A Look at the Pacific Northwest and Its Rhône and Bordeaux Varietals

Loess Vineyard // Photo Courtesy of Leonetti Cellar

The Walla Walla Valley appellation is nestled within the larger Columbia Valley appellation in Washington state. Small in stature, Walla Walla Valley is planted to 3,000 acres of vineyards with roughly 120 wineries in the region. It’s an agricultural paradise, like most of the rural wine-growing regions in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s no wonder Walla Walla Valley has become Washington’s most talked about, with wines receiving high accolades from the world’s most renowned critics.

Geographically speaking, Walla Walla Valley is unique in that it straddles the Washington and Oregon state borders. While most of the growing region is situated in Washington, the southern portion of the appellation rests in Oregon’s northern territory. The appellation border is drawn this way because of the distinct terroir that doesn’t acknowledge state border lines.

Like all world-class wine-growing regions, the terroir in Walla Walla Valley is unique and complex, lending the wines their own style, characteristics, and personalities. With elevations ranging from 400 feet to 2,000 feet above sea level and four distinct soil categories, the terroir is ideal for growing Bordeaux, and Rhône grape varieties—which means the region offers incredible Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, and luscious Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are aplenty.


Like the famous wine-growing regions of California, Italian immigrants brought wine grapes with them when they came to Washington in the 1850s, but Prohibition put a halt to winemaking for more than a decade. It wasn’t until pioneering winemaker Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar began planting grapes again in 1974 that the Walla Walla Valley started carving out the spotlight.

In 1977, Leonetti Cellar became the first commercial winery in the appellation. Much like Chateau Montelena put Napa Valley on the map with the Judgment of Paris in 1976, Leonetti Cellar’s 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon earned itself the Wine & Spirits Magazine American Wine Championship in 1982— letting wine enthusiasts across the globe know that Washington wines were a strong contender in the world of fine wines. In 1984, Walla Walla Valley was granted official appellation status with the help of Chris Figgins and Woodward Canyon Winery’s Rick Small. Today, the appellation is home to approximately 120 wineries.


Walla Walla Valley produces incredible wines from the distinct terroir. “Vineyard location, slope, and aspect all vary from vineyard to vineyard, but one thing that impacts all vineyards in Walla Walla and helps make this such a special growing region in the diurnal shift,” said Jordan Dunn-Small, General Manager and Co-Owner of Woodward Canyon Winery. “Diurnal shift is the difference between average daytime highs and nighttime lows during the growing season. In Walla Walla, we see a significant temperature swing from the highs of the days to the lows of the nights. The heat helps ripen the grapes, but the cool evenings preserve natural acidity to help make balanced wines.”

With seven to 22 inches of rainfall across the appellation and between 400-2,000 feet elevation, the terroir is a patchwork of microclimates and soil categories. The region’s proximity to the Columbia River on the west and the Blue Mountains on the east offer both a cooling influence and varied elevation. During the growing season, average temperatures range between 60° and 66° Fahrenheit. This lower-heat temperature combined with excellent sun exposure is what allows for such balanced expressions of Bordeaux and Rhône varietals. The bright sun brings ripeness, but the cool temperatures bring balance, freshness, and bright acidity.

In the valleys, well-draining, cobblestone river gravels line the vineyards; dark basalt stones retain heat and offer it to the vines, crafting bold and ripe fruit. Loess—a fine, wind-blown silt over sand and gravel—sits at the appellation’s midlevel elevation sites. A vestige of former flood plains, the resulting soil is rich in minerals and gives the local wines a nice complexity. For vineyards sitting above 1,100-feet elevation, ten-foot-deep silt soils give way to deep vine roots and very pure grapes. At the highest levels of elevation, thin silt is layered over weathered basalt and ancient volcanic bedrock on steep hillsides; the characteristics of these rocky vineyard sites produce wines with earth-laden flavors and deep minerality.


