Raise a glass to 40 years: Umpqua, Columbia and Walla Walla valleys

Sager Small sipping fresh grape juice during harvest. Taken during the late  80s at Woodward Canyon Winery, Small is now vineyard manager and winery co-owner. ##Photo courtesy of Woodward Canyon Winery
Walla Walla s Figgins family crushing grapes with help from Rick Small of Woodward Canyon. Frm left to right: Gary Figgins, Amy Figgins, Chris Figgins, Rick Small. Taken at Leonetti Cellar, 1976. ##Photo courtesy of Leonetti Cellar
Old trailer at Bradley Vineyards, located within the Elkton AVA, nested in the greater Umpqua Valley appellation. ##Photo courtesy of Bradley Vineyards
HillCrest Vineyard founder Richard Sommer. ##Photo provided by Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Assn.
Taken in 2002 when Bryan Freed of Freed Estate Vineyards  was 22 years old. ##Photo courtesy of Freed Estate Vineyards
Freed family, from left to right: son Bryan, his wife Crissy Lindsey-Freed, mother Pam and father Mike, taken in 2022. ##Photo courtesy of Freed Estate Vineyards
Sager Small, Woodward Canyon s co-owner and current vineyard manager (left) with Jordan Small, co-owner and general manager, taken in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. ##Photo provided by Woodward Canyon
Tyler Bradley operating a forklift at Bradley Vineyards. ##Photo provided by Bradley Vineyards
Kiona s founders Ann Williams (left) with John Williams. ##Photo provided by Kiona Vineyards & Winery
Rick Small, Woodward Canyon Winery s founding winemaker and co-owner, holding daughter Jordan Small, taken during the mid  80s at the Woodward Canyon Estate Vineyard. ##Photo provided by Woodward Canyon Winery
Woodward Canyon Winery s Small family (from left to right): Rick Small, founding winemaker and co-owner; Jordan Small, co-owner and general manager; Sager Small, co-owner and current vineyard manager; Darcey Fugman-Small, founder/co-owner; taken in the Woodward Canyon Estate Vineyard, 2022. ##Photo by Kathryn Elsesser
Leonetti Cellar s Gary and Chris Figgins in 1976. ##Photo provided by Leonetti Cellar
The Figgins family, (from left to right): Amy, Gary, Chris and Nancy Figgins, taken at Leonetti Cellar in 1978. ##Photo provided by Leonetti Cellar
Amy Figgins, manager and partner, Leonetti Cellar. ##Photo provided by Leonetti Cellar
The Williams family at Kiona Vineyards and Winery, from left to right: Tyler, Scott, Ann, John and JJ Williams. ##Photo by Shawn Linehan
Chris Figgins, CEO & winemaking director, Figgins Family Wine Estates. ##Photo provided By Leonetti Cellar

The year 1984 was groundbreaking in the Pacific Northwest wine industry.

The Willamette Valley had officially earned American Viticultural Area, or AVA status, mere days before the new year began, followed closely on its Pinot-drenched heels by the Walla Walla, Umpqua and Columbia valleys.

The Umpqua Valley’s wine history stretches back about 150 years, as stated on its AVA application:

The beginnings of viticulture in the Umpqua Valley are traced… to Jesse Applegate who planted 40 acres of grapes in 1876, that were probably sold as table grapes. The Von Pessl brothers planted the first vinifera vines soon after, having brought cuttings from St. Helena and Lodi, California. The brothers grew Zinfandel, Riesling and Sauvignon, made wine for home use, and also ran a distillery.

The Walla Walla and Columbia valley AVAs are primarily in Washington with sections overlapping the Oregon state line. Both regions thrived with irrigated orchards and farms before a few scrappy visionaries planted vineyards, launching an industry that continues growing one-half century later.

For reflections on this landmark anniversary, I spoke with six second-generation winegrowers and makers who grew up in the industry. They related their recollections of the past along with visions for the future.


Located where the Coast and Cascade ranges intersect with the Klamath Mountains, the Umpqua Valley has complex topography characterized by multiple interconnecting small mountain ranges and valleys. It’s generally divided into three climatic sub-zones.

Marine-influenced climate and abundant rainfall nourish cool-climate grape varieties in the north and far west. The southern segment, warmer and more arid, is ideal for Tempranillo, Syrah and Merlot. The central area’s intermediate climate supports both cool and warm grape varieties. Over 150 unique soil types have been identified, predominantly volcanic rock, stream sediments and marine sedimentary rock.

Rich with microclimates and diverse landscapes, this AVA is celebrated for bold, experimental efforts to grow a wide variety of grapes including Malbec, Petit Verdot, Grenache, Albariño, and more.

After the pioneering nineteenth-century efforts cited above, the region’s post-Prohibition winemaking industry began when, in 1961, Richard Sommer established HillCrest Vineyard near Roseburg. The area bloomed with more wineries, as did adjacent regions: Willamette Valley to the north and, to the south, the Rogue and Applegate valleys.

