David Stephenson Introduces The Walla Walla AVA

Ξ June 23rd, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Interviews, WALLA WALLA, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Young Winemakers |

A curious thing happened on the way to Milton-Freewater, Oregon, a small agricultural town a few miles south of Walla Walla, and home to the vineyard of winemaker David Stephenson, just across the road from Cayeuse. What was to have been a vineyard tour first passed through Mr. Stephenson’s remarkable introduction to Walla Walla’s wine growing past, present, and ambitions. I shall be doing a second post on the vineyard portion of my visit as well as the stop at Stephenson Cellars itself. But, for now I felt it would be particularly helpful for fellow wine writers and bloggers here for the Wine Bloggers Conference to be brought up to speed via his spirited account of the AVA.
Mr. Stephenson produces round 1,000 cases a year. He is also a consultant, helping with site location, variety selection, bonding paperwork, fruit contracts, the whole deal. As he has said, “In two years I can take anyone from zero to winery”. His knowledge of the local scene makes him an invaluable source of information for visiting bloggers. Indeed, though he is not, sadly, currently on the list of wineries the bloggers are scheduled to visit, I strongly recommend they make their way down to his tasting room at 15 South Spokane St. here in Walla Walla, just minutes from the Marcus Whitman Hotel.
Admin I’ve heard repeatedly about cooperation among winemakers here in Walla Walla. You’re view?
David Stephenson There is a unique level of cooperation here in Walla Walla. It’s a small town. We all know each other. We have to eat at the same restaurants and stare at each other. We tend to get along. But it’s really about trying to lift everybody up at the same time, because if we have people who’ve driven six hours, or who come here from New York or Chicago, and they have a bad experience at any of the wineries, then that carries through for the rest of their visit. It kind of shadows the valley. So we all made a decision early on, the people who founded this place, the wine community, that it made a whole lot more sense to make sure everybody was successful. We’ll let the marketplace sort out your competitors. We’re not competing against each other. We’re competing against ourselves.
What percentage of the local production goes outside of the Walla Walla AVA?
DS As far as the fruit… that’s a tough question. I would say, this is a guess, about half. There are some relatively large wineries that have locks on some of the old, established vineyards here. Long-standing contracts. They understand that it probably helps to lift the quality of their wines buying our fruit. Basically, I would say that the percentage is high for wineries here in Walla Walla that source fruit outside of the AVA as well. One of the things we’ve learned in Washington, at least Eastern Washington, is that it’s a pretty unpredictable place weather-wise. So you need to hedge your bets, I believe. So if I’m exclusively one AVA, there is a chance that about every six years you’re going to freeze. And when you do, you don’t get any fruit. So you either raise your prices 20% to cover the loss, or you try and source fruit from outside the valley. A lot of folks just don’t want the headache of that. There is great fruit all over, so it makes sense to borrow from each other, if we can.
So how does Walla Walla understand the distinctions between its terroirs and the terroirs of the Yakima Valley, or other locales?
DS Oh, you know, that’s still an on-going discussion! Over the years I kind of go back and forth on the whole concept, wondering if it exists [terroir], because I have in my own vineyard sometimes as much difference from one end of the vineyard to the other as there is from one end of this valley to the other end. There’s just a lot of different micro-climates. It’s a pretty large, expansive area. And I think that anybody who comes to Eastern Washington is blown away by just how huge the wine growing areas are. I mean, they stretch to Idaho; they stretch up to the Canadian border; they stretch all the down to Bend, Oregon. So it’s just an enormous amount of real estate. That said, Walla Walla does seem to have a real lushness and warmth to the fruit that I think shows through. It’s not like any other place. That doesn’t mean it’s worse or better. It’s just different. And I really enjoy working with the fruit from here.
I’ve settled here. I’ve bought vineyard ground.
And when was your first vintage?
