Meeting Ali Mayfield at Walls Vineyards in Walla Walla, Washington

Blame it on a darn hole-in-one.

Attorney Mike Martin wasn’t looking for a bend in the road of life when he and a pal stopped off in Walla Walla a few years ago to play some golf and drink some wine en route to business in Boise.

But bend it does. At Walla Walla’s Wine Country golf course, Mike Martin hits his first-ever hole-in-one. Bam! Much back-slapping, wine drinking, bad karaoke, and general hilarity ensue. Next morning, Mike and his friend sober up, suit up, and drive on to business in Boise – but Mike never shakes the thrill of that hole-in-one, nor the camaraderie with those folks in Walla Walla.

Back and back Mike bends towards the warmth of Walla Walla for more golf, more wine, and – rumor has it –  more bad karaoke, always the glow from the community beckoning, growing, gathering heat – until its white-hot embers burn a hole in his expensive attorney attire.

As with every touchstone moment in life, trajectories alter. Paths cross.

About that time, Mike meets local-girl wine maker Ali Mayfield, formerly of Longshadows. More wine drinking ensues in the discussion of its making.

A partnership forms, a nascent winery forged: The Walls, the name a nod to the penitentiary north of town.

Mike Martin and Ali Mayfield in the Walls vineyard

Mike Martin and Ali Mayfield in the Walls vineyard, copyright Richard Duval Images (used with permission)

Trajectories alter further.

Mike buys a vineyard in the the Rocks District, then Whitman Cellars, then Charles Smith’s former tasting room/eatery on Main Street in downtown Walla Walla.

More paths cross.

Mike lures Waitsburg mixologist Jim German to shake things up at the bar.

Seattle pasta star Mike Easton steps up to consult on eats.

In short order, the partnership, the vineyard, the winery, and the tasting room/eatery emerge as separate, but equally important, entities of a whole.

A vineyard that does more than grow grapes.  A winery that does more than make wine. A tasting room/eatery that offers visitors and locals not just food and drink, but an experience – a gathering place similar to the one Mike and his friend tumbled into years early fresh off that freak hole-in-one.

The Walls offers community – one bottle, one meal, one memory at a time.

Special memories. Kind of like a hole-in-one.

Recently, wine maker Ali Mayfield took time, despite the rush of Spring Release, to chat with me about her decision to pursue life as an artisan wine maker, some of her star-powered mentors, and what her partnership in The Walls means to her:

Talk about your experience as a wine maker. You’ve worked at some of the region’s best wineries, including Long Shadows. Along the way, you’ve enjoyed mentorship by some industry greats, including Kendall Mix, formerly of Corliss Estate, and Claude Gros of Bookwalter. How has Kendall influenced your winemaking? How has Claude’s ’old world’ approach informed your own style? Which voice is loudest in your head in the vineyard? During crush? In the cellar?

Experience is a big part of winemaking and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work along some of the industry’s greats. Every vintage brings us something new and having a network of mentors that have seen and experienced more than I have, gives me the ability to make the best decisions for the vintage.

Kendall is the foundation of my winemaking – I was a blank slate other then a few homemade wines when we started working together. His gentle approach to extraction is still very present in my wines.

Claude has taught me to push the boundaries of winemaking, to respect the fruit and allow the wine to become what it wants to be.

The loudest voice in my head in the vineyard is Phil Coturri and what a great voice! Phil is helping in the development of our Rocks vineyard. Phil is teaching me how to grow a wine in the vineyard.

During crush and in the cellar it’s Claude voice – I know he’s coming at some point to taste the wine and I work very hard to please his palate. We are working with the same sites year after year – his comments from the previous year come to my mind and I will tell the guys in cellar – Claude’s not going to say this wine has no structure – which forces us to find the structure.

Ali Mayfield in the winery

Ali Mayfield in the winery, copyright Richard Duval Images (used with permission)

In 2015, The Walls purchased a vineyard in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA. What excites you most about your own vineyard?

What excites me most about owning a vineyard is the chance to embrace the farming aspect of winemaking – adopting the old world mentality.  All great wine is grounded in the vineyard and we look forward to getting the opportunity to see the process from beginning to end.

The Rocks are a big challenge from an operating perspective with the freeze risks and the costs to farm down there. But it offers the opportunity to make truly exceptional and distinctive wine.  As a winemaker, I welcome the opportunity to express my own style with that terroir and to hopefully build upon the legacy of some of the great wines that are already made from those vineyards.

You also source from some of Washington’s top sites. How do you choose which sites to source from, and what about these sites makes them so unique with regard to microclimates and resulting flavor profiles?

Our desire is to source the best grapes from the best vineyards in the best terroir/climate for the types of wines we are looking to make.  We want each wine to have a distinct profile and characteristic, even when we make more than one of the varietal such as Syrah or Chardonnay.

A key foundation of our brand is our love of curiosity – including when it comes to wine – and how we love to be able to make and share wines that cut across the spectrum in profile.  The great variety in our lineup constantly challenges the winemaking team to learn and think on a daily basis – nothing is routine about the way we make wine.  It can be a very difficult and laborious task – but it also incredibly fun at the same time.  And it is great when we have groups visit us at the winery and they gravitate toward different wines depending on their own preferences.

