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The next great wine regionThe next great wine region

Walla Walla, WashingtonWalla Walla, Washington

Though Walla Walla, Washington, citizens say they live in the town “so nice they had to name it twice,” the Native American name Walla Walla means “place of many waters.” Walla Walla’s many waters sparkle as they flow past golden hillsides and green vineyards on their way to the mighty Columbia River. Its revamped, walkable downtown, like its winemakers, combines the best of the old and the new. More importantly for the oenophile, Walla Walla simply is the next big wine country. No other American region has more exciting Bordeaux-style reds and Syrahs. Together with luxurious inns and fresh new restaurants, they create the recipe for a perfect weekend getaway.

  • The Pepper Bridge winery is just six miles from Walla Walla Airport. Its estate vineyards—Seven Hills, Pepper Bridge, and Les Collines—produce some of the most sought-after grapes in the state. Photo courtesy Pepper Bridge Winery.
  • Early December Barrel Tasting is a great way to kick off the holiday season. Photo courtesy Tourism Walla Walla.
  • Both the Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars source their grapes from three exceptional estate vineyards: Seven Hills, Pepper Bridge, and Les Collines. Wine & Spirits magazine called the Seven Hills vineyard one of the ten great vineyards of the world; its wind-blown loess is perfect for lighter, aromatic wines. The flood-deposited soils usually produce wines with more concentrated fruit; ask to taste from each vineyard. Photo courtesy Amavi Cellars.
  • Not far from Pepper Bridge Winery on Peppers Bridge Road, the Amavi Cellars tasting room provides a spectacular view of the valley and Blue Mountains. The estate vineyards for both Pepper Bridge and Amavi are cultivated with the latest sustainable techniques. Underground drip irrigation provides nutrients while saving water; temperature, humidity, sun, and wind data are generated at many points in the fields and uploaded to computers every hour. A high-tech, gravity-flow facility with subterranean caves babies the grapes to keep out bitter tannins. Photo courtesy Amavi Cellars.
  • At the Amavi Cellars tasting room, you can enjoy your wine indoors or out, along with a panoramic view. Don’t miss the Syrah, bursting with vibrant young fruits. Its dark berry notes are balanced by accents of orange peel and white pepper. Photo courtesy Amavi Cellars.
  • CAVU Cellars is located right at the airport. Their tasting room has an art gallery. Family-owned by Jim, Karen, and winemaker/son Joel Waite, CAVU’s aviation connection comes from Jim, who earned his pilot certificate in Alaska. Photo courtesy CAVU Cellars.
  • Joel and Jim Waite drop off bins for the CAVU Cellars wine harvest. Photo courtesy CAVU Cellars.
  • CAVU’s winemaking is a family operation. But some CAVU wine made its way to former President and WWII aviator George H.W. Bush. At age 20, Bush was shot down over the Pacific while on a bombing run in his TBM Avenger. Fellow squadron member Nat Adams saved Bush’s life by circling overhead in his Hellcat for two hours, despite low fuel and the departure of their carrier. Thus, the Japanese were unable to capture Bush before a Navy sub could pluck him safely from the sea. Adams earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and other medals for numerous heroic deeds during the war. When I interviewed Adams’ widow, Sally, and learned that CAVU was the squadron’s slogan, I mentioned the wine and we later had some sent to the President, who wrote her a warm personal note of thanks. Photo courtesy CAVU Cellars.
  • Seven miles west of downtown off Highway 12, the Wine Valley Golf Club is ranked as one of the top 100 modern courses by Golf Week magazine. The par-72 course has 5 sets of tees and varies from 5,105–7,600 yards in length. It’s an exciting and true links golf course. There’s a small café onsite as well. Photo courtesy Wine Valley Golf Club.
  • A $53 million revitalization helped Walla Walla win a Great American Main Street award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which later chose it as one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations, or “pockets of serenity amid the sprawling clutter and homogenization that have overwhelmed so many American vacation spots.” Photo courtesy Tourism Walla Walla.
  • Most noteworthy downtown is Charles Smith Wines, an auto garage converted brilliantly into a tasting room for the highly acclaimed wines. Photo courtesy Charles Smith Wines.
  • At Brasserie Four, local art, fine wine, and French cuisine provide the ingredients for a fun dinner or weekend lunch. Order a draft beer and pizza at the bar, or cuddle up on the patio for a dessert of crepe Suzette and Stumptown espresso. Photo courtesy Tourism Walla Walla.
  • A downtown icon, the Marcus Whitman Hotel’s brick tower rises above everything else. Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan would look right at home in the grand lobby, with its Roaring 20s furniture, stained-glass skylight, chandeliers, and rich wood paneling. The décor may ooze exclusivity, but the hotel’s construction in the 1920s was actually funded by the community at large. 127 guest rooms, including 22 luxury suites in the historic tower, are supplied with handmade Italian furniture and brown-and-burgundy Renaissance décor. Guests enjoy a full complimentary breakfast including eggs Benedict and housemade granola bars in the highly acclaimed The Marc restaurant. A popular gathering place, the Vineyard Lounge offers an extensive wine list and fun cocktails. You’ll also find an art gallery and gift shop. Photo by Greg Lehman.
  • The Inn at Abeja is just 2.5 miles east of the airport. This century-old farmstead has been meticulously restored to create a Shangri-la at the foot of the Blue Mountains. Abeja is known for particularly fine Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Chardonnay, and Syrah wines, made in small quantities. Feel free to explore the 32 acres of gardens, trees, creeks, and vineyards. Use the provided binoculars and field guide to spot visiting birds. Photo courtesy Inn at Abeja.
  • At the Inn at Abeja, nine accommodations, from cottages to suites, have been created from former farm buildings. Some offer kitchens, balconies, or creek views. Most have heated floors and oversize showers. Vaulted ceilings, rich woods, fireplaces, folk art, and a variety of furniture styles make each abode unique. To thoroughly describe all the thoughtful details and tasteful decorations would fill a small book; the website offers detailed descriptions. Abeja’s top-notch service continues with exceptional breakfasts like lemon soufflé pancakes, smoked salmon hash, Walla Walla sweet onion quiche, and strawberry rhubarb crisp. Photo courtesy Inn at Abeja.

Whether wine tasting, shopping, or gallery-hopping, comfortable clothes and shoes are helpful. Carry water to stay hydrated between tastings, and remember that perfume, cigarettes, and gum interfere with your sense of smell and taste. The Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance provides a winery guide and holds special events, like the Fall Release Weekend in early November and the Holiday Barrel Tasting in early December.

With about 120 wineries it’s hard to know where to start; here are three with good wines and convenient locations.

Pepper Bridge Winery is south of town, six miles from the airport. Swiss-born winemaker Jean-François Pellet was lured to Pepper Bridge from Napa and uses sustainable, cutting-edge techniques. Their standout, a dark yet balanced Cabernet Sauvignon, bursts with deep blackberry and plum. Be sure to stop at nearby Amavi Cellars. The tasting room is spectacular, the wines highly lauded.

Culture abounds in Walla Walla, which boasts 600 acres of parks (including Pioneer Park Aviary), three colleges, and a devoted theater and arts community. The Power House Theater hosts a variety of productions year-round. Photo courtesy Tourism Walla Walla.

Eastern Washington’s Malbecs are giving Argentina’s signature wines a run for their money—the climate here produces grapes with intense berry, black cherry, spicy licorice, and resiny herb textures. CAVU Cellars offers a 100-percent single-vineyard Malbec to decant now or save for later. Their Barbera Rosé stands out for its unusual use of Barbera grapes; it’s a dry rosé with nice acid and flavors of strawberry, orange blossom, and plum. CAVU Cellars is right on the airport property, in a building constructed during World War II that served as a warehouse for a B-17 training squadron. Several bottles of CAVU wine even made their way to former president and World War II aviator George H.W. Bush who, at age 20, was shot down over the Pacific while flying his TBM Avenger. (Check the link and photo captions for the rest of that story.)

Meanwhile, downtown Walla Walla is charming, old-fashioned, and chic at the same time—no wonder Sunset magazine chose it as “Best Main Street in the West.” Shady trees (beautifully lit at night), benches, brick-edged sidewalks, and outdoor art complement the 1890s–1920s Beaux arts buildings. The First Friday Art Tour occurs every first Friday, May through October, from 4 to 7 p.m. Art galleries, wine-tasting rooms, museums, boutiques, and espresso bars invite visitors to linger. Don’t miss Charles Smith Wines, an auto garage converted brilliantly into a tasting room. Smith resembles rocker Sammy Hagar and often hosts concerts and other events. The Powerhouse Theatre presents concerts and plays year-round. The Walla Walla Symphony dates to 1907, making it the longest-running symphony west of the Mississippi. The Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival is held in January; wineries host some performances.

The landmark Marcus Whitman hotel rises above all else in Walla Walla, both literally and figuratively. Photo by Greg Lehman.

The wine buzz has inspired several great chefs to relocate here, yet this former farm town hasn’t forgotten its roots. Much of Walla Walla’s culinary transformation can be credited to the saving of a 1904 brick furniture mill headed for demolition and its subsequent transformation into the Whitehouse-Crawford. Chef Jamie Guerin, formerly of Champagne in Seattle, segues easily from classic Oregon tenderloin with red wine sauce and mushrooms to braised tofu with lemongrass, ginger, and green garlic yakisoba noodles. At Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen, James Beard-nominated chef-owner Chris Ainsworth, formerly of the Fish Club in Seattle, presides over a nightly full house. Chef-owner Hanna McDonald’s Brasserie Four is French but not overly formal. She offers mostly French wines, but it’s her cooking that’s garnering attention. You’ll find escargot, oysters, and vichyssoise, but also pizzas and a fine local ham sandwich with Gruyere. Olive Marketplace and Café is a big, rambling, partly self-serve Italian deli with an excellent wine selection, outstanding pastry chef, locally roasted coffees, cozy balcony seating above the kitchen, and outdoor patio seating.

Wonderful Walla Walla accommodations can be found at the Inn at Abeja and Marcus Whitman Hotel; check photos and captions for details. Now is the time to see this new wine country for yourself. With over 100 wineries in the Walla Walla Valley, your biggest worry for your flight home might be your weight-and-balance calculations; you’ll have so many outstanding wines to choose from!

At Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen, the open kitchen, exposed brick walls, and tables made from champagne riddling racks provide a friendly atmosphere. Unusual appetizers include wood-grilled octopus with potatoes, cilantro, sweet onions, and preserved lemon, as well as lamb tartare, wood-grilled quail, or beef cheeks. Flatbreads and pastas are completely house-made. Bold entrees utilize include king salmon, duck, leg of lamb, and Wood-grilled, adobo-marinated Oregon hangar steak with fire-roasted fingerling potatoes and almond and caperberry salsa. Shown here are a selection of sweets. Photo courtesy Visit Walla Walla.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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