Walla Walla, Washington is well known for its established wineries, many with cult-followings—think Leonetti, Gramercy, Cayuse, and Sleight of Hand. However, in addition to the beautiful wineries dotting the surrounding hillsides, or the stretch of popular downtown tasting rooms, there are wonderful young wineries trying to get off the ground. Fortunately, located at the Port of Walla Walla Regional Airport, there’s a wine “incubator” program creating a runway of sorts, for first time, start-up wineries to improve their chances for business success, helping fledgling wineries get off the ground and soar.
The old buildings that once occupied the land (prior to the wine incubators) served as the Army Airbase Hospital during WWII days and then became the Army Corps of Engineers office. Those buildings were torn down in 2000 and Piper Avenue became home to a row of winery incubators funded by state grants and Port funds. Dr. Myles Anderson (of Walla Walla Vintners) and Norm McKibben (of Pepper Bridge Winery), worked closely with the port authority to create a visionary program to meet the demands of graduates from Walla Walla Community College’s enology and viticulture program.
As a part of this program, wineries get a reasonably priced production and tasting room space, as well as the ability to utilize existing resources in the Walla Walla Institute for Enology and Viticulture, Walla Walla Area Small Business Center, Walla Walla Wine Alliance, and existing winery and vineyard owners as a resource.
The program encourages graduation by establishing incremental rent increases over a six-year period and by limiting the case production to 2000. Notable alumni include: Adamant Cellars, Lodmell Cellars, Trio Vintners, Palencia, Corvus, Walla Faces, Burwood Brewing, Shot in the Dark Distilling, Kontos Cellars, J & J Vintners, and Cavu Cellars.
Since the tenants graduate out of the program and eventually open their own wineries, the lineup changes frequently. Current incubator tenants include:
SMAK Wines – Cleanse your palate at SMAK Wines, a women-owned and operated winery focusing exclusively on rosé. Owner/winemaker Fiona Mak says, “Rosé to me is more than just a beverage, it is a lifestyle. I wanted to bring this lifestyle here and so SMAK was born.” Mak believes that rosé is not limited to a summertime wine and is as versatile to a winemaker as chicken to a chef. By choosing different grape varieties and winemaking methods, she can create a great range of rosé—the possibilities of wines are endless. In order to encourage drinking rosé all year round, each wine they create reflects the seasons – spring, summer, fall/ winter. And their tasting room changes with the seasons as well, creating fitting atmospheres for their wines. Mak also believes rosé is more than just wine, it’s a setting, a sense of place, and a mindset. Check out her website for a rosé cocktail recipe that will make you long for spring all year long.
Dillon Cellars – After studying and working in nine winemaking regions in four countries, winemaker Marc Dillon Leahy focuses on creating small lot wines of balance, intention inspired those experiences. Leahy describes his good fortune working with hedonists, old-world craftsmen and women, academics, and enological technicians as the breadth of experience he needed to forge an informed and unique winemaking perspective. He says, “Wine constantly evolves and is endlessly complex. My role is to guide the development from vineyard to bottle. The key to artful winemaking is thoughtfully using modern tools and methods alongside the ancient techniques that honor the long tradition of hand-crafting wine. Skillful use of these principles shapes a wine into the most complete and transparent expression of itself.” Visitors can expect Eastern Washington expressions of Chardonnay, Merlot, and Syrah.
Golden Ridge Cellars – Winemaker Michael Rasch is crafting award-winning wines of the finest quality from their Walla Walla vineyard located on the east side of the Walla Walla AVA. The east side is becoming recognized as a “sweet spot,” providing a combination of low production and quality, without the fanfare that exists elsewhere. The vineyard, planted in 1998 with unsurpassed views, grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. Current releases include a 2010, 2012, and 2014 Bordeaux-style Estate Red Blend and their 2014 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
Eternal Wines – Eternal Wines is focused on producing small lots of terroir driven single vineyard Rhone varietals, specifically single vineyard Syrah. In 2016, they made 10 different single vineyard Syrah bottlings. Currently, they are offering four different Walla Walla Syrahs on the tasting board. They also make white Rhone varietals, including a single vineyard Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, as well as Grenache Blanc. These wines sell out quick as most lots are only two barrels large. Winemaker Brad Binko says, “With Eternal, I wanted to create age-worthy wines that show a place and time. Wines you can point to on a map and say this wine is from right here. Flavors come from the soils and climate, annual changes account for the differences in the vintages. I don’t make these wines the same way each year nor am I striving for a consistent product with this label. I want to share with you the variations in years and be true to the grapes.”
ITÄ Wines – Itä means east in Finnish. In Spanish, it’s a word that has been modified to convey a slighter degree of its root meaning, the smallness of the object or quality named, or a sense of intimacy or endearment. Both of these definitions can describe this winery, which also gets its name from owner and winemaker Kelsey Itämeri. Itameri makes small-lot wines with grapes from the Eastern foothills of the Blue Mountains, in the heart of the Walla Walla Valley. Itä Wines is dedicated to expressing the unique terroir of the Eastern foothills of the Walla Walla Valley, both with their estate wines as well as with fruit from neighboring vineyards. Itämeri brings a restrained style that matches the moderation and finesse of these hillside grapes maintaining a focus on varietals and styles uniquely suited to the Walla Walla region.
And, in addition to stretch of rising star incubators, the Walla Walla Regional Airport, located just north of downtown, is also home to over 20 wineries, all within walking distance from each other, making for a perfect day’s outing. After checking out the row of winery incubators, guests can visit established wineries in the airport district like BUTY, Dunham Cellars, and Patit Creek. Experience tasting rooms located inside old WWII-era mess halls, hangar buildings, and firehouses for a real taste of history.
When Tamara Belgard’s not chasing down stories for publications like NW Travel and Life, Portland Monthly, EaterPdx, WinePress NW, and Oregon Wine Press, you might stumble upon her traipsing through wine country, exploring new restaurants, perusing her local farmers market, pouring over cookbooks, or searching the racks of her favorite wine shop for hidden gems.