Justin Wylie is a man with a plan. This fourth generation Walla Wallan planned to go into the family business but instead ended up creating one of the valley's don't-miss wine destinations. His Va Piano vineyards and tasting room meld a taste of authentic Tuscany with the arms-wide-open sense of community the Friendliest Small Town in America is famous for. Visitors to Va Piano may find themselves getting painting tips from a spry Italian Father or wiling an afternoon away in a rocking chair around a sunken firepit, wrapped in a blanket, and warmed with fine wine.
The man with the plan.
What's the strangest thing to happen in your tasting room?
We've had people get engaged here but no one's ever gotten really crazy. That I can remember, at least. We did have someone drink out of the spit bucket the other day. Actually, it was Bruno. Italians drink out of cups, not wine glasses, and these guys in the tasting room were using cups to spit in. So, the cups were just sitting on the counter and Bruno was like "Oh!" and he picks up the cup, takes a sip, and was like "Hey, that's pretty good!"
I once decanted a wine at a wine tasting and then was pouring another out of the bottle and one woman tasted that then went over and spit in the decanter. All her friends were like "OH NO!!!" and I was like, "don't say anything to her. I'll dump the wine and decant a new bottle, it's not a big deal." I really didn't want her to feel bad but still...she spit in my decanter!
Did you grow up wanting to be a winemaker?
Nope. Growing up I was all about my family business here in town called Wylie Monuments, which makes cemetery memorials, granite signage...things like that. My great grandfather started the business in 1912 - this is our 100 year anniversary - and that was what I was going to do. I went to Gonzaga University, got a marketing degree, and the plan was to come home and run that business. Well, my senior year at Gonzaga, the study abroad program was available and it was in Italy so I thought "well, why go home now when I can go home a year from now and have the opportunity to go to Italy?" I went to Florence and that's where I met Bruno. I spent a year in Florence, came home and did the family business, but at the same time was also looking for other projects I could do as well. So, I got involved with my neighbor in purchasing some land out here and planted my first 10 acres of grapes. Two years later we bought another 10 acres and put an entrance out front with the intention of opening a winery. It was kinda built organically over time.
Tell us about the legend that is Father Bruno
Bruno worked for Gonzaga University in Florence when I went abroad. He is retired now and we sell his paintings here - that's what helps keep him on the road. He is here often. In fact, he was just here for holiday barrel tasting and raised hell for about a month. We had lunches every day and invited winemakers over to bring their wines and just hang out for a few hours. More than a few afternoons led into evenings. Also, a fun marketing project for us has been Bruno's Blend, a second label with an artist's series flare that we create every year and put one of his paintings on the label. When it sells out we donate a portion of the proceeds to charities.
Are there a lot of winemakers in the area with their own vineyards?
No. I went more of a grower first route. I like building stuff. I like building and creating and that was the main goal - to go out and get this built.
Nope. It was just to do the 10 acres - I planted all that myself - then two years later when I added on I thought of building a winery. Why not take the marketing skills I have and the skills I've learned from owning apartment houses where people pay me rent? Why not build a winery as an incubator, have them pay rent, and help pay for a facility that at the time I didn't need? That slowly grow into Va Piano. Va Piano means "go slowly" in Italian so I took my time and this is the result. When we started here, when this building was built, we were doing 250 cases of wine and we've slowly built from there. Now we're at about 4,000 cases of wine between Bruno's Blend, Va Piano and our Estate wines.
With your family history, being 4th generation, what do you think about how Walla Walla is changing?
A part of me says the valley has not changed at all but a part of me says it has changed a lot - especially to the locals, because Walla Walla has ALWAYS been here. It's always been a historical town, it's always been a major trading town, it's always been a strong farming community - it didn't just pop up when the wine started to. There is lot of tradition here and I think that part of it has never changed. What's changed is the wine industry has found that we can grow grapes here and that has brought a whole 'nother dimension to Walla Walla that co-mingles with the historical side.
When i graduated from college there weren't a lot of younger people here and wine has changed that. Back then, we'd go out to the one bar in town and it would be just me, my cousin Eric (Dunham) and six friends. Then all the sudden, one by one, all these people started showing up and it became sort of this cool place to live. But Walla Walla is an authentic place and always has been. I think this really helpful when you go out of market and start promoting your wine. Not that i have anything against places like Prosser, but those places have built themselves up around the wine industry where the wine industry in Walla Walla has benefited greatly from an already well-established community. What other community has that vertical infrastructure from beginning to end - the core infrastructure, the farming background, the people? We've added on this layer of culture and wine that brings tourism and really has helped Walla Walla sustain amazing restaurants, the Powerhouse Theater, and things like that - it's a cool place to be.
