In wine, Walla Walla plants a new field of dreams
They're all over the place. In an old blacksmith shop and an historic schoolhouse on the way to the livestock auction. In steel-sided equipment sheds. Old barns. Warehouses at the airport. Even in a former fire station.
In the golden, rolling swells of Walla Walla wheat country, 52 wineries have grown where only 26 stood three years ago. Some think the number could nearly double yet again.
The new Walla Walla is farmers greeting their European wine-making help with a kiss on each cheek in the barn converted to a wine cellar and tasting room.
It's 40 acres of grapes, worth 10,000 acres of wheat.
It's a sidewalk cafe where the lunchtime talk is not about the price of wheat but about hand-fashioned oak wine barrels and the talk is between a Belgian distributor and a Swiss winemaker speaking French over a $52 bottle of cabernet.
The new Walla Walla is stretch limos rattling down gravel farm lanes and helicopters touching down between the vineyards, carrying fancypants wine tasters seeking the valley's now world-famous reds.
But it's also a nasty court fight to put restrictions on wineries proposed for construction in some of the county's best agricultural land.
And it's longtime residents who say while this place will never be California's vaunted Napa, they wonder if it can remain Walla Walla.
Rick Small, a pioneer of the Walla Walla wine industry and internationally acclaimed winemaker at Woodward Canyon Winery, is the third generation to work his family's land in the valley.
He has framed the menu from the 1993 presidential lunch at Blake Island that featured one of his wines.
But he also greets visitors in work clothes stained with merlot, and houses the winery in a metal equipment shed.
He is amazed and a bit creeped-out to be recognized on the street as a celebrity winemaker.
He wonders where all this is headed: Already there is change from winemakers rooted in the valley, who make the wine themselves, to winemakers hired by investors with no connection to the land or the wine they sell.
Small sees a sense of entitlement in the wine industry now, and a flash that doesn't fit with the Walla Walla he knows.
"There has always been a lot of wealth here because of wheat, and wealth that was old money, versus new," says his wife, Darcey Fugman-Small. "It was very quiet.
"The new wealth throws it out there and drives up and down in a BMW or a Hummer. They want you to know. And that grates on the old-timers. It's, 'So-and-so was president of the bank, and he never did that.' "
Small doesn't want to see the downtown where you can still get a vacuum-cleaner bag and a haircut as well as an $80 bottle of wine become wall-to-wall tasting rooms, driving the locals away.
They both see a town on the cusp but of what?
"The things that we all value here the most could be the most at risk, as this thing evolves and changes," Small says.
THE WALLA WALLA wine boom detonated in just the last few years, and it's not over yet. The valley will probably have 80 wineries within the next five years, says Marty Clubb, head of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, an industry group.
The industry now is glutted, with too many grapes and too many brands fighting for shelf space. Walla Walla producers, who built the appellation's name on premium wines, may have to struggle to maintain prices.
Walla Walla's high-end niche was born of necessity. With limited acreage suitable for growing grapes, Walla Walla needed to corner a market focused on quality, not quantity.
"We don't make enough to make Two-Buck Chuck," says Norm McKibben, managing partner of Pepper Bridge Winery, a maker of premium reds.
Still, McKibben thinks the valley can support as many as 100 wineries. "No one yet thinks it's reached its peak, even in this economy. And we've never had a winery fail. We'll see 2,000 people go through here for a spring-release weekend at our winery, and we charge $8 to taste."
But Napa it's not, and will never be. The valley has too little acreage suited to vineyards, and it's too far from big cities.
Napa is within comfortable driving distance for millions of people in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. The biggest city near Walla Walla is the Tri-Cities and it's an hour away.
But if Walla Walla is an island, being an island has its advantages, too: Any tourist who comes here meant to, and is staying for the weekend.
"That helps feed the whole economy," Clubb says.
Jerry "Spud" Cundiff can vouch for that. He owns the family jewelry shop on Main Street and its historic sidewalk clock that's wound with a brass key big as a banana.
"We had to put an extra person in the store because Saturdays have become so busy," Cundiff says. Open nearly a century, it's one of the oldest continuously operating stores in Walla Walla; the first state constitutional convention convened upstairs.
The industry is also contributing more directly to the revitalization of Main Street, where some winemakers are buying buildings to renovate as tasting rooms and wineries.
