WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Only a few towns epitomize everyone’s vision of wine country: Healdsburg, St. Helena, Sonoma, Paso Robles — and Walla Walla.
Yes, Walla Walla, a town of only 31,000 people in southeastern Washington, is as wine-soaked as we are, and has many attractions to lure tourists as well as residents.
It has a friendly small-town ambience and a delightful downtown full of locally owned shops that escaped the “redevelopment” that destroyed so many other small cities.
The downtown boasts 23 tasting rooms, and wineries and vineyards pepper the large valley and surrounding hills and mountains that ring the city.
Although it long was short on upscale eating and lodging, it now boasts many first-class restaurants and a reborn 1923 luxury hotel as well as numerous upscale inns and B&Bs, bicycle trails, a top golf course and shops and galleries.
Its isolated location 250 miles from Seattle or Portland has made it a center for a large area, too, so it has conveniences normally found only in far larger places.
It even contains two four-year colleges, Whitman being a renowned liberal arts school, the other Walla Walla University, a Seventh-Day Adventists school.
In addition, the local community college even has an outstanding viticultural and enology program.
Wine on a roll
And what about the wine?
Washington state, in general, is on a roll in the wine business. Alhough the whole state has fewer acres of vineyards than the Napa Valley, it has an outsize reputation.
The state’s wine business is dominated by Ste. Michelle, but that benevolent winery developed a policy of helping promote the whole state industry under former CEO Allen Shoup, much as Robert Mondavi pioneered promotion for California. That attitude continues under Ted Baseler, Ste. Michelle’s current president. Shoup now owns Long Shadows winery near Walla Walla.
So while Ste. Michelle makes a great deal of popular-priced riesling (the nation’s largest producer) and other volume wines including under the Columbia Crest and 14 Hands brands, Washington is best known for high-end wines.
The wine business is fairly new in the state including in Walla Walla. Its reputation for world-class wine took started in 1977 with the founding of Leonetti Cellar, followed by Woodward Canyon in 1981 and L’Ecole in 1983.
In 1984, the region was officially recognized by the American Viticultural Association. It now contains more than 100 wineries and 1,800 acres of grapes.
The Walla Walla AVA
The Walla Walla AVA contains 500 square miles or 322,794 acres. (Napa County is about 450,000 acres for comparison). It’s about 20 by 25 miles across.
Oddly, although 69 percent of the AVA is in Washington, 31 percent is in Oregon, including some of the most famous vineyards but few wineries.
It sits at latitude 46 degrees N, about midway between Bordeaux and Burgundy. The minimum elevation is 400 feet, and it rises to 2,000 feet.
Its climate is comparable to the mid-to-upper Napa Valley. Rainfall ranges from 7 to 22 inches, with the average about 15 inches annually, but water is available from the large Columbia River to augment the meager rain in most areas.
Vineyards receive about two hours more sunlight during the peak season than here, and the growing season is longer. On average, the last frost occurs during the last week of March and the first frost occurs during the last week of October
One way in which Washington wineries are different from those here is that most don’t depend on estate grapes. Even if they have vineyards, most buy grapes from many sources including the prestigious Red Mountain AVA, which lies about 50 miles away.
A major reason for this is that winter hits different areas capriciously, and the winemakers definitely don’t want to have all their grapes in one bin. Some years, some vineyards are almost totally wiped out while others are fine.
Washington hasn’t been invaded by phylloxera, so vines are generally self-rooted. Most vineyards train two cordons and may even bury one or both under soil to protect them from frost. Even so, the vines will often grow back from the roots.
Walla Walla is best known for its red wines — cabernets, merlots and syrahs — although a tiny bit of white varieties are also grown.
The wines tend to be big, with strong tannins and colors but they don’t generally reach excessive alcohol levels.
Most benefit from aging, but a recent retrospective tasting showed significantly improved winemaking in recent years among some of the producers. After all, most of the wineries are relatively new, as are the winemakers.
Washington’s dirty little secret
Local Walla Walla growers, who include many famed vintners and winemakers, too, have a secret that’s attracting attention from Napa producers like Cakebread and Duckhorn.
While many local wines can charge the $40 to $100 typical of better Napa Valley cabernets, the dirt – the vineyard land, that is – costs perhaps $20,000 compared to 10 times that here.
One result is a large vineyard development called Sevein Vineyards in Oregon next to famed Seven Hills Vineyard that is being sold in relatively small parcels complete with farming, water and permits.
Of the 2,700 total acres, approximately 1,800 can be developed into vineyards. About 1,000 have been sold, under vineyard development or producing vineyards, leaving 800 available for sale in blocks of 40 acres or larger.
Visiting Walla Walla
Delightful as it is once you arrive, it’s a bit of a pain to get to Walla Walla. All flights seem to go through Seattle and they aren’t particularly convenient except for commuters. Alaska Airlines will fly a case of wine home for free, however.
Direct flights from San Francisco fly into Pasco, 50 miles away.
It’s also a long, 275-mile drive over the high, wet and foggy Cascades from Seattle; Portland is about 25 miles closer and follows the majestic Columbia River gorge.
The top hotel in Walla Walla is the Marcus Whitman, a historic “skyscraper” for the area that has been lovingly restored to the highest standards, but many romantic B&Bs are on vineyards or in historic buildings downtown. The area also has the usual chain motels like Best Westerns and is welcoming a Courtyard by Marriot this fall.
Interesting inns include the Girasol among vineyards, Green Gables and Vine and Roses in town, the Inn at Abeja Winery and Vineyards just east of town and the imposing Cameo Heights Mansion about 25 minutes west of town overlooking orchard, vineyards and a picturesque canyon. It serves gourmet meals, too.
There’s plenty of good eating in Walla Walla. And it’s worth asking locals, who are very friendly, about their favorites.
I particularly enjoyed the authentic French Brasserie Four bistro where during dinner at the bar, I met a local government official, a winemaker, a winery owner and other visitors to the area in a short time.
Saffron, The Marc and Whitehouse-Crawford also stand out for fine dining, and, as here, wineries often host dinners. Olive is a good informal café.
It’s tough to choose among the many excellent wineries, but I’d recommend Amavi, Dunham Cellars, Figgins, L’Ecole No. 41, Long Shadows, Northstar, Pepper Bridge and Leonetti to start.
Those in the industry might like to connect with Duane Wollmuth, the head of the Walla Walla Wine Alliane, or visit Jean-Francois Pellet at Artifex, a local custom winery.
The area is full of history from early settlers like Lewis and Clark, and the local colleges support the visual and performing arts that struggle independently in Napa Valley.
And the onions? Yes, Walla Walla “Sweets,” as they’re called here, are exceptional. The season is the end of June through September, and they host a festival in the middle. Farmers’ markets sell them, but you can’t bring them home because of worry over pests.
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