In 2019, we took our drone and camera equipment on the road, traveling across Washington State. We sat down with 42 winemakers, grape growers, and experts in the field. We are excited to begin sharing these conversations with you. Today, meet Geologist Kevin Pogue, who isn’t a rocket scientist but Rock Scientist, which in our opinion is far better.
Washington Wine: When people ask you about the Walla Walla Valley and what makes it unique in the wine world, where do you start?
Kevin Pogue: Well, I think it’s just an excellent place to grow grapes because the climate is superb. If you take the Walla Walla Valley AVA as a whole, there’s enough variation in all the different metrics we use to determine terroir that we can grow everything from Grenache to Gewürztraminer here because we have a large variation in elevation, soil type, precipitation, and almost any metric you’d want to use to evaluate vineyard sites. It’s an exciting place. If you want to grow grapes here, you can grow most of them, if you just put them in the right place. And our industry is growing and people are searching for new terroir and figuring out the best places to cultivate each variety. It’s an exciting time to be in Walla Walla.
WW: Does our youthfulness lead to our experimental nature?
KP: There’s actually an older history to viticulture in the Walla Walla Valley, and Washington State in general, that goes back to the late 1800s. Italian immigrants were growing grapes here in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater back in the late 1800s, and there are records of thousands of gallons of wines being produced here and in some other parts of Washington State. But after prohibition, viticulture and winemaking largely faded away.
During that embryonic stage, we found some of the really good places to grow grapes, and then the industry collapsed. There was a rebirth in the 60s and 70s, and now it’s just really taken off. We’ve now reached a state in the industry where many of the obvious, easiest places to grow grapes have been found; and now we’re pushing into the frontiers and finding places that might not be as obvious. I’m somebody who likes to explore and I like to think of myself as a pathfinder. I’m always searching for new places to do things, and new places to explore. I think we’re at that stage in grape growing in Washington where we’re seeking out great new terroir, and it’s fun to be a part of that.
WW: One thing many people talk about is the agricultural backbone of this area, and that the wine industry is able to be successful because of what came before it.
KP: Walla Walla has always been an agricultural town. It has a firm history based in farming, so there’s an agricultural sensibility in this area, and everyone knows our economy is based on farming. A lot of people see grapes as just the new crop. We’ve got wheat, peas, onions, alfalfa, apples, and cherries, but now we’ve got grapes. It’s not like we’re expanding agriculture into an area where it wasn’t already well established. It’s just a new crop for a lot of the folks around here.
WW: What do you think is one thing that surprises people when they first arrive in Walla Walla?
KP: I think they’re surprised by the town, because to a lot of people, Walla Walla seems like a quaint mid-western farming community, like a town in Indiana or Iowa that was cut out and placed into the wheat fields of eastern Washington, but with the beautiful backdrop of the Blue Mountains.
We have old Victorian homes and huge deciduous trees lining the streets. It reminds me a lot of those old farm communities in the heartland of the country. It’s one of the oldest towns in Washington and so a lot of our homes date back to the 1800s. Whitman College, where I teach, was founded in the mid-1800s. I think a lot of people are surprised by the history and the appearance of the town and our beautiful Main Street. The backdrop of the mountains is different from a lot of wine growing regions in eastern Washington. I’ve watched people be surprised when I tell them things like how on one side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, we get 7 inches of precipitation, but on the other side, we have 26 inches of precipitation. That’s over a relatively small area, so there’s variability from sagebrush desert on one side of the AVA to Douglas fir forests on the other side. I don’t think people are prepared to see all the variation in the landscape and the natural vegetation and climate. We’re 4 or 5 hours from major metropolitan areas, so we’re a bit of a destination, but once folks get here they feel very comfortable.
WW: When you think of Washington wine versus other areas, what separates it?
KP: I think Washington State wines in general offer a really nice balance between new world influences and European influences. I think our wines can get nice and ripe, but they don’t tend to get overripe, so they find a balance between a more opulent style and a European style.
I think our wines are not overly formulaic. There’s not a certain style that’s being pursued. I think a lot of our winemakers really respect the grape. They let the grapes give what they have to offer. And I think the fact that we’re a little cooler in Washington that some spots farther south helps preserve acidity and achieve a natural balance without having to process it in certain ways to make it more balanced.
I spoke with a local winemaker recently, telling them that I thought their wines really bridged the gap between New World and Old World styles, and they looked at me and said, “That’s a fantastic compliment. That’s exactly what I hope my wines would do.”
WW: What lends itself to being so balanced?
