Over the past week I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time tasting and spending time in Walla Walla.
Washington has what is probably America’s fastest growing wine region and from a quality standpoint, Walla Walla, a town of about 30,000 (the county is about twice as big) is its epicenter.
There’s some household names that call Walla Walla home (more on most of these later); Cayuse, Leonetti, Longshadow, Woodward Canyon, Doubleback and K Vintners and while I visited some of those, I focused on some lesser known names.
Walla Walla is a great visit, it’s been called among America’s 10 best wine travel destinations by Wine Spectator, America’s best 10 small towns by Fodor’s Magazine and as America’s Friendliest Small Town by Rand McNally…..all that praise, even if it isn’t the easiest town in the world to get to.
Getting to Walla Walla gives you two main options, first you can fly directly into Walla Walla on Alaska Airlines via their partner Frontier (don’t ask me to explain how these relationships work, for some reason airlines continue to be among the most complicated business arrangements in the world, but I digress). Every flight from Walla Walla’s regional airport goes to, or from, Seattle. It’s about a 45 minute flight. The airport is named a “regional airport” and handles about 200 passengers per day. The other option, in my opinion, is less appealing, it includes a flight to either Seattle or Portland and then driving about 5 hours to Walla Walla. Before that whole 200 passengers per day thing scares you off, the plane on both of my flights was a good size….you know, 2 seats on both sides of the aisle (evidently, that’s a recent upgrade from the 1 seat and not being able to stand straight up in the aisle type of plane). Yes, you get to walk on the tarmac to board and deboard of course and there really isn’t anything along the lines of carry on baggage, you stow anything that rolls under the plane once you’re out on the tarmac, where you retrieve it after landing. For some perhaps more accustomed to flying out of SFO these days, it was kind of fun. Plus, the trip gives you a great chance to see Mt Rainer out the window. On the way home, which was a clear day, I was struck by seeing the mountain clearly higher than out plane. You aren’t especially close since the mountain is about 50 miles south of Seattle, but it truly is a majestic sight.
The better news: the Walla Walla airport is only a few miles from downtown, where you should plan on staying. The drive, reportedly is pretty nice and I spent enough time driving around on highway 12 to say that yes, you’d be able to drive it pretty easy. It reminds me more of the Thruway in western New York than any California roadway in either Northern or Southern California, two lanes on both sides and courteous drivers.
Walla Walla sits in eastern Washington, about 50 miles from the Idaho border and only a few miles from Oregon. It’s technically in the Columbia Valley AVA, which is both massive and one of the few AVA’s in America that straddles two states: in this case Oregon and Washington.
Walla Walla reminds me a bit of Paso Robles in that the wine industry has made some significant investments into their facilities and into promotion of their industry and the wider tourism industry has started to benefit from those investments, without having made the same level of investments as of yet. The local tourism industry in Walla Walla has been growing at close to 10% per year, among the very highest rates in all of Washington (eastern Washington as a whole has grown at about 3% per year) and that’s basically all being driven by the wine industry.
There’s very clear signs of progress as well. First, downtown storefronts which some locals pegged at 40% vacant 10 years ago are basically all full and downtown is starting to creep out of its normal boundaries, sucking up real estate that’s pretty clearly been underdeveloped for some time.
It’s still the Pacific Northwest though and not California, so wheat is more common than are grapes at this point:
There’s also all the signs of a vibrant local wine scene, walkable tasting rooms, restaurants focused on local ingredients and a combination of local clothing stores and interesting gift shops. According to everyone I talked to, those affiliated with the wine industry and not, those are fairly recent changes and they can almost completely attributed to the wine industry and the foot traffic that wineries have brought to the area. There’s a good feeling to Walla Walla right now, both from those within the industry and those outside of it. I had people chat with me about life, business and my trip quite a few places but my favorite conversations happened each morning at the local coffee shop, Coffee Perk Perhaps that’s partially since I’m not a local and Starbucks has a better location only 2 doors down on the corner of Main Street (Starbucks says they want to be on the corner of Main & Main…always are and that’s true here as well)….but local spots are always more fun anyway and there’s Starbucks at the airport. Coffee Perk was great and deserves the local attention that it receives btw. I’d certainly go back.
