By Andy Perdue, special to Walla Walla Lifestyles / Photos by Steve Lenz
Until Reininger Winery moved into a World War II-era building at the Walla Walla Regional Airport in 1997, there was no reason for wine lovers to head to that part of town — except to catch a plane.
Today, the airport is a thriving region of the Walla Walla Valley, with nearly 20 wineries.
Ron Coleman, owner of Tamarack Cellars, made a small amount of wine at Chuck Reininger’s place in 1998, before moving into his own building, next door. Dunham Cellars soon followed, then Buty Winery, Five Star Cellars and Russell Creek Winery.
“It all started happening pretty quickly after that,” Coleman says.
The buildings were constructed in the early 1940s, when it was an Army air base. Within weeks of World War II ending, all the soldiers left.
“The base was sitting there with a bunch of empty buildings,” Coleman says.
The base was turned over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which gave it to Walla Walla County. Today, the Port of Walla Walla owns the former Army buildings and the land.
Coleman’s winery is in the old firehouse. At some point in the 50 years between the end of the war and the arrival of wineries, the airport buildings were mostly unused and not necessarily in great shape.
“It was a dump,” Coleman says with a laugh.
Once he got his building cleaned up, he moved quickly. Today, he uses four airport buildings to accommodate his 20,000 cases of wine — 15,000 of which are his value-priced Firehouse Red, a nod to his winery’s former life.
Reininger has since moved west of town, but Revelry Vintners has taken over the space.
The Port also has built incubator buildings in one corner of the airport, which has helped many wineries get started. Today, Corvus, Kontos, Walla Faces and Palencia wineries share a parking lot in the incubators.
Once a small handful of wineries set up shop at the airport, their fans followed. Today, the airport district is a popular corner of the Valley.
“We see more people than we’ve ever seen,” Coleman says. “It’s good traffic.”
Doug Simmons agrees. The owner of, and winemaker for, Eleganté Cellars opened his 400-case winery in 2007. His winery is across the street from Five Star Cellars
“I’m really pleased with how things are going this year,” Simmons says. “Sales are up more than 30 percent.”
Simmons was born and raised in Walla Walla and returned after earning his teaching certificate and a business administration degree at Washington State University. He was a chemistry teacher at DeSales High School for 28 years before retiring. He thought it might be fun to work part time at a winery and attended a few classes at Walla Walla Community College’s Center for Enology and Viticulture — just a few minutes from the airport. He caught the winemaking bug and, two years later, had another degree.
“I kind of jumped into the deep end of the swimming pool,” he says.
After working in 2006 at Five Star Cellars, Simmons knew his retirement job would be anything but part-time — and he was convinced the airport was the place to be.
“I love the area up here,” he says. “I knew Five Star got good traffic here. Dunham, Tamarack and Five Star bring in a lot of people. That helped me make my decision.”
Not far away is Dunham Cellars, likely the largest draw to the airport district. Eric Dunham, owner and director of winemaking, says the decision to come to the airport in 1999 was pretty easy.
“It was a 1,600-square-foot building for $1,600 per month,” he says.
The building was used by the Army to store camouflage netting, and later it was a lumber mill and a machine shop. It was not in great shape when Dunham and his father, Mike, arrived.
“It took lots of work to get it in shape,” he says.
Through the years, the Dunhams purchased properties elsewhere in the Valley with the idea of building their dream winery. They ultimately let them go because they were so pleased with their building at the airport and the traffic they received.
Today, Dunham is a 25,000-case winery that is revered across the Pacific Northwest for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
“We might still build a dream winery someday,” Eric says. “But we just did a huge upgrade this year, so we’re probably done for a while.”
Duane Wollmuth, director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, says the airport is part of the larger “East Side” region of the Valley and includes the wineries on Mill Creek Road. He says the airport wineries are great about helping each other and sending customers to their neighbors.
And there are more than enough wineries for visitors to spend an entire day at the airport.
“That’s what we find people doing,” Wollmuth says. “They come in and concentrate on one region for a day. If they’re here for a weekend, they’ll concentrate on two or three regions during their time in the Valley.”