KP: If you make a graph of the range of temperatures across the world — say, average annual growing season temperatures where Cabernet Sauvignon is grown — and you look at the range of temperatures, at the lower end would be Bordeaux. It’s one of the coolest places where people grow Cabernet Sauvignon, even though it’s the birthplace.
Whereas if you look at the other end of the bar, you’ll see Napa Valley. It’s one of the warmer places where Cabernet Sauvignon is grown. In terms of the annual average growing season temperature, right smack dab in the middle of that is the Walla Walla Valley, exactly halfway between Napa Valley and Bordeaux, so we’re able to do it naturally because our conditions fall between hotter places like Australia and California and places in Europe that are a little bit cooler. Temperature is a big factor in the development of phenolic compounds, so we just naturally fall within the middle of that range. And our latitude is very similar to Bordeaux, so our sun angle and length of day is really similar to Bordeaux, yet our climate is quite a bit different, with less rain and humidity and more sunlight.
We also don’t have a marine influence in eastern Washington. We have really brilliant sunlight and almost no rain at all for 3 months. We had our first significant rainfall in 3 months just the other day, and it’s the talk of the town. So it looks like the rains are finally here. However, most of the grapes have been harvested, and we generally don’t worry about rain during the harvest season, because it almost never happens, and when it does, it’s usually not very much. We just don’t have vintage issues due to late season rainfall.
WW: How does one go about describing the wines of a single region?
KP: I think it’s always dangerous to characterize an AVA as big as the Walla Walla Valley with a particular or signature terroir. I give presentations where I describe how the Walla Walla Valley can be dividied into four areas with very different types of growing conditions.The wines from those areas differ dramatically from one another. A Syrah from The Rocks District is very different from a Syrah from Seven Hills, and they’re different from the Syrah from Les Collines, and the wines that are going to be coming from the valley of the North Fork of the Walla Walla River will be different still. So I think only at the largest scale is there a commonality of Walla Walla wines. When you look at the details of the sensory components of the wines, they are definitely influenced by the unique set of growing conditions within the valley.
BR: How do you characterize those four areas within the Walla Walla Valley?
KP: The first is the low elevation areas on the valley floor that I call the “loess-covered terraces.” Loess is the wind-deposited silt that forms most of our soils around here, and on the valley floor it is draped over terraces made of the deposits of the Missoula Floods. The terraces lie at the lower elevations below 1,200 feet, and they host several famous vineyards like Pepper Bridge. These lower elevations have the warmest temperatures for afternoon highs, but also has the coldest morning low temperatures. The bedrock is not within rooting depth; the thick flood deposits prevent the roots from reaching the basalt.
The second area is called “the alluvial fans,” which includes the Rocks District, where the soils are made of basalt gravels. The alluvial fans are also on the valley floor, so they have large diurnal variations as well, but chemically, thermally, and hydrologically the soil are very different. The cobblestone gravels of the alluvial fans produce wines that are so distinctive that they have been recognized as a sub-AVA of the Walla Walla Valley AVA.
The third region is a higher area that I call the “loess draped foothills.” This is an area of deep wind-deposited silt loam over basalt bedrock, but the soils are so thick that the basalt is not in the rooting zone. The loess draped foothills are at a higher elevation, so they don’t have cold morning low temperatures and the elevated frost and freeze risk associated with valley floor locations. They also don’t get quite as hot, and they have these super deep, well-drained silt-based soils.
The fourth area is the “steep slopes and canyons,” mostly in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, which feature shallower silt loam soils on basalt. In this area the roots can penetrate through the loess and into the underlying basalt bedrock. When they do that, they’re exposed to a different suite of nutritive elements, that’s enriched in iron, magnesium, and calcium. It’s night and day, geologically, to go from the granite-derived silt-based soils to the underlying basalt. The steep slopes and canyons are a bit of a frontier for us here. So those are our four areas: the loess-covered terraces, the alluvial fans, the loess draped foothills, and the canyons.
WW: Are there other places that have that diversity?
KP: Any larger AVA is going to have considerable variations in growing conditions. People tend to want to equate an AVA with terroir, and that’s typically a big mistake. Terroir occurs more on a vineyard level than it does on an AVA level in most cases. The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is an exception to that generality because it’s very consistent. It has one soil type and one landform. But in general, the larger an AVA, the more variety it encompasses. If you think of the Columbia Valley AVA, for example, which is the size of Belgium, the elevation ranges from 250–3000 feet, rainfall varies from 5 inches to 30 inches, and there’s granite bedrock and basalt bedrock. But even in a small AVA like Red Mountain, which is currently the smallest in Washington, there’s substantial variation in climatic conditions based on elevation, number of heat units, and the growing conditions are quite different between the top and the bottom of the mountain. There are many different soil types on Red Mountian. Some are pure sand, and some are gravels, so if you want to talk terroir and growing conditions, it’s best to think of AVAs as collections of terroirs that have been assembled to market the wines of a particular region. And when you think of terroir or the possibility of terroir, it’s best to think more at the vineyard level than the AVA level.
