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Walla Walla Winemaker

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By Lynn DeBruin

Were it wheat, Bill Schwerin, a third-generation farmer, would have known what to do. But suddenly this newbie winemaker had two tons of grapes sitting in his basement, and a bacterial action was threatening to ruin them all.

“The wine was going to hell in a hand basket,” Schwerin recalled of that fateful day in 2003. “I had to stop it.”

So he did the only thing he could think of – put the grapes outside in a snow bank to freeze the action. Not only did it work until he found a solution, Schwerin’s first batch of Syrah eventually produced a 91 rating from Wines Online.

“It tasted like the Barolo that I tasted a few years before in Italy. That was the ‘ah-hah’ moment,” he said. Thus, another winemaker was born in Walla Walla.

To date there are more than 130 wineries in the fertile Columbia River Valley, a scenic region in southeastern Washington, with Walla Walla just thirteen miles north of the Oregon border and 273 miles southeast of Seattle. While some might call it a poor man’s Napa Valley, others see the town of 30,000 differently.

“It’s Napa Valley thirty years ago,” said Abigail Schwerin, who in 2006 joined her father full-time in making Sapolil Cellar wines, which now produces about 1,500 cases a year.

“We are a destination,” adds Bill. “Napa is on your way to somewhere. We’re not on your way anywhere. The people come because of the wine.” What they’ll also find is a budding cultural scene, with live music, art galleries and festivals galore. But while the wineries seem to be growing at an exponential rate, the small-town charm remains.

The city recently earned the Great American Main Street Award and was named one of twelve Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Sunset magazine named Walla Wall the Best Main Street in the West and in 2005 Best Wine Destination of the Year.

In addition to award-winning Syrahs, Cab-merlot blends and even Chardonnays and Semillons have been produced in the fertile valley. The Schwerins are more than happy to talk about how it all started for them.

“I went ‘why not?’ and besides, I was fifty-eight. Where was I going to go with this piece of manure?” Bill Schwerin said of his family’s wheat farm that had seen better days. When he wandered into a winery near the airport and began helping out, he was hooked. “He called my brother and me and asked for money,” Abigail recalled, not expecting any return on her investment. Then he went to her grandparents for more money. With it, he bought four tons of grapes.

“I was like Mr. Magoo in some ways, working my way through things,” Bill Schwerin said of learning on the fly.

The father-daughter team still displays a disarming, self-deprecating style as they offer samples at their small, Main Street tasting room.

“We get along surprisingly well. We’re just good friends, but we bring such different talents to the table,” said Abigail, who has an incredible ability to taste the wine and know what works, while her father understands more of the science. And they push each other.

“Our first white wine was such a nightmare,” she said. “We argued over whether to cold-stabilize or not, when to add the yeast.” Somehow, the combination works.

Which is true of Walla Walla in general, once best known only for its sweet onions and silly name. Now, the perfect pairings are wine and golf, wine and music, or wine and art.

Plus, history is preserved on a large scale in places such as the Fort Walla Walla Museum and Whitman College and on a small scale in the caramel corn that one can smell blocks away from Bright’s Candies, established in 1934.

Whereas ten years ago, there was only one high-end restaurant – twenty miles away in Dayton, Washington – now there are dozens. Adding to the nightlife will be a brewery set to open later this summer.

“It’s been an amazing growth,” said Bill Schwerin. “For the first time, we’re seeing people come here for vacation. It’s beyond the imagination when it comes to this type of growth.”

While the streets were quiet on this rainy day, they would be bustling that weekend with tourists from near and afar for the biggest party of the year – the annual Spring Release Gala.

There also would be live music at several venues, including Sapolil, once only large enough to fit four people – and two of those would emerge with brick patterns on their backs from the non-treated, exposed surface. Now it fits ninety, with top acts from Latin jazz to blues playing on weekends.

“It’s coming, but it hasn’t gotten to its full potential,” Bill Schwerin says of the music scene he envisions energizing the entire street. “We can move the pendulum a little bit.”

If You Go

How2GetThere

Walla Walla is 13 miles north of the Oregon border, and 273 miles southeast of Seattle.
Horizon Air (an Alaskan Air partner) has flights through Seattle to Walla Walla Airport.

Where2Stay

Stay & Play packages at Wine Valley Golf Club and historic Marcus Whitman Hotel feature room rates starting at $129 and free cart and drink.

What2Do

Wineries
More than 130. Information on almost 100 can be found here.

walla-walla-golf

Golf
In total there are six public courses in the area.

Hit the Slopes
In the winter, Ski Bluewood, where some 300 inches of snow falls annually. The resort is just 52 miles southeast of Walla Walla.

Bring the Binoculars
With good habitat along the Columbia and Snake rivers, the area has 337 species of birds – the highest number east of the Cascades. For more info visit www.whitman.edu/biology/Birding.html.

Walking Tour
A two-mile tour takes one by some of the grand historic homes in the area, including the Queen Anne Victorian Sharpstein Manor, built in 1893, and the 1883 Victorian Stick Style house built by a pioneer banker. Download the Historic Walking Tour brochure here.

For Art’s Sake
In addition to more than 30 galleries and art studios, there are 14 sculptures and five murals within walking distance of one another.

Historic Sites
Fort Walla Walla Museum, Whitman Mission and Kirkman House Museum transport visitors back to the 1800s.

Festivals
There’s a Sweet Onion Festival each July, a Holiday Barrel Tasting in early December, spring release weekend is in May and a chamber music festival in June.

Lynn DeBruin is a freelance writer/photographer based in Denver and former sportswriter for the Rocky Mountain News. She is an 8 handicap.

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