Trip to Walla Walla for AAWE Conference

Been busy working on a project so I have not had time to put something together for our trip to Walla Walla until now. I attended the American Association of Wine Economists ( conference last month in Walla Walla. I have attended every AAWE conference except NJ and presented research on the wine industry. If you like anything that deals with research in wine economics, marketing, business, ratings, etc., I highly recommend attending. Great people, great food, great venues, and, of course, great wine all make the trip exciting each year. Next year, the conference is in Mendoza, Argentina and the following year in Bordeaux. Cost is around $400 to register but includes three formal lunches and dinners plus all the wine you could want to try and a wine tour. Very interesting papers this year. My favorite was probably the optimization model for cellar management and consumption given budget and cellar size constraints.

Overall it was a great trip with some good wines. Downtown is great place to walk around and spend time wandering. You can definitely do a couple days touring out in each direction. The drive from Portland up the gorge is beautiful as well. Sorry for the long write up.

The last day of the AAWE conference is always a wine tasting trip around the region. This year was especially interesting as we had Dr. Pogue, aka Dr. Terroir, give us a tour of a few vineyards. We started at Christophe Baron’s Cayuse Vineyard in the rocks. He explained how “the rocks” is getting their own sub AVA this year. There are approximately 3,700 acres in the new AVA with 300 in vineyards, and many in apples for cider. About a dozen wineries are making wine from the Rocks. In his opinion, it is the most distinct single vineyard terroir in the new world. The volcanic basalt rocks are about 400 feet deep and, thus, allow for a lot of drainage. The water table is about 1,000 feet deep. This is much different than Chateuneuf Du Pape region where the rocks are only about 10 feet deep and the soil is heavy clay. The rocks give the wines very high ph. The rocks came from the river flooding and disbursing the rocks in a fan pattern through the valley. The rocks get extremely hot during the summer days, so hot that you can’t touch them, and have a cooling effect at night. The cost for vineyard land is around $30,000 an acre now.

Cayuse is all biodynamically farmed. Because of the cold temperatures during the winter, Christophe buries a vine each year in case of freeze damage. The average yield is around 2 tons/acre for Syrah.

This is the new Horsepower vineyard. They are planted only one meter apart so a tractor does not fit. All the land work is done with horses, hence the name Horsepower.

A visit to SJR vineyard was next with Steven Robinson. Steven explained how the rocks raise the temperature 6-7’ F in the grape zone from radiation heat. They don’t plant any cover crops to maintain the heat. He talked about how the last 10 days before harvest is where all of the flavor comes from. In 10 years, he believes there will be about 1,000 acres of vineyards in the Rocks AVA. Really interesting to hear how they manage their vineyard down to the row, rather than the block, for temperature, terroir, etc. He feels many wineries in the region will be moving to estate fruit soon. They plan to expand their wine production once his daughter comes back from Napa. Currently they sell grapes to Gramery, Rasa, and Rotie.

We visited another vineyard right up the street from SJR called Seven Hills. The terroir here is much different as they are outside “the Rocks” AVA. Walking between the two, the difference was obvious. These areas were created by the flood and sediments from the Missoula River. Most of it is Muscovite mica from granite. Much more silt here and cover crops have to be used. In the higher elevation, the warmer and windier conditions cause the grapes to have small berries with thick skins. The temperature can be 30’F higher than the valley floor.

After visiting the vineyards we tasted at a few wineries. I took brief notes at each with my phone, thus the notes do not have a lot of detail. In general, I would say most of the wines are higher acid and more terroir driven than the fruit forward wines I tend to get in Paso Robles. All were current releases.

Amavi Cellars is a nice place. They are the sister to Pepper Bridge Winery. Cabernet: Balanced but had some acid. Tasted cherry with a strong tannic backbone. Ceres: More fruit forward, very bright and big bodied, puckering leather, and spice finish.

Basel Cellars is a grand facility with a resort you can stay at. Rose: Crisp and clean, nice balance between fruit and acid. Claret: Lighter, earth driven notes, smooth tannins, little fruit, short finish and not very deep. ’07 Merriment: Very deep and tannic, a lot of structure, earth, leather, and acid. Long finish. Nice wine that could use significantly more time.

Next we visited the new incubators by the airport. It is a very interesting concept where it is a Port Economic Development Zone to assist the new wineries in developing. As an economic incentive, they receive a significantly discounted rent that gradually increases over time as the business gets established. There is a six-year limited time horizon for them to get on their feet and move to their own location. Wineries in the incubator area are limited to production of 1,000 cases.

Kontos- white: balanced between butter and acid, light, lemony, not much fruit. Cabernet: A lot of tannins and structure, pepper, earth, not much fruit. Merlot: Smooth and medium bodied, red cherry fruit. Altus: Smokey tobacco but smooth. Had some sweetness. Rich and complex.

Corvus- Cuvee: Red fruit driven, smooth finish, not a lot of depth. Locaux: Bright fruit but moderate acids, dark long finish, a little hot on nose. Cabernet: Hot on nose, bright and not a lot of depth. Syrah: Very nice, balance fruit and earth. Very rich and complex.

