Walla Walla Valley or Valley of Elah? Goliath winery springs forth

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WALLA WALLA — The turnoff from U.S. Highway 12 to the newest and biggest winery in the Valley is the entrance to a sort of brave new world.

Past the berms blooming with young native grasses and aspen saplings that overlook a manmade lake and bocce ball court, the recently completed Waterbrook Winery complex is the Goliath to a wine industry populated by Davids.

With about 300,000 cases of wine expected to be produced there annually, the 53,000-square-foot winemaking facility at 10518 W. U.S. Highway 12, just west of Walla Walla, will produce on its own more than half as much wine as all of the roughly 100 wineries in the Valley combined.

Seattle-based Precept Wine Brands, the state’s largest privately owned wine-production company, will have spent an estimated $12 million to $15 million on the property and development when all is said and done, company officials say. The property serves as the home of flagship brand Waterbrook Winery, but the state-of-the-art winemaking facility also brings production of a dozen or so of its partner wine ventures under one roof. About 80 to 90 percent of Precept’s Washington wines will be bottled at the site, said Alex Evans, Precept’s vice president of marketing.

That a winery of this size has been constructed here is testament to Walla Walla’s — and Washington’s — draw as a wine destination, industry officials say. At the same time, many will be watching to see what effect it may have on sales at existing wineries, particularly in an economy when consumers are cutting out luxuries, especially those that come with premium prices.

“We’ll have to wait and see. It’s definitely going to have an impact,” said Norm McKibben, co-owner of Pepper Bridge Winery, among others, and managing partner and/or consultant for more than 600 acres of vineyard sites in Walla Walla, during a recent Port of Walla Walla Economic Development Advisory Committee meeting.

McKibben said wine sales across the Valley have been impacted by the recession. Though the same numbers of people may be traveling into the community for wine events, such as this weekend’s Vintage Walla Walla, their buying habits have been modified. During Spring Release weekend in May, he said, “we saw just about the same number of people coming through, but sales were down. People were buying six bottles instead of six cases.”

During a Monday tour and industry reception at Waterbrook Winery — originally slated to be called Walla Walla Wine Works (more on that later) — officials are counting on the diversity of the operation to help stave off the blow that has socked some of the higher end wineries across the country.

Michelle Liberty, Waterbrook’s director of retail marketing, said the operation has always focused on premium value wines, meaning a balance between quality and affordability. A great portion of the blends created by winemaker John Freeman are in the $20 range, she said.

“It’s for a larger critical mass of people,” Liberty said as she greeted guests on the arbor-covered patio where members of Portland band The New Iberians performed.

She said the hope is to serve as an event and recreation facility for more than wine-lovers. A conference room inside the tasting room is still being equipped with audio/visual technology and furniture. Outside, the facility features a court for Bocce ball or Pétanque, a lake that will be stocked with trout for catch-and-release fly fishing, a visitors cottage for industry guests and picturesque grounds with a panoramic view of the Blue Mountains that will be offered for weddings and events. In the future, officials are even contemplating adding an outdoor movie screen.

In an announcement on the opening, Andrew Browne, Precept president and chief executive officer, said the hope was to create a destination winery.

“Our goal is that the new Waterbrook Winery and Tasting Room will become a true destination for wine country enthusiasts and visitors,” Browne said in prepared statement. “While we aim to create the ultimate wine tasting experience, we also want our visitors to leave knowing why Walla Walla and the Washington wine industry are so unique.”

The facility is just one step in accomplishing that on its own, Evans said Monday. As manager of the architecture and design of the project, she said the look was inspired by contemporary Northwest design.

Mountain States Contractors, which built Long Shadows Vintners, worked with Tacoma architect Dan Kinkella to integrate natural materials and tones in the tasting room, such as wood beams and COR-TEN rusted steel panels. The winery and tasting room both feature massive window facades, and the front of the tasting room can be completely opened to the patio because of the NanaWall, an accordion-style wall.

The flooring in the tasting room is a polished and stained, saw-cut concrete. At the center of the room is a seating area where two sofas face one another. Another seating area faces a corner fireplace adjacent to the tasting bar, custom made with white oak. Throughout the tasting area are smaller tables made from barrels and topped with glass rounds.

The facility was originally intended to be the home of Walla Walla Wine Works, the umbrella company for Precept’s vast portfolio of wines, including Apex Cellars, The Magnificent Wine Company, Pendulum and Waterbrook, the latter of which was purchased in late 2006 by Precept from then-owner and co-founder Eric Rindal.

Throughout the construction process, however, Precept officials changed the concept. Evans said Precept wanted to pay tribute to Waterbrook’s heritage as the fourth winery established in Walla Walla 25 years ago. They decided to name the Highway 12 facility after the winery and changed the former tasting room facility at First Avenue and Main Street to Walla Walla Wine Works.

At that location, visitors can pick from the Precept portfolio. The Waterbrook facility, however, will be the exclusive location for Waterbrook wines. Waterbrook’s former McDonald Road production facility has since been put on the market.

“Waterbrook deserved a home,” Evans said. “It’s had a home in Walla Walla for so long. We thought we should honor that. It’s been such a part of the community.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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