Monday, September 26, 2016


Learning on the Land with Blue Mountain Land Trust

Driving east along Highway 12 from the Tri-Cities (Pasco, Kennewick, Richland), the speed limit slows to 40 MPH as you approach the unincorporated community of Lowden, named for a local farmer and rancher, Francis M. Lowden. Along with many family farm operations, Lowden is also the home of three businesses--Dunning Irrigation, L'Ecole Winery, and Woodward Canyon Winery.

On Saturday, September 24, Woodward Canyon was the site of another BMLT Learning on the Land event, a summer educational series designed to spotlight the ways human experience interacts with the Blue Mountain landscape. The tasting room, the front porch of which is seen below, along with the wine production facility are situated inconspicuously behind a grove of large old trees just off the highway in a restored 1870s farmhouse and several aluminum-sided sheds. But what comes out of this 35+ year-old family owned operation is anything but inconspicuous. 

Initially, the group of 20+ eager participants met on the lawn where Darcey Fugman-Small and Rick Small gave a brief history of Woodward Canyon which they started in the early 1980s. As an interesting anecdote, Rick related that the house, which has been moved twice and now serves as the tasting room, was originally the teacher's house for the nearby two-room Lowden School which he attended as a young boy. He also vividly recalled watching a 1957 World Series baseball game in the front room of this house. 

Since winemaking is all about the grapes, a drive to the nearby vineyard was part of the tour. The vineyard is located several miles up Woodward Canyon Road in what most would consider hot, dry hills, quite unsuitable for grape-growing. In fact, this is the most western vineyard in the Walla Walla appellation. But that's why Rick is the farmer and grape-grower and I'm not. Being at an elevation of 8-900 feet is important for drainage and the ability to use wind machines to keep cold air moving. Whereas, in the lowlands the frost and cold settles which can cause serious damage to grape plants. 

Being up high also gives Rick and his vineyard workers a one-of-a-kind "office," complete with spectacular views of the surrounding Walla Walla Valley. 
Talk about a corner office!

With the 2016 harvest of red wine grapes completed, the vines begin to lose their leaves and harden off in the shortening days of autumn. The Smalls are committed to following sustainable agricultural practices in order to produce their high quality grapes and wine that is sold and appreciated by consumers as far away as Japan, Switzerland and Germany as well as their neighbors right here in the Walla Walla Valley.

Driving up the dirt road to the vineyard, random glints of light could be seen amongst the rows reminiscent of the pop-pop of old-time flash cameras at a rock concert. Upon closer look, it was only hundreds of shiny aluminum strips used to scare off hungry birds. In addition, Rick related how he uses these strips as telltales to see the direction of the breeze that often sweeps through the rows and blocks of grape vines.

The hillside vineyard is planted in blocks which are irrigated with extensive drip lines. According to Rick, the plants don't need as much water as one might think, and with this system the valuable liquid resource gets right where it's needed most with little to no waste.

These are the water storage tanks that supply the irrigation water from a well on the property. As one system pumps water from the well into the tanks, another computerized system directs it to the rows of grapes.

As part of their sustainable agricultural practice, Rick avoids the use of chemicals and sprays. Instead, several years ago he planted a grove of junipers along with other native plant species to give natural predators a place to live. The trees and flowers also add a certain aesthetic pleasure to the vineyard.

Much of the plant stock in the vineyard is decades old despite the visible thinness of the original stalk. That's because occasional prolonged hard freezes kill everything above the ground and must be cut back. After that it takes a year for the plant to regrow with fruit production following in the second year.

For more information about Woodward Canyon Winery, simply follow this link: