Small Town Roots, Bigtime Wine—Walla Walla is about a lot more than just wine
written by Catie Joyce-Bulay
I first fell in love with the Pacific Northwest while living in Eugene, Oregon. Even after I returned to my home state back east, the PNW kept calling to me and I eventually convinced my husband we needed to move back. He landed a job in Walla Walla, a town we knew nothing more about than as a Bugs Bunny cartoon reference.
I soon found Washington’s Inland Empire to be a completely different planet from the Pacific Northwest I thought I knew. Far from being a disappointment, exploring all the Walla Walla Valley has to offer has been a grand adventure. Lush forests are replaced by rolling hills and high desert, a vibrant green in the spring, and changing colors every month after.
As for the town, it doesn’t get much more charming. Yes, Walla Walla is best known for its wine, favoring bold Bordeaux styles, but it still holds strong roots in its farming community and pioneer heritage. It is home to three colleges which bring an abundance of arts and culture to the town of about 35,000. The wineries have helped cultivate a foodie scene that’s hard to beat.
Day 1 WINE • OLD WEST CHARM • MODERN ART
Driving into town from the west, catch the wind just right and you may be inspired to belt out a line from “America the Beautiful” when you see those amber waves of grain undulating across the plains like a golden ocean. Although Walla Walla’s tiny airport has daily flights to and from Seattle, driving gives you the perfect excuse to begin wine tasting before you even get to town. As the not-so-distant Blue Mountains come into view, so do the cluster of wineries that make up the Westside District. Woodward Canyon Winery is one of the first on Highway 12, and one of the oldest wineries and vineyards in the valley. Its tasting room, a restored 1870s farmhouse, was the old home of the teachers of Lowden School, next door, which today is also a winery.
The 1915 restored school is home to L’Ecole No. 41 Winery, where you can still ring the old school bell before stepping inside for a tasting. Enjoy a glass of their crisp, grapefruity Chenin Blanc (one of my favorites) while sunning on the patio. The first thing you’ll see as you spot town is its tallest building and hallmark of downtown, the Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center. A stay in this historic hotel sets you up perfectly for a stroll through the Downtown District’s many wineries (you can’t throw a stone without hitting two), chic boutiques and restaurants. Spend the afternoon touring Walla Walla’s art paired with wine. Start at Foundry Vineyards, where rotating exhibits bring in world-renowned artists. The sculpture garden contains permanent pieces made at the Walla Walla Foundry.
DAMA Wines’ new downtown tasting room showcases regional artists and each of the wine bottle labels of this woman-owned winery features a female artist. The wines at both are worth tasting even without the art. By now, you’ll begin to notice how approachable the wineries are, how readily pourers will give newbies the lowdown on what’s in the glass and how it got there, along with restaurant recommendations. It’s not uncommon to find the winemaker herself in the tasting rooms. Walk a few blocks more onto Whitman College’s campus and tour the sculptures.
Tucked among giant trees, a Japanese garden and a footbridge-covered winding stream are totem poles and sculptures, many cast at the Foundry, including “Carnival,” a colorful Venus de Milo by celebrated Pop artist and Walla Walla resident Jim Dine. Don’t miss the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures in the Reid Campus Center and Cordiner Hall, then head to the Sheehan Gallery, home to the college’s indoor art collection. Dinner is a walk away through Main Street’s preserved brick buildings that readily recall its early days as a stopover on the Oregon Trail. I never miss an opportunity to have another bowl of T. Mac’s dreamy Bolognese when friends and family come to town. For fine French fare, Brasserie Four is a delight, and the new Soi 71’s Thai menu is spot on.
Day 2 HISTORY • HIKING • PANORAMIC VIEWS PICNIC
If you’re staying at the Marcus Whitman, you don’t have to go far for a great breakfast. The complimentary breakfast buffet has everything you need to provide a solid base for your busy day of hiking and wine tasting. History buffs will want to make a morning trip to Fort Walla Walla Museum, where you can roam through an authentic pioneer village and see a life-sized replica of a thirty-three-mule team pulling a Harris combine used to plow the steep slopes.
