With a whoosh, the sliding glass door glides open and a blast of hot air battles with the escaping air-conditioned chill of the lobby. Outside, my chariot awaits — big trucks are kind of the standard here in Walla Walla, where country boys and winemakers alike need the capacity to haul stuff around. Today’s rig belongs to Jean-François Pellet, locally known as “JF,” winemaker and partner at Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars. Incidentally, he is also a country boy, born and raised in rural Switzerland to third-generation wine growers.
We’ve just met, but the topic of legacy has already bubbled to the surface. Ever since Walla Walla old-timer/wine-industry-visionary Norm McKibben convinced Pellet to move to the valley in 1999, Pellet has been a leading proponent for sustainability in the region. In 2000, Pellet helped establish Vinea, a sustainable trust comprised of a voluntary group of winegrowers committed to environmental, economic, and socially sustainable practices.
The French concept of terrior is often used to describe the unique flavors imparted to a grape through the soil and within the climate in which it is grown. Terrior is cited to explain why Syrah grapes grown in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, for example, tend to give off a funky aroma versus Syrah planted elsewhere that leans more toward jam and spice. But, Pellet explains that the full meaning of terrior also includes mankind in the equation. Since mankind cannot be separated from the environment, we are part of the terrior. This is why sustainable growing practices are such a big deal to Pellet.
“The ultimate goal is to make quality wine and leave the soil healthier for future generations,” said Pellet. “The whole idea is to have a legacy.”
“The ultimate goal is to make quality wine and leave the soil healthier for future generations.”
On the way to the main event, a brand-new 378-panel photovoltaic solar installation at Pepper Bridge Winery, we stop for a quick peek at Amavi Cellars’ tasting room. Amavi (pronounced with accent on the first syllable) is a made-up mashup of amore (love) and vita (life). The brand was created to showcase regional stars like Syrah and younger Cabernet Sauvignon vines. The wines are made from 100 percent sustainable, 100 percent estate fruit using mostly neutral French oak.
“They’re more easy-going, not overdone,” said Pellet.
Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars are a family operation owned by the McKibben, Pellet, and Goff families. Pepper Bridge roots run deep in the valley. During the 1800s, the Pepper family allowed military personnel to cross the river on their land when soldiers traveled between Fort Walla Walla and Fort The Dalles.
Today, the families behind the two wineries are 100 percent committed to Walla Walla Valley fruit. At Pepper Bridge, Pellet specializes in three signature wines, all estate-grown: Merlot; Cabernet Sauvignon; and Trine, a vintage-specific blend comprised of the five Bordeaux varietals. Before we taste through the wines in the library room, however, we take a spin around the winery’s shimmering new solar panel display.
At nearly $250,000, the Pepper Bridge solar panels are no passing trifle. The annual production is projected to be more than 100,000 kilowatt-hours — nearly 70 percent of the winery’s energy needs. After all, Pellet wants to be remembered for the wine, not a carbon footprint.