Woodward Canyon

By Ryan Snyder on February 1, 2006

Category: Winery of the Month

Tending the land comes naturally to Rick Small, who was raised on the family wheat farm 20 miles west of the town of Walla Walla in eastern Washington. One of four boys, he spent a considerable amount of time gathering eggs and feeding the chickens and cattle around their farm nestled in the Woodward Canyon. In the early 1970s, he left home to attend Washington State University in the pursuit of a degree in Architecture. However, in the middle of his studies, Rick’s father encouraged him to remember his roots and return to the farm, and he changed his major and obtained a Bachelors’ degree in Agriculture.

In the mid-1970s Rick developed a passion for winemaking by helping Gary Figgins, the founder of Leonetti Cellar, create homemade wine. This brief dabble in winemaking was all that it took for the roots of the vine to wrap around his heart. Soon after, Rick returned to the family farm, tilled under an acre of wheat and planted his first block of Chardonnay in 1977.

Four years later, after the vines had matured enough to produce quality grapes, Rick and his wife Darcey founded Woodward Canyon. His grandfather handed down stocks in which he had accumulated a safety net of money, which Rick sold to buy his first French oak barrels, a crusher and a grape press. He reflected, “There was a ton of Chardonnay in the area and such easy access to fruit. Some of the farmers gave you the fruit for free in exchange for wine the following year.”

Over the next two decades, Woodward Canyon increased production from 1,200 cases to over 13,000 cases annually and turned heads around the globe. This success led Rick to become one of the founding fathers of the Walla Walla AVA, which now boasts over 70 vignerons. “You can’t say Walla Walla is better than another wine growing region,” he said. “It’s just different. Unique.” Rick went on to describe the terroir of Walla Walla Valley, with roaming hillsides coated in complex soils of loam and basalt deposited by prehistoric lava and floodwaters. The exposed basalt has fractured and cracked over the millennia, and the vine roots crawl through these crevasses deep into the earth where they tap into the occasional calcium deposit.

“The climate and the soils create wines you can’t make anywhere else. The fresh-cut leaf tobacco – that’s where I find the herbaceous side of Walla Walla Valley. But it’s not just the soil and climate that makes Walla Walla unique. It’s the philosophy of the people here. Everyone is well grounded, bright, focused and there’s such a great diversity of people here… We take our work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.”

Any wine geek can discover this Jekyll and Hyde nature when he or she opens a bottle of Woodward Canyon. Each label depicts a serious side using art portraits, insignias or pictures of notable men of history. Meanwhile, the cork states, “Get Woody,” on its side. This light dose of humor eases the wine geek before embarking upon the über-serious fruits of Woodward Canyon’s efforts. Let me stop beating around the bush. There’s one reason that has chosen this winery as our Producer of the Month: Woodward Canyon has set a new standard for Washington Cabernet Sauvignon.

I’m not talking about a Cab that rivals Napa Valley Cabernet – that’s like comparing Bordeaux to Napa. With different climates, soil types and growing seasons, there can be no comparison between the two. Washington Cabernet is a phenomenon in and of itself. Because of its northern latitude, the vines receive longer sun exposure – up to 17 hours per day at the height of summer. The days are equally as hot as Napa yet with cooler nights that allow the grapes to maintain their natural acidity. And the dry, desert-like climate forces the roots to dig deep through the loam and basalt to find water. Add these variables together and we are given grapes that produce wines with a balanced structure of power and elegance. The wines literally speak for themselves.

It may be this last variable, the deeply rooted vines planted in 1971 in the Champoux and Sagemoor vineyards, that provides the special element to Woodward Canyon’s Old Vines Cabernet. With one sip, you’ll know this is serious wine. Rich, extracted black fruits and figs. Subtle acidity. Layered tannins. Traces of sand and loam. Optimum balance. It’s one of the few Washington wines I’ve tasted where my recommendation is to cellar it for over a decade. And, oh, is it delicious.

Woodward Canyon also produces a stellar lineup of Bordeaux varietals and Chardonnay. The Estate Red blend of Cabernet Franc, Caberbet Sauvignon and Merlot is a ferocious purple monster that can barely be contained within its glass. The Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon is expressive with a flavor profile that resembles an Amarone, while the Columbia Valley Merlot emanates an aroma that will make you weak in the knees. The Columbia Valley Chardonnay and Celilo Chardonnay are both estate-grown wines that are made from some of the oldest and best vineyards in Washington State, and each shows a balanced acidity atop a creamy body.

And keep an eye out for the cost-friendly Nelms Road and Charbonneau second labels produced by Woodward Canyon. The Nelms Road wines are made from the fruits of younger vines that aren’t quite up to the standard Rick requires for the Woodward Canyon label. A good example is the Nelms Road Merlot, which isn’t the plonk you’d expect from a second label. It features rich black cherry, chocolate and barrel spices sealed in a plush body. Meanwhile the Charbonneau name is derived from the vineyard where the fruit is sourced. The vineyard grows Bordeaux varietals that are used to make two wines, one of which is the Charbonneau White – a combination of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc that features smooth, crisp stone fruits and finishes like a Margarita.

After running the Woodward Canyon operation for nearly 3 decades, Rick is humble about the trail blazed behind him and yet his eyes are firmly set on the future. “It’s kinda cool,” he said, looking back in retrospect. “But I’m a little disappointed that there’s still so little awareness of Washington wines. After 30 years, I thought people would know us better. I’m really committed to that right now – there’s still a ton of work do.”

“In the next 5 years, we’ll focus on making wines that are more complex and not so extreme. Wines that are respectful of their place.” After a lengthy pause, his voice returned, more serious and direct than the previous 40 minutes of our conversation. “We haven’t made our best wines yet.”