When Ross Bagdasarian (a.k.a. Alvin and the Chipmunks) penned those less-than-immortal words, he probably wasn’t thinking of the valley where I grew up. He may have been drinking, but it wasn’t Walla Walla wine. Except for the basement variety, there wasn’t any.
Fast forward some 30-plus years: According to the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, “more than 100 wineries and 1,800 acres of grapes contribute to the ever-growing, national and international acclaim garnered by the wines of Walla Walla Valley.” My little valley has become a merlot mecca for wine lovers from around the world.
The wine and vine boom took root somewhere around the mid to late 1970‘s. I know. I was there. My father Herb Hendricks, brother Scott, and I planned and planted what is arguably the first commercial vineyard in the valley – Seven Hills Vineyards.
I remember Dad saying, “This valley is on the same latitude as the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions of France. We ought to be able to grow good wine grapes here.” He set out to prove it by planting several rows of wine grapes in the lot behind our house. We lived in town then and I was still in high school.
Grapes are classified as either Vitis labrusca or Vitis vinifera. The former can be thought of as North American varieties and the latter as European varieties. Most of the world’s fine wines are made from the European kind and those were the grapes my father was talking about.
When Mom and Dad traded the house in town for some 360 acres of wheat and pea ground in the country, I thought they were crazy. My grandparents and their parents before them had been farmers, but my father was the town doctor! It wasn’t long until the whole family was involved in the farming operation.
If you stand in the middle of Seven Hills Road and look down the rows of grapes, you may notice something a bit odd. Narrow row, wide row, narrow row, wide row, etc. I have a confession. It’s my fault.
It was my job to drive the tractor to make furrows in which to plant the grapes. I had to hunker down in the tractor seat and line up the wooden stakes with the front end of the old green Oliver 1750. What I didn’t know at the time was that the modified two-bottom plow I was pulling behind the tractor was slightly off center.
I drew a bead on those stakes, driving up one row and down the next. My mistake didn’t become readily apparent until after we’d planted the grapes and pushed back the displaced dirt. We learned a lot in those early years.
Dad’s enthusiasm was infectious and it wasn’t long until he had talked his best friend, Doctor Jim McClellan, into getting involved. In 1988, his son Casey McClellan returned from U.C. Davis and became winemaster of the newly formed Seven Hills Winery, now located in the historic Whitehouse-Crawford Building in downtown Walla Walla.
If you would like to see and/or taste for yourself, a good place to begin is with the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance website. Learn more about the history of the valley, upcoming special events, and explore the links to each member vineyard and winery.