Photo Courtesy of Gramercy Estate

Breathtaking views of rugged mountains and sweeping vineyards across the valley floor draw tourists to this tranquil wine country every year. Walla Walla Valley is one of the Pacific Northwest’s best-kept secrets for wine enthusiasts. As a wine-growing region and agricultural haven, the bounty of great wines and delicious food makes this destination ideal for those looking to unwind, wine, and dine.

Leonetti Cellar

For a historical look at Walla Walla Valley, travelers will want to know Leonetti Cellar. Established in 1997, Leonetti Cellar was founded by Gary and Nancy Figgins and was the region’s first commercial winery. Since its inception, the estate has undoubtedly put Walla Walla wines in the spotlight. The winery is now under the direction of winemaker Chris Figgins, son of Gary and Nancy, and the family’s name dates to more than a century in the Walla Walla Valley. While the estate is a mailing-list-only winery and does not offer public tastings, the rich history and incredible quality of their wines make Leonetti Cellar important to know for those looking to get to know Walla Walla Valley. // www.leonetticellar.com

L’ecole N° 41

Another historic site is L’Ecole N° 41, a third-generation, family-owned estate. Their tasting room is a restored 1915 original schoolhouse and offers a slice of Walla Walla history. Marty Clubb, L’Ecole N° 41’s managing winemaker and co-owner, was another one of the early wine pioneers in Walla Walla Valley. Their indoor and outdoor wine tastings include Bordeaux varietals from their current releases, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Located off highway 12, the agricultural site offers broad valley views and a breath of fresh air. // www.lecole.com

Gramercy Cellars

Downtown Walla Walla tasting rooms make grabbing a flight and lunch convenient, and one of the region’s most well-known producers has set up shop here. Gramercy Cellars has earned high accolades for their beautiful collection of wines, namely their excellent Syrah—which happens to be one of the region’s most premium varietals. “For Syrah and Rhone varieties especially, we look for higher altitude vineyards, with 1,500 feet being ideal. At this level, we seem to achieve both phenolic and physical maturity at close to the same time,” said Brandon Moss, co-winemaker of Gramercy Cellars. At the tasting room, open Tuesday through Saturday by appointment only, guests can enjoy a flight of five to six wines and learn about what makes Walla Walla wine so sought after. // www.gramercycellars.com

Amavi Cellars

Amavi Cellars offers a stunning estate experience with expansive vineyard views of their Pepper Bridge vines and wine tasting experiences inside their beautiful, wood-laden tasting room or outside on their spacious deck. The lounge-style seating outside makes for a comfortable place to explore their 100% sustainable, 100% Walla Walla Valley wines. Several tasting options include a current-release tasting, a private gallery room tasting for larger groups, or a private gazebo tasting for up to seven people. And for those looking for evening entertainment, the winery is open later from 5:00-7:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays for special pours, local brews, and food trucks. // www.amavicellars.com

Woodward Canyon Winery

Woodward Canyon Winery was established in 1981 by Rick Small and his wife, Darcey Fugman-Small, and was the second winery in Walla Walla Valley. “Woodward Canyon has always been very involved in the Walla Walla Valley wine industry,” said Jordan Dunn-Small, General Manager and Co-Owner of Woodward Canyon Winery. “Rick and his wife, Darcey Fugman-Small, were instrumental in applying for and gaining federal approval of the Walla Walla Valley American Vinicultural Area in 1984.” The restored 1870s farmhouse property offers beautiful, rugged indoor spaces and gorgeous outdoor spaces. Wine tasting flights are available daily from 10 am – 5 pm. With a fine collection of white and red wines, Woodward Canyon is an excellent stop for those looking to taste a wide selection of Walla Walla Valley varietals. // www.woodwardcanyon.com

For more information about Walla Walla Valley, its wineries, local places to stay and dining
options when visiting, call 509-526-3117 or visit www.wallawallawine.com.

Story By: Melissa Vogt