Travel: Walla Walla wineries
In search of the quintessential grape of Eastern Washington

WALLA WALLA, Wash. — If you are passionate about your work, it sometimes takes on a life of its own. So it is in the wine business.

When Jean-François Pellet, one of the premier winemakers in the Pacific Northwest, discusses the syrah grape, it’s easy to think he is talking about a person.

“It’s an extremely delicate grape,” said Pellet, who oversees wine production at Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars. “In fact, it reminds me of pinot noir, in that it seems very masculine but it doesn’t like to be touched.”

Pellet, a third-generation winemaker from Switzerland, settled in Walla Walla in 1999 — at the behest of Pepper Bridge founder Norm McKibben — after four years in California’s Napa Valley. He became known for merlot and cabernet sauvignon, but he had a passion for syrah, and the subsequent launch of Amavi enabled him to pursue that desire in more depth.

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“Syrah is very site specific to this terroir,” Pellet said, referring to the particular climate, soil and terrain in which vines are planted.

Together with photographer Barb Gonzalez, I had gone last month to Walla Walla to learn more about syrah. A dark red, spicy, medium- to full-bodied wine that originated in the Rhône region of France, syrah was introduced to California in the 1970s and to the Northwest in 1986. It is a favorite at many of the 120-plus wineries that surround this southeastern Washington city of 32,000.

Nearly every winemaker with whom I spoke applauded the versatility and adaptability of the syrah grape. I heard words like “elegant” and “intense,” “earthy” and “complex,” “powerful” and “peppery.” If there was any sort of pattern to their comments, it lay in their willingness to experiment with this grape, to take chances that they might not attempt with other varietals.

Perhaps most of all, I learned about the unique character of different vineyards — down hillsides, in river valleys, upon severely rocky ground — and how the personalities of individual producers help to shape the character of their wines.

Some winemakers pick early in the harvest season, for more acid and less alcohol content (the ideal, according to some, is about 13.5 percent), or late, for greater sweetness or “jamminess.” Some age their wines in oak for different spans of time. Some employ whole-cluster fermentation, stems and all. Some inoculate their grapes with yeast, others leave them au naturel. Some irrigate their vineyards, others believe in dry-land farming techniques.

The bottom line, I learned, is that no two syrah varietals are alike.

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Around downtown

Before delving further into the intricacies of this unique grape, however, we took some time to wander around downtown Walla Walla, “the town so nice, they had to name it twice.”

That was, at any rate, a former chamber-of-commerce slogan. In fact, it was named for the native Walla Walla Indians, who inhabited this hill country, along with the Cayuse, Palouse and Wanapum peoples, when missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman began working with the tribes in 1836. Eleven years later, upset by a measles epidemic and encroachment on their traditional lands, Cayuse renegades killed the Whitmans and razed their mission.

By that time, the benefits of farming this rich soil had already been discovered. Potatoes and later onions (Walla Walla sweets are known throughout the nation) provided an economic foundation, and the town grew slowly but steadily.

Whitman College was established in 1859 as a seminary to honor the Whitmans. It began granting four-year degrees in 1883 and shed its religious affiliation in 1907. Today, the school, its 117-acre campus just east of downtown Walla Walla, is one of the most highly regarded private liberal-arts colleges in the western United States.

We found plenty of students sharing “the best main street in the West,” as Sunset Magazine labeled it, with tourists and small business owners. Two- and three-story brick buildings cluster around Main Street and Second Avenue. Located at the foot of the Blue Mountains, 40 miles north of Pendleton and 50 miles east of the Tri-Cities, a drive of fewer than five hours northeast of Bend, Walla Walla has a classic Small Town U.S.A. ambiance.

But the city’s restaurants have a high level of sophistication, as our meals at the Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen, T. Maccarone’s and especially The Marc, in the Marcus Whitman Hotel, bore out. We didn’t have enough days to return to two of my other favorite Walla Walla restaurants, Whitehouse-Crawford and Brasserie Four.

