Walla Walla: 21 Reasons to Visit This Year
August 17, 2009 by Wino
Last year, we asked celebrity wine reviewer Gary Vaynerchuk what he thought of Washington wines, and in his reply, he told us that Walla Walla, Washington was the most exciting thing happening to wine in the country. It’s true that Walla Walla has cultivated a reputation for wine, leading some to speculate that it’s quickly becoming the Napa Valley of Washington State, but could Walla Walla live up to its reputation? To find out, we headed deep into Walla Walla wine country, exploring like Lewis and Clark, but with teeth just a few shades more purple.
Walla Walla is not what you would expect from an agrarian community. The architecture alone is a huge surprise as you come driving in through the golden wheat fields, a time capsule of perfectly preserved brick and mortar reminiscing days gone by.
In 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition trampled through the Northwestern edge of Walla Walla, and then came back through the heart of Walla Walla Valley on their way home. Fur traders established a thriving trading post there, and later, in 1836, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman traipsed up the Oregon Trail and established a mission among the Cayuse Indians, which lasted for eleven years before the Cayuse attacked the mission killing the Whitmans and others.
During the gold rush, Walla Walla became a vibrant urban center, establishing the first commercial bank in the Northwest and the first college in the region. It was the largest city in the Washington Territory, and the turn-of-the-century architecture demonstrates how grand a time it must have been.
Eventually, Washington became a bona fide state, and the official capitol was established in Olympia. Walla Walla was circumvented when the transcontinental railroad was built, and later, the interstate freeway steered clear as well. Walla Walla settled into farming as a way of life, but they were left with a stunning city
as a memorial of high times.
How fortunate, then, that as Walla Walla reached celebrity status in the wine world, it was already prepared to wow the legions of wine tourists that now descend upon the Valley each year in droves.
The first winery in the area was established in 1977, and Walla Walla Valley became Washington’s second AVA in 1984, when there were still only four wineries within its boundaries. Now, there are well over a hundred wineries, and 1,500 acres of vineyards. It’s impossible to see everything on even an extended weekend, but we can tell you from first hand experience, it’s well worth a try. Here are 21 reasons why you should give it a shot.
1. The Winery Incubator
Just like the name would imply, the Incubator is a series of facilities leased out to young wineries trying to get a break into the showbiz of Walla Walla wine country. Cheery, quaint and identical in their construction, it’s reminiscent of the neighborhoods in Edward Scissorhands, and you might find something just as extraordinary inside one or all of them.
Owner and winemaker Trey Busch entertains patrons with gusto and infectious excitement. The tasting
room, located right downtown on 2nd Ave and Main Street, is painted a deep, candied red and decorated with vintage magic show posters along with the labels of his handful of brands. “Magician’s Assistant,” his 2008 Rosé, presents strawberry, cream and a fine bit of tanginess that raises the bar. Trey will also take requests for music from his vinyl collection. (We picked Wilco.)
TRY: The Spellbinder for its QPR (Quality Price Ratio)
Picked up by the value-savvy company Precept Wine Brands, Waterbrook is a sleek and sexy roadside attraction off of Highway 12 just before reaching town. Waterbrook’s wines are notable for their consistency and value, making it a good stop when you’re pinching pennies. Taste through the entire catalog, about a dozen wines plus two reserve wines for free. If you’re looking to play “wine snob” on your trip to Walla Walla, which can be quite a bit of fun, you can do it on the cheap at Waterbrook.
TRY: As much as you have time for
Fairly new-on-the-scene winemaker Josh McDaniels only recently turned 21, though he has been making wine since he was just a tyke—his first wine was released before he graduated high school. McDaniels and his wines benefit from the tutelage of the likes of Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellars and Don Redman of Mannina Cellars, which doesn’t mean much more than the kid’s held in good company. The Double Barrel Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a dash of Syrah, is big, balanced, fun to drink and priced to drink now at just $20.00. Keep it up, Josh.
