About 30 minutes from Walla Walla, I begin to wonder if I’ve made a wrong turn.
I’m surrounded by wheat fields and silos, without a grapevine, or even a sweet onion, the state vegetable, in sight. And that continues into town. A sign on the freeway announces that I have indeed made it. I really shouldn’t be surprised. Walla Walla is known for its downtown tasting rooms. You lose the romance of meandering through vineyards but gain the convenience of being able to walk from one winery to the next. Indeed, amidst the wheat fields is a worthy long weekend escape for wine and food lovers.
Arriving late in the day, I decide to survey the town. It’s easy to spot Cayuse on Main Street, with it’s now expected “Sold Out” sign in the window. Cayuse is one of Walla Walla’s pioneering wineries and with a mailing list of 3,500 members, the wines are sold out long before they are even made. I then stumble upon The Thief, an excellent wine shop that also has a smart selection of wine, beer, and cider available by the glass. Yes, I’m in Walla Walla, but it’s tough to turn down a glass of Champagne.
I head for dinner at Hattaway’s. Established in 2018, it claims to bring the cooking traditions of Southeast and rural America to Walla Walla. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily accurate as the southern flair is quite subtle, but the food is solid and the service warm and attentive. I especially enjoy the shared small plates like the roasted bone marrow, chips and dip (the addition of salmon roe is sublime), and whole pig charcuterie. There’s also a delicious, crisp celery parmesan salad to balance out the richness. And there’s Betz Family Winery cabernet sauvignon on the wine list to wash it all down.
The next morning, I start my first day of wine touring at Spring Valley Vineyard. The winery itself is open seasonally on Saturdays, but their downtown Walla Walla tasting room is open year-round. The winery got its start when the Derby family partially planted their wheat farm to grapes in 1993. The brand was subsequently acquired by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in 2005. Although the winery primarily focuses on Bordeaux red varieties, the standout of the tasting is the 2016 Nina Lee Syrah (USD$50). Cofermented with 6 percent viognier, the wine has bright floral aromatics that complement the ripe, dark fruit and spicy pepper notes.
A short walk away is Rotie Cellars, whose intimate tasting room is open by appointment. As the name suggests, the winery is decidedly inspired by the Rhône, both north and south. All of the wines are well made, but I’m particularly drawn to the 2017 Northern Blend (95% syrah, 5% viognier; USD$48), which is sourced from The Rocks District AVA. There’s real precision to the dense black fruit, and it straddles the line between the new and old world with its savoury complexity.
Then, it’s back to the car for a short journey out of town to Long Shadows. I find the winery in the middle of a seemingly endless wheat field, again, no vines in sight. Founded by former Chateau Ste. Michelle CEO, Allen Shoup, each wine is produced in collaboration with a who’s who list of winemaking consultants, from Michel Rolland to Philippe Melka, all with long shadows. As you might expect, the wines come across as more style-driven than terroir-driven, but the 2017 Poet’s Leap Riesling, by German winemaker Armin Diel, feels less forced and is an excellent value at USD$20.
The following morning, ready for a big breakfast ahead of another day of wine tasting, I head to Bacon & Eggs. The coffee is serviceable, but the Huevos Con Chorizo is what I look for in a kickass breakfast. The wait staff is personable, and it’s the type of place that could quickly turn into your regular Sunday brunch hangout, complete with a Bloody Mary or two.
Afterwards, I do the short walk to Gramercy Cellars, which is in an industrial part of town. Unassuming from the outside, the unsigned tasting room is small but thoughtfully designed. More importantly, the wines are the highlight. The 2018 Olsen Vineyard Rosé (52% cinsault, 26% grenache, 22% syrah; $25USD) is more Provençal than a lot of the rosés coming out of Provence. Beautifully balanced, it is precise and refreshing with a long finish. It just gets better from there. The syrahs, bolstered by a significant percentage of stem inclusion, are spicy and meaty, with vibrant acidity and fine tannins. It’s a shame to pick just one, but the 2015 Columbia Valley Syrah (USD$36) is a perfect introduction. Don’t think Gramercy is all about Rhone varieties, however. The 2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (USD$50) is easily the top cabernet sauvignon I tried on the trip. It is ripe, herbal in the best possible way, and remarkably mineral-driven.
From there, it’s back in the car to head to a few wineries south of town, and, finally, my first glimpse of vineyards. Pepper Bridge focuses on Bordeaux varieties from estate-grown fruit, and the wines are solid across the board. I liked the floral and bright red currant notes of the 2016 Trine (USD$65), a cabernet franc dominant blend. Nearby is Valdemar Estates, Walla Walla’s first non-American owned winery, led by Rioja’s Valdemar Family. Tasting Washington syrah next to Gran Reserva Rioja, and paired with a menu of Spanish tapas, makes for a unique, if slightly confusing, experience. The winery just opened, and the buzz is considerable, but there’s probably some kinks to work out here.
Before departing for home the next morning, I go to Andrae's Kitchen, a consistent recommendation from locals. It’s best described as a diner located in a gas station, but I can’t think of a better breakfast than smoked brisket hash after a few days of wine touring.
And that about sums up three days in Walla Walla. It may not be what you are expecting, but chances are, it will exceed your expectations.
Where to Stay
Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center – 6 W Rose St, Walla Walla
The Finch – 325 E Main St, Walla Walla
Abeja Winery & Inn – 2014 Mill Creek Rd, Walla Walla
Where to Eat
Hattaway’s on Alder – 125 W Alder St, Walla Walla
Passatempo Taverna – 215 W Main St, Walla Walla
Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen – 330 W Main St, Walla Walla
Brasserie Four – 4 E Main St, Walla Walla
Bacon and Eggs – 57 E Main St, Walla Walla
Andrae’s Kitchen – 706 W Rose St, Walla Walla
Wineries To Visit
Spring Valley Vineyard – 2 E Rose St, Walla Walla
Rotie Cellars – 31 E Main St #216, Walla Walla
Long Shadows – 1604 Frenchtown Rd, Walla Walla
Gramercy Cellars – 635 N 13th Ave, Walla Walla
Valdemar Estates – 3808 Rolling Hill Lane, Walla Walla
Tamarack Cellars – 700 C St, Walla Walla
Kontos Cellars – 10 N 2nd Ave, Walla Walla
K Vintners – 820 Mill Creek Rd, Walla Walla
Abeja Winery & Inn – 2014 Mill Creek Rd, Walla Walla