DS It was 2001, my first commercial release. I had worked for a lot of the bigger wineries for 3 or 4 years prior to that. I apprenticed with some really great guy that showed me a lot; showed me what not to do as well. I was real appreciative of that. I’ve been around for awhile compared to most of the valley, I guess.
Yes. I noticed that there are two major wine books about Washington, including Walla Walla, of course. And even though they were published in 2008 they already seem to be seriously out of date.
DS They are completely out of date. Our growth has been exponential. A lot of what is happening is, and there is a lot of romanticism that goes with this, but there are just a lot of people who’ve worked hard their whole lives, and they get to be about 50 or 55 and they wonder what do they want to do in their retirement years. They are productive people, professionals, successful in their fields, so they want something that’s challenging but at the same time enjoyable. So they come here. For as many baby boomers as there are, we talk about an aging population, that’s the demographic that really wants to start these wineries. They maybe spent their college years in Europe and haven’t been back, or they visited and want to have a piece of that enjoyment. I sometimes think there are more people who want to start wineries than there are people who want to buy wine.
Is there any conflict between established wheat growers and the pursuit of new vineyard acreage? I’m thinking with respect to land prices.
DS Initially there was. But it has really balanced out. What you see now is wheat farmers who often own vineyards. They are not foolish. They understand that if the land prices go up exponentially, and they’re sitting on 3,000 acres, if it goes up ten times that’s not exactly bad for them. It’s tough to farm. If you wanted to get into wheat farming, if that was your life’s goal, to do that without an existing farm would be pretty difficult. That’s just the way things are.
But as far as taxes on land… that must be burdensome.
DS Well, you know, farmers, we take care of ourselves. There are tax exemptions. You don’t pay the same as if you had an apartment building on your property. Oregon, especially, is very, very protective of their farming ground, their agricultural land. In fact, the vineyard we’re heading to now are in what is called an ‘exclusive farm use area’. I couldn’t build a home. If there is not already an existing home you’re not allowed to occupy any square foot of that land except for agriculture. You have to go with your hat in your hand and beg the planning department if you want to put up any sort of structure that would take any acreage out of production. In exchange for that you have dramatically reduced taxes. It really does work to keep it in agriculture.
What about the erosion of your agricultural base? In California a farmer pulling down $50,000 a year might be approached by some real estate speculator who wants to build McMansions. He’s offered millions of dollars for his 100 acres. He’s 70. What’s he going to say? Of course he’ll take the money.
DS We’ve seen some of that here, south of town, toward the slopes of the Blue Mountains. There was a lot of 10 acre zoning that were wheat farms; but that seems to have slowed down. People have realized that it’s much better to live in town if you want a to have a second of third home. You’ve got services. You’re not dealing with well failures, mowing, and agriculture all the way around you. It’s really no fun living in a dirt zone, unless you’re farming it. It’s not that romantic.
So what about water rights? What percentage would you guess, of course, it has to do with locale, but what is the percentage of vineyards dry-farmed? And what are the irrigation protocols for many of the wineries?
DS That’s a good question. Very few wineries or vineyards here are dry-farmed. This road we’re sitting on here is the road down into Oregon. Basically, the rule of thumb is that every mile that you go to the East you pick up an inch of rain. We’re at about 17, 18 inches. It’s almost like clockwork. As you go up the slopes you pick up more water. Basically, as you get this rising elevation, you tend to scrub a little bit more moisture out of the thunderstorms. The difficulty with this area is that we have an enormous amount of water. Walla Walla means ‘many waters’. We’ve got creeks and springs bubbling everywhere. The aquifers are good. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going down–but that’s not due to grape farming. Grape farming uses minimal amounts. The biggest issue that we have is that if you turn your apple orchard, or your cherry orchard, your irrigated fields over to grapes, you’re going to use a tiny percentage of the water that you used to. There is a kind of ‘use it, or lose it’ rule. If you don’t use your 36 inches per year, you may well forfeit it. You can lose it forever.