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Tourism growth

Not surprisingly, all of these restaurants have extensive wine lists, featuring wines from Walla Walla and the Yakima Valley wine region to the west. But you need not dine to taste. Two dozen wineries have established tasting rooms within a few blocks of Second and Main, guaranteeing visitors with downtown lodging that they won’t have to drink and drive.

When the Walla Walla Valley was officially designated as an American Viticultural Area in 1984, there were only four wineries. By 2000, there were 50, and that number has already doubled. The boom became an economic mainstay for the entire community.

Tourism hitched its wagon to the flavorful grape. Hotels and motels, guest houses and bed-and-breakfast inns proliferated. Walla Walla Community College added a highly regarded Institute for Enology and Viticulture and later spawned the Wine Country Culinary Institute, training the winemakers and chefs who now play a major role in the region.

One constant through all this change has been the elegant and historic Marcus Whitman Hotel. At 13 stories the tallest building for many miles around, it was built in 1927 and fully renovated after its 1999 purchase by businessman Kyle Mussman.

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The second-floor walls are lined with 35 paintings by artist David Manuel depicting the birth-to-death story of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman — for the benefit of those who may not have an opportunity to visit the Whitman Mission National Historic Site just west of town.

On this visit, however, we set our bags at the Walla Faces Inn, a spacious condominium-style establishment just a few blocks away, between downtown and Whitman College. Its owners, Rick and Debbie Johnson, also have a second small hotel 10 minutes’ drive east, amid 8½ acres of vineyards producing cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Their vineyard hotel has a salt-water swimming pool.

Walla Faces wines are produced at a facility in Walla Walla’s airport industrial park, home to at least 15 other wineries. Each label is designed by Seattle-based, Paris-trained artist Candice Johnson, who happens to be Rick’s sister. Dozens of original oil portraits of “friends and family who have helped us realize our dream” adorn the walls of the hotels and the winery.

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Vineyard variety

I turned to new winemaker friends to help me to better understand the mystique of syrah. Over the course of three days, in addition to Jean-François Pellet, I turned to Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars, Matt Reynvaan of Reynvaan Family Vineyards, Trey Busch of Sleight of Hand Cellars, Josh McCarthy of Va Piano Vineyards and Bill vonMetzger of Walla Walla Vintners. Each brought a particular perspective to my learning curve.

One of my first discoveries was that not all grapevines require planting in rich volcanic soils or on slopes with steady drainage. That’s not a bad thing — Les Collines (French for “the hills”), on a west-facing Blue Mountain grade, is home to many of the region’s most successful vineyards. But the same can be said of The Rocks, a relatively level quadrant of extremely rocky soil on the Oregon border between Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater.

Pellet described grapes from The Rocks as “terroir-driven, with their minerality and aromatics.” Harrington called them “dense and powerful, with a lot of black pepper.” Reynvaan, whose winery owns 16½ acres of syrah-planted vineyards in The Rocks, referred to the grapes as “dark and hedonistic.”

“Syrah is kind of like pinot noir with attitude,” said Harrington, a former New York sommelier who founded Gramercy in 2005. “It has the elegance, but there is an earthiness and meatiness. I think it’s an amazing grape. It’s really at home in eastern Washington. It likes the salt, the terroir, the hot days, the cool nights.”

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Because syrah reaches flavor ripeness earlier than other varietals, Harrington said, he may start harvest as soon as mid-September, continuing through all of October. He blends the elegant, acid-driven hillside fruit of Les Collines with the more rugged Rocks grapes, whose white-pepper flavor “can take up to a year to develop,” he said. He also sources from the Red Willow vineyard, the first syrah vines in Washington, north of Prosser in the Yakima Valley.

“Syrah is our hometown hero,” Harrington said. “I’m more concerned with making a wine you can drink for 10 years, than in making one totally ready to drink the day I release it.

“I’d be wary of a syrah in a screw cap.”

