A sense of history is one of the wine world’s many attractions, and almost no one in the Pacific Northwest wine industry can match that of the Martínez-Bujanda family at young Valdemar Estates in the Walla Walla Valley.
For those who want to know how long the family has been producing wine in Spain’s Rioja region, they can just look at the flag of the state of Washington. The same year Washington Territory became the 42nd state in the U.S. — 1889 — is when Jesús Martínez-Bujanda’s great-great grandfather launched Bodegas Valdemar.
“We realized we were going to become the first internationally owned winery in Washington, which was a bit surprising for us in the beginning,” said the fifth-generation vintner. “We are still surprised about it, to be honest, considering the amazing potential we see in Washington. I think this is going to change for sure, and Washington is going to attract future international investment soon, which will help the development of exports.”
While the family attracted attention with its plans for the Walla Walla Valley and broke ground in 2018, they earned immediate respect when they hired Marie-Eve Gilla as their winemaker. The 2021 vintage will be the Burgundy native’s 30th in Washington state, and she became Valdemar’s first U.S. employee.
“It was exhilarating but also very scary to leave my 18-year tenure at Forgeron,” Gilla said. “My children especially were very confused and concerned as they had only known me working there. It was worth the risk for sure.”
Were it not for an exchange program that led Jesús to study at the University of Washington in Seattle, there would be no Valdemar Estates near the state line. Even though he and his wife have started their family in Walla Walla, Jesús — the owner and CEO of Valdemar Estates — continues to direct Bodegas Valdemar.
“One semester plus one summer was enough to fall in love with this beautiful state,” he said.
His father and sister, Ana, are involved in their Walla Walla project, and the family owns about 700 acres in the Rioja, where Bodegas Valdemar produces about 130,000 cases. Their level of investment in the Walla Walla Valley goes beyond the remarkable winery, tasting room and restaurant.
They’ve purchased a 9-acre vineyard site in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater that’s destined to grow not only Rhône varieties but also the white Rioja grape Viura. There’s also their 40-acre North Fork site in the Blue Mountain foothills that will produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc and Spanish varieties Maturana and White Tempranillo, a grape that Bodegas Valdemar has pioneered back home.
Will the family ever produce a Northwest-grown Tempranillo?
“Short answer — no,” replied Martínez-Bujanda. “Long answer — never say never, but it’s definitely not in our plans right now.”
Gilla forms the distaff half of one of the Washington wine industry’s power couples. Her husband is Gilles Nicault, director of winemaking at internationally acclaimed Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla, and the state-of-the-art facility and access to top vineyards at Valdemar Estates are strikingly similar.
“I now feel the pressure, and it will be like the Battle of the Titans to determine who makes the highest quality wine possible,” Nicault said.
A recent example is the soon-to-be-released 2018 Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that exhibits the dense, age-worthy power of Red Mountain fruit yet is made approachable thanks to Gilla’s superb tannin management. And her remarkable touch with Chardonnay continues to shine with DuBrul Vineyard from the Yakima Valley.
“We sent the first wines to Spain, and we started to sell them in Europe, and so far the response of our partners has been great,” Martínez-Bujanda said. “We hope with our distribution network in Europe that we can contribute to making Washington state and Walla Walla more known there.”
The attention to detail literally extends to every corner of the winery and the facility. Gilla and assistant winemaker Devyani Isabel Gupta, a product of Walla Walla Community College and a rising star, work out of a lab where nothing is out of place. Even the winery floor is so pristine and sterile it seems impossible that Gilla and Gupta already have used it for two harvests.
“I feel like I am making wines at the Ritz-Carlton!” Gilla says.
Upstairs is the stage where their wines are showcased alongside the cuisine of chef Arturo Tello. The graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s Wine Country Culinary Institute has developed a menu of Spanish-inspired tapas that reaches a level rarely seen in the Pacific Northwest. Pulling it all together is Kaleigh Brook, a Montana native who arrived at Valdemar after working at Long Shadows and who is studying to become a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier.
“She demonstrated such skill and energy to build the reputation of the restaurant from the ground up that she is now the winery general manager,” Gilla said.
The sense of chic and understatement includes the corner of their retail shop that offers nicely priced kitchen and food items from Europe that are reminiscent of a Sur la Table store. Offerings include Matiz olive oil from Spain, a paella gift box and a bone-in jámon with stand.
Another feature that makes Valdemar Estates unique is the availability of Bodegas Valdemar wines. In fact, there is a Spanish tier to the club program at Valdemar Estates. Those Old World wines provide perspective, and for those with a sense of Gilla’s legacy, the opportunity to taste them side-by-side is world-class stuff.
“The goal is to get to 10,000 cases in 10 years,” Gilla said. “We are taking things slow in order to not sacrifice quality for quantity. The Valdemar wines are about longevity and quality, and the Martínez-Bujanda family has enough history to understand that it takes time and resources to accomplish that.”
Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
3808 Rolling Hills Lane, Walla Walla, WA