"I come from Europe I've always loved old buildings," says Christophe Baron, who spent $450,000 on an old downtown brothel he wants to convert into space for his wine business.
The scion of a family making champagne in France since 1677, Baron moved to Walla Walla in 1996 to make wine, drawn by the remarkable soil. The mailing list for his Cayuse Vineyards reds is closed. More than 500 people are waiting to get on it.
"Some people are upset," Baron says, his hands raised, palms up, in disbelief. "They say I should make more. But there is not only wine in life."
TO FIND OUT how this place is changing, just ask the folks at the landmark Marcus Whitman Hotel.
General manager Kyle Mussman keeps track of the town's evolving image by the reaction he gets when he travels and tells folks he lives in Walla Walla. "It used to be, 'the pen and the onion,' he says, referring to the town's famous vegetable and infamous inmates. "Now I hear the pen less, the onion is still king, but wine is getting up there."
"It used to be, you'd have the wine-tasting weekend crowd, and the rest of the week it was people wanting chicken and ribs or their ahi cooked all the way through."
These days, Walla Walla entertains correspondents from Wine Spectator and Travel and Leisure. Sunset magazine named its Main Street best in the West in 2002.
But this is a town that already had the oldest continuously operating symphony orchestra west of the Mississippi; the state's first college and one of its first newspapers; and a trove of historic buildings so rich the city has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. Downtown was already getting a makeover.
Its residents routinely approve school levies, and even voted to renovate two historic school buildings at a cost of nearly $20 million.
"It would be real easy to say Walla Walla is all about the wine industry," says Mark A. Anderson, born and raised in Walla Walla, and a Whitman grad who started the Walla Walla Foundry in 1980, where world-renowned artists cast their art.
"But this has been a prosperous town from the beginning, and it's a culturally strong community that is pretty diverse economically."
To keep Walla Walla's wine scene in perspective, ask Jack Garner, a retired construction manager, and his wife, Dorothy, a homemaker trained as a beautician, what they like about the town they've lived in since 1945.
It isn't the marvelous merlot. Or the ethereally light, crisp calamari with ginger and two dipping sauces at the Whitehouse Crawford.
"We're too cheap to eat at the Whitehouse Crawford," says Jack, 80, who worked there when it was still a planing mill and carpentry shop. "We eat at the Elk's Club. And we're not really wine people. I don't like the taste."
"No, you don't like the price," chimes in Dorothy, 78.
The Garners buy Wild Vines Merlot, blackberry flavored, with a screw top, yours for $3.69. But truth be known, Jack is more of a Canadian Mist guy.
"I spent $20 on a bottle of wine, and I don't think it tasted as good as this," says Jack, plunking the Wild Vines bottle on the coffee table where, fresh from the fridge, its sides begin to sweat.
"Look at what a pretty bottle that is!" he says.
As for the wine industry, "Oh, that hasn't changed our life one bit," says Jack.
But they are pleased with the changes downtown, the new shops and restaurants, the tasting rooms and wineries they read about in the paper. "I like to see it, it's good, and don't you think downtown is cute? I'm really proud of it," says Dorothy.
The Garners' personal guided tour of Walla Walla is of Palouse Street, with its stately homes; the manicured grounds of Whitman College; the leafy coolness of Pioneer Park, and championship trees shading broad streets, where the only traffic is at the high school after the last bell of the day.
"I can go anyplace in 10 minutes, to the VA hospital, the Safeway," Jack says. It's only seven minutes from the golf course, says Dorothy, adding, "It's just kind of a nice, homey little town."
Their favorite thing about Walla Walla? "Quality of life," says Jack, as he takes the Wild Vines back to the fridge.
WINE IS POURING money into the valley. While most of Eastern Washington and the state struggles with an economic downturn, Walla Walla is enjoying the best economy in the state.
"That's the real value of wine," says Dean Shau, regional economist with the state Department of Employment Security based in Pasco.
Walla Walla's hotel-motel tax revenues have climbed every year since 1999. Property values are up, and unemployment is down. In August, Walla Walla had the fastest job growth of any metropolitan region in the state.
Unusual anywhere, a solid and diverse economy in a rural, remote town is unheard of east of the mountains these days. A downturn in the agricultural and manufacturing economies is bleeding communities from Okanogan to Yakima to Spokane.