Sourced in stone

Reynvaan, who released his first vintage in 2007, was a latter-day pioneer in The Rocks. After beginning his career in the vineyards of France’s Bordeaux region in 2006, he returned to his parents’ Walla Walla home and sought out Frenchman Christophe Baron, who had first discovered the potential of The Rocks a decade earlier.

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In fact, Baron named his winery Cayuse Cellars as much for the terroir (“cailloux” is French for “stones”) as for the native Cayuse tribe. He saw the fist-sized cobblestones, a legacy of the ancient Walla Walla riverbed, as similar to those of France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape region. Between 1996 and 2001, Baron planted five vineyards totally 43 acres, most of them in syrah. Today, Cayuse’s biodynamic syrahs and other wines are highly sought by wine aficionados.

I was unable to contact Baron during my Walla Walla visit, but Reynvaan, whom he continues to mentor, was pleased to talk.

“French winemaking is such a religion,” he said. “You can see it in their eyes — the importance of vineyards, of terroir. When I got back (from Bordeaux), Christophe could see in my eyes that I had picked up the passion.”

Reynvaan complemented his Rocks acreage, a terroir similar to that of Cayuse, with another 10 acres below Les Collines, in a plot he calls Foothills in the Sun. “I think what makes us separate and unique is that we only use grapes that we grow ourselves,” he said. “We let everything go native and wild. That shows the fruit better.”

Syrah is, indeed, very versatile, Reynvaan said. “But to go for the style we wanted, it was important to plant in The Rocks. I like elegant wines with a certain love for intensity. And I like to experiment. I do my best to showcase the soil and terroir.”

In several of his syrahs, he has blended small amounts (2 to 3 percent) of white grapes — viognier, marsanne and grenache blanc. His creativity paid off when his 2010 Stonessence Syrah was honored by Wine Spectator magazine with a score of 96, “the highest-rated red wine ever in the state of Washington,” Reynvaan boasted. “But you can never rest on any sort of laurel. We need to get better and better.”

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Varied styles

Everyone I spoke to, it seemed, took a slightly different approach to making syrah.

“Not a lot of varietals thrive in such a range of climates and temperatures,” said Busch, of Sleight of Hand. “Syrah has its own personality. It is a versatile grape.” That word again.

McCarthy, Va Piano’s assistant winemaker, noted that syrah is “vastly different from vineyard to vineyard. Wherever it’s planted, it tastes different.” He and owner-winemaker Justin Wylie source grapes not only from Les Collines, but also from Red Mountain, near Benton City, and from the Lewis and Portteus Vineyards, in the Yakima Valley.

All syrahs get about 30 percent whole-cluster fermentation, McCarthy said: “It adds richer color and a different flavor.”

At Walla Walla Vintners, winemaker Bill vonMetzger, who makes only a small quantity of estate syrah, spoke of a “sense of adventure” with this particular grape.

“One thing that syrah has to its advantage is that it’s very adaptable,” vonMetzger said. “You can come up with something exciting, depending on its microclimate, more than with merlot, for instance. There is much more variability. There isn’t a standard flavor profile. It tends to have some inherent earthiness, spice and darker fruit, like plum or blackberry.”

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Vineyard manager Judah Pira said he uses dry-land farming techniques at Walla Walla Vintners’ farm, monitoring the moisture level weekly. The harvest comes in mid-October. “We like to pick in the middle, when there is just a little shrivel in the berries,” he said. The wine is aged 100 percent in French oak, with 10 to 15 percent of that new oak.

That’s quite a style difference from Amavi’s Pellet.

“We ferment in small batches and let syrah do its own deal,” said the Swiss winemaker, whose wines take on a personality of their own.

“I think the central part is the picking time, which we tend to do early, so not to get jammy. And I only give syrah 10 percent aging in new oak.

“I don’t think syrah likes oak,” he said.

— Reporter: janderson@bendbulletin.com

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