Quite a few new Walla Walla wineries have popped up throughout the pandemic, which doesn’t seem to have slowed down this region’s extraordinary wine renaissance. As birdwatchers know, birds attract birds, and the same applies to wineries. The Enology & Viticulture program at the Community College kicks out a couple dozen newly-minted vintners every year, and many find work nearby, or jump right in to launching their own enterprise.
One new winery garnering a lot of buzz is Itä, and owner/winemaker Kelsey Albro Itämeri paid me a visit a short while ago with a half dozen of her current releases. What impressed me immediately were the two different takes on Sémillon, a grape rarely found here. Surveying the whole portfolio, principally sourced from the Les Collines vineyard, I couldn’t help but note that Kelsey, like some other recent arrivals on the scene, was breaking the boundaries of making the usual wines from the usual vineyards, and doing so in very creative ways.
The reality for start-ups is that competing for grapes from the top vineyards is challenging, and all too often the grapes available are going to lock you in to making yet another Walla Walla Syrah or Cabernet blend. Itä doesn’t entirely shy away from that (as you can see below) but blows past those limitations with the cleverly-paired Sémillons, a Rosé of Primitivo and a Nouveau Zinfandel. Oh and there is also a true Walla Walla Pinot Noir (not another Walla Walla winery making Oregon Pinot Noir). In brief, a creative tour de force.
I asked a simple question – how did you get into winemaking? – and got an answer worthy of a reality series.
Kelsey: “It was definitely a long and winding road for me to get to winemaking. I grew up in Seattle, went to Georgetown University intending on a career as a diplomat. When I graduated in 2009 it was not easy to find a job. My father (Tom Albro) was running for Port Commissioner in Seattle and hired me to be his campaign manager. I next moved to LA to work with my brother, worked in reality television for awhile, got burned out, joined a natural foods company out of Berkeley doing regional sales in the Pacific Northwest and finally realized LA was not the town for me. In the Bay Area I met my husband who worked at the same company.
After awhile I realized that working for a startup run by two 24-year olds was a recipe for dysfunction. By then I just wanted to work a more normal job and then come home. I started bartending for a group of neighborhood bars owned by the Tonic Nightlife Group in San Francisco. This was a balm for the soul; I worked 6 hours a day and made more money than ever.”
PG: OK, all good. But not exactly a direct shot into winemaking.
KI: “I could also do a spreadsheet and no one else there could. So I began doing that for the group. My husband and I would go up to Napa to escape our tiny apartment, and we never wanted to go back home. We moved to Walla Walla in 2016. My parents had bought a 160-acre property across from Reynvaan in 2011. My husband found work managing Garrison Creek Cellars. I worked the 2016 harvest a Balboa and started classes at the Community College in 2017. I did internships at The Walls and in Burgundy, and made wine in our garage from a one-acre test plot the parents owned (a little bit of a brutal introduction to farming).
PG: Brutal introduction?
KI: One day I was running a new sprayer. The container with the chemicals wasn’t property screwed down, we hit a bump, and suddenly it was half off the sprayer and full of chemicals. By the time we got it back on we were spraying in the heat of the day and crisped up the vines. I knew the vines were trying to tell me something, I just didn’t speak the language.”
Lessons learned, Kelsey forged ahead immediately following graduation, making the first commercial Itä wines in 2019 at a location in the incubators run by the Port of Walla Walla.
Her goal, she explained in a follow-up interview, “is to make wines that are true to the place they were grown, which for me, is exclusively the foothills of the Blue Mountains, as close to my parents’ property as possible. In the cellar, that means that I don’t do any amelioration of must or juice via water or acid additions, and I also use almost entirely neutral French oak during aging. Both of these choices are in service to the idea that if I ‘edit’ the juice or wines, then what I and the consumer are tasting is not really indicative of that year, those grapes, and that place. Due to this, I tend to pick quite early, since I won’t add acid later. It also happens that I have a preference for lower alcohol and higher acidity in my wines, which I think is quite apparent in the line up.”
