At first glance, there are not many obvious similarities between Walla Walla and La Rioja. But don’t tell that to Jesús Martinez Bujanda. On his first visit to the Rocks District, the area’s stony soils reminded him of the Spanish region’s terrain. “It was like, “Whoa, I know this,’” he says. “This is home.” And now it’s a second home for his family, who opened Valdemar Estates in Walla Walla this past spring. Set along Rolling Hill Lane, next to Amavi Cellars, this is the first non-American winery in Walla Walla. It’s also the first outside of Spain for the Bujanda family, who have been making wine in La Rioja for 130 years. As Jesús leads his family’s new venture as CEO, he is forming a strong bond with the region. And vice versa.
Enchanted by the Northwest
Interestingly enough, Bujanda’s love for Washington state dates back to 2009, when he took classes at UW’s business school. Upon his return to Spain, he told his then-girlfriend, now his wife, how much he loved Seattle. “I told her to be prepared,” he recounts. “I said, ‘I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but we are going live in Seattle or Washington.’”
The “when” had to wait a while. After finishing his studies in Spain, Bujanda took a job as an auditor for PricewaterhouseCoopers. About four years after that, he joined his father, also named Jesús, in running the family’s winery, in Oyón. Established in 1889 by Bujanda’s great-great grandfather Joaquin Martinez Bujanda, Bodegas Valdemar produces about 150,000 cases annually from about 300 hectares (741 acres) of estate vineyards throughout La Rioja. As the family explored expansion plans, young Jesús, his father and his sister, Ana (pictured above, left to right), determined that they needed to look outside of Spain.
“We researched many other areas, such as New Zealand, Argentina and Chile,” Bujanda explains. “But, for many reasons, we arrived at the conclusion that the U.S. was the place to be. And then, inside the U.S., I was really in love already with Washington. So, we came, and my family fell in love with this region and the community right away.”
The stars align
On that first visit to Washington in the fall of 2016, the Bujandas met with Bob and Cathy Betz in Woodinville, who “explained everything.” After that, they drove east, visiting Tri-Cities and Red Mountain. “And when we came to Walla Walla, the truth is, the three of us, we all felt that this was the place.”
Over dinner on a second visit in early 2017, Bujanda told Norm McKibben, the founder of Pepper Bridge Winery, that his family wanted to be on the south side of Walla Walla. The next day, McKibben showed him a 7.5-acre site next to Amavi, Pepperbridge’s sister winery, that he was willing to sell. They signed papers that day.
“You cannot imagine how much help and support we’ve received from so many people in the industry and from the community,” Bujanda says. “I cannot tell you enough how much they’ve helped us.”
During their visits, the Bujandas also got to know geology consultant Kevin Pogue and Gilles Nicault, director of winemaking at Long Shadows. Pogue took him out on that first visit to the Rocks District, the 5.9-square-mile sub-region of the Walla Walla Valley. Nicault not only provided him with a wealth of information, he also introduced him to his winemaker wife, Marie-Eve Gilla (pictured above). Gilla was in the process of stepping away from Forgeron Cellars, where she had been since 2001, as founding winemaker. The timing could not have been better. The Bujandas hired her as their head winemaker last summer.
“Gilles and I were looking at buying a tiny space for me to start making wine on my own, but this opportunity was more appealing,” Gilla says. “I get to be aligned with professional people. I get to challenge myself. And I get to keep learning. How much better can it get?”
Sowing the seeds
In addition to their Walla Walla site, the Bujandas also purchased 25 acres in the Rocks and another 50 acres in the up-and-coming North Fork. The latter, about 15 minutes east of Milton-Freewater by car, is not an officially designated growing region. At least not yet. But its location, soil content and steep slope bode well for viticulture. It’s said to be a little cooler than the Walla Walla Valley floor, which should allow the grapes to remain on the vines a little longer before harvest. And retain a little more acidity. (Technically, the Bujandas’ are 50-50 partners with Force Majeure winery in a 100-acre North Fork site.)
In Spain, the Bujandas grow tempranillo, garnacha, mazuela (aka: carignon), sauvignon blanc, viura (La Rioja’s main white grape), and the nearly extinct varietals graciano and maturana. As they establish roots in Walla Walla, they expect to plant garnacha, syrah, viognier, garnacha blanca and viura in the Rocks. “In the North Fork, we still haven’t decided,” Bujanda adds. “For sure, there will be some chardonnay, and some cabernet, in addition to Rhône varietals.”
The family’s future plans also include bringing clippings from their Spanish vineyards to Walla Walla. But it could take a while before they start making wines from Spanish vines grown here in the Northwest. Because they will need to be quarantined and approved by agricultural officials.
Tastes of Spain
In Walla Walla, the Bujandas’ modern new winery is home to a spacious tasting room. Its patio offers views out to the Blue Mountains. And its on-site restaurant serves a wide range of tapas. Since opening in late April, they have been pouring their Spanish wines alongside 2017 Washington syrahs sourced from Red Mountain and Walla Walla Valley vineyards. The latter were made by one of their Spanish winemakers. For the 2018 vintage, Gilla produced about 3,000 cases, including cabernet sauvignon, syrah and chardonnay. And the best is yet to come.
[Photos courtesy of Valdemar Estates]