Summer 2011

Big legacy for Woodward’s Small

Rick Small's impact on the Pacific Northwest wine industry is anything but diminutive.

Small, owner of Woodward Canyon Winery in tiny Lowden near Walla Walla, launched a quest some 30 years ago to become a winemaker of note.

Now he's added to his wine industry achievements that of Washington's Grape Grower of the Year.

Quite a legacy for a country boy from a pioneer wheat-farming family in Eastern Washington.

During the last three decades, Small's Woodward Canyon wines have become some of the most renowned in the Walla Walla Valley, a region that has gained a global reputation for producing highly sought-after wines.

And late last year, Small was honored by his grape-growing peers.

He's justifiably proud of that honor, as he has planted 42 acres on some of the rolling hills that are part of the pioneer Woodward Canyon wheat and cattle ranch.

The vineyard, about three miles from the winery in Lowden, overlooks the foothills of the Blue Mountains. It's in the general vicinity of where Lewis and Clark traveled on their way back from their epic journey in 1804-1806 that opened up the West to the fledging United States.

He said 40 percent of his production of 15,000 cases a year depends on these vineyards. The rest of his grapes come from other Walla Walla sources and a good number of vineyards elsewhere in Eastern Washington, including the famed Champoux Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills, of which he is a part owner.

As much as Small loves growing grapes, he's gained his greatest reputation in making wines. He now participates in a supervisory capacity in winemaking with his head winemaker, Kevin Mott.

Woodward Canyon produces some varieties that aren't common amid newer Walla Walla wineries.

Small makes or has made Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and a white Bordeaux-style blend. For the reds, Mott crafts Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Dolcetto, Barbera and a red blend. He also produces two bargain reds under his second label, Nelms Road, named after a crossroad with Woodward Canyon Road, where Small caught the schoolbus as a child.

Small began developing a personal interest in winemaking in the mid-1970s with friend Gary Figgins, who went on to found Leonetti Cellar.

With Mott's employment in 2003, Rick has turned his primary attention to hands-on oversight of viticulture techniques at his Woodward Canyon Estate Vineyard, as well as in contracted vineyards.

Small is rather unpretentious with his surroundings. He started modestly with a tasting room in an old shed along Highway 12 until opening a new facility next door a few years ago. He's now created an adjacent "Reserve House" that is as sleek and modern as they come in the Walla Walla Valley.

In the Spring 2000 issue of Wine Press Northwest, our team tasted 19 years of Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignons. This spring, we tasted the 1987, 1994 and 1999 Old Vines Cabs, along with the fine lineup of current Woodward Canyon wines.

It proves now, as it did in 2000, that Woodward Canyon makes red wines to last.

Woodward Canyon Winery 1987 Dedication Series Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley: Inviting bouquet showing aromas and flavors of Oregon plums, good acidity and lots of Mercer Ranch (now Champoux) Vineyard characteristics.

Woodward Canyon Winery 1994 Dedication Series Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley: Rich, smooth and still generous, with complex black olive and bacon aromas and raspberry-blackberry flavors.

Woodward Canyon Winery 1999 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley: Called the vintage of the decade at the time, this beauty lives up to expectation offering an incredible mouth feel of raspberry fruit along with toasty vanilla that explodes in your mouth. Still plenty of life left here.

Woodward Canyon Winery 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, Estate Walla Walla Valley, $26: Gooseberries, white peaches and melons make this crisp white a great match with oysters and mussels.

Woodward Canyon Winery 2009 Chardonnay, Washington State, $44: A high-end Chardonnay reminiscent of a Puligny-Montrachet. Tropical fruit with apples and a slightly nutty taste.

Nelms Road 2008 Merlot, Washington, $20: A bargain for a great Walla Walla red and often can be found for under $18 a bottle. Boysenberries come to mind with vanilla spice and a generous finish.

Nelms Road 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington, $20: Ripe Bing cherries, leather and tobacco aromas and great acidity make this a fine pizza wine.

Woodward Canyon Winery 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $39: Don't overlook this baby. A rich mouth feel follows sweet pipe tobacco and oak spice aromas. You're then into chocolate and mocha flavors and blackberries.

Woodward Canyon Winery 2008 Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington, $49: The beautiful original label of white flowers leads to a wine with subtle oak and chocolate aromas and finishes with a chocolate-covered cherry flavor.

Woodward Canyon Winery 2008 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington, $79: The top-of-the-line red from Woodward Canyon is rich and complex with dark chocolate, earth and cherry components and great tannins for aging. It comes from 35-year-old vines.

Bob Woehler is Wine Press Northwest's tasting editor. He has been writing about Northwest wine since 1976.

This story was originally published June 15, 2011 12:00 AM.

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