PG: It is indeed, and these preferences fit in well with more universal trends among the recent generations of winemakers and consumers. Apart from my own enthusiasm at seeing Walla Walla wines reach a new and exciting stage in their ongoing evolution, wines such as these wines challenge me to work past my own limitations, spurred on by the simple excitement of trying something new.
Itä 2022 ‘1 of 2’ Sémillon
This unusual pair of Sémillons is labeled simply 1 of 2 and 2 of 2. This one is fermented and aged in stainless, the other in neutral wood. Both wines are 100% varietal and sourced from the same block at Les Collines. The ‘1 of 2’ is effusively juicy and fruity with luscious lime and pineapple. That opening burst of flavor is framed with a refreshing mineral note, and the nicely balanced phenolics add further details to the finish. Sémillon remains a bit of a rarity in Walla Walla (and throughout the Northwest) and it’s a real pleasure to taste one so fresh and delicious as this. 146 cases; 13.6%; $28 (Walla Walla Valley) 92/100
Itä 2022 ‘2 of 2’ Sémillon
Fermented and aged in neutral wood, this low alcohol wine has been softened up a bit by both barrel aging and lees stirring. There’s a subtle creaminess to the palate, giving a smooth pathway through layers of citrus, apple, white peach and green melon. At first it seems tight, austere, bone dry and slightly metallic, so give it ample breathing time and don’t over-chill in order to see all it has to offer. 181 cases; 11.4%; $28 (Walla Walla Valley) 91/100
Itä 2022 Rosé of Primitivo
This low alcohol, pale rosé is tart but full-flavored. The unusual grape gives the back half of the wine a subtle flavor of ham – yes, ham – that lingers along with the citrusy acids. A good wine to chill on a hot summer day. 142 cases; 11.4%; $28 (Walla Walla Valley) 90/100
Itä 2022 Nouveau of Zinfandel
There’s nothing ordinary about this wine. Walla Walla Zinfandel is rare, and for reasons explained above this was picked early. Perhaps to tame the acids it seems to have a tiny bit of residual sugar, yet is nonetheless finished dry. Drinking more like a rosé than a standard nouveau, this is a delicate wine with hints of rose petals and cherry blossoms, finishing with a burst of tart lemon. 115 cases; 10.5%; $30 (Walla Walla Valley) 88/100
Itä 2021 Breezy Slope Vineyard Pinot Noir
This vineyard is in the southeast corner on the Oregon side of the AVA, and sits at a high elevation (over 1600 feet). Inspired by the Pinot Nero wines of Italy’s northeast, this it hits the mark beautifully. Pinot Noir, for all its flightiness, can express itself remarkably well in quite different terroirs. This delicate wine speaks to me as I am a fan of Italian Pinot Nero, and this too has that high mountain sharpness, minerality, mountain strawberry fruit and subtle details of herbal tea. Don’t expect the power of more familiar styles; this style of Pinot Noir should be appreciated on its own terms. 171 cases; 11.9%; $48 (Walla Walla Valley) 91/100
Itä 2020 Merlot
This is a solid, muscular, tannic wine with compact flavors of black fruits, espresso, char, cedar and smoke. This is just right for ribs and other grilled meats, with powdery tannins strong enough to cut through the fat. A few more years in the bottle are recommended to help smooth it out. 133 cases; 13.5%; $48 (Walla Walla Valley) 91/100
Itä 2020 Syrah
Syrah finished below 13% alcohol hits a whole different spectrum of flavors than most examples from Walla Walla. This fits the Itä style, which favors low alcohol, early picking, high acids and elegant but light fruit highlights. On the down side this sacrifices much of the fruit and funk for which Walla Walla Syrahs are famous. It trends more toward generic light red berry flavors with a peppery kick. 170 cases; 12.7%; $48 (Walla Walla Valley) 88/100
I hope you will give this winery and others like it your full attention and support. This is the sort of tenacious talent that will keep Walla Walla wines in the global spotlight for decades to come.
“My hope,” says Kelsey, “is to have our tasting room, production facility, and (eventually) estate plantings at my parents’ property. I’m honestly excited to spend the rest of my life trying to figure out what really sings up in them thar hills.”