Remember when hippies in coveralls with a passion for unfiltered chardonnay ran the CA Napa Valley? Me neither. Those glorious heydays expired long before I could buy my own meal in a restaurant, let alone a vintage wine worth drinking. So it makes my hackles rise when the New York Times refers to Walla Walla as “Napa in Bluejeans,” as if one of Washington’s richest viticultural areas is like your rustic cousin who’s not sure which spoon to use with his vichyssoise.
Walla Walla is its very own AVA here in Washington state, sequestered in the south-eastern corner right next to Oregon, and produces some of the finest, well-structured wines on our local shelves. Mostly small producers and several estate wineries dot the map in a relatively compact area that lends itself to a weekend wine trip over the pass. I recently spent a glorious sunny weekend over in Walla Walla in the midst of the harvest/crush so now is absolutely the time to gas up the car and scoot over I-90.
Walla Walla is broken into roughly four geographic areas, so here are a few tips as you dip your toe into this terroir-rich region:
As you roll into town along HWY 12, you’ll encounter several wineries including L’Ecole No 41 in an old schoolhouse, and the sprawling lovely, expanse of Waterbrook Winery. All have parking and tasting rooms, so go ahead and stop in even before you get to your hotel. Better yet, save room in your trunk to load up on a few bottles on your way back out of town as wine dies in hot cars.
Not producing wines on your estate, but want to pour for the thirsty Walla Walla crowds? Many wineries have tasting rooms within short walking distance to each other in the quaint downtown district. You can hit up several like Mark Ryan, Rotie Cellars, and Trust Cellars without even breaking a sweat. Personally, I think Maison Bleue has the most beautiful, tranquil tasting room downtown. Tasting fees are often rolled right into the cost of a bottle if you decide to buy.
Insider Tip: Several tasting rooms are by appointment only, or you must accompany a wine club member to gain access. This is true of Corliss Estates and Doubleback. Plan ahead if there’s a specific wine or winery you’d like to try and make friends with club members by following event lists or signing up for updates.
Like Woodinville with its Warehouse District, Walla Walla has transformed several industrial buildings near the airport into wine incubators for fledgling producers and full-blown production facilities for others. Nearly two dozen winemakers are happy to showcase their vintages to you there, including K Vintners, Corvus Cellars, and Palencia Wine Company (with their incredibly well-priced $20 Cab Sav). Plenty of parking and lots to try.
Insider Tip: Walla Walla isn’t just wine; there are some great craft beer makers and distillers too. Give Shot in The Dark Craft Distillery a try if you’re looking for moonshine or a delicious Apple Pie liquor that would be perfect for Thanksgiving.
Heading back out of town and / or into Oregon you’ll find several more estate wineries. Think long rows of vines, huge chateau style buildings, and some of the most famous dirt in all of Walla Walla: The Rocks District. The Rocks District is a sub-appellation of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, which itself is a sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley AVA. This is one of the only AVAs where the boundaries are defined by the type of soil found there: cobblestones. The rocks impart a minerality to the grapes grown there found nowhere else in the world. If you’re lucky enough to try a wine from Cayuse Vineyards or Pepper Bridge Winery, you’ll see why the stones make the difference.
Insider Tip: Plenty of delicious wine still on the Washington side of the border. This author’s favorites can be found at Va Piano Vineyards and if you visit in the fall, you might still see fruit on the vines or production happening right in front of you at the facility.
If you feel like putting in a few hours on the road, or want to catch one of the few daily Alaska Airlines flights out of SeaTac, Walla Walla is a perfect getaway for PNW wine lovers. And here’s my last insider tip: There aren’t a ton of hotels in Walla Walla and motels might not be your thing, but in recent years dozens of new VRBO and Airbnb houses have opened their doors. If you get a few friends together you can enjoy Walla Walla on a budget, some with a full pool, hot tub, kitchen, and often times in historic adorable homes in this charming wine village.
Amy L. Dickson is a communications professional, freelance writer, and contributor to Rain or Shine Guides. She’s currently training at the NW Wine Academy for her Level 1 sommelier certification. Follow her at @amyldickson75.