One thing I was immensely interested in talking to people about before arriving was how the locals viewed the wine industry. In Sonoma and Santa Barbara County (specifically Los Olivos) there’s some significant push back between locals whom are not affiliated with the wine industry and those who own wineries and generally have jobs supported by the visitors that wineries bring. There’s always debate on how many concerts, private events and how many people should be allowed in and out of winery properties. In Walla Walla, it’s interesting to note that those conversations aren’t happening yet. Maybe they’re in a bit of honeymoon phase, the locals not affiliated with the industry are enjoying having new restaurants and the new facilities that $120M in tourist revenue brings to Walla Walla. After all, in a town of this size, having a handful of world class restaurants, is a feather in your cap, not something to complain about. Will the vibe change as more hotels open, when people see their neighbor’s renting their homes on AirBnb and as traffic continues to worsen? I hope not and this is one of the few places I’ve been, that seems almost collegiate in their rooting for each other.
Walla Walla also has a long history of supporting a number of different projects that the town should really be proud of. There’s three post secondary options locally (Walla Walla University, a City College and a private school, Whitman) and the town is very proud to have the longest running Symphony west of the Mississippi River. When people heard I lived in San Francisco, they almost universally mentioned the symphony, I had that happen on at least 5 occasions. There’s also a baseball team called the Sweets which plays independent Northern League, which I was bummed to find out was out of town during my time in Walla Walla. Independent league teams aren’t affiliated with an MLB parent, but given how fun and eclectic minor league games have been in the past including both Buffalo at AAA and Lake Elsinore at A ball, I would have loved to see the fun at an independent league game. Those are the spots where plenty of interesting people have built their marketing chops. Plus, I can’t complain about going into a shop on Main Street to buy my son a hat and seeing a sign for “Front Office Staff” down the hall to the left. Smaller teams make for better access and having the team in town, is a nice entertainment option.
I opted to stay at the Courtyard Marriott, the newest hotel in and around Walla Walla (for comparison, the flight crew evidently stays at the Clarion, which I only know because my shuttle and theirs were the last to arrive) and there’s a few other options in the 2 and 3 star hotel range. As it currently stands, I’m not aware of a truly high end hotel in Walla Walla. No Four Seasons, no swanky Bed & Breakfast) My Marriott, as you’d expect from the brand, was comfortable, well appointed and offered a full set of amenities….including wine tasting my last night in the lobby. It was also only a block off of Main Street, although it was a couple of blocks down from the main set of restaurants, tasting rooms and the like. It’s an easy walk, but I’m accustomed to walking, some people I guess, wouldn’t love the idea of walking 6 blocks to dinner, especially given the heat (it was over 100 degrees during my trip). But, this is a walkable choice, especially if you’re driving during the day.
So, my general impressions of Walla Walla: it’s a fun and interesting small town. I’ll remember that virtually everyone that I met, was incredibly nice. Like seriously nice. Not fake nice, but generally we want to make sure everyone here has a good trip nice. Hell, the TSA agent at the airport on my way home, checked in to make sure I had enjoyed my trip and wished me well on my trip home. As an example, at the close of every meeting that I have for Uncorked Ventures, I ask winemakers or whomever I am meeting with, what other local stuff they drink. Normally, winemakers tell me about their other side projects and about other projects that their former co-workers have going. That’s really helpful. They also tend to give me a list of places that I should skip, for any variety of reasons.
Legitimately, no one in Walla Walla ever gave me that second list of wineries I should skip. There also didn’t seem to be a difference between newer winemakers and the original wave of folks. People referred me to places that I should visit, across all of Walla Walla, often offering to call and see if someone could see me, even if their tasting room was not suppose to be open. There’s a real camaraderie here that’s not entirely apparent in other regions (like I said though, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara continue to be the exception there, instead of the rule).