Those looking for an abridged history lesson can visit the second floor of the Marcus Whitman Hotel, and see an artist rendition of the Whitman Mission and the region’s history. Get a jump on picnic-gathering supplies with a visit to neighboring College Place, which, like everything else, is only a ten-minute traffic-free drive away. Cugini Italian Import Foods has all the essentials for charcuterie, from housemade soppressata and salami to a variety of imported olives and cheeses. It will be worth the extra five-minute drive to visit Frog Hollow Farm’s farm stand beside its century-old farmhouse for fresh heirloom vegetables (find its tomatoes in many downtown and Seattle restaurants). Epic picnic views abound across town on Pikes Peak Road or Scenic Loop Road.
Visit an eastside winery on the way, like Walla Walla Vintners, to pick up a bottle to go, before winding up the hillside for breathtaking views of the valley’s farmlands below. For a hike in the Blues, take Mill Creek Road to Tiger Canyon, winding up the dramatic canyon striped with ponderosa pines on its north-facing slopes and wild owers to the south. The road eventually turns to dirt, with Umatilla National Forest and hiking trails on the right and Mill Creek Watershed on the left. Head to Deduct Trailhead to hike in the forest along the North Fork of the Walla Walla or farther to Table Rock for rim views.
After a hike, the southside wineries are the perfect place to relax, home to the newly designated Rocks District AVA. Northstar Winery has one of my favorite glass-in-hand views of the vineyards, foothills and mountains. Back in town, swing by the Vineyard Lounge for its happy hour. I recommend the local wine of the month paired with chorizo-stuffed mushrooms and fried calamari with housemade dipping sauces. Then stroll across the street to the Whitehouse-Crawford, whose farm-to-table ingredients are impeccably and elegantly prepared. If you still have energy, Club Sapolil has live music most nights, offering a laid-back wine bar vibe. Check out the Gesa Power House Theatre or The Little Theatre of Walla Walla for live performances.
Day 3 BIRDING BENNINGTON LAKE • BREWS • AIRPORT DISTRICT
For a lighter breakfast, I love starting my morning off at Colville Street Patisserie. Get there on a Tuesday morning and meet up with the Blue Mountain Audubon Society’s weekly bird walk. Afterward, stop in at nearby Walla Walla Community College’s College Cellars, where students of the renowned enology and viticulture program produce an array of award-winning wines. Attendants of the student-run tasting room are eager to share what they’re learning, and you’ll get a taste of some lesser-known varieties and maybe a tour of the production facility. Head back into downtown for more lunch options. Graze’s veggie torta is one of my favorite sandwiches and the pizza of the day never disappoints at Olive Marketplace and Café. Around day three of showing visitors the sights, wine fatigue starts to set in.
Luckily, Walla Walla has some great craft breweries and distilleries to switch it up. I head to the Airport District, where tasting and tap rooms for all three craft beverages are housed in the World War II Army base. Get caffeinated at Walla Walla Roastery or relax with a black ale on the lawn of Burwood Brewing Company. You can sample Walla Walla wines in the form of brandy by the reside in DW Distilling’s tasting room.
It’s worth making the appointment to visit Walla Walla Distilling Company in the old guard station, where you can sip a lavender-forward gin in the funky tasting room made from recycled materials. Make Quirk Brewing and Agapas Mexican Cravings food truck your final stop. Check out the eclectic tap list, then ask for an ale made with local Mainstem Malt. After the friendly pourer tells you its local grain-to-glass story, you’ve probably identified a pattern of camaraderie and community pride that runs through the veins of everyone here. I’m not allowed to call myself a local yet, but when I am, I’ll be proud to call Walla Walla home.
Walla Walla, Washington
Soi 71: A Thai Noodle House
Colville Street Patisserie
Maple Counter Cafe
Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center
Walla Faces Inn
Green Gables Inn
Maxwell House Bed & Breakfast
Woodward Canyon Winery
L’Ecole No. 41 Winery
Hiking the Blue Mountains
Birding at Bennington Lake
Gesa Power House Theatre
The Little Theatre of Walla Walla
Burwood Brewing Company
Walla Walla Distilling Company