Seattleites are in the know. Portlanders have it on their weekend getaway list. Are you in the loop? If you have not visited Walla Walla you have missed Main Street USA dotted with culinary delights, vistas of the Blue Mountains appearing as sand art in the distance, and award winning wines. History is well preserved in this quaint little Washington town still boasting a walkable downtown, where locals mingle with visitors (the term “tourist” is too impersonal for Walla Walla).
Walla Walla Valley wineries source fruit from within the AVA and from other Washington regions like Yakima and Red Mountain. Focus is on red Rhone and Bordeaux varietals. Each June hundreds of wine lovers make a pilgrimage to Celebrate Walla Walla, a tasting and educational event. Each year, this festival rotates among three signature varietals: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Nevertheless, Washington prides itself on planting diverse varietals. Expect Riesling, Chardonnay, and even Albariño.
With over 100 wineries, Walla Walla is divided into five main wine regions. While the local saying is everything is “8 minutes away” planning your days geographically can save time and energy. Here are some highlights and personal faves from each region:
If you want to park your car and have an easy walk to tasting rooms and restaurants, downtown Walla Walla is your place. Perfect for a girls’ trip, romantic weekend, or a getaway from the city without loss of city amenities. The toniest digs can be found at the Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center. True luxury lodging, this landmark hotel is home to the upscale Marc Restaurant and six tasting rooms off the lobby. You may have to change from your bathrobe, but you won’t even have to step onto the street to taste at Tero Estates & Flying Trout Wine, Locati Cellars , Lodmell Cellars, and Mansion Creek Cellars.
The only dining dilemma is the number of wonderful options. Don’t miss The Public House 124 for burgers, fries and brew. It would be a shame to not taste one of the distinctive Spanish and Italian inspired flatbreads at Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen. T. Maccarones offers an upmarket Italian twist on traditional favorites like beef tenderloin, pork shank, and roast chicken. Have some of their housemade Italian sausage.
For the most important meal of the day any local will recommend Bacon and Eggs. Here you will find locally sourced, made from scratch hearty breakfast entrees served up with Stumptown coffee or even a breakfast cocktail should you be so inclined. Another favorite is Maple Counter Cafe. Tradition abounds with three generations of family restaurant experience. Be sure to try a “creative pancake” - bacon or maybe Georgia pecan.
Woodward Canyon Winery was built on Rick Small’s family land. “In the late 1970’s people thought we were crazy for planting grapes in wheat country,” Small recalls. Small is excited about Chardonnay vines that are ready for their first harvest this year and a move from sustainable agriculture to organic. Visitors to Woodward Canyon get to taste in a restored 1870’s farmhouse and have lunch in the Reserve House. Chef Sager Small, Rick’s son, brings his training in Culinary Arts from the Art Institute of Seattle back to the family business. The restaurant is open seasonally, so check with the Woodward Canyon Winery for details.
L’Ecole N° 41 was recently listed as one of Wine and Spirits Top 100 Wineries for the 14th consecutive year. Tasting opportunities include a tour of the 1915 Frenchman Schoolhouse - the one pictured on the L’ecole label. Frenchtown is named for the French Canadians who settled in the Walla Walla Valley during the early 1800s. Legend has it these men of French descent were some of the first in the region to grow grapes and make wines. The name – L’Ecole N° 41, translates to “the school” located in school district 41.
Sitting at a 1475 foot elevation in the shadow of the Blue Mountains is áMaurice Estate Vineyard. At this height grows what winemaker Anna Schafer calls “mountain fruit.” It is the wind that makes the difference. And it is windy - as in “don’t set your glass down” windy. Schafer comments on the intensity of the fruit. “It doesn’t go to ten. It goes to 11.” Spinal Tap reference, get it?
Also in the neighborhood is one of Washington State’s oldest wineries Walla Walla Vintners founded by winemakers Myles Anderson and Gordy Venneri. When asked about fruit from this area Anderson explained, “the grapes have increased acidity and balance and the flavor is affected by deep roots and dry farming.” Topsoils here run deep and rainfalls are heavier than in some other areas of the valley.
While on the Eastside don’t miss a visit to Tempus Cellars. Their 2013 Evergreen Vineyard Riesling is a delicious refresher from red wine tasting and was awarded 91 points by Wine Enthusiast and 90 by Wine Spectator.
Within the Eastside is a fairly new addition at the airport. Actually down the street from the Walla Walla Regional Airport sit five brightly painted buildings in an easy to meander semi circle. This is the Winery Incubator Program designed to provide reasonably priced production space for start up wineries. Currently visit J&J Vintners, Palencia Winery, Walla Faces and for a foamy break, Burwood Brewery. Each first Monday night brings locals and visitors alike for a food truck night feast.
Here Girasol Vineyards and Inn is ideally situated for those who wish to wake among the vines but still be close enough to downtown for dining. Guests gather each morning to enjoy a patio view, prior to a seated gourmet breakfast. Innkeepers Michele Rennie and Edward Lewis go out of their way to make guests comfortable. A cheese and charcuterie plate awaits upon check in. The fridge is stocked with complimentary soda and beer. Highly involved in the community, Rennie offers excellent concierge service. Most appreciated was the list of restaurant recommendations, which included those requiring reservations and those closed during the stay.
A hop, skip and jump away is Tertulia Cellars where visitors can play pétanque - French style bocci. Very close is an opportunity to park your car and visit a cluster of four wineries. Music lovers should not miss Sleight of Hand Cellars where owner/winemaker Trey Busch has 1700 albums on hand and happily takes requests. Walk through the vineyard to Saviah Cellars. It is hard to tell what excites guests more: an appearance by the constantly grinning owner Rich Funk; the hand carved artwork created by Funk’s parents and locally created oil paintings; or the fantastic wine poured with warm hospitality.
Across the street and side by side are Balboa and Beresan Wineries. Balboa’s tasting room feels more like a hangout with owner/winemaker Tom Glase in the thick of things pouring wine for visitors. Tom Waliser is the vineyard manager for Balboa plus many other properties in the Walla Walla Valley. He has been farming since he was a boy and provides stellar fruit to Balboa and to Beresan, his own winery next door. Ask the Tom’s about “Tomodynamics.”
Keep travelling and you will hit Oregon. Walla Walla Valley is one of the few AVAs that overlap two states. Take a moment to fill your gas tank since in Oregon you don’t have to pump your own, but you don’t have to pay extra. Make a stop at Castillo de Feliciana Vineyard and Winery for Spanish style wines including Albariño and rosé of Tempranillo.
Be sure to stop at Watermill Winery and Blue Mountain Cider Company. Owned by the Brown family, both tasting counters are housed in the historic Watermill building. With two feats of fermentation this is the perfect stop for a change of taste.
When to Go
Walla Walla has something for everyone - whether you fancy chamber music, outdoor rock concerts, balloon races or a small town festival complete with someone in an onion suit. See Walla Walla Wine for a calendar of wine related events and Visit Walla Walla for other community festivals and events.