Whitman Cellars Sells, Again

Winery deal is part of a larger investment in the Walla Walla industry

by Peter Mitham
the wall winery washington purchase
The crush pad at Whitman Cellars (now The Walls) serves as a dining area during the spring release event in Walla Walla, Wash.
Walla Walla, Wash.—The former premises of Whitman Cellars has once again sold, this time to a fledgling winery whose owners are making significant investments in the Walla Walla Valley.

Michael Martin, a lawyer with Microsoft Corp., has teamed up with veteran Walla Walla winemaker Ali Mayfield to launch The Walls, a venture that has grown to include vineyards, a winery and a restaurant.

“We’re doing our best to respect the past but also to create this really new, interesting future for everybody to enjoy,” Martin told Wine & Vines.

Martin was no stranger to Walla Walla and its wines before meeting Mayfield in 2014, a date that marked the genesis of The Walls (a name that references the state penitentiary north of town).

Martin and Mayfield began making wine at the Artifex custom-crush facility in Walla Walla that fall from fruit purchased from vineyards in the Columbia Gorge and Yakima Valley.

Then last year, Martin purchased a 20-acre property located within the new Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley appellation for an estate vineyard. Site preparation is under way, with planting to Syrah and other varietals set to begin next spring.

Meanwhile, discussions were also in progress regarding property that larger-than-life winemaker Charles Smith was looking to sell in downtown Walla Walla. Smith had acquired the property at 215-219 W. Main St. in 2006, but the evolution of his business—and expansion to new premises in Seattle—made selling attractive. Martin agreed to buy.

Smith was also seeking a buyer for Whitman Cellars, which he had purchased out of foreclosure in 2012, and several months later Martin picked up that property in a separate transaction for approximately $1.5 million. He expects to produce between 1,000 and 5,000 cases per year for the next few years and work up to total production of 10,000 cases per year.

Construction has now begun on a tasting room and restaurant at the downtown property. Jim German, who shut down his celebrated bar in Waitsburg last year, will run the new restaurant under the Passatempo name, a nod to the Pastime Café that formerly operated at the address.

Whitman Cellars, meanwhile, is undergoing renovations after a few years of serving as a bare-bones production facility for K Vintners.

“We had the opportunity to purchase it lickety-split...(and) like a hermit crab, we moved in,” Smith told Wine & Vines at the time (see “Charles Smith Positioned for Growth”).

Smith made few changes to the 9,186-square-foot premises as owner. The winery came equipped and ready to go, and after a quick cleaning it was crushing the 2012 harvest.

The facility was for production, not for show, but soon Smith’s needs had changed.

This created an opportunity for Martin to acquire the premises for his own venture, which is transforming the winery into a state-of-the-art facility.

“Getting a chance to move into a facility like the Whitman Cellars building has been a great opportunity, and we’re going to build it out in a way that’s first class all the way,” he said.

An antimicrobial, anti-slip floor has been installed, and state-of the-art sorting and crushing equipment will follow. Martin is importing tanks from Burgundy and Bordeaux, and he’s considering a solar array for power generation.

“Given the power intensity of crush and the temperatures in Walla Walla in the summer and the fall, we’re actively looking to see if we could put some solar panels on the roof before this harvest,” he said.

The foyer of the facility is also being renovated to accommodate guests. The facility has already hosted some small events, but the rough edges will be polished so that the diamond shines.

“It’s not being renovated with the idea that it’s going to be open every day, but it will be open occasionally, and when it is it will look really nice,” Martin said.

All told, Martin said the investments will total “$3.5 million, probably north of that.”

When taken as a whole, the various sites will work together to not only help The Walls produce premium wine, but also a premium space for the local community (both residents of Walla Walla, and those who wish they were).

“The team has gelled,” he said. “We view it as an opportunity to build a community space both for visitors to the city and also for people who live and work there every day to come together and enjoy the best of Walla Walla in all respects.”

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