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.
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.
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 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!
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