TRY: Double Barrel red ($20)
5. Ash Hollow Winemaker
Tony Lombardo met us in his tasting room (next to Sleight of Hand) just as he was about to ride his bike home. “I love living in a small city. My commute is four blocks!” Tony makes premium wine from the sixty-four acre Ash Hollow Vineyard located just outside of Walla Walla. Try to catch Tony if you can.
TRY: 2006 Nine Mile Blend ($22) and the 2006 Malbec Reserve for its “awesome factor” of about 9 ($42)
Walla Walla’s little slice of Old World charm, Merchants serves the best little pizzas in town, and they’ll deliver them right next door to Sapolil Cellars. Not feeling like pie? Fresh made sandwiches, soups, and deli-case salads are also available, all of which can be enjoyed at patio seating on the sidewalk out front. It’s a great break for sustenance while trying to plow through the scads of tasting rooms downtown.
This popular downtown bar is a favorite of local wine industry folks. For instance, while having a beer and discussing the day’s tour, we met William vonMetzger, a winemaker for the award winning Walla Walla Vintners and his own partnership venture, Bunchgrass Winery. It just so happened that Vintage Cellars had one of Bill’s wines open and ready to taste. Thanks, Vintage Cellars and hats off to you, vonMetzger.
TRY: Cold beer after a long, hot day of wine.
8. Silence is Golden
Roughly two million of Washington’s 6.5 million residents deal with a near constant barage of “white noise.” Cars, planes, sirens and the old man across the hall, all creating a wall of static that, once you get used to it, becomes just part of the landscape. But it’s no match for the silence and serenity of country: the Wall of White comes crashing down, leaving you without but the sound of birds, bugs and your thoughts.
TRY: Not to screw it up with your yammering.
Part of the airport winery district north of town, this stop was a bit of a dark horse for us on this trip. In a posh tasting room, Patit Creek had a very helpful staff who was anxious to answer questions and keep the pours coming.
TRY: 2007 Zinfindel, the only Zin in from the Walla Walla AVA ($28) and the 2006 Trinite Southern Rhone Blend ($25)
10. Tamarack Cellars
Tamarack is known for its Firehouse Red, a concoction of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sangiovese, Carménère and Petite Verdo. They also trade fruit with an Oregon winery for a bit of Pinot Noir, allowing for them to offer a unique taste on the Walla Walla wine trail. However, the crowd favorite was the Candy Mountain Vineyard Sangiovese, as was the 2006 DuBrul Vineyard Reserve, a blend of Cab, Merlot and Cab Franc ($50), showing as a heavy-weight among the more medium-bodied wines on the tasting bar.
TRY: To find a wine that has NOT won a prestigious award of some kind. Betcha can’t.
Five Star offers a really interesting bottle for those who like their wines—Petite Verdot. From the impact, density and seriousness of the wine, it seems as if they’re having a good amount of success. You might liken a PV program that lets the fruit do its thing to the obnoxious uncle who shows up to family reunions on his Harley, rough around the edges, full of stories and the life of the party. Too soft and he’d be just another annoying poseur with $30,000 to burn. Too hard and he’d probably be under surveillance for running drugs. PV can be the most exciting wine you’ll try this year but you’ll have to be ready to put up with some unique characteristics.
TRY: 2006 Petit Verdot/Cabernet Franc ($38)
12. Va Piano, “To go slowly”
There’s a lot of buzz surrounding Va Piano these days and for good reason. (As of this writing, winemaker Justin Wylie is winning an online contest as one of the sexiest winemakers in the region. Oh, la la!) The Va Piano Estate Winery and tasting room are the real deal, settled among estate vines and built with Italian-inspired architecture that would make Manfredo Tafuri get a little misty. The wines are velvety and rich, structured yet playful.
13. Sapolil Cellars
The tasting room, which is more of a wine bar than a mere tasting space, is nestled right in the very heart of the downtown Walla Walla. Jazz club by night, you can order Sapolil’s wines by the glass while groovin’ to the tunes of Papa Loves Mambo, the namesake of one of their signature wines which features an artistic rendition of the band on the cover, er, label.
TRY: Something from the library, if you can get in good with a friend of the winemaker like we did.