You lose it forever? So they determine your allocation by how much has been historically used? So your incentive is to use as much of your allocation as possible even though you’ve switched over to grapes?
DS It’s a terrible system. My right is for 36 inches per year. So you’ll see out here cow pasture where people have a pump going year-round. They just flood-irrigate the field. They just have it running because if they don’t use it up, they’re going to lose it. We all know that in the future that water will be gold. None of this happen without water. Land doesn’t have any value here if you don’t have an irrigation source for it.
We don’t get any rain from basically this point until the end of September, sometimes into October, we’re not going to get an inch of rain. So, unlike France, or other places that dry farm, we get our 18, 20, 22 inches, but it’s all in the Wintertime. We’re in a little bit different situation. We desperately need to irrigate.
Speaking of France, when a winemaker first starts out here who do they turn to? To what nation’s winemaking traditions do they model their winemaking? I’ve noticed a certain use of oak, shall we say.
DS I would say Rhone is closer. We have a very hot climate. You wouldn’t know it now because it’s temperate, but we’re usually scorching in the 90s right now; that’ll go to a 100, sometimes 110 in the Summertime. Tempranillo is here as well. But it was Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, that’s sort of made in more of a California style. Some want to go to the oak. You want bigger, bigger, bigger, because that is, quite frankly, what your customers want. If you want big scores, you go with lots of oak and heavily extracted fruit. But at some point, you kind of settle down. You make the wines that you love to make. You gain confidence over time. I think you can then throttle back and start paying attention to subtleties. But initially, if you look around, you’ll see that this stuff has not been planted to grapes for very long; I think 40 years is about the oldest vineyard here. Most of them are 10 years, 8 years. And so, with that you get this explosion of new, raw, big, bold, beautiful fruit. They’ve got an excess of carbohydrates. It’s fun while it lasts, but at some point we’re going to settle down here.
Where do folks turn for their rootstock?
DS There are a couple of nurseries. Washington is a little different because we grow on our own rootstocks, predominately. We’re not using any rootstock here. We don’t have phylloxera at this point. We are too bloody cold; too bloody hot. That we can plant vines ungrafted is another thing that I think gives Washington really unique wines. We’re not having to control for the effects of rootstocks. What you’re getting is kind of a pure blast of Cabernet, or whatever varietal you’ve cuttings of.
Do you pay attention to clones?
DS There is some attention. I would say that that research is a long ways away. We’re still trying to figure out what site grows fruit. We’re in our absolute infancy. We just haven’t been doing this for very long. and, again, if you look at how much space we have left in the Walla Walla Valley, it’s an enormous area.
We have about 1800 acres under grape cultivation in the entire AVA. I will tell you that there is a new expansion we’re going to be right below [Seven Hills]. It will be about 2000 acres in size. That will double the acreage in the Walla Walla Valley AVA with that one planting alone. So, we’re kind of on the radar now. We’re starting to see a lot more outside money coming in.
So, a new winemaker would essentially turn to a limited number of viticulturalists and siting experts in the area and be told what most are told. There is a model or a pattern.
DS There is a pattern that gets you in the door. Then, after that, you begin sourcing from small, little independent farmers. And this the community of Milton-Freewater, very different from Walla Walla. This is the old time agriculture: cherries and apples and prunes. And now grapes as well. There are lots of little pocket vineyards in here that are fun to play with.
Interesting. So there might be an apple grower here, for example, who might plant an acre of vines. Winemakers would then spot buy, as it were.
DS Yes. Absolutely. And there are a lot of winemakers here who work with a farmer. They’ll go up to an orchardist with a 100 acres and ask for five acres to plant under a long-term contract. Then they’ll split the development costs. The farmer gets the ’sure thing’. The winery owner has clear ideas of what he wants to see, what varieties… there’s a lot less risk for both of them.
—As mentioned above, a second post on Mr. Stephenson’s vineyard itself will be forthcoming.—


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