Judging from the wares sold on Walla Walla’s charming Main Street, there’s one game in town. From a “Partners in Wine” tumbler to a “Sip Happens” baseball cap, these local shops are chockablock with all the wine-themed merch—coasters, napkins, tea towels, T-shirts—you could ever want.
Punny mementos aside, Walla Walla’s wine boom has transformed the eastern Washington town over the past few decades from a small agricultural and college town (Walla Walla is home to Whitman College, named for missionaries killed there in 1847) to an international oenophile destination. In the 1970s and ’80s, early wineries like Leonetti Cellar and L’Ecole No 41 began taking advantage of the region’s hot, Mediterranean-like summers, excellent for grape cultivation.
In the past 20 years, an explosion of new wineries and tasting rooms have joined those pioneering vineyards, and wine tourism has likewise grown. Standout spots include Sleight of Hand Cellars, Pepper Bridge Winery, Va Piano Vineyards and Brook & Bull Cellars, where winemaker Ashley Trout is raking in the awards, including a place on Wine Enthusiast’s Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers of 2018 list. The area is now home to some 120 wineries spread out over five districts; wine-tasting excursions are best arranged by district to maximize tasting and minimize driving, whether by you or whoever is handling transportation for your handy wine tour. (There is Uber, but when asked about the service’s reliability on a recent visit, locals answered, “Well, it’s still a small town, you know?”)
Eritage Resort serves vineyard views and seasonal dishes at the on-site restaurant. Photo by Fire & Vine Hospitality
Traditional charm with world-class service requires both preservation and innovation, which in Walla Walla’s case, means reclaiming spaces and collaborating across the Cascades. Passatempo Taverna, a partnership between Seattle-based pasta genius Mike Easton (of Il Corvo and Il Nido) and old-school Seattle cocktail guru Jim German, shares a downtown space with a tasting room for The Walls Vineyards. Walla Walla Steak Co. and Crossbuck Brewing serve stellar food in the old train depot. Whitehouse-Crawford, a longtime fine-dining standby and sister restaurant to the equally delicious Brasserie Four, is housed in an old mill.
Ashley Trout of Brook & Bull Cellars. Photo by Victoria Wright
For a more modern experience, Eritage Resort, with vineyards and Blue Mountain views, and located 10 minutes from downtown, opened in 2018 as a luxury accommodation option. The on-site restaurant offers sensational seasonal menus dreamed up by James Beard Award–winning chef Jason Wilson of local Fire & Vine Hospitality, which owns a cluster of Seattle-area restaurants, including Miller’s Guild and Aerlume. For an in-town lodging option, The Finch, which opened in October, is right on Main Street, within walking distance of all the downtown restaurants and shops, not to mention the neighborhood’s dozens of tasting rooms. It’s like the cocktail napkin says: “Wine goes in, fun comes out.”
DRINK IT IN
Equidistant from Seattle and Portland, the Tri-Cities, an hour’s drive west of Walla Walla, is coming into its own as a wine hot spot. Conveniently snuggled amid the state’s many American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), at the crossing of the Snake, Columbia and Yakima rivers, these three southern Washington cities—Kennewick, Pasco and Richland—are perfectly positioned to tap the 200 wineries within 50 miles. (The intense branding of “The Heart of Washington Wine Country” may raise eyebrows, sure, but in this case the maps don’t lie.)
For sippers, you’ll find players such as Frichette Winery, Kiona Vineyards and Col Solare Winery in nearby Benton City, and Barnard Griffin Winery and Monarcha Winery in Tri-Cities proper. For students, the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center, a state-of-the-art educational facility, recently opened in Richland; other interested parties can watch the goings-on from a special observation deck. If sustainable agriculture is your bag, Badger Mountain Vineyard/Powers Winery produces organic wines using solar power and biodiesel fuel.