14. The Inside Scoop
You can’t swing a spit bucket in Walla Walla without hitting a winemaker. The best way to exploit this overpopulation of grape wranglers is by picking said winemaker’s brain about other local efforts that they’re excited about. Winemakers are generally pretty good about promoting the good juice and strong efforts of their colleagues. They’re just cool like that. Of course, you should try their wine as well.
TRY: Shouting, “Is there a winemaker in the house?” and see what happens.
15. K Vintners
Local wine guru Paul Gregutt recently gave Charles Smith’s Royal City Syrah (Stoneridge vineyard) 100 points. You’ll likely never taste that wine in the tasting room, but you can taste many of his other awesome, bombastic, bigger-than-life efforts. Chances are you won’t meet the man himself but you’ll probably get to shake hands with his Number Two, Mr. Andrew Latta. The K “Kompound” is really rather modest with a farm house, a barn-turned-winery, and a giant oak tree in the yard, perfect for napping the day away after touring the dozens of Airport wineries.
16. Walla Walla Sweets
Sweet Onions are in season, which means you can get a ten-pound bag for just five bucks. It’s enough to make you want to cry, but you won’t.
TRY: The answer is in the question.
17. Basel Cellars
Estate Wonderland Driving up the Seussian driveway to Basel Cellars, you arrive at the summit to something akin to the Neverland Valley Ranch, minus the Ferris Wheel and circus animals. With breathtaking buildings inspired by national park lodges sprawling across the hilltop and a tasting room to match, we would have felt like we were sipping wines after a day on the slopes at a luxury ski resort, if it wasn’t for the buck-five temperatures outside.
TRY: 2006 “Merriment” Estate Red Wine ($48)
18. Trust Cellars
One of the wineries south of town, you can do a side-by-side of Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley syrahs. De-lish. Follow the signs through the vineyards, and you’ll arrive at the tasting room and facility. You may even find winemaker Steve Brooks behind the counter, pouring his wines and livin’ the dream.
TRY: Rosé of Cab Franc. It’s a great way to get refreshed before moving in on the big reds.
19. Saviah Cellars
Another south-of-town winery, Saviah has more wines to try in the tasting room than you can shake a glass at. What’s even better? They’re good. With so much wine housed inside the airy warehouse-style tasting space, you might pause for a couple extra “splashes” of your favorites before heading back out into the sun.
TRY: The Jack Columbia Valley Red Blend. While you’ll easily find this value wine at your local supermarket, only in the tasting room will you hear the story behind its name.
Gas is still just $2.80 per gallon. Zoom zoom.
DO NOT TRY: Fried gas-station food as you’re filling up one last time before leaving town.
When we first inquired about staying in the Juniper Guest House in Walla Walla, we thought it might be a nice change from the cheap motels we often stay in when wine-travelling. Typically, lodging is merely a place to catch some Z’s between checking out the local night life and hitting the wine trail again in the morning, but this time, we thought it would be a good idea to find shelter in a place befitting the history and growing prestige of Walla Walla.
The Juniper Guest House not only exceeded our wildest expectations, but made our expectations seem diminutive by comparison.
With five luxurious bedrooms, posh living and dining rooms, and a front porch inspiring lazy, lemonade afternoons, we found ourselves moving from room to room, wagging our heads in wonder. In the evening, as the sun set and temperatures began to wan, we relaxed in the back yard with a bottle of the day’s spoils, thinking that life just doesn’t get any better.
A classic house built in 1909, the Juniper Guest house is owned and has been fully furnished by John Sterlin and Vince Harris, who also own Romanza Gifts with locations in both Ballard and Walla Walla. John and Vince bought the house so that they’d have a place to stay when visiting their family and their store there, and they plan to someday retire in the house, but for the present, they decided it would be a good idea to rent the place out when they weren’t there. But now the Juniper Guest House has built such a reputation, that John and Vince have trouble finding an opening to stay in their own house. We just got lucky. Very lucky
Touring around Walla Walla wine country by day, and retiring to lavish comfort at night, the Juniper Guest House made for a weekend fit for kings.