"We are unique, kind of the shining star in Eastern Washington," says Jim Kuntz, executive director of the Port of Walla Walla.
But wine didn't save Walla Walla. While wine is a growing contributor to its economic health, this small, rural county with a population of just 54,000 already had a remarkably stable and well-rounded economic base: three colleges; three hospitals; an Army Corps of Engineers regional office; a healthy manufacturing sector, and yes, the state pen.
The county's M.O. is steady growth, at about 1 to 1.5 percent a year. Not too fast, not too slow. Public schools, roads and housing prices here would make any Seattleite weep.
But there are stretch marks, too, from growth, and especially change.
An ugly court battle over a proposed winery in some of the valley's prettiest and best agricultural land shows how concerned some are about the valley's future.
A fifth-generation farmer growing wheat, peas and barley, Leahy says he isn't opposed to the wine industry. "The vineyards and wineries have brought an influx of money into the valley. But I love being out in the country, and I don't want thousands of people coming past my mail box. What's next? A golf course?
"We want restrictions imposed. We don't know what the future holds, and we need to take it very slowly and cautiously.
"People say we're selfish. But I love the time I can get on the tractor and sit and see these hills. Everywhere you look, urban sprawl is taking over. I'll fight it to the day I die."
His neighbor, Pat Yenney, also party to the suit, fears a good thing gone too far.
At 73, she remembers the summers in cow camp, following the cattle with her husband, a working cowboy, to their summer range. "My piano was the only one I knew with horse manure on it because we moved it on a horse trailer to the cow camp," Yenney says.
She likes the revitalization of downtown the wine industry has helped bring about. "It was a stodgy place, and now people are having fun, sitting at the tables outside, drinking coffee. I really like that, and the industry has helped stimulate the downtown business. But every good thing can go too far.
"That's what I don't want to see. The big swings that happen so quickly. They often happen in ways we didn't intend."
Maybe Mother Nature will fix her worries more quickly than the courts: She remembers the ferocious cold snaps, so brutal the calves' noses would freeze. Cold enough to freeze out tender grapes.
"That's the way lots of the old people talk about this change," Yenney says. "Maybe it's a change that will change again."
PERHAPS NO ONE has been more surprised by how wine has changed Walla Walla than the 30- and 40-somethings who left here after high school, or Bible camp, swearing they'd never come back only to find themselves here again, perhaps for good.
For Devin Derby, 46, it was a phone call from his dad that did it, saying it was time to diversify from wheat to wine but only if he could do it with family.
On this ground since 1910, the 700-acre wheat ranch in the valley couldn't make enough for Devin to stay. So he left to dabble in filmmaking, and make a living as a scenic painter for movies and TV. His wife, Mary, was the wine buyer for a three-star restaurant in downtown Chicago when the call came.
Now in their fifth harvest, the family's Spring Valley Vineyard reds, sporting labels designed from photos in the family scrapbook, are winning national acclaim.
And Devin, with his earring stud and Carhartt chic, is beginning to fit in again; mostly what he misses is the pleasure of anonymity: a coffee shop where no one knows him, a neighborhood that's new.
Mary, 42, walks the wheat fields in her black leather jacket and talks with the zeal of an artist about making "subtle, sexy, elegant wines."
A classically trained singer, she's thinking about launching some soirées in town to do a song cycle on food, and she throws her head back with delight in recounting the rave reviews for their "Uriah" vintage 2000 and 2001.
Critics called the wine gloriously ripe and complex with a finish that lasts and lasts an assessment that doesn't seem far off the mark for their life here in the embrace of the farm.
"In this family, this is what you hold onto," Devin says, sweeping a hand across the face of the family land.
His dad, Dean, in coveralls, with a twist of wire in the band of his cowboy hat for cleaning the irrigation sprinklers, doesn't seem surprised the family has weathered the diversification to wine so far, so well.
He remembers when just four kids from Walla Walla High School, including him, went to the University of Washington instead of WSU. "We broke out."
Determined to find a way of farming that could support the family on the land into the next generations, he broke out again.
"This is not fun," says Dean Derby, 68. "Sex is fun. This is survival. And it's the right thing to do.
"We are willing to take a chance."
Lynda V. Mapes is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Barry Wong is a magazine staff photographer.
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