Okay, so is it time for wine yet? This thought crossed my mind more than once, becoming a kind of mantra, as my husband and I cycled through the wheat fields around Walla Walla. Not that I wasn’t having a wonderful time exploring this southeast corner of our state, where the rolling hills are truly fields of gold in summer. But I felt I had already earned a little cheese, a little wine…more than a few miles back. I was ready to move on to sampling what this valley has become most noted for.
Today the Walla Walla valley is home to more than 100 wineries, and more than 1,500 acres of vineyards have become part of the agricultural landscape. In our four-day getaway I knew there was no way we’d get to all of them. But I planned to make a healthy dent. The Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance puts out a great map, which you can pick up at the tourism office in town if you want to plan your own visits, or you can go with one of the local tour companies. Several wineries have tasting rooms downtown, and a pleasant way to spend an afternoon is to take in some of the city’s many art galleries between tastings.
To visit actual wineries, we divided our self-guided tour into two parts, one by car and one by bike. Driving west from Walla Walla, we stopped at a number of wineries off Highway 12, including the charming L’Ecole No 41, which has been producing premium, handcrafted varietals in the historic Frenchtown School in Lowden since 1983. I’m quite partial to L’Ecole’s chardonnay. There are seven wineries out this way, and all but one are open daily. Check the wine map for hours.
A day later, we were back in the saddle and pedaling south on the Old Milton Highway toward Milton-Freewater in Oregon. Because you cross the state line a few miles out of town, you can feel like you’ve really accomplished something — even if you don’t ride all that far. And there are loads of wineries along this route, including Pepper Bridge Winery and Otis Kenyon Wines. Keep in mind that some of these wineries are a ways off the main road if you’re cycling. This is definitely farm country, which means there are quite a few roadside produce stands, depending on the season. We were lucky enough to be there during the cherry harvest.
There are half a dozen or so wineries east of town and quite a few are located out near the airport, including Dunham Cellars, which makes its home in a rustic, remodeled World War II-era airplane hangar. Dunham’s first vintage, a 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon, was deemed one of the finest wines made in Washington by Wine Enthusiast magazine. Subsequent vintages and varietals have also earned praise from wine writers and consumers.
So, with wineries in virtually every direction, you could spend days just tasting, which is why I recommend multiple visits. I’ve been told that one of the best times to be in Walla Walla is the first full weekend in December, when winemakers and cellar staffs provide samples of future releases straight from the barrel.
Of course, where there’s superb wine, fantastic food will follow. I saw this happen in the Northern California wine country where I grew up, and it’s happening in the Walla Walla valley as well. We were advised that Whitehouse-Crawford is the restaurant in town for ambience and excellent, farm-fresh cuisine, and we weren’t disappointed. Because Chef Jamie Guerin, formerly of the French restaurant Campagne in Seattle, is committed to buying from local growers, the menu changes with the seasons. Ours featured starters such as a basket of crispy fried Walla Walla sweet onions (the area’s other claim to fame) or warm spinach salad with smoked trout, bacon, grilled onions and mustard vinaigrette. For entrées, my husband chose the signature dish of Kobe American beef tenderloin steak with red wine sauce and mushrooms sautéed in foie gras butter, while I ordered Alaskan halibut wrapped in rice paper and roasted with sweet peas and ginger carrot sauce. Located in a hundred-year-old planing mill that was renovated in 2000, the restaurant is both comfortable and sophisticated. Diners will want to linger in the large, airy dining room with its old brick walls, whitewashed beams, red-fir floors and sepia-toned photos of the old mill.
There are plenty of other good restaurants in Walla Walla, but if you’re willing to venture out a bit, I’d definitely recommend the Whoopemup Café in Waitsburg, about a 30-minute drive away. Opened in 2004 by four restaurateurs from Seattle who turned an old, dilapidated building into a hip and cozy eating environment complete with a trellis-covered terrace for outside eating, the Whoopemup offers southern comfort food made with local ingredients. With classics such as cornbread, battered catfish, mac and cheese and chocolate Coca-Cola cake, the restaurant has become a local favorite. And just across the street, is the Jimgermanbar, specializing in cocktails and tapas-style plates. Owned by Jim German and Claire Johnson, who also own the Amo art gallery next door, it’s got an upscale urban bar look with a neighborhood pub personality.
Considering where to stay? There are a variety of places from which to pick a lodging that best suits your budget, taste and the kind of overall mood you’re after. The Marcus Whitman, where we rested our bicycle-weary bones, is Walla Walla’s only luxury hotel (I was in a pamper-me mood). Since opening in 1928, this majestic hotel in the city’s downtown has hosted such dignitaries and celebrities as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Louis Armstrong and Shirley Temple. It began to fall into disrepair in the ’70s, and in 1999 local entrepreneur Kyle Mussman, along with the City and Port of Walla Walla, restored and expanded the building to its original style and elegance.
For cozier quarters, there are plenty of bed-and-breakfasts in the area, and you can check them out on the city’s tourism Web site at www.wallawalla.org. If you’re inclined toward more of a rustic wine-country experience, try the Abeja Inn. Situated in the middle of the Abeja vineyard, the inn looks out toward the Blue Mountains. The private guesthouses are restored turn-of-the-century farmstead buildings (www.abeja.net).
No matter where you stay and how you decide to spend your time, you’ll find Walla Walla an entertaining yet relaxing place to escape. The valley wears its national and international renown for producing excellent wines modestly. Walla Walla is still an unassuming, small town where people greet each other on the street, where they sit on the porches of beautiful old homes on wide, tree-shaded streets and watch the world go by.
Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance
Tourism Walla Walla
HISTORY AT A GLANCE
Native American tribes, including the Cayuse, Nez Perce and Walla Walla, settled in the valley for its moderate climate, agriculture and terrain. In the 1800s, Italian immigrants to the region brought the tradition of growing, producing and drinking wine. The Blue Mountain Vineyard was the first post-prohibition winery in the area. Leonetti Cellar pioneered the partnership of young wineries in the 1970s, including the labels of Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole No. 41, Waterbrook Winery and Seven Hills Vineyard. In 1984, the Walla Walla wine region was federally recognized as an American Viticultural Area (AVA), claiming the third Washington state AVA at the time.
Historic Home Tour
The Walla Walla Foundry
Visit them at 109 Ward Rd, Dayton, 509-382-1917, www.monteilletcheese.com.
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