Walla Walla boasts being home to over 100 wineries alone, and tourists flock during all parts of the year to partake in this unique product of the land. It is no surprise that to come here for college can inspire some students to join the wave of winemaking that is sweeping the region.
Out of the host of wineries in town there are many that are operated by Whitman graduates. One such winery is Revelry Vintners, a winery four miles from campus that is run by alumnus Jared Burns ’03, a Whitman graduate who has hired Whitman senior Joe Volpert to work in the tasting room.
The tasting room, which is described by Revelry’s enologist and cellar master Anthony Thomas as both “classy” but “unpretentious,” is where Volpert does his work for the winery. Currently a politics major, Volpert expresses the fascination that he has found with the local wine industry and the enthusiasm which he has acquired for wine while working at Revelry.
“Through working at Revelry, I’ve become more interested in the winemaking process,” said Volpert in an email. “I’ve talked with the enologist at Revelry a lot about the process and how it works, and winemaking is something that I could see myself doing in the future.”
Working in the tasting room gives Volpert the job of welcoming and serving any costumers that enter the tasting room, as well as answering any questions that they might have about the wine. Other than the knowledge he has gained about the specific wine that is offered by Revelry, Volpert has been given the chance to partake in the process of creating the wine.
“I’ve helped with bottling the wine twice, and I got to help with a ‘punch-down,’ which is pressing down the grapes into a vat of fermenting wine. The punch-downs are really hard physical work, which I wasn’t expecting!” said Volpert in an email.
The wine-making process is one that is deceivingly complicated and works on an intense second-by-second basis. In order to work with the wines, a person must be aware of the multiple chemical processes that are taking place at one time, requiring an ability to adapt and the knowledge to make informed decisions.
“You’re dealing with a product that is chemically speaking very complex. Because of that, you have to be very careful to monitor [the wine] at every step, so that if something happens that makes it go in the direction that you don’t want it to go in then you have to be able to change it. You have to understand the chemistry and the biology involved so that you can make the instant decisions that are informed decisions,” said Thomas.
The unique opportunity that Walla Walla holds for Whitman students to be involved in the wine industry is one that opens a whole new area of exploration. It is a profession that draws on the multifaceted ideals that Whitman holds as a liberal arts institution.
“I think the people who study wine and are successful are people who are actually passionate about wine. They are interested in not only the product itself but the process––the chemistry, the biology and the historical aspects of it,” said Volpert.
Likewise, despite Burns’ interest in the sporting industry after his graduation from Whitman, he found his true passion was in wine. Revelry Vinters opened in 2006 and Burns added his unique vision for his wine to the mix of Walla Walla’s growing wine community.
Ever since the first few commercial vineyards started popping up here in the 1980s, Walla Walla has been greatly transformed by wine. However, its development has not reached the critical levels that other wine industries such as Napa or Sonoma Valley have reached in California.
“Walla Walla has not grown exponentially as a wine industry because it is not near a metropolitan area. Napa Valley is right above San Francisco, which made their industry grow at a faster rate. We have a different environment that is conducive to making a different but also a good wine,” said Thomas.
The unique environment of Walla Walla creates this ideal space for winemaking, and also adds to the cultural assumptions about the industry. Despite the cultural stigma that wine tasting and enology is targeted at the upper class, Thomas believes that wine should be viewed as an indulgence for everyone.
“A lot of people assume that wine is reserved for people of a certain class, but that’s totally wrong,” said Thomas. “It’s not geared towards a certain class; it can be enjoyed by everyone. Everyone should have a chance to enjoy the cultural, social and historical richness of wine, and find the kind that they like.”
With this social and cultural permeability that can accompany wine, this industry opens up many opportunities for Whitman students. Whether opening a winery is an aspiration or tasting it is a hobby, winemaking has created a culture that will continue to define and expand Walla Walla.