Representing the Umpqua Valley, we talked with Brian Freed, general manager at Freed Estate Vineyards in Winston and son of founders Mike and Pam Freed; and Tyler Bradley, co-owner and winemaker at Bradley Vineyards in Elkton, son of pioneering grape grower John Bradley.

Brian Freed was born shortly before the official AVA designation. His parents planted their first vineyard in 2000; most of Freed’s adult life has revolved around the wine business. “I started as a field hand in the early years, putting in trellis, training plants to the wire and moving irrigation pipes.” He then began managing the vineyard, then the tasting room, and finally, the family business.

What do you think the next 40 years will bring?

“I anticipate more changes in wine consumer preferences and also a continued effort into developing more sustainable practices in farming wine grapes, wine-making and packaging.” He notices whites, and especially rosés, are becoming increasingly popular. “More customers are specifically looking for sweet wines.”

What opportunities and challenges do you anticipate?

“I anticipate greater collaboration between wineries, research institutions and government organizations to share knowledge and work together to navigate challenges.” He also expects current trials will persist, such as “competition among other agricultural industries for labor and uncontrollable factors like weather” to persist.

How does it feel to reach the 40th anniversary?

“I’m grateful to be a part of this achievement and I'm excited for what the future holds for this AVA.”
Tyler Bradley has had dirt under his fingernails since he could walk.

“I was born three years after my father planted our vineyard. Growing up, I helped with harvest primarily and learned more about vineyard management as I got into high school.” After studying viticulture, enology, and leadership education in college and pursuing a non-wine career, “my father and I began discussing a transition back to the family business.” Unfortunately, his father died suddenly, accelerating the transition. “It was a period of my life filled with uncertainty, but the foundation my father laid, plus the instruction I received while working with Mike Landt at River's Edge Winery. I realized I was born to do exactly what I'm doing.”

What do you think the next 40 years will bring?

“Wine and food will always go together, and on that principle, I believe the future of wine is strong. Especially in Oregon, people are seeking high-quality, locally-sourced, sustainably-raised food and wine. Small growers appeal to these consumers because of our traditional farming and winemaking methods.” Bradley anticipates both social media and technology will enable the public to discover and appreciate “remote areas like Elkton.”

What opportunities and challenges do you anticipate?

Bradley cites “the ‘seltzer problem’ is fragmenting younger consumers,” as well as natural weather-induced crises as challenges. He intends to lessen these risks by “shifting to a direct-to-consumer sales strategy and insuring our crops against disaster.”

How does it feel to reach the 40th anniversary?

“Time flies when making wine. It’s hard to fathom I’ve already been doing this for 10 years, so I expect the next 40 will also come fast. Dad planted the vineyard 41 years ago and while he built most of our legacy to this point, I consider myself fortunate to carry the torch into the next 40.”


The vast acreage of the Columbia Valley AVA lies predominantly in Washington, with a small Oregon section stretching from Milton-Freewater to The Dalles. With a continental high desert climate, the hot days and cool nights promote slow, even ripening and elevated acidity. Six to eight inches of annual precipitation dictate irrigation from its namesake, the mighty Columbia River, along with vital tributaries. The Ice Age phenomena, the Missoula Floods, deposited silt and sand over the area; subsequently, loess sediment blew over the landscape, creating well-drained soil, ideal for grape growing.

The region was a critical west-coast fruit basket, dotted with orchards and canneries when, in the early 1900s, settlers planted Zinfandel vines on a steep, south-sloping hill. These vines, found in The Pines 1852 Vineyard near The Dalles, still produce fruit. The AVA, known for large-scale wineries in the extensive Washington portion, contains more boutique-oriented wineries on the Oregon side.

For insights on the Columbia Valley, I spoke with Jordan Small, general manager and second-generation owner at Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden and daughter of founders Rick and Darcy Small; and JJ Williams, general manager at Kiona Vineyards and Winery in Benton City and son of founder John Williams.
“I was born and raised in the winery,” says Jordan Small. “Our parents started the winery before my brother and I were born, so it’s been around my entire life.”

As she entered her adult years, she “really began to appreciate how special the industry was, the connections with other people, wineries and chefs, along with getting to travel for winemaking and wine dinners.” Woodward Canyon was the second winery in the area. Her parents were instrumental in earning AVA designation in 1984. After college, she worked for the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance in a variety of roles at several wineries. “It was pretty neat to build connections and learn so much from other wineries and then be able to come back here in 2013.”

What do you think the next 40 years will bring?

“Definitely more vineyards up into the foothills where it’s a bit cooler. And, we’re already starting to see more activity around additional sub AVAs.” She expects more unique varietal plantings, along with different styles of wine-making. Outside investment “shows the prestige of Walla Walla… people see it as a place where quality really shines and they can have a successful wine business.”

What opportunities and challenges do you anticipate?

From Small’s perspective, the family-friendly, approachable nature of Walla Walla represents an ideal growth opportunity. In terms of challenges, she identifies “the same issues we're seeing throughout the industry,” including attracting new consumers and people generally drinking less alcohol.

