How did Walla Walla Valley become an important wine growing area? What was here before vineyards? Let's walk through Walla Walla Valley's historical highlights and vintage notes.
The Missoula Floods deposit rich soils into Eastern Washington.
The Missoula Floods created rich nutrient deposits in Eastern Washington on lands below 1,200 feet (366 m). These cataclysmic floods happened when an ice damn periodically collapsed on inland glacial lake Missoula in Montana.
Walla Walla means "many waters"
Walla Walla is the indigenous name of this valley. Before Walla Walla was known for wine and westerners, Sahaptin-speaking tribes inhabited the land and raised horse herds on the region's rich grasslands.
It's thought that the Native Americans first arrived in the region in the 1720s to 1740s from around modern day Arizona and New Mexico.
Several wineries pay homage to the people who came before them by using the indigenous names for their wines. Regional indigenous tribes here include Walla Walla, Cayuse, Yakama, and Palouse.
Lewis and Clark arrive in Walla Walla.
The Lewis and Clark expedition meets with Chief Yelleppit in the valley where his establishment contained 15 large lodges. Lewis and Clark estimate around 1,600 inhabitants lived in Walla Walla.
Migration to Walla Walla on the Oregon Trail.
Homesteaders entering the area bring in substantial numbers of sheep and cattle to the region. At the time, Native American horse herds were already well established on natural pasture lands in the region and surrounding Blue Mountains.
Local indigenous tribes people continue to exist in the region but populations decline sharply mostly due to new infectious diseases.
Wine grapes for homesteaders.
Vine cuttings were brought to the Yakima Valley by homesteaders, It's thought the cuttings came from Fort Vancouver which planted vines in 1824. The Wine Project: Washington State's Winemaking History by Irvine, Ronald, Clore, Walter J. (August 1, 1997)
Open grazing destroys natural pastureland.
Conflicts and bloodshed between cattle ranchers, homesteaders, and sheepherders over declining pasturelands continue until the U.S. Forest Service begins to regulate land use.
“A few years ago Eastern Oregon was one of the best range sections of the West. The rich bunch grass waved knee deep on hill and plain in such close growth that it was mowed with machines for hay.” –H.D. Langille, "Proposed Blue Mountains Forest Reserve" (1906)
In 1905, an estimated 275,000 sheep and 40,000 cattle open-grazed the land.
Dryland wheat farming becomes the primary land use crop.
"In the fall of 1863, an Oregon farmer sowed 50 acres of wheat on non-irrigated uplands near Weston, eventually harvesting an average of 35 bushels per acre in late summer of 1864. This result changed everything because it demonstrated that the loess soils were capable of producing a crop rather than just livestock feed." –David C. Powell, "Early Livestock Grazing in the Blue Mountains" (2008)
With high prices being paid for wheat during the first World War, much of the land was converted to dryland (un-irrigated) wheat production.
A farm and crop report from 2017 indicates that wheat production is still dominant at 75% of the agricultural land in Walla Walla County.
Vineyards planted in the Walla Walla Valley.
The first vines were planted in 1974 by Gary Figgins at Leonetti Cellar. Figgins planted Riesling and Gewürztraminer along with a little Cabernet Sauvignon.
At the time, Washington State University (WSU) had just published several papers about how to grow grapes (and which ones) in Washington's climate.
Wine & Spirits Magazine’s American Wine Championship Win
Leonetti Cellar won Wine & Spirits Magazine’s American Wine Championship for their 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon
The Walla Walla Valley becomes an official AVA
The Walla Walla Valley becomes an official American Viticulture Area with 4 wineries and 60 acres of grapes. The earliest wineries include Leonetti Cellar, Woodward Canyon, L'Ecole 41 and Waterbrook Winery.
Woodward Canyon in Wine Spectator's Top 10
Woodward Canyon's 1987 "Dedication Series #7" Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley was the first Washington wine to make it into Wine Spectator's Top 10.
Over 80 wineries in The Walla Walla Valley
Outside investment to the region booms and Walla Walla grows to 1,200 planted vineyard acres with 80 wineries.
Rocks District of Milton-Freewater
A small area on the Oregon-side of Walla Walla is identified for it's unique soils (deep cobblestones) and terrain (an alluvial fan). The area becomes the first AVA to be entirely mapped based on its geographic and geologic features.