Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Sense of Place - The Final Chapter

A Sense of Place and Sense of Place - Part II were published in May and June. I apologize for being so late with the final chapter.

Day 1 - The afternoon.

Horse Heaven Hills AVA - When I was a little girl, the parents would line us up in the back seat of the car on a Sunday afternoon and off we would venture to the Tri-Cities in Washington state. Sometimes for dinner, sometimes for a picnic and usually a stop to visit our aunt and uncle. Coming back to Walla Walla, before Wallula and after the Boise Cascade plant, we would watch the illusion of the "magic gates" to the Columbia River close, also known as the Wallula Gap. As the car would travel 45-50 mph south on the old two-lane road, we would watch to our right the illusion of the ragged basalt ridges from each side of the river slowly moving together until they met. Then we would yell out from the back seat, "The gates are closed!"

The Wallula Gap is the prominent area carved between the Horse Heaven Hills on the West side of the Columbia and the foothills of the Blue Mountain on the East side. My parents, especially my Dad, would have never dreamed that some day there would be green vineyards on those rocks that towered the powerful Columbia River.

The first afternoon of our vineyard tour was winding down for the day, or at least I thought it was. Our host drove us to the area where the Horse Heaven Hills Appellation lies. Growers have been raising grapes in the Horse Heaven Hills since 1972, but the AVA was established in 2005. These hills are considered to be one of the most distinguished of the Columbia Valley appellations as it encompasses 570,000 acres (approximately 6,000 in production) on a large wedge of land that starts on the north hills of the Yakima Valley appellation to the slopes moving south facing the Columbia River. It was one long, curvy, rock-filled, dusty 12-mile stretch of road and all the way to who knows where, but I kept quiet in the back seat as I was just along for the ride and just damn glad to be there. And all of a sudden - - there it was - - the Wallula Vineyard - with the most overwhelming view from any vineyard I had seen in my entire life. Words still escape me.

We had met up with Wallula Vineyard owner, Bill "Bronco Billy" Den Hoed and he drove us to the edge of the basalt bluffs that rose above the great Columbia River. There were man-made tiers after tiers built to accommodate each basalt bluff and on each tier there was a block of green new vines. We eased down a narrow switch-back road after switch back that barely teetered on the edge of each bluff (I think "Bronco Bill" got a kick out of seeing our white knuckles clutched to our seats). The lower we got, we were able to view the marks left behind by the ancient Missoula Floods and where they deposited loads of silt on the volcanic fractured basalt. With each switchback the Columbia became closer and the wind became fiercer on this warm sunny day. I could almost reach out and touch the state of Oregon.

It took three years for the Den Hoed family to grade and plant the tiers upon tiers of vines. There are 650 acres with a combination of classic Bordeaux and Rhone influenced varietals, including several Italian-style varietals and one of the most impressive was the special 130-acre block of Riesling. This block of Riesling was established exclusively for Randall Grahm, of the California Bonny Doon Vineyard. The biodynamic-raised Riesling is for Grahm's new project in Washington State, the Pacific Rim Winery outside of Richland, WA. Den Hoed tells of Grahm laying on a small ledge of basalt where it meets with a fierce wind, but if you lay on your stomach you are one with the hawk's view. However, he warned us not to stand up too quick or a fierce wind could take you. If I had never a touch of vertigo before, this was my opportunity. I politely passed on the hawk's view.

We stood in the silence absorbing the awe-inspiring view from the edge of a bluff. Not a sound around us other than the wind slapping against our bodies. Our host, Gilles Nicault, general manager and winemaker for Long Shadows Winery, broke the silence, "It's everything a winemaker could ask for...I love this terroir."

Day Two:

We were worn out from the day and evening before. The first evening, we spent a late night with our new friends dining on good wine and food. Our evening finally ended as we fell into bed, face first, still with our clothes on, to which I groggily announced, "I hate vineyard boot-camp."

Obviously that feeling of "hate" disappeared as soon as the alarm rang. We were up, dressed, and with coffee, eagerly awaiting for Gilles, our host, to start day two of tour to vineyard appellations unknown.

Wahluke Slope AVA - This particular stretch of highway looked familar to me. It was on the way to the Vantage area and Hanford Reach National Monument. I couldn't see anything ahead of me other than slopes of sagebrush and more slopes of sagebrush. A desert. Finally, I saw green! The green vineyards of Stone Tree. Stone Tree is a 250-acre vineyard owned and managed by Tedd Wildman. We were now in the Wahluke Slope Appellation.

