When one talks about Washington wine, the name Woodward Canyon is bound to come up. The winery, along with Leonetti Cellar is credited as one of the founding wineries in a region finally getting its due on the world wine stage. When you’re one of the very first wineries to establish yourself in a relatively new wine region, maintaining a level of quality amongst many up and coming formidable peers can be a challenge. Woodward Canyon has not only produced outstanding wine for more than 35 years, they’ve built a lasting legacy that shows no signs of slowing down. Not content to rest on their laurels of simply being one of the “originals”, they continue to look ahead and set the bar in terms of quality and sustainability.
Rick Small’s sense of place with respect to Walla Walla’s terroir started early. Growing up on his family’s wheat farm, what he learned in practice he then applied to theory studying Agriculture at Washington State University. In large part due to his agricultural background, it has always been his belief that the secret to making great wine is found in the vineyard. In the mid 1970’s, around the same time Rick’s good friend Gary Figgins founded Leonetti Cellar, Rick convinced his father to allow him to take a portion of the family land and plant some vineyards of his own. Four years later in 1981, he and his wife Darcey established Woodward Canyon Winery. Fortunately for fans of Washington wine, Rick and Gary’s friendship at this critical time, along with frequent collaboration with other early wineries like L’Ecole No. 41, Seven Hills and Waterbrook, laid a foundation of camaraderie that has remained today. Being so isolated and new, these wineries had to both rely on each other and help each other in order to develop Washington into one of the most critically acclaimed regions in the world.
We sat down with Rick’s daughter Jordan Dunn-Small as well as Selena Kritsonis (who looks after regional sales & shipping) and quickly found out that the winery’s next generation has adopted a similar mindset regarding both quality and conviviality. According to Jordan, the winery is currently in the middle of succession planning to figure out the first generation’s exit strategy and where Jordan and Sager (Jordan’s brother) fit in terms of the future of the winery.
Sager is a trained chef and is enrolled in an enology program while Jordan currently works at the Winery on the sales side. Although being from one of the most well-known and established wineries in the region, Jordan says she and her brother were never pressured into joining the family business. While they were exposed to some fantastic experiences like travelling around the world and some pretty special winemaker dinners, she initially pursued International Relations in College.
When she realized that wasn’t the route she wanted to go in terms of a career, she returned to Walla Walla after getting her degree, worked in different areas within the wine industry, and found her way back to the family winery about 3 years ago. It was a trip to Japan with her family that solidified her desire to make the wine industry her future, “I really enjoyed seeing people enjoying our wine in Japan which is our biggest export market.” Today, she mostly works with the winery’s long-term customers and finds it particularly rewarding to interact with them after seeing the wine harvested and produced. “Wine is a rare business where you actually get to deal with customers that enjoy your product over many years and where you get direct and personal feedback.”
Woodward Canyon winemaker Kevin Mott has been with the winery since the early 2000’s making his first vintage in 2003. Jordan credits him with being a big part of maintaining the level of quality at the winery inspired by Rick. “We are so lucky to have Kevin. He has an incredible attention to detail and keeps the grapes separate for quite a while so he can evaluate each lot and each block over time. He has found that magic sweet spot where our wines are approachable early on but still very age-worthy.”
As for the vineyards, Woodward Canyon is incredibly well positioned in terms of vineyard sources and relationships. Their Estate vineyard located in the Walla Walla AVA (American Viticultural Area) is made up of 41 planted acres that they manage themselves. As a result of working their own vineyard over 40 years and Rick’s constant experimentation with different varieties, clones, and elevation, they know what the ground gives them and how to get the best out of it vintage after vintage.
In addition to their Estate vineyard, Woodward Canyon co-owns (along with wineries Quilceda Creek, Andrew Will and Powers) the Champoux Vineyard located in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, one of the most critically acclaimed vineyards in the state. Woodward Canyon also sources fruit from Sagemoor Vineyard in the Columbia Valley AVA, home to some of the oldest vines in the state and from where Rick has been getting fruit since first establishing the winery. From the very start Woodward Canyon has utilized environmentally friendly practices at their Estate vineyard which is certified sustainable by IOBC (International Organization for Biological Control) since 2008.
For Rick and Darcey sustainability does not just happen in the vineyard, it is a philosophy they believe is at the basis of everything they do both in the vineyard and out. They have not taken their success for granted and have endeavoured to give back, not just in terms of agriculture, but to the community as a whole. The list of boards, alliances and committees they both participate on is as long as it is impressive.
