WALLA WALLA — It must have been an amazing strawberry wine.
Woodward Canyon Winery founder Rick Small likened it to biting into fresh fruit plucked straight from Klicker Mountain.
Little known fact about Small’s journey as a pioneer in the wine industry alongside friend and Leonetti Cellar founder Gary Figgins: “(That was) the first wine of Gary’s that absolutely rocked my world.”
Suffice it to say, the more than 275 people gathered at the Gesa Power House Theatre for a panel discussion with Walla Walla’s wine giants on Thursday know Leonetti for a whole different set of reds.
But that tidbit — one that helped change the trajectory of a young Small from a budding architect into a renowned winemaker — was one of numerous surprises in a more than hourlong panel discussion that took the legends of Walla Walla winemaking away from topics of pH levels, sugar and oak to focus on a side not as often seen in wine magazines: the passion.
“I thought, if you could capture this kind of fruit in a wine, I’ve got to learn,” Small said.
The $50-a-ticket event was created by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Walla Walla Valley’s federal designation as an American Viticultural Area. That movement was led by four founding wineries — Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole No 41 and Patrick M. Paul Winery.
Gary Figgins, Leonetti Cellar
Rick Small, Woodward Canyon Winery
Marty Clubb, L’Ecole No 41
Eric Rindal and John Freeman, Waterbrook Winery
Casey McClellan, Seven Hills Winery
Norm McKibben, Pepper Bridge Winery
Thirty years later, Walla Walla is home to more than 100 operating wineries, which have contributed millions of dollars to the local economy and reportedly have contributed directly or indirectly to nearly 20 percent of the jobs here.
Thursday’s discussion, led by wine writer Andy Perdue, was a rare chance to have so many wine greats on one panel together.
Local winemakers, wine-lovers and wine writers packed the Power House to hear the history of how it all began.
Winemakers weren’t bashful about admitting a little ignorance played a big role.
With a collective 191 years of winemaking among them, panelists shared some of their early errors over the years. For Figgins that once meant an overflowing tank spewing wine in a trail down his driveway.
Waterbrook Winery co-founder Eric Rindal shared the tale of how pleasantly surprised he and former wife Janet Byerley were to discover the ease in which it took them to crush and fill tanks over a 12-hour period.
“That was easy,” he observed. “Let’s make some more.”
In one of their first years the pair ended up with 2,200 cases.
“It doesn’t seem like much now,” Rindal said. “But then we had to sell it.”
Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery and the son of one of the Valley’s early viticulturists, held the distinction on the panel of being the only winemaker to start a winery in Washington, move it to Oregon and bring it back to Washington.
Though his initial relocation was intended to put him closer to the grapes and give his wines “estate vineyard” status, he and his wife quickly discovered Oregon wines were most highly concentrated on the western side of that state. Being outside the Washington border — albeit within the Walla Walla Valley AVA — put it outside of the promotional jurisdiction of Washington.
The move back to Walla Walla after 11 or so years in Oregon happened with the renovation of the Whitehouse-Crawford, an old brick building that once housed a wood planing mill.
“It came together beautifully, and we became one of the first downtown production spaces,” McClellan said.
In those early days, all of the Walla Walla wineries could be represented in a single tasting event.
Compass Wines owner Doug Charles, who led a roughly 20-minute introduction on the industry and of the panel, recalled his days as a Western Washington restaurateur developing Washington wine lists and following the growth of the Walla Walla wine industry.
In a simpler time, he said, the biggest challenge for Walla Walla was being taken seriously. Washington was known for two names, Ste. Michelle and Preston. The ongoing joke about Walla Walla’s budding wines was that they must have been made by inmates or from onions.
“It was kind of this novelty,” Charles said.
But the wines were brilliant. And there was a sort of magic with the people. He recalled one wintertime visit from L’Ecole No 41 founder, the late Baker Ferguson, who trekked from Walla Walla to deliver a case of wine to a 12-table seafood restaurant across the state. He threw the door open dressed as Santa Claus.
“It was one of those classic moments,” he said.
Now known as the standard-bearers of quality, the panelists represented not only the wine industry’s beginnings, but also the excellence for a sustainable future. Admittedly they may not have known what they were getting into, several said.
Figgins even coined it “seat of your pants winemaking.” But passion was always at the core.
“The great thing about ignorance is you don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t care,” Small said. “The idea of failure was never even part of the dream.”
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.