One of the truly great opportunities that you get as a freelance wine writer is the chance to explore and experience an emergent wine region. Even if it is tough to sell an establishment editor on the story in that moment, you gain an education and experiences that will stay with you for decades, and when that place is finally killing it on a national scale, you can always say, 'Yeah, I was there way back when it was barely a thing."
My first visit to eastern Washington State's Walla Walla Valley was back in 2002 or so, when it was just beginning to come together. The place looked like a mostly flat desert sprinkled with bare hillsides, sage bushes and tumbleweeds. It was a very, very long drive from Seattle. There were a few full-fledged wineries and a lot of boot-strapping winemakers trying to do their own thing, some making wine in rented warehouse spaces that looked like big storage lockers.
But it was on that trip that I met Jean-Francois Pellet, a Swiss winemaker who had come to Walla Walla to work with pioneer winegrower and Pepper Bridge founder Norm McKibben and Ray Goff, an Anheuser Busch veteran.
McKibben had founded Pepper Bridge in 1989, making it one of the first estate wineries in the region. Soon thereafter he partnered with Pellet and Goff. today the wines are 100% estate grown. Pepper Bridge Vineyard is 170 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec, located on the Washington side of the appellation. The company's other key vineyard is Seven Hills, which was planted in 1981 on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla appellation.
It was already fairly clear from both my tasting of the many nascent wines and the reputations attributed to local wineries that Pepper Bridge had already established itself as a leader in the Walla Walla region. Looking back, there was a certain confident swagger that Pellet had even back then. The easy gait of someone who knows that he's on to something.
Pepper Bridge's sister label, Amavi, is more affordable, focused on other varieties, and also owned by the same three families, if in slightly different proportions. Amavi has seen a great deal of success in recent years, especially with restaurant buyers and sommeliers. Amavi Syrah is the brand's flagship wine, and all Amavi wines are also estate grown, sustainably grown, and tend to be matured in more neutral oak.
In general, Pellet says he tries to pick grapes on the early side of optimal ripeness, preserving the grapes' focus, freshness, floral aromas and acidity. I very much appreciate that approach.
For me, "freshness," which I would describe in red wines as the presence of bright blueberry or floral notes in young red wines, is a quality that I think is a hallmark of great wines and the absence of which is a hallmark of wines that have no future.
I think that over the past ten years Pellet has steadily succeeded in instilling increasing freshness and finesse into his wines, slowly and steadily.
These are very refined wines that are both flavorful and elegant, that can be drunk young or , in the case of the reds, can certainly be aged for a few years. They are less bombastic than many California wines, and have more forward fruit than many European wines. Pellet says the climate of Walla Walla, taking into account heat, latitude and solar radiation, produces wines that are somewhere on the dial between old world and new world. If that's correct, these wines back up that proposition. And while they aren't cheap, they're pretty damn good, and arguably well-positioned in the current wine business.
Pepper Bridge 2014 Sauvignon Blanc Wall Walla, WA ($36) Ambitiously priced, but also an impressively interesting take on Sauvignon Blanc fermented in a mix of neutral barrels, stainless steel and concrete vessels. It has complex candied pear, grapefruit, lime zest and guava notes and is pretty effing delicious. If there's any fault to it, it's arguably over-complicated. (91 points)
Amavi 2013 Syrah Walla Walla, WA ($33) A mere 2% of Grenache in the mix, but a very important 50% stem inclusion in the fermentation, which adds structure and spice to the flavor profile. As JF points out, it's a reasonably geeky and also very sound wine of the sort that sommeliers appreciate. It's also easy for a non-sommmelier to appreciate with focused boysenberry, black olive, pepper and coriander notes. The finish is miles long because of the stem inclusion, which adds a lot of structure. Very impressive. (92 points)
Pepper Bridge 2012 "Trine" Walla Walla, WA ($ ) Trine rhymes with pine and is a reference to the three families that own Pepper bridge. It's a Bordeaux blend that has increasingly become focused around Cabernet Franc, which makes up 37% of the current vintage. I have to say that the Cabernet Franc component is stellar, leading the way with bright, fresh blueberry high notes. Cassis, olive notes and some spicy oak complete the picture. This is a delicious edition of this blend, which seems to have improved year over year with a subtle tightening of the screw. I think this the best Trine yet. (94 points)
Amavi 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla, WA ($ ) This one has 11% Cabernet Franc in the mix as well as a bit of Petit Verdot, and Malbec. It has fruity, fresh black and red currant flavors with fresh violet overtones and an interesting chalky sort of minerality that runs through it. A very nice wine. (89 points)
Pepper Bridge 2012 Merlot Walla Walla, WA ($ ) Pellet describes this as a very average, or typical vintage. It has lucid, fresh, plum, vanilla, red currant, wild strawberry and cinnamon notes. There's a touch of alcoholic heat on the finish, but damned if this isn't a lot of what I like about Washington Merlot. It's impressively complex and subtle. (91 points)
Pepper Bridge 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla, WA ($ ) As much as I'm a fan of Washington Merlot, have to say that this wine tells an important story and sets a very high bar. Jean-Francois describes Walla Walla as somewhere between the old world and the new world. Cabernet always narrates a story, and in this Cabernet is perfectly articulate. There are slightly leafy, fresh tobacco notes on the nose, and it's fairly minerally as well. The fruit notes remind me of dark raspberries and currants, the acid is perfectly tweaky, and there's nothing goopy or sweet about it. It's one of the most Bordeaux-like Cabernets you'll ever find from the American west coast. It's absolutely varietally correct and has a tremendous sense of place and balance. (93 points)