One of the Woodward Canyon labels even plays a role in educating consumers about the history of the region by paying homage to some of its earliest pioneers. The winery’s first vintage of their Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon in 1981 was the beginning of their “Dedication Series” with the aim to feature portraits of different pioneers each year including a short biography on the back label. In fact, Jordan’s first job with the winery while she was still in high school was to take the information on these pioneers provided by her father and produce the biography for the label. The first vintage is a picture of A.P. Woodward, a local farmer and rancher and the winery’s namesake. By 2005, they started running out of people to feature so went back to featuring A.P. Woodward who now adorns all of the vintages of Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon since then.
At almost 70, and despite succession planning in the works, make no mistake that Rick has no plans to ease into a quiet retirement whenever that time comes. He is described by many as having boundless energy and is a man that thrives on learning and experimenting. He is still very much involved in the winery directing its production, frequently visiting the vineyards, pulling samples and conferring with winemaker Kevin Mott. But when the time does come to hand the reigns over to the next generation, it’s fair to say that Rick and Darcey have instilled the same belief in quality and sustainability with Jordan and Sager and that Woodward Canyon is in good hands for many years to come.
Grapes come from the Woodward Canyon Estate vineyard and the well-respected Celilo vineyard. Average age of the vines is 41 years. Notes of apple and pear dominate the beautiful aromatics of this wine. The body is medium+ and quite textured. The finish has a crisp acidity which serves as a nice counter-point to the richness of the body and results in terrific balance. The apple flavours are joined by mineral notes and the finish is long and citrus-infused.
Excellent (US$44 at their tasting room)
Weinbau, Wahluke Slope and Woodward Canyon Estate contribute the grapes. Washington Merlot is often as big as its Cab and this is no exception. Nose of floral aromas over black cherry. Confectured tones evoke a black forest cake. The palate is full with flavours of plum and black cherry getting support from the spicy aspects. Rich and full, there is lovely texture and enough tannin to ensure several years of development in the cellar. Coffee and mocha notes appear after some air. Delicious!
Excellent (US$52 at their tasting room)
Erratic is a newer addition to the lineup, the first vintage being 2010. It is an unusual blend of 46% Mouvedre, 45% Syrah and 9% Grenache. Plum and black cherry dominate the nose and the palate. Mouvedre can be known to have a feral side and this shows up in a gentle way that adds complexity without becoming a distraction. Medium+ tannin and medium+ body give it solid grip. Slightly rustic, this is the sort of wine that really needs to accompany food to show its best.
Very Good+ /Excellent (US$59 at their tasting room)
2014 Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon
This blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot comes from some of the top vineyards in the state: Champoux, Woodward Canyon Estate, Sagemoor and Summit View. In the glass, the pedigree of those vineyards shows. There is plenty of big and bold blackfruit on the nose. The palate is infused with black cherry, black currant, and an earthy forest-like note that makes us think of Bordeaux. The tannins are big but ripe. Definitely a wine that will reward cellaring. We have had many past vintages of the Artisit Series a decade or more past the vintage and they all had developed more nuance and complexity and showed plenty of life was still in front.
Excellent+ (US$59 at their tasting room – $59 is a lot to pay for a wine, but this wine stands tall next to other WA wines at nearly twice the price and is a deal compared to most upper–end Napa and Bordeaux Cabs)
2013 Estate Reserve
All grapes grown on their Estate using sustainable viticulture certified by IOBC and LIVE. The blend in this vintage is 33% Merlot, 33% Petit Verdot, 22% Cabernet Franc and 12% Cabernet Sauvignon. Smooth and polished, this is a big wine that stays balanced. Petit Verdot can be such a huge grape and seldom appears as more than 5% – 10% of any blend. But somehow its large share does not over dominate and the blend works together, each part showing well and not being over-powered. Black cherry dominates the flavour profile; the body is textured and long.
Excellent (US$79 at their tasting room
2014 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon
The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for this wine were planted in the early 1970s and come from Champoux and Sagemoor. The 4% Petit Verdot comes from their Estate Vineyard. Massive, with loads of black cherry, blackberry and hints of coffee and mocha. The body is full with a rich texture. Cedar and herbs add complexity. There is definitely something reminiscent of a classified growth Paulliac here. Give this one some time to really get all that it can offer. We recently drank the 2001 which was delicious and showing that it had at least another decade of life in front of it.
Excellent+/Extraordinary (US$99 at their tasting room)
*Links to previously published Woodward Canyon AdVINEtures tasting notes include: 2001 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Artist Series #14, 2003 Estate Red Wine, 2012 Chardonnay, 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Artist Series #12.