that will grind the molars of the Italo-weenies down to a fine paste when they realize they’ll have nothing here to whine about.
This is, stating this flat-out, an elegant wine. I don’t use that word lightly. Elegance may seem prissy to a lot of people but, at its heart, says seamless flavors and structure, everything in proportion and a scale that’s thoughtful and measured, and avoids every one of the bombastic cliches that some American wine is often (maybe correctly?) accused of. It’s a gorgeously complex and emphatic wine; one in which you will NOT have to hunt around for the constituent flavors, but made on a scale that most Italian wineries would love to put into their own bottles. I would venture, in fact, that if I took this bottle and steamed off the label and slipped it into a tasting with a Tuscan or Emilia Romagna label, very few savvy wine people would even suspect a thing, except that some little estate around Monterenzio or Dozza had a really great vintage.
And the price of this hedonistic pleasure? About $30.
This is a gorgeous, masterful, casually-outstanding bottle of Italo-American red, stoopidly drinkable and subversively grand, to which I can only say, “FFS, make some more of this, willya?” 95 Points
Okay, let me just say this, here, lest anybody get all warm and runny when you read the next Thang: this wine was sent to me as a “sneak peek” and won’t be released until “early 2020“. And it’s entirely possible you may have to fight off ravening hordes to get it, ’cause they only made 150 cases. Just sayin’…
Let me just go ahead and say this:
The 2017 Walla Walla Vintners Walliser Vineyard Cabernet Franc is one of the two best Cab Francs I’ve tasted from Washington and possibly anywhere in the US, EVER, in my 20+ years of scouring this weird-ass country for any bottle of Franc I can find.
It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Sheridan Vineyard Cab Franc 2009, which I have thought, for a solid ten years, since tasting it in barrel, was ne plus ultra American Cab Franc. This WWV 17 easily races past such Cali stalwarts as Denner and Arietta and Patel, with its full, expressive rendering of hallmark red berries, cinnamon, black raspberry, Bing cherry, cedar chest, humidor, vanilla, dark roast coffee, fennel seed, heather, and cocoa powder, all coming through clearly on both nose and palate(!). I don’t have a tech sheet on this wine but I suspect that it was aged, in tiny proportion, in some very different wood, maybe Hungarian oak, as it firmly recalls, for me, the use of that rather magical wood by the late, lamented Colvin Cellars, where Mark Colvin sought out Hungarian coopers and ordered a LOT of casks.
Cabernet Franc is a very different grape from its glam offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon.(and for those who don’t know, Cabernet Sauv is a hybrid of Sauvignon Blanc(!) and Cabernet Franc, the product of what wine historians at UC-Davis suspect was an accidental cross-breeding that happened in France, in the 1700s.) Where Cab Sauv is all about black fruit, Cab Franc covers the red fruit ‘n’ berry spectrum. It also shows natural spice notes that are only occasionally present in Cab Sauv. It is capable of either inky viscosity or a Sangiovese-scale lightness. In a country which went bat-shit crazy for a troublesome, finicky, stingy grape like Pinot Noir, the relative obscurity of Cab Franc makes no damned sense at all but I know adult humans over 50 who have never tasted Cab Franc or even heard of it! (Some of these people are in my own family but, fortunately, I can – and do – just brow-beat them and tell ’em to wise up)
To nail down the technicalities, this is a 100% Cab Franc wine, aged for 15 months in 20% new French oak, and comes from the Waliser Vineyard, in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Oregon.
The cost was not nailed down, last I heard, but I’m gonna guess something less than $85 and something north of $50. If quality means anything at all.
I’m not going to suggest that the 2019 version of Walla Walla Vintners is better than the original. I am going to say that, in my opinion as a HUGE fan of the Gordy ‘N’ Myles Show, WWV is in respectful, enormously skilled, and even loving hands. It is at least as good as the original…and that is Saying Something.