Do you adhere to any farming techniques (sustainable, biodynamic, organic) and if so, why are they important to you as a wine maker?

“Do we adhere to any farming techniques?” is a tough question. I feel Washington State is doing a great job with sustainable farming to protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare.

I recently toured several vineyards that Phil Coturri farms, and they were all certified organic – not easy to do. This certification holds them to a higher standard of farming.

“If an organic tomato is going to taste better than a hot-house tomato, an organic grape is going to taste better than a conventionally grown grape.” – Phil Coturri

This is something I’m looking forward to learning more about – each vineyard has it’s own soul and respecting that place is important to me.

[Editor’s note: keep in mind that the rules for “organic” are different in the USA compared to the EU and many other countries.]

How do aging/oaking protocols vary from wine to wine?

Oak is a fascinating subject. For me, it varies a lot from wine to wine even vineyard to vineyard. There are so many options for winemakers, but truly understanding forests and grain is an art. At The Walls we work with both specific forests, stave thickness and grain. We work with traditional 225L (59 gallons) all the way to 650L (171 gallons).

Aging is also an interesting subject. On Claude’s resent visit he said to me, “you created this wine now you have to age it.” Some wine is meant for small barrels and some wines need bigger space for aging. The key is to find the balance and let the aging begin. The wines will tell us how they want to be aged.

In addition to the vineyard, about the same time The Walls purchased Whitman Cellars from Charles Smith, and has improved the 9,186 square feet (900 kvm) space with antimicrobial anti-slip floors, cutting-edge sorting and crushing equipment, solar panels, and guest accommodations. As a winemaker, what do you consider some of the coolest bells and whistles in the new winery, and how will they improve production?

Here’s the funny part, we purchased an old 20-foot sub-zero cargo container that we refer to as “The Game Changer”, and it’s the coolest! It allows us the ability to chill our white grapes to the perfect temperature for pressing.  Or, the ability to harvest Viognier for co-fermentation and chill the fruit until the Syrah is just right.

The solar system is great which was all Mike. Given the power that wineries consume – particularly during harvest – it does make us proud that we have invested to reduce the carbon footprint of our wines.

The Walls bottles

The Walls bottles, copyright Richard Duval Images (used with permission)

Proprietor/partner Mike Martin also purchased Charles Smith’s 2015-219 Main St. complex, including and the old Pastime Cafe, and overhauled it to create Passatempo Taverna, featuring popular mixologist Jim German and a menu created by Seattle pasta rock star Mike Easton, as well as the Passatempo Wine Studio, featuring The Walls wines. Talk about this synergy at The Walls between food and wine, and how that fits into your philosophy/mission?

Yes, the Passatempo project has certainly been an exciting new development for Walla Walla.  It has been a treat for me to get to know Jim and Mike Easton better over the last few months.

Passatempo reflects Mike Martin’s passion for creating a beautiful community enhancing space to have an amazing food, wine and spirits experience.  As he frequently says – a “place where he would want to bring his friends to.”   It has been a great vehicle for people in the community and visitors to get exposed to the wines we are making at The Walls – and other wines from around the Valley and of course Italy.

Passatempo and The Walls are obviously two distinct businesses that over time will develop their own followings.  What they share is the passion to offer a truly exceptional experience to their followers and I am certainly proud to be able to be a part of that.

What’s it like to be part of such a strong team of industry professionals at The Walls? What do each bring to the table that enhance the whole?

It’s fun and inspiring to be part of such a strong team. Mike has such a brain for business, he will ask me how I feel about something and my general response is – that ‘s a really smart idea. He is the heart of what we do at The Walls.

My brother, Jake Mayfield, is the Director of Winery Operations, while we certainly have our sibling differences of opinion- we work in congruence. He has done an amazing job with the development of Pine Street. He is part of our Vineyard development and building the team at The Walls.

Our Cellar Master, Roman Ferrer and I have worked together the longest and I can’t imagine anyone else looking after the wines. Claude reminds me that Roman has the most important job – topping the wines.

Peter Urian leads our lab at The Walls. He is extremely intelligent and has a great passion for winemaking. He is the go to at harvest when I need to convert centiliters to liters.  They all bring so much to enhance The Walls.

Anything else you’d care to share with readers about The Walls that we haven’t touched on?

Follow us on Instagram  and Facebook to stay up to date on what we have going on and some new releases we have planned.  As a new winery some of our most exciting wines are still in the barrel and have not even been released yet – so stay tuned for more details on those!

Finally, if your experience as a winemaker has taught you anything, it’s taught you…?

Great question. My experience as a winemaker has taught me to never stop learning.

Don’t miss reading the tasting notes of The Walls’ wines in the follow-up article: Tasting the wines from The Walls, Walla Walla, Washington.

LM Archer is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz, California. She is Francophile who considers wine an art and Burgundy the centre of the universe. She is the founder and editor of binNotes | redThread.

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