Getting older sucks. Of course, it’s not really the actual aging that is a problem; it’s the changes that go along with aging that bother us. We have the great pleasure of watching our bodies slowly deteriorate, despite our best efforts to fend off the visible effects of having outlived our physical peaks. There are some of us who decide that we will use any means necessary, no matter how unnatural, to fight off Father Time. An entire cosmetic surgery empire has been born to keep (or make) our bodies look the way that we want them to. In general, the effects of these efforts seem to be approaching the Uncanny Valley from the less trod side, creating a swarm of disquieting vanity golems that we encounter on a daily basis.
Cities can age ungracefully as well. I have often been depressed to make my way through the derelict city square of a once charming downtown. The stories are different for every town; Big box stores clear out all of the local businesses that once occupied the area, or a steady exodus to a larger town caused the area to just dry up and no longer be able to support the businesses. No matter the cause, it is always disheartening to see.
Amidst this sea of desiccated towns, Walla Walla has always stood out to me as a bastion against the unflinching march of modernity. When I first visited the area two years ago, I immediately fell in love with the place. The downtown area has that Mayberry type of charm. It is the kind of place that you visit and instantly feel like community is still alive in America, if you choose to look for it.
My friend William Pollard (who writes the Wild 4 Washington Wine blog) and I left early Friday morning in search of a few bottles of Blacksmith Syrah from Forgeron Cellars (which you can read about on William’s blog.) William had been in contact with the winery, and part-owner and winemaker Marie-Eve Gilla was kind enough to personally give us a tour and tasting at the winery.
Forgeron is a great example of the way that Walla Walla has embraced its history. The name of the winery is taken from the French word for “blacksmith”, and is a reference to the fact that the winery is positioned on the site of a former blacksmith shop in Walla Walla. Before they built on the site, the owners found hundreds of horseshoes, which they buried in the foundation for good luck. There is a romance to the image of the skilled artisan blacksmith wielding his hammer to create something that has utility. The name was purposely chosen to call attention to the artisanal nature of the winemaking process.
Marie-Eve Gilla is originally from Paris, and in talking with her it is clear that she is acutely aware of the importance of preserving history. She has the European perspective on history that differs so wildly from the view that most Americans possess. She told us that one of the things that she loves about Walla Walla is that they have done a good job of maintaining the heritage of the area. As a winemaker, you can gather that this perspective spreads to her craft. In her winemaker bio she is quoted as saying, “My wines have a sense of place. They reflect their terroir, which is a composite of the vine location and the grower dedication.” Anyone who spent a few minutes talking to Marie-Eve would be infused with the same passion for terroir and history that has long been a part of the French mindset.
Although modernity can often lead to the destruction of the more traditional elements of a location, this is not always the case. Our next stop was a wonderful example of a modern winery that has had an additive effect to the culture of the area. It is hard to imagine a more modern winery than Long Shadows Vintners. The winery takes an innovative approach to winemaking that involves the creation of multiple micro-wineries under the umbrella of a single facility. They produce Washington wines with several international partner winemakers. The results are extraordinary wines that are expressive of some of Washington’s finest fruit, but that are created by some of the world’s most renowned winemakers. The facility itself is a testament to modernity, from the beautiful Chihuly glass that adorns the tasting room, to the varied state of the art winemaking tools that are used in production. The building can be seen as a metaphor of what the winery is doing. The building is an ultra-modern rectangular building with large amounts of glass that is dramatically set within the natural contours of the bucolic landscape. There is something about the scene that speaks of the modern world playing nicely with the natural.
Even with its starkly modern approach to winemaking, Long Shadows still acknowledges a historical perspective. The name even references a look towards the past. The winery is creating something new here in Washington, and is doing so by incorporating some of the people who have cast long shadows within the wine world. The key to their amazing wines seems to be the respect that this group of international winemakers give to the “Washingtonness” of the fruit. All of the wines feel like beautiful expressions of Washington grapes, rather than overly manipulated wines that speak more about the winemaker than the place.
From the very modern Long Shadows Vintners, we worked our way to one of the most historic wineries in Washington State. The image of L’Ecole 41’s iconic schoolhouse tasting room has been a part of the Washington wine world for almost 30 years. Until recently, the wine labels had all featured an illustration of the schoolhouse, which was built in 1915. The drawing was produced by an 8 year old named Ryan Campbell as a part of a contest. Although the winery has recently updated the labels to a more “grown-up” design, there is a clear sense of reverence about the history of the winery. The new label features a painting of the classic schoolhouse. The winery acknowledges its history, but is adapting to the modern market.
It is clear that there is a love for both the winery and for the Walla Walla community when you talk with Tasting Room Manager Brandon Kubrock. The winery produces wines from both the Walla Walla AVA, and from the larger Columbia Valley AVA. Tasting through these wines, and especially their vineyard specific and estate wines, really shows their attention to letting the place find expression in the final product. You will find common threads that run through the wines from a specific location from one vintage to the next, an indication of the care that is given to preserving the terroir of the vineyard in the wines.
The preservation of an area’s history is not something that happens by accident. Left to run its course, our modern world is in a steady and consistent march toward a bigger and more centralized climate, typified by strip malls and Wal-Marts on every corner. Catie McIntyre Walker, the owner of the Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman shop in Walla Walla, told me that there was a time when the downtown area had started to thin out, with many businesses moving into the malls that were springing up around the area. Fortunately, the people of Walla Walla seem to have noticed the trend occurring in their city and took action to stem the tide. The city has managed to avoid the homogenous feel that many small towns have succumbed to by maintaining the rich history and culture of the area. In short, Walla Walla remains one of the most rewarding wine country experiences that Washington has to offer.