How does it feel to reach the 40th anniversary?

“I'm very optimistic about the next 40 years. I also feel a big responsibility. My parents have both been very involved in the wine community as leaders, so it’s important for me to continue that legacy.”

JJ Williams describes how his grandparents and their friends “pioneered the Red Mountain AVA by planting our original ten-acre block in 1975. You could take 10 steps out the door of the home my brother and I grew up in and be in a vineyard. We watched it go from a fledgling, wine-producing region to an area considered by many as one of the premier Cabernet-growing regions in the world with international investment, hedge fund involvement, international accolades and acclaim. We just call it home.” Williams was raised knowing there was a place for him in the family business, but he’d have to earn it. “My brother and I spent our childhoods working every job there was here. I went on to attend business school and sell wine in Seattle before returning to run the family business.”

What do you think the next 40 years will bring?

“Washington is still considered a nascent wine-growing region,” says Williams, “I'm hoping in 40 years, we’ll be known as an established, quality region. I think we’re already making strides in that direction.” He mentions how they benefit from ample water, along with “ideal aspect, slope and soil conditions to grow high-end wine without much of the disease and pest pressure experienced elsewhere. There’s significant investment in research and dollars toward making the region even more successful in the future.”

What opportunities and challenges do you anticipate?

Williams cites a fiercely competitive industry and distributor consolidation as challenges, yet as interest grows, demand increases for “different and unique” wines that aren’t widely available. “Being novel is a feature, not a bug.”

How does it feel to reach the 40th anniversary?

“It’s gratifying to spend your time and efforts building something and have it last, right?” He doesn’t take it for granted. “A lot of smart and talented people have tried their hand at running a winery in the Columbia Valley over the last 40 years that didn't make it. We feel lucky to be here.”


The Walla Walla Valley, a sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley AVA, straddles southeast Washington state and northeast Oregon. Its broad range of microclimates and elevations extend from sagebrush desert in the west to the flanks of the rugged Blue Mountains in the east. The latitude, midway between Bordeaux and Burgundy, contains four distinct soils: loess overlying Missoula Flood sediments; thin loess over basalt bedrock; thick loess over basalt bedrock, and basalt cobblestone gravel. Warm growing-season temperatures, cool September nights, less rainfall and complex soils favor Cabernets, Merlots and Syrahs.

Winegrowing in the Walla Walla Valley probably dates from the 1920s. The contemporary wine industry began in the 1970s, when childhood friends Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar and Rick Small of Woodward Canyon Winery began collaborating, growing grapes and, ultimately, founded wineries in 1977 and 1981, respectively.

Our Walla Walla AVA sources are sister Amy Figgins, manager/partner at Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla and daughter of founders Gary and Nancy Figgins; and her younger brother Chris Figgins, owner, president and director of winemaking at Figgins Family Wine Estates in Walla Walla.
Amy Figgins recalls, “The dream started in ‘73 and ’74, and I was born in 1970. I was really little when my dad planted his first vineyard. My brother and I were the farm kids; we pruned, picked grapes and labeled bottles– we did all the things.” She left for college and pursued a career as a cost analyst for engineering companies. “Then, in 2007, I was living in Tri-Cities and just called my parents out of the blue and told them ‘I'm ready to come work for the winery.’”

What do you think the next 40 years will bring?

“The Walla Walla AVA is going to continue to draw folks, and I think there’s room for some expansion. It’s a really, really lovely place to live and raise a family.”

What opportunities and challenges do you anticipate?

She views market saturation as a major challenge, particularly with the overall drop in consumption of wine and alcohol. In addition, “there’s a lot of beautiful land here, but much of it is dry, without water rights. Water’s a challenge.”

How does it feel to reach the 40th anniversary?

“Our 50th anniversary occurs in three years. It is fantastic to look at what my parents started– to have that insight and take the risk my dad did… people thought he was crazy.” She marvels that “it feels really fantastic to watch an industry start from scratch and grow to what it is.”

Her brother Chris muses “I barely remember life without wine being part of the fall routine.” While pursuing higher education in architecture and engineering, “I fell in love with wine and approached my parents about coming to the family business and changing my major to viticulture.”

What do you think the next 40 years will bring?

Walla Walla is “a very young region and I see it really taking a spot on the world stage 40 years from now. The quality of wine has always been there.” He also predicts increased tourism to Walla Walla centered around wine and food. “I think in the future we need to change the AVA to even more accurately reflect the Valley in terms of where we're going to be able to grow in the future. I see us expanding our eastern boundary to higher elevations and continuing to refine our sub-appellations.”

What opportunities and challenges do you anticipate?

“The climate changing offers a ton of challenges with wildfires and smoke, combined with hotter heat spikes and earlier vintages. But, honestly, I also see opportunities as well… pushing the envelope of viticulture to higher elevations as pursued by my family. I see chances to explore the fringes of the AVA.”

How does it feel to reach the 40th anniversary?

“It feels great.”

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