Winemaker taking vines to new heights with vineyard at 1,700 feet

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It is a picture of serenity on top of the near-tallest vineyard in the Valley.

The stillness at Elevation 1200, the name of Tertulia Cellars’ newest estate vineyard off the North Fork of the Walla Walla River and chosen to reflect its base height, is cut by thwacks from a posthole digger echoing through the canyon. The last plantings at the vineyard developed over the last year and a half will take place this spring, bringing life to a relatively uncharted area on the sloped hillsides just across the state line.

Except for the roar of the nearby river, the terraced vineyard is otherwise as still as a painting. Which is just what vineyard manager Ryan Driver likes about it.

“This is my playground,” Driver, 34, said before trekking up the muddy earth to the peak of the vineyard at 1,700 feet.

The elevation — the tallest vineyard with the exception of Breezy Slope off Foster Road, which has this one beat by a mere 50 feet — has advantages for grape-growing. The land sits above the air pool. The cold air slides down the hillsides to the Valley, making it nearly devoid of frost pressure in the critical growing period.

Purchased in September 2012, the property is the third and largest estate vineyard for Tertulia Cellars, whose tasting room is at 1564 Whiteley Road.

When the winery’s 20 acres are harvested of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, roussane, petit verdot, cabernet franc and more starting in 2015, it will mean the 3,000-case-per-year producer can move away from the portion of the grapes it outsources from other American Viticultural Areas.

For the wine industry overall, it marks a move to an area that has been explored by only a couple of wineries but could hold tremendous potential for grape growing, said Whitman College geology professor Kevin Pogue, who also is a consultant to winery’s on selection, development and promotion of premier vineyard sites.

For years Pogue has been extolling the virtues of the southfacing slopes of the North Fork Valley.

“You get a little bit longer growing season there, but it’s not as hot,” he said.

Christophe Baron, renowned winemaker and owner of Cayuse Vineyards, planted a vineyard not far from Elevation 1200 that is expected to bear its first full crop this year, Pogue said. He expects more will come.

That it’s in a new frontier is one special aspect of the vineyard. But it’s also one of few in the Valley to be completely terraced. Others exist, but not at this elevation and not this completely, Pogue said.

The format was one of two choices possible for grapes on the slopes, Driver said. With the terraces in place, he could work on more traditional trellising with the grapes. Otherwise each vine would have been planted with its own post for a more complex head training program that is more laborious overall.

What’s happened is an absolute transformation. The property was packed with the belongings of the previous owner — a dozen or more vehicles, a semi on the hill, trees and oil cans strewn about, Driver said.

“But I could see the vision of what it could be,” he explained.

A graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s Enology & Viticulture program, Driver has been with Tertulia for seven years and was eager to get to work on the project.

What he discovered: Under about half the property is basalt, which is good for planting and the eventual move to a nonirrigated vineyard but also arduous for digging. Even with a post-hole digger attached to an excavator, some of the holes took a half-hour to dig.

There are 10,000 posts on the portion of the 20-acre property dedicated just to Tertulia, and not including the vines themselves. Another 10,000 are being dug for land that will be farmed in a 20-year contract. That portion is the section that remains to be planted.

If there’s a disadvantage to the land, it’s the higher population of rattlesnakes and bull snakes, which have surprised workers on more than one occasion.

While still a work in progress, the land will also include a nursery of every variety of planted grape that can serve as a source of transfer if a vine should die.

Beneficial lavender shrubs will also be planted. Cover crop includes red clover, white clover and cayuse oats. Eventually, operators of Tertulia want to provide an event space at the property’s peak.

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