Speaking of sustainability, tell us more about your efforts to run a sustainable vineyard
Yes, we're a certified sustainable vineyard. It has become important but in the beginning we didn't know a lot about sustainability - it was still that conventional farming method of 'spray like crazy' and we didn't know anything different. Now with all the education, the Internet, and groups of very progressive-thinking farmers, sustainability is a huge factor. Not only for marketing our product but also for the future of the dirt. I remember eight years ago, I would spray these products out in the vineyard and my chemical salesman would be like, "Look, you can't have any kids out here for 10 days." I was like, "What? That just doesn't make sense. I can't touch my own dirt?" So, things like that I look back on now and am like "wow." It's been this evolution of learning better farming practices and I think in the end it trickles down to the quality of the wine too. I won't go organic but I think the sustainability has a lot more grounding. It's not so much a marketing tool as it is a way of life and a thought process for taking care of your farm and the product you grow - but also for future generations. I see the organic side as more of a marketing ploy than it is a long-term sustainable approach.
Why do you think that way about the "organic" label?
It's funny - a lot of the inspectors who are now sustainable inspectors used to be organic and they left that world because of its credibility. They would inspect properties that were organic for the sole purpose of the marketing when there's another property 10 feet away that's not organic. Our property, from ened to end is sustainable. Not block 1, not block 3, but all of them. I also think sustainable goes beyond just the farming. Your kids think about everything that goes into sustainability and it can be used from morning to night - where organic is simply the farming. I think focusing on overall sustainability is more of an honest effort to make a change. And when you taste the wine, wow, it makes even more sense. I enjoy it, I mean, I get mad every year when I have to fill out all the paperwork. I swear I'll never do it again but I always do.
I notice that one can not recycle glass in Walla Walla - what are your thoughts on that?
Yeah, glass is interesting and, I think, misunderstood. It costs a lot of money to recycle glass because of the color in the glass - the technology is not there to economically reuse it - where with clear glass it is. So, many times, which I really have a problem with, they would collect wine bottles in Walla Walla for recycle but they were actually going to the dump because no one knew what to do with them. It's like when you get those pencils that say, "This pencil costs $8 to recycle." It's good that the habits are there but we still don't have the technology to truly turn that product into something reusable.
Have you found a way to personally mitigate any of this impact?
Well, we don't reuse but I am more aware of ordering glass that is lighter. Like the Bruno's Blend is lighter, half the glass of our Estate bottles, but we make more of it so I try to take that step. I've looked for eco-friendly glass or to buy from a manufacturer whose carbon footprint may be lower than another. I used to buy glass from Mexico but now have local glass from Seattle. I buy a tiny bit from China - you try your best and it doesn't always make perfect sense but we do put a lot of thought into it.
Next to being a winemaker what do you consider your greatest talent?
Talking? Um, social networking? No...I really like building and the vision of it all. I love taking a concept on yellow notebook paper and refining and refining and refining then actually going out and building and creating it. Like, here's a piece of land, how can i maximize it? I want to build cottages next year on top of my hill here at Va Piano. I like that whole 'creating an experience' for the consumer - to create an experience that's memorable that people can take away with them. The plan is to build cottages and make Va Piano a destination experience. Even for things like corporate retreats - better to come here, get hammered, and work out your issues. Then play some golf and eat some food. Now that's team building.
What do you say to folks who think Washington wine is too expensive?
I think it's the opposite. Washington state offers an amazing value of quality for the price point. When you take a wine that's $35 and compare it to another region, we offer a better value. The consumer just has to take that leap of faith and spend a little more to try that wine. But you don't have to spend $35 to get quality either - you can find that same quality in a $20 bottle. The Bruno's Blend was built on that idea - we wanted to provide a quality wine but that was $20 so we built that wine for that price point. I think Washington's biggest attribute is that we offer a bigger value to the consumer than the rest of the country, absolutely. Especially in more expensive wines - we deliver consistently. There's not question about that. In the Old World there are farms that are generations old so the cost basis for them is so much less. In the New World our start-up costs are tremendous. We don't have 10 generations of passing properties down allowing us to deliver a product less expensive. It's all relative but still, Washington wines always deliver.
What are you most excited about these days?
I am most proud of our Estate wines. There's nothing better than growing a product on your property and then releasing a wine from that same property - being fully, totally, vertically integrated. At the end of the day it's the coolest thing ever - to sell it here and drink it here. It's not like growing asparagus, cleaning it, putting a rubber band around it - it's different. There's a lot that goes into the whole process and seeing that end product is the coolest thing for me.
The biggest thing I'd like to see people do - and they are doing it - is support local wines. Maybe not all of them are for you, but there are wines that will fit their price point, their palate, and their needs. If we drink and eat local it helps everybody. It doesn't mean you can't go out and explore and try things but at the end of the day, drink local. It's no different than if I were to travel to another region - drink their local wines and eat their local dishes. There's more to that wine than just juice - there are the stories and the people behind it.