WW: What’s something that excites you about wine out here?
KP: Well, I’m very excited about the development going on at the North Fork, which I think is essentially going to become the Côte-Rôtie of Walla Walla. There’s really amazing potential out there, and it’s a beautiful area. Even folks that have been out to the Walla Walla Valley a bunch of times are going to be really surprised when they go out there for the first time, because it has a unique topography relative to the areas where most vineyards have been planted.
It’s a big, beautiful canyon going up into the Blue Mountains and it looks more like the Douro Valley in Portugal than what most people think of as Walla Walla. I think we’re going to see viticulture expanding up the Mill Creek valley as well. I know of someone who’s planting an experimental vineyard at 3,000 feet in the Blue Mountains. Because it’s at 3,000 feet, it’s outside both the Walla Walla and the Columbia Valley AVAs, but it’s still near Walla Walla, just higher up in the Blues Mountains on a south-facing slope. The landscape and views are spectacular up there, and when you start getting up into the mountains, you get more rainfall. You don’t have to irrigate as much, or maybe at all, and with irrigation water becoming more and more precious, I think people are going to be looking for places where they can dry farm grapes. There are quite a few places in the Walla Walla Valley where that is possible because of our proximity to the Blues Mountains, unlike areas to the west, in the central and western parts of the Columbia basin where they just don’t get enough rain.
I’m excited to see the expansion of our vineyards into new regions. New people are showing up all the time, and the Walla Walla Valley is a very friendly place, so they get a warm welcome and everybody pitches in to help them. I think that’s a big part of what’s made Walla Walla what it is: that everyone’s been so supportive of everyone else. You know, it’s the rising tide floats all boats philosophy here, where people share information freely and help each other. There’s a real atmosphere of cooperation and friendliness.
WW: Where is Walla Walla in its arc?
KP: It’s certainly not peaked, not by a long shot. When I attend the International Terroir Congresses in Europe, most of the wine people know about Walla Walla and have heard of it, and they know it’s in Washington. They may not know very much about it—about the details of our climate or terroir—but just the name of it sticks in your head because it’s unusual.
I show my terroir class students a full-page ad that was in the Wine Spectator probably 8 or 10 years ago now, and it was basically an ad for preserving the names and branding of wine. It emphasizes that a Burgundy must be from Burgundy, and a Champagne must be from Champagne, and it said something like, “Just as a Burgundy is from this part of France and Champagne is from here, Napa is from Napa and Walla Walla is from Washington.” It was financed by the European Union, and so there was name recognition even 10 years ago, and I think that’s pretty cool. They were reaching out to try to pick up names of wine regions people had heard of, and I often use that with my students when I am talking about the importance of terroir, AVAs, and branding.
I think the Walla Walla Valley has achieved some brand recognition that’s very important. Especially with the quality of wine we’re making in this valley, it’s only going to grow, especially for folks seeking out wines like we talked about that bridge the gap between New World and Old World influences. I think there’s a new search for elegance in wines and that’s only going to be good for the Walla Walla Valley, because we can make those wines effortlessly here.
WW: One more question.
KP: That’s OK. I’m a professor, I can talk all day. That’s what I do.
WW: You described Walla Walla as balanced. Is there an un-word — a word that begins with un — that you would use to describe the wines of Washington or Walla Walla?
KP: Unpretentious. I think we’re unpretentious here. I think we don’t put on airs. We don’t tend to flaunt ourselves or make big claims. We’re down-to-earth folks making fantastic wines. I think we have a lot of exceptional wines that are being made by fairly humble people who are not pretentious, and not overbearing. I think sometimes that might hurt us with critics a little bit, in that perhaps that we’re a little too humble, a little too shy to toot our horn, but there’s some wines you have to seek out and some people that are fairly unassuming and unpretentious that are making unbelievable wines that might surprise you. I’ve visited a lot of wine regions, and I can say with confidence that there are a lot of spectacular wines being made in this valley by a lot of really great hardworking people. Maybe they’re not quite as flashy, and don’t have a Chateau-style edifice, but I think they’re putting all their energy and heart and soul into the wine. So yeah, that’s the best I think I can do with unwords.