After 30 years, the talk of tumbleweeds blowing through town can finally be laid to rest.
In the earlier days of Walla Walla’s wine industry — when reporters visiting from big cities dropped in to write about the up-and-coming wine destination — their reflections of a Southeastern Washington town often marveled at how fancy wine came to what was characterized as the Wild West.
Three decades ago — Feb. 6, 1984, to be exact — the federal government officially recognized the Walla Walla Valley as an American Viticultural Area. The designation, spearheaded by four wineries, put Walla Walla on the map for its distinct grape-growing characteristics.
Growth was slow at first. But over time, the wine industry has more or less defined the Valley’s tourism culture; either directly or indirectly provided nearly 20 percent of jobs, according to an economic study; contributed millions of dollars to the economy; and foisted the Valley on the world wine stage.
Valley’s wine industry has roots in childhood friendship
It all started with a few people, a couple of vines and one huge vision that goes back to the 1970s.
It was the mid-to-late 1970s when childhood friends Rick Small and Gary Figgins — now recognized as two of the Walla Walla Valley’s wine pioneers — began exploring their mutual fondness for wine.
Figgins had grown up in a wine family. His Italian immigrant grandparents served their homemade wine at family dinners.
Small was a longtime farm kid — third-generation on one side, fifth on the other.
During their Army Reserve years together they developed their shared interest.
They researched from textbooks picked up at the University of California, Davis, attended blind tastings and absorbed as much knowledge as they could. They bought grapes from vineyards across the Snake River, using the fruit to make wine in Small’s garage.
Small believed the Walla Walla land was ripe for grape growing. He bought a little more than 2 acres from his parents and converted it from winter wheat and cattle land to vineyards producing chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
Figgins planted grapes in his back yard. In 1977 he and his wife, Nancy Figgins, started Leonetti Cellar. Five years later their 1978 cabernet sauvignon was lauded by Wine & Spirits as the best in the country.
That was one year after Small and his wife, Darcey Fugman-Small, launched Woodward Canyon Winery.
“The thing that I remember the most: It took family, it took friends. Everybody was working,” said a reflective Fugman-Small.
“The press we had wasn’t automated. It wasn’t even hydraulic. I remember Rick’s dad holding hoses, his mom working the pump.”
When the Smalls got their first write-up in Wine Spectator they enlisted Fugman-Small’s co-worker, Laurie Klicker, to shoot a hastily set-up photo with a bottle of wine in front of a bush behind the then-county planning office.
“Nobody ever thought that we might need a photograph on hand,” she marveled.
The industry climate then was vastly different from it is today. The wineries were mostly small or boutique independent operations. Communication was via phone call, letter or an occasional fax.
The work took place in everyone’s free time. Rick worked at a grain elevator. His wife was a planner for the county. Gary juggled as a plant manager for Continental Canning Co., while his wife juggled with kids.
Effort to bring recognition to Valley’s traits bears fruit
Two other wineries followed them: L’Ecole No 41 and Patrick M. Paul Winery.
The foursome of wineries knew Walla Walla grapes were something special. So, with the help of growers, they set out to establish the AVA. The geographic designations single out areas for their distinguishing growing qualities: soil types, climate, precipitation, wind currents and more.
“All that adds up to something else in that glass,” Figgins said.
The designation took a lot of behind-the-scenes work, which was hugely bolstered by Fugman-Small’s own work experience.
Two months after the designation, an “Appellation Celebration” took place at Merchants Ltd., a downtown deli. Organizers toasted the accomplishment in specially made glasses commemorating the event. About 300 invited guests were treated to wine grown and bottled in the Walla Walla Valley.
Still, winery openings were few and far between in the first decade. Waterbrook Winery began in 1984. Four years later, Seven Hills Winery opened. The pace was not at all what founding members imagined, despite the fact that new fruit continued to be planted and accolades from wine media confirmed repeatedly the world-class quality.
“For a while, I didn’t think it was going to happen in my lifetime,” Figgins said. “In the early days there was just a handful of wineries. Literally you could count them on two hands.”
Industry, town begin to ripen
But as the individual successes rolled in, change started to take place.
“I guess enough of those successes added up and got enough attention so that it exploded,” he said. “It’s just like mushrooms after a hard rain.”
Simultaneous with the new industry was the revitalization of downtown Walla Walla. An explosion took place between 1999 and 2003, pushing the number of bonded wineries to more than 50.
In 2001 came the birth of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, a membership marketing agency for the industry. Walla Walla Community College introduced a flagship enology and viticulture program. Wine bars opened. So did more and more wineries.
Winemaker assistants who mentored under the pioneers branched out to open their own wineries, then paid forward the opportunities they’d been given.
“From the very beginning people have worked together to build each other up,” said Heather Bradshaw, Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance marketing manager.
More hotels opened. So did bed-and-breakfasts and vacation rentals. Tasting rooms snugged into pockets throughout the entire Valley — in old barns, retail storefronts, converted agriculture buildings and environmentally friendly state-of-the-art structures.
Today more than 100 wineries operate in the Valley. And more than 1,800 acres are planted.
The exact numbers are difficult to report. For the former, it’s because the operation may be bonded but not producing, or possibly not selling wine. For the latter, it’s difficult to know how many backyard vineyards are unaccounted for.
Local economy reaps harvest from wine-related tourism
The growth of the wine industry also contributed to the creation of a full-blown tourism agency. In 2005 Tourism Walla Walla was created. According to results of the most recent visitor survey, completed last November, about 51 percent of visitors to the community said they came to the Valley exclusively for wine tasting. But in total, 81 percent of those who came — no matter the reason — said they tasted wine while here.
Wine Enthusiast just named the community one of its Top 10 Wine Travel Destinations for 2014, along with regions like Sonoma, Calif., and Languedoc, France.
“The truth of the matter is, an industry that’s bringing literally thousands of visitors to this destination — it’s going to be an important part of the (picture),” said Tourism Walla Walla Executive Director Ron Peck.
Bradshaw has assembled a special winery guide and events around the alliance’s upcoming 30th anniversary.
Three decades is both a long period of time and a short one, say winery operators.
“Yes, it’s 30 years, but that means we’ve also only done this 30 times,” Fugman-Small said.
Since those early days, winery operators have learned a lot about accounting for Mother Nature and freezing temperatures. They’ve seen wineries open and close. Bigger wine corporations have found their own place in the Valley. Even the nature of the AVA could be changing with an application for a sub-AVA on the Oregon side of the appellation.
Buying habits have changed, too. More people are still just discovering the community, which is good because with more wineries operating, each one gets a smaller piece of the ever-growing consumer pie.
A lot has been said about how many wineries Walla Walla can support.
“I don’t know where that line is,” Fugman-Small said. “Five years ago I thought we were close.”
But the momentum continues. Three decades after the AVA was established, Fugman-Small said winemakers are still learning more about the land every season.
“There are distinctions from the east end of the Valley to the south end,” she said. “The fruit’s been in the ground long enough that we can tell the difference.”
The establishment of the AVA has changed the direction of the community and its economy. It’s a different town than it was 30 years ago.
“There’s definitely no more tumbleweeds,” Fugman-Small said.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8321.