Walla Walla is certainly a charmer. That it has rebranded from state penitentiary and sweet onions to wine destination speaks volumes of its citizens. “Walla Walla” means “land of many waters,” but locals love to tell the one about “the town so nice they named it twice.” The downtown corridor has benefitted from recent revitalization efforts, with more in the works.
A proliferation of public art, particularly sculptures, verifies the town’s connection with the Walla Walla Foundry, an arts space that attracts internationally renown artists. And the steady pulse of sunlight in the wide-open skies is icing on the cake for wine lovers visiting from mossier parts of the state.
To get there:
You could drive the 4½ hours to the state’s southeast corner, but daily flights on Alaska Airlines take less than an hour and are relatively inexpensive. Plus, the amazing “Taste and Tote” program allows free tasting access to more than 70 wineries with a boarding pass and Alaska Airlines ships the first case of wine home for free onboard your flight.
The historic Marcus Whitman Hotel is an obvious choice. The red brick polestar is the tallest building in town, making for easy sight reference, and the rooms are spacious and comfortably appointed. Don’t miss the complete Whitman story, illustrated in oil paintings, on the second floor. Glamping enthusiasts should set their sights on the shiny Airstream fleet at Chillville near the airport, where “vintages meet vintage.” Cameo Heights Mansion serves romantics who favor the communal qualities of a B&B — each room is inspired by a different country (Italy, France, etc.) and boasts fabulous luxuries such as high thread-count sheets and the fluffiest towels known to man. But if the party is bound to get wild, groups (16-20) need look no further than the Basel Cellars Estate House. The eight-bedroom log behemoth features several in-house bars, antler chandeliers, a full-service nightclub and a stadium-seating theater room — not to mention the outdoor pool with a waterslide.
Walla Walla has been wine country since the 1970s, when Leonetti Cellar planted its first grape cuttings (cabernet sauvignon and riesling, if you were curious). With more than 120 active wineries, not even the most champion sip-and-spitter could experience them all in one trip. Download the wine tour app at wallawalla.mobilewinetour.com.
The Westside winery district features Walla Walla’s wine founding fathers at L’Ecole and Woodward Canyon with side-by-side tasting rooms separated by a scenic plot of vines. Reininger Winery offers both Reininger and Helix label pours spanning the astounding range of varietals grown in the region. Sippers who love a hidden gem will adore Bunchgrass Winery — the tasting room is a repurposed milk gallery simply adorned with poetry books, neon signage and the warm sound of vinyl spinning.
Cross the border into Oregon to sample one of the Southside wineries such as Dusted Valley Vintners, named 2013 Wine & Spirits Winery of the Year. Balboa and Beresan Winery are like kissing cousins with adjacent tasting rooms, a shared winemaker and a shared grower, yet the wines are surprisingly different.
Near the airport on Walla Walla’s Eastside, a hip new tasting district housed in WWII-era military buildings is part of the Port of Walla Walla Incubator Project. More than 20 wineries call the district home, including Five Star Cellars and Tamarack Cellars. A bit farther east into the beautiful Mill Creek growing area, you’ll find Walla Walla Vintners flanked by lavender fields and àMaurice Cellars situated on the slopes of the Blue Mountains.
Even without renting a car, visitors can do plenty of wine tasting downtown. In fact, guests at the Marcus Whitman Hotel can taste at TERO Estates, Trio Vintners, Mansion Creek Cellars and Waters Winery without even leaving the building! Spokane Street may be undergoing a facelift at the moment, but it’s worth venturing to Charles Smith Wines even if only to adore the badass labels. Boutique producer Cadaretta may offer only a few options per year, but wine club members just may get a chance to attend an event at the Cadaretta Glass House with sweeping 360-degree views of the Blue Mountains and vineyards as far as the eye can see. Perhaps the most beautiful tasting room belongs to Seven Hills Winery housed in the historic Whitehouse-Crawford woodworking mill. If you tire of wine, enjoy a good pint of suds at Mill Creek Brewpub or Public House 124.
Amply proportioned breakfasts are a specialty at the family-friendly Maple Counter Café, where a bell is chimed when a customer orders the apple pancake, a cinnamon-glazed circle of not-gonna-be-hungry-ever-again goodness. Located near Whitman College, Bacon & Eggs is an obvious local favorite, even on weekdays. Migas with a side of thick-cut bacon ought to help the morning start off right. Check out the wall of hot sauces, too.
Pack the ultimate picnic with the help of Salumiere Cesario, a foodie’s dream grocery store. Choose from charcuterie meats, fresh breads, premium olive oils and a nice selection of fromage in the walk-in cheese closet. Whatever you do, don’t miss Andrae’s Kitchen, which is located inside a gas station convenience store. This is as unpretentious as it comes in wine country, but don’t let the lowbrow location fool you. Everything, including breads and pastries, is prepared fresh and in-house: Pork-belly tacos, corn salad, Cuban sandwiches, gourmet hot dogs and even ramen and beignets. You can also order these delectables at the restaurant’s food truck.
Elegant dinner spots abound, including Whitehouse-Crawford Restaurant (next to Seven Hills Winery) and modern accents at The Marc Restaurant inside the hotel. Reserve ahead for a spot at the Mediterranean hot spot Saffron. Chef Chris Ainsworth and his wife, Island, also run Pho Sho next door, one of the few Asian cuisine eateries in town.
Sure, you came for the wine, but Walla Walla isn’t a one-trick pony. Walk off that apple pancake with a downtown walking tour of public art. Walla Walla is home to dozens of sculptures — nearly every street corner seems adorned with bronze. Bike rentals are available at Allegro Cyclery. History buffs should make a point to visit the Whitman Mission and the Fort Walla Walla Museum. Hike at Harris Park along the Walla Walla River — bring a fishing pole and a pair of binoculars for bird watching. Hit the links at one of two public golf courses or get in three holes for free at Three Rivers Winery. If the kids are rebelling against yet another tasting room, give them a sweet reprieve at Bright’s Candies on Main Street right after fulfilling those promised bribes at Inland Octopus Toy Store. Stop by the Tourism Walla Walla window next to Starbucks on Main Street for more ideas and information.