October 18, 2023

Between a Rock and a Wine Place | A Collaboration with Winemaker Josh McDaniels

userBy Gwen Dildine user0 Comment

Last blog I popped the question: are you ready to go outside Walla Walla? Guess I better show you the rock I have in mind. How do you feel about basalt?

The same geologic events that shaped the landscape into a wonderful place to opt outside are also producing some of the most sought-after wines. Grapes harvested from vineyards within a 504 square mile federally designated Walla Walla Valley American Viticulture Area (AVA) experience varying growing conditions. Depending on where the vineyard is located dictates if irrigation is needed, soil composition, and weather patterns.

This sounds like similar considerations for outdoor enthusiasts. Spending a morning at Whitman Mission National Historic Site is remarkably different than watching the sun rise on the Buck Mountain Trail. Only a little over an hour apart from each other but an elevation spread of over 3,500 feet, recreation, like wine, offers a myriad of unique experiences throughout the northern Blue Mountains and Walla Walla Valley.

Recreation University

Kevin Pogue’s essay, “Wine Terroirs of the Walla Walla Valley,” published in Many Waters: Natural History of the Walla Walla Valley and Vicinity explains that, “Variations in terroir contribute to a particular wine’s unique collection of sensory characteristics—color, flavor, and smell.” In describing “the rocks” district near Milton-Freewater, the Walla Walla River creates ideal conditions for very productive orchards resulting in highly acclaimed wine. “The influence of the textural, hydraulic, chemical, and thermal properties of the basalt cobblestone soils…justifies its distinctive AVA known as The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater,” Pogue reports.

There are so many interesting parallels between geology, outdoor recreation, and agriculture, among other fields and sectors. They might feel a world apart, but in fact they are inextricably intertwined—both dependent on events that happened millions of years ago but also counting on tomorrow’s forecast to shape the future.

LeFore Vineyard located in the Rocks District (Photo Credit: Bledsoe Wine Estates)

The Walla Walla River (North & South Forks) provides many recreation opportunities, carving the mountains into challenging ascents up a trail or wading through the river in hopes of landing the big one. Its path, once swiftly navigating the Blues, slows as it approaches the valley and deposits basalt cobbles. Welcome to the Rocks District near Milton-Freewater, Oregon.

Q&A with Winemaker Josh McDaniels

Josh McDaniels, Bledsoe | McDaniels and Doubleback’s CEO & Director of Winemaking, understands this intersection. Born and raised in Walla Walla, Josh started making wine before he was legally able to consume. His passion and understanding of the environment cultivate award-winning wines. Building a career, a brand, a lifestyle harvesting the fruits of the valley leads to a special connection with the land. Josh was gracious to answer a few questions about finding balance between working and playing outside.

Doubleback’s mission is “to return to one’s roots.” On your website, you write about the four estate vineyards, offering that “each one represents a unique soil series, elevation, aspect, and micro-climate…Each of these differences bring something truly special to the final blend.” In presenting “the rocks” district, I thought about the Burnt Cabin Trail. Steve and I took a lunch break before climbing back up that trail. As we sat on the bridge with the South Fork Walla Walla River flowing below, it was fun to image those cobbles making their way down to “the rocks” area. How do you think about this intersection between agriculture and outdoor recreation? Do you think enjoying nature helps you as a winemaker?

I love thinking about this intersection between nature and winemaking. I think it is imperative, and the more time I spend in nature, the closer I feel to our vineyard sites and thus our wines. It really takes a lot of time to understand a vineyard, and they are constantly changing. Plus, the more outdoor recreation you do, the more it helps you not totally be out of breath when walking up and down some of our steep rows! Seriously though, I spend a lot of time running, cycling, and hunting in the Blue Mountains and the time spent really helps you understand and respect the valley as a whole.

What wine would you pair with s’mores?

Any great wine! I feel like I am usually in a great spot when I am having a s’more and so as long as the wine itself is really good, the pairing will be great. I can see Cabernet or Syrah but can also go for Rosé or Chardonnay as well. I am more of a “enjoying the moment” person than worrying about having the perfect pairing.

Winemaker Josh McDaniels in His Natural Element (Photo Credit: Bledsoe Wine Estates)

Josh has been named a “Game Changer of Washington Wine,” a “Washington Prodigy,” and a “Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers of America” from Wine Enthusiast magazine.

