David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 9/16/2015:
Late last century, in 1997, I had the opportunity to drive through the far eastern Washington town of Walla Walla. At the time this county seat of 45,000 people was most famous for the sweet onions farmers grew in the semi arid landscape surrounding the town. The city was a bit run down, the brick buildings on main street were mostly empty and despite the sweet aroma of onions the general condition of the city was one of postponed maintenance. Driving through then, I saw a city whose past was more glorious than its future and almost everyone there saw opportunity only on the other side of the Cascade mountains in the cities of Portland and Seattle. Driving from Duluth this seemed familiar as my home city was also struggling with a past that wasn’t part of its present.
This summer I had the opportunity again to visit Walla Walla. I was on the hunt for an illusive item, an exceptional and unique Washington wine. As a wine educator and enthusiast I was familiar with Washington wines but was underwhelmed by their quality. I had found them simple, one dimensional, overly sweet and inexpensive. They weren’t something to write about, they were something to avoid and when encountered to wish that they were better.
But as we approached Walla Walla this summer we were greeted with enormous banners welcoming the “Gentlemen of the Road.” Both Sara and I were perplexed. Was this some strange hipster motorcycle rally we were approaching? It wasn’t. It was a city wide music event featuring eleven bands with the headliners being the Flaming Lips, Foo Fighters, and Mumford and Sons.
As we pulling into town, looking for a place to park, the town was just waking up for its Saturday festival. Between searching for parking we were also spying something we’d hadn’t seen on our previous trip to Walla Walla – wineries. A bit bewildered at the coming commotion and the number of wineries on a single intersection (there were eight) we entered a random one called Maison Bleue.
Inside, the very knowledgeable wine staff poured us some wine and proceeded to explain how the town and entire region was undergoing a renaissance. A renaissance that started with the same soils that once held onions and now held vines which produced rich, concentrated, fruit-forward, well structured, and supremely crafted wine. Here at last was the object of my search. A wine and a style that reflected the character and strength of a resurgent community and in such gave an entire state a signature style. The staff explained to us that the community college had developed an impressive oenolgoy department (the science of wine) and that wine makers were drawn to the area because of its natural features: warm summers and poor soils. These two things can make impressive wines. Warm temperatures because sun and heat makes high sugar grapes which helps make alcohol; and poor soil because the more a grape suffers the more concentrated the flavors are in each berry.
But as we spent our afternoon in Walla Walla and visited just three of its seventy three wineries I was struck by not only how good the wine was but by the industry and vivaciousness of the city. Gone were the shuttered brick buildings, gone were drab streets, gone was the malaise. In its place were 40,000 festival-goers from Portland and Seattle and a city proud of itself. I only wished I had more time and endurance to visit more of this fantastic little town and its wineries.
Walla Walla is no longer looking longingly to its past but boldly pushing into its future. Eventually the wine distributors will bring these superb wines to the rest of the country and we will all get to taste what I now consider to be Washington State’s signature style. In Walla Walla, just as in Duluth, I see a renaissance of a mid-sized city carving a future built on creativity, ingenuity, and a revamped cool small-town vibe.
David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He teaches wine classes mainly in the Duluth, MN area. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.