We visited the Walla Walla Community College Wine Program. Great program and some very good wines; outstanding QPR. If anyone is interested in a two-year program to learn winemaking, etc. I would highly recommend looking at them. Note all these wines are made by students, under direction of professors. Most of the wines are very approachable now. They are open for tasting. Rose: Clean, dry, not too high acid, but not a lot to it. Viognier: floral, smooth and balanced with some earth, very nice. Carmenere: Light side, pepper, spice, moderate tannins, not a lot of fruit. Syrah: medium bodied, pepper, tart, shorter finish, some red fruit and tobacco. Cabernet: green pepper and bright, moderate body and tannins, leather, very young.

Went to dinner at Saffron, very good food. Also enjoyed Brassiere Four.

Spent an extra day and went around Walla Walla tasting. Didn’t get to everyone I wanted, but visited some nice wineries and met some great people.

Rasa, neat building out in the vineyards. Only about 10 minutes from downtown. Composer: Tart, refreshing, lemons, very dry. Vox Populi: Some acid, toasted cigar, red fruit, balanced with some earthiness (Seven Hills Fruit). Bacchus: tobacco, rich, long finish, very earth driven. QED: Balance of tobacco and earth with some structure and spice. Not to fruit driven. Decent amount of acid. Cabernet: Green pepper, light in body, soft tannins.

Walked 10 feet and tasted with Mackey- Syrah: smooth bright fruit, light tannins, some spice and pepper. Condordia: Bright nose, cedar, earth, coffee, pepper, very long finish. Columbia Cabernet: Tobacco and earth, moderate tannins, silky texture, plums, medium finish. Red Mountain Cabernet: Leather tobacco spice and tannins. Dark chocolate, long finish. Right Bank: Elegant, mineral balanced with fruit. Oak on the finish. Riesling: Citrus, honey, balance acid and sweetness.

Pepper Bridge, nice views and good location. Trine: Red fruit, herbs, a lot of tannins and structure, long finish. ’11 cabernet: Cloves, coffee with brighter berries. Softer long finish. Some cherry cola flavor. ’10 Cabernet: Dark cherries and fruit. Cedar and pepper. Strong acid and long tannic finish. ’07 reserve cabernet: Red fruit with cedar, smooth and silky texture. Some spice.

Rotie, right downtown on the second story. White: Citrus, lemon, good body and moderate acid. Southern Blend: Bright, light, fresh. Some fruit balanced with earth. Northern Blend: Smooth, very earthy combined with floral. Nicely balanced. Homage: Smokey, tea, firm tannins, very long finish.

Gramercy, neat tasting room outside of downtown. Rose: smooth, light fruit. Refreshing. Duvillage: Balance of tartness and earth. Smokey, medium bodied. Moderate tannins. Syrah: Very balanced of tartness and earth, good structure. Not a ton of fruit. Medium finish. Syrah 2: Pepper, smoked meat, red fruit, right balance of acid, tannins, and structure for me. Tempranillo: Tart, earth, red fruit, cedar, good structure. Balanced tannins.

Maison Bleue, downtown right across from the Marcus Whitman where we stayed Blue tasting room gives it a cool vibe. Chardonnay: Lemony, good amount of acid, balanced, with a creamy long finish. Honeydew, melons. Blanc: Stone fruit, balance of acid and creaminess. Long earthy driven finish. Montagnette: Cherries, firm tannins. Pretty balanced with a long finish and ripe fruit. Le Midi: Pepper, herbs, silky tannins, smooth finish. Syrah: Meaty and earthy balanced with spice and minerals. Very elegant with supple tannins.

Kerloo: Right next door to Maison Bleue. Rose: Tart, strawberries, dry with nice body. Tempranillo: Smooth and rich, deep, dark fruit, and complex. Spicy long finish. Syrah: Stems, structure, Smokey meat with earth and red fruit. Had a good amount of acid. Malbec: Hot on the nose. Dark fruit, tannins but not a long finish. Mineral and spice balance. Chewy texture.

Nice report, Michael. WW can be a pretty interesting place, particularly if you get down to the level of getting to see some of the top vineyards. I’ve consumed quite a bit of wine in the Rocks area and at the top of seven hills (both areas are actually in Oregon, by the way, even though they are in the WW appellation.

Both the Walla Walla AVA and the Columbia Valley AVA are predominately Washington, but also contain areas of Oregon. Some of the best wine coming out of Walla Walla (and thus considered Washington wine) is actually grown in Oregon (Cayuse, No Girls, Horsepower, much of Reynvaan, DoubleBack, various other estate vineyards for PepperBridge, Sleight of Hand, Gramercy, L’Ecole 41, etc).

The only thing I don’t like about The Rocks of Milton-Freewater becoming its own AVA, is that there will only be a handful of wineries in the Walla Walla area who can use the AVA name, but wineries in the Willamette Valley will be able to use it if they buy fruit from there. The area is absolutely distinctive and deserves special recognition as such, but federal law only allows wineries within the same state as an AVA to use the AVA name on the label. This works fine for the Walla Walla AVA, since it is both OR and WA, but The Rocks will only be OR, and so only OR wineries will be able to use the AVA name. Cayuse (if they want), Zerba, Delmas, and a few others in M-F will be able to use the name, while Sleight of Hand and Dusted Valley (who have an estate vineyard in The Rocks) will not. In other words, it’ll be an AVA, but with virtually no marketing or use.