What do you pour to warm up after a day on the ski hill? Do you have a favorite run at Ski Bluewood?

I never get tired of drinking great Cabernet Sauvignon—I grew up working for the Figgins at Leonetti, and now with my own wines at Doubleback, Cabernet is always a perfect pairing after a ski day. At Bluewood, I think as much time spent in the trees is the perfect run for me.

In reading about your vineyards, you talk about geology quite a bit, even in summary presentations. I popped the question to readers in the last blog, Fall in Love with Walla Walla, asking are you ready to go outside Walla Walla? I felt obligated to offer up a rock this post, and basalt was the appropriate choice. Do you have a favorite book or resource that you reference to understand the natural history of the Walla Walla Valley better?

Great question—certainly, all the Lewis and Clark and Whitman Mission material is important to really understand the history of Walla Walla, but I don’t really have a specific book for the geological history (I need to reach out to Kevin)! I am a big fan of soil sciences and just finished reading For the Love of Soil which was a fantastic book about regenerative farming practices around the world. While not specific to Walla Walla, it was a great book to help understand some of the practices we are starting to implement here on our own farms.

When people visit the wineries, do folks have an interest in the outdoors to see how and where all this beautiful fruit is grown? What is your favorite place to recommend?

I get a lot of questions around cycling roads, golf courses, and good walking trails so it seems like a lot of wine tourism is at least fairly active. Of course, people always love to see the vineyards, spend time walking the rows, and really see the individual sites where each wine truly came from.

A Perfect Pair

Wine, wheat, and onions, it sounds like the foundations of a great evening. Envision carb-loading pasta with a glass of wine around the campfire after a long day on the trail. All things that can be found and enjoyed right here in the Walla Walla Valley.

A place is made up of many different people and lots of ideas. Thinking about the different ways we all engage with this place is exciting. Thinking about the many ways we can all work together and lift each other up is mind blowing!

We owe our thanks to basalt, the rock that definitely closed the deal, marrying wine and outdoor recreation, a truly perfect pair.

Examples of this duo are found all over town, so wear some comfy shoes to the tasting rooms. Located near Walla Walla Community College, the enology and viticulture program features College Cellars winery. From the tasting room, the Mill Creek Recreation Trail is within site. Enjoy a glass of wine and then stroll the trail and birdwatch. Continue on to Rooks Park or connect to the Bennington Lake trail system.

Say, Josh, have you ever run the trails or taken your bike around Bennington Lake?

Yes, I am constantly running trails around Bennington as often as possible. I love the trail system and it is close enough to the winery that I can pop out there and run for half an hour or an hour and be back at the winery quickly if need be. I also love that it is so close, but it is such a great mental escape where you can feel out in the countryside and check out for a bit.

Pair Your Wine with Adventure

Biking the valley is an efficient way to cover more ground. Allegro Cyclery and Team Walla Walla build routes and graciously allow Outside Walla Walla to share those with you. Check out our gravel roads and road routes sections. Considering how prolific the wine scene is, you likely won’t have to pedal long to find award-winning wine in an architecturally stunning facility with the Blue Mountains anchoring the horizon.

See You on the Mountain

“See you on the mountain,” says Ski Bluewood. Next year, plan on extending your stay. Better yet, come back this winter. The deep, dry snow in the Blue Mountains falls on the Horseshoe Prairie Nordic Ski Area, Ski Bluewood, and many other teeth-chattering winter adventures. Our valley will basalt (rock) your world. You are ready to go outside Walla Walla.

For more information on outdoor recreation in and around the Walla Walla Valley AVA, visit Outside Walla Walla for a growing catalog of over 100 different opportunities to hike, bike, camp, raft, paddleboard, ski, snowshoe, and more.

Thank you, Josh McDaniels, for sharing more about your Walla Walla roots and for your time collaborating on this post.

Looking for a great time to enjoy award winning wines and an outdoor adventure? Visit Walla Walla during the annual fall release weekend, November 3-5, 2023 and be one of the first to enjoy the latest releases from top wineries in the valley. Talk directly with winemakers like Josh and gain insight into their winemaking process. It pairs perfectly with exploring all the beauty of fall outdoor recreation in the Walla Walla valley too!