The wine scene in Walla Walla is often described as existing in four distinct regions. There’s the west side, which is home to the oldest wineries in Walla Walla. There’s about 30 downtown tasting rooms. There’s a group of start up wineries around the airport that make up the famed incubator. Lastly, there’s the east side wineries.
I spent time in all four regions and although the locals seemed to think they were all mutually exclusive, there’s only a few miles (at most) separating one region from another. Given that downtown Napa is 10 miles from Yountville, with much worse traffic, I’d consider these all easily accessible from each other. Considering that most of the local wineries are sourcing grapes (there’s very, very few estate vineyards in the region) location tells you a bit about the winery’s size and history, but little about what’s going to end up in your glass. That’s certainly a unique feature about Walla Walla, I think it’s at least partially driven by the farming heritage in the region. After all, why spend the money on a vineyard, wait 5 years for the fruit to be usable, another 5 for it to be up to your standards, when you buy it, by the acre tomorrow? The by the acre sale of grapes is another thing that I heard repeatedly from winemakers on my trip. Yields in Walla Walla Valley are lower than they are in California. That’s partially because it gets pretty damn cold at time, even snowing a couple of times per year. But, it’s also because it gets so hot during the summer, wine grapes, contrary to what most people believe, don’t grow much when it’s over 90 degrees. In essence they shut down, unlike say the table grapes that we’re buying locally at a $1 per pound right now. Buying by the acre gives winemakers complete control over how to farm them, what chemicals, if any, they want used and usually how much to water (the grower will of course not let them water so little, as to kill the vines!). In my opinion and experience that’s a better setup for world class wine than buying by the ton.
The west side wineries gave Walla Walla its start. Unlike in regions like Napa Valley, you can still spend time with the winemakers and vineyard owners who literally brought grapes back to Walla Walla. As an example, Ren
These are most of the household names in the industry these days. I spent about three hours at Reningher with a variety of folks within the winery. Name founder and winemaker Chuck Reininger took a tremendous amount of time to chat, about both his wines, as well as the wider Walla Walla Valley as well. Reneingher is a great example of what’s happening in Walla Walla and I’ll be writing about my visit there in more detail soon, but their Reininger label is exclusively from Walla Walla fruit, while a second label allows them to source from the rest of the Columbia Valley.
At the airport, you have one of the most unique and innovative setups in the wine industry. A set of old World War II buildings, some in significant states of disrepair (reportedly, the first winery into each of these buildings is footing a $30,000 bill to get the thing turned into a normal wine production space). The good news is that costs for wineries now are really reasonable and sites offer enough space for production and a small tasting room, all told right under 2,000 square feet. Many of the wineries in this section share tasting room staff and given the incubator approach that is being taken on by the Port of Walla Walla (the land owner) and the local community college and their 2 year viticulture program, you have a way to start a winery, if you want to. It’s exactly the type of setup that someone would do well to offer in literally every wine region in California and Oregon as well btw. Specifically Santa Barbara county where land around Buellton is still affordable makes sense. The model would resonate hugely in San Francisco of course…..but land’s likely so expensive as to make the startup costs too high for all but the best funded newly trained winemakers.
On the east side, there’s an unusual combination of older, established names and then some names which are just coming into focus as major brands now. I had the opportunity to taste through the wines at Sleight of Hand Cellars, a name that came highly recommended across the board and was impressed by much of what I tasted and heard. It’s not a normal winery tasting room by any stretch of the imagination. ACDC blaring, playing on a record player, with almost a room full of records, customers feel free to choose their music. Then there’s this Neil Patrick Harris inspired wine bottle….it’s a winery that doesn’t take itself too seriously. But, they make serious wine. Assistant winemaker Keith Johnson led me through much of what they produce, the high end blends consistently score into the mid 90 point range according to critics, like Stephen Tanzer who I guess had been in, earlier in the day. Again, more coming on Sleight of Hand in an upcoming post.
Lastly, downtown probably has the most going on. One of the things that I found interesting about downtown Walla Walla tasting rooms is that there’s a nice combination of established names and some newer guys, who have recently graduated out of the incubator at the airport. Cayuse is probably the biggest name, they have a storefront right in