Wahluke Slope AVA was established in 2006. This 81,000-acre region is naturally bounded by the Columbia River to the west and south, the Saddle Mountains on the north and by the east of Hanford. There are over 20 vineyards, one winery and two wine production facilities at this time, with approximately 5,200 acres of vineyards. This AVA harvests about twenty percent of the total wine grape acreage in the state. Wahluke Slope is one of the more drier and warmer climates in the whole state of Washington. This climate allows the vineyard owners control of vine vigor and ripening through irrigation.

This visit to the Stone Tree Vineyard was like a homecoming to our host. Gilles and Tedd went way back to the early 90's when Gilles was a intern-winemaker on an exchange from France. As we toured the vineyard, Tedd explains to us that the Wahluke Slope AVA was also defined by the Missoula Floods, while pointing to a huge chunk of petrified wood that traveled along with the floods. The Stone Tree Vineyard has the popular Bordeaux and Rhone-style varietals that we have seen in the other AVA's, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a few rows of Zinfandel and especially Primitivo. Those two varietals are usually seen in northern California.

Back in the car to another vineyard of the Wahluke Slope. We meet up with Todd Cameron of the greater Sagemoor Vineyards. We followed him to the 360-acre Weinbau Vineyard and met up with site manager, Miguel Rodriguez. Miguel has been caring for these vines since 1986. Even after working with these vines for 20-years, Miguel says that everyday he is always learning something new. Miquel and Todd explains about the challenges that the extreme weather brings to the vineyard. The warmth of the desert to the occasional frost. Watching Miguel grab a handful of leaves from a vine, he tell us that if the leaves are cool to the touch, there is no need to irrigate that day, even in the hottest weather. There wasn't a doubt how Miguel knew each and every vine like his own children.

We headed back to the Tri-Cities for lunch. We dined on salads and ice tea while enjoying a different view of the great Columbia River and this time it was on flat-land. General manager of Sagemoor Vineyards, Kent Waliser, joined us. Kent told us to forget everything we had ever heard or read on how "vines seek out water." He explained that plants do not seek out water - - plants follow water. If you irrigate too much then the roots will follow the water's depth and then of course, the canopy of the vine will grow like crazy.

The desert land of Washington state makes for a perfect growing conditions for the vines. The caretakers of these vineyards control the water intake with drip irrigation. Controlling the canopy also allows the caretaker to control the sunlight's exposure to the fruit on the vine. This exposure to light leads to the control of ripeness and sugar content. Events of man and nature working together that gives us a satisfying and memorable bottle of wine - - yes, great wines are made in the vineyard.

Day two was winding down for us and we were still in awe of the scenery. Our brains were filled with so information, they hurt and we were almost speechless. If all of this scenery and information weren't enough, our next stop would be at a winery. And not just any winery in the state of Washington, but the new building that has been referred to by many as "the most beautiful winery that you will never see."

Our magic key into the The Long Shadows Winery, west of Walla Walla, was Gilles Nicault, who had been our vineyard-tour host for the last two days. Gilles is one of the vintners partner and managing winemaker for Long Shadows. Gilles pours through the repoirtoire of Long Shadow's distinguished wines made in the Walla Walla facility and produced by some of the most acclaimed and celebrated winemakers in the world. And to think -- these beautiful wines we tasted that afternoon, their journey all began in those vineyards that we visited earlier.

As our host swirls a glass of red wine, he tells us how you have to love the land, the vines and the weather. "It’s hard. It’s difficult. You have to love it," Gilles says. "But this is what I taste in these wines. I taste love.”


Thad said...

Thanks Catie for sharing your terroir tour with such insightful storytelling. In reading your final chapter, I returned to the previous posts and enjoyed them even more. What a delightful way to finish each vineyard visit by being able to taste the "sense of place" from each bottle. Great posts connecting us to the terroir of Washington state. Keep up the good work!


wild walla walla wine woman said...

Hi Thad! Thank you for the kind words. I am so happy to hear that you enjoyed "The Sense of Place." The tour was fantastic and I wanted to share every minute. But believe it or not, many words escaped me because I was so overwhelmed. Thanks again for stopping by.

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