It’s not rocket science; it’s rock science.

In 2019, Washington Wine sat down with Kevin Pogue, geologist, professor, and “rock scientist” to talk about terroir, The Rocks District of Milton Freewater, and the Walla Walla Wine Valley, in general. Below is the first half of that interview. You can read the rest by clicking on the button at the bottom of this post.

Washington Wine: When people ask you about the Walla Walla Valley and what makes it unique in the wine world, where do you start?

Kevin Pogue: Well, I think it’s just an excellent place to grow grapes because the climate is superb. If you take the Walla Walla Valley AVA as a whole, there’s enough variation in all the different metrics we use to determine terroir that we can grow everything from Grenache to Gewürztraminer here because we have a large variation in elevation, soil type, precipitation, and almost any metric you’d want to use to evaluate vineyard sites. It’s an exciting place. If you want to grow grapes here, you can grow most of them, if you just put them in the right place. And our industry is growing and people are searching for new terroir and figuring out the best places to cultivate each variety. It’s an exciting time to be in Walla Walla.

WW: Does our youthfulness lead to our experimental nature?

KP: There’s actually an older history to viticulture in the Walla Walla Valley, and Washington State in general, that goes back to the late 1800s. Italian immigrants were growing grapes here in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater back in the late 1800s, and there are records of thousands of gallons of wines being produced here and in some other parts of Washington State. But after prohibition, viticulture and winemaking largely faded away.

During that embryonic stage, we found some of the really good places to grow grapes, and then the industry collapsed. There was a rebirth in the 60s and 70s, and now it’s just really taken off. We’ve now reached a state in the industry where many of the obvious, easiest places to grow grapes have been found; and now we’re pushing into the frontiers and finding places that might not be as obvious. I’m somebody who likes to explore and I like to think of myself as a pathfinder. I’m always searching for new places to do things, and new places to explore. I think we’re at that stage in grape growing in Washington where we’re seeking out great new terroir, and it’s fun to be a part of that.

WW: One thing many people talk about is the agricultural backbone of this area, and that the wine industry is able to be successful because of what came before it.

KP: Walla Walla has always been an agricultural town. It has a firm history based in farming, so there’s an agricultural sensibility in this area, and everyone knows our economy is based on farming. A lot of people see grapes as just the new crop. We’ve got wheat, peas, onions, alfalfa, apples, and cherries, but now we’ve got grapes. It’s not like we’re expanding agriculture into an area where it wasn’t already well established. It’s just a new crop for a lot of the folks around here.

WW: What do you think is one thing that surprises people when they first arrive in Walla Walla?

KP: I think they’re surprised by the town, because to a lot of people, Walla Walla seems like a quaint mid-western farming community, like a town in Indiana or Iowa that was cut out and placed into the wheat fields of eastern Washington, but with the beautiful backdrop of the Blue Mountains.

We have old Victorian homes and huge deciduous trees lining the streets. It reminds me a lot of those old farm communities in the heartland of the country. It’s one of the oldest towns in Washington and so a lot of our homes date back to the 1800s. Whitman College, where I teach, was founded in the mid-1800s. I think a lot of people are surprised by the history and the appearance of the town and our beautiful Main Street. The backdrop of the mountains is different from a lot of wine growing regions in eastern Washington. I’ve watched people be surprised when I tell them things like how on one side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, we get 7 inches of precipitation, but on the other side, we have 26 inches of precipitation. That’s over a relatively small area, so there’s variability from sagebrush desert on one side of the AVA to Douglas fir forests on the other side. I don’t think people are prepared to see all the variation in the landscape and the natural vegetation and climate. We’re 4 or 5 hours from major metropolitan areas, so we’re a bit of a destination, but once folks get here they feel very comfortable.

WW: When you think of Washington wine versus other areas, what separates it?

KP: I think Washington State wines in general offer a really nice balance between new world influences and European influences. I think our wines can get nice and ripe, but they don’t tend to get overripe, so they find a balance between a more opulent style and a European style.

I think our wines are not overly formulaic. There’s not a certain style that’s being pursued. I think a lot of our winemakers really respect the grape. They let the grapes give what they have to offer. And I think the fact that we’re a little cooler in Washington that some spots farther south helps preserve acidity and achieve a natural balance without having to process it in certain ways to make it more balanced.

I spoke with a local winemaker recently, telling them that I thought their wines really bridged the gap between New World and Old World styles, and they looked at me and said, “That’s a fantastic compliment. That’s exactly what I hope my wines would do.”