When Catie McIntyre Walker looks at her hometown of Walla Walla, she sees a community that has come full circle.
That full circle is what McIntyre Walker highlights in her book, Wines of Walla Walla Valley, recently released by The History Press.
The timing of the book coincides with the Walla Walla Valley wine region’s 30th anniversary this year.
But as McIntyre Walker points out in her book, grapes and wine have a much longer history in the Walla Walla Valley.
Walla Walla’s first grapes came with Narcissa Prentiss Whitman before she and her husband and 11 other settlers were killed in 1847, McIntyre Walker wrote.
McIntyre Walker said there are times when records allowed her to follow the history of grapes and wine, and other times where there is nothing. Likely the treacherous frosts Walla Walla was known for periodically killed off grape vines.
Wine and liquor were huge commodities in downtown Walla Walla before the Prohibition era, she said. Walla Walla businesses successfully wooed Idaho gold miners with services offered downtown, including wine and liquor. Wineries existed back in the 1800s.
But Walla Walla’s modern day wine industry didn’t really revive until about 1970s, when Gary Figgins opened Leonetti Cellar and released his first commercial wine, a 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon. That was when backyard gardens and homemade wine began the shift to commercial vineyards and wineries.
Myles Anderson, founding director of the Institute for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College, writes in McIntyre Walker’s book that 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon was the start of Walla Walla’s presence as a wine destination.
“Wine enthusiasts nationwide wanted to buy and taste this wine,” he wrote. “The Gallo brothers sent a private jet to Walla Walla to buy a case of the amazing wine and to meet Gary and Nancy Figgins.”
Now, Walla Walla’s reborn downtown also features wineries, bakeries, specialty shops and services that bring in tourists, McIntyre Walker said.
“It’s a fascinating journey,” she said.
McIntyre Walker believes Walla Walla will remain a wine destination, but that it won’t ever become as big as Napa. In part because Walla Walla doesn’t have Napa’s proximity to a large city or airport, she said.
Whatever happens, she hopes that her community will remain a healthy environment for businesses.
When McIntyre Walker was young, she said she wanted to get out of Walla Walla, like many of her high school classmates. Now, she said Walla Walla is attracting young people from larger cities such as Seattle who want what the city has to offer, including wine, food, night life and weather.
Some of McIntyre Walker’s inspiration for her book comes from her father, who shared his fascination in local history and geology with his children. On Sunday afternoons after church, she said they would go on home field trips to museums or agate beds.
“I have wanted to write a book since I was 8 years old,” she said. “And I wanted to do a Walla Walla history book at that age.”
Her father also dabbled in winemaking and beer brewing, she said. And McIntyre Walker tried her hand at fermenting fruits and juices by the time she turned 18.
As Washington’s wine industry began to bloom, McIntyre Walker began visiting as many wineries as she could in Walla Walla, Prosser and Woodinville.
When Walla Walla Community College opened the Institute for Enology and Viticulture, she went back to school. Then McIntyre Walker, a freelance writer, started reviewing the wines she was tasting on her blog, Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman, in 2005.
Her book isn’t a repeat of her blog. Instead, she focuses on the history of Walla Walla’s wine industry. Wine reviews are short-term, since each vintage is different, McIntyre Walker said.
The book is available online from the History Press for $19.99, at Walla Walla’s Book & Game and various Walla Walla wineries.