Tasting a Slice of History
Twenty-one vintages of Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon demonstrate the staying power of Washington wines.
These days, Walla Walla has become the Promised Land for Washington winemakers. Located in graceful, rolling farm country in the southeast corner of the state, it’s a charming town of Victorian homes and lovingly restored old brick buildings.
It’s almost unimaginable that just two decades ago there were but two wineries and a couple dozen acres of vineyard planted in the entire valley. In recent years those numbers have escalated—the count today is close to 40 wineries and 520 acres of bearing vineyards (with a total of 800 acres planted).
Leonetti Cellar and Woodward Canyon were the two wineries that blazed the trail. Woodward Canyon was founded in 1981 by amateur winemaker Rick Small and his wife Darcey Fugman-Small. Small and his friend Gary Figgins (of Leonetti Cellar) had been drill sergeants together in the Army reserve; when Figgins began commercial winemaking in 1978, Small was there to help. His own move into the wine business may also have been influenced by a desire to do something besides run the family grain elevator; in any event, he believed fiercely in the future of the region, and set out to prove his point. L’Ecole No. 41, Seven Hills and Waterbrook, now also considered pioneers by the grape-stained hordes of newcomers, joined the original two during the middle of the 1980s.
Today, there are new wineries everywhere you turn. Chalone’s Canoe Ridge Winery is headquartered in the old brick Walla Walla Engine House. On the outskirts of town, Washington powerhouse Stimson Lane has just opened a new facility for its Northstar Merlots. Pepper Bridge runs a high-tech, 400-acre vineyard and a thriving winery nearby. There is a splendid tasting room and shiny new winery for Three Rivers on the road leading into town. The shelves of the town’s wine shops are lined with dozens of boutique labels: Buty, Cayuse, Dunham, Forgeron, Glen Fiona, Isenhower, Reininger, Spring Valley, Tamarack, Walla Walla Vintners and Whitman Cellars are among the best.
With all the buzz and ballyhoo about the future, it’s a good time to look back, to see what has already been accomplished and to evaluate the results. This past May, I sat down with Rick and Darcey Small and a half dozen employees and friends of the winery. Twenty-one vintages of Woodward Canyon "Dedication Series" and "Old Vines" Cabernets were lined up on the small counter in their modest tasting room, which occupies the front room of an old wood frame house. The winery had sourced grapes from more than a dozen vineyards over the years; in a single glance, I felt as if I was surveying the prime slice of Washington winemaking history.
The winery’s first release, the 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon "Dedication Series #1" set the tone. On the back label Small had modestly predicted that it "should drink very nicely into the late 1980s." Remarkably, the wine is now in its third decade and is still going strong. The wines were served in chronological order, in three flights of seven wines each. "We’re just gonna go for it," Small announced, looking a wee bit anxious.
His personal agenda? "I’m interested in looking at some of the things I have been doing all along," he explained, "such as no filtering and only very coarse fining. I’m anxious to revisit some of the terroir I’ve used since the early years and still use today, vineyards such as Sagemoor and Champoux."
Following are my tasting notes, along with some of the winemaker’s comments and my scores. The scores reflect both the quality of the original vintage, and also how well the wine has evolved. Vintages 1981 through 1994 are Dedication Series; thereafter they were labeled Old Vines (except for 1996). A final note: The Mercer Ranch vineyard, originally planted in the early 1970s, was renamed Champoux following a change of ownership a few years back. The vines remain the same.
As Small suspected, the tasting showed not only the staying power of his Cabernets, but also the long-term impact of experiments that he tried along the way. The recent run of extraripe vintages has produced more jammy, concentrated sweet fruit, but at the expense of higher alcohol levels. In the case of the 1998, the wine’s long-term potential seems to have been curtailed in favor of near-term enjoyment.
"What we really want," Small concludes, "is to get these kinds of flavors at 24° brix. The next seven wines, from 2002 to 2009, I guarantee will be lower in alcohol than these."
Apart from that, the lesson here is to lay down a few cases of Washington Cabernet (especially from the stellar 1999 vintage) to enjoy in the future. If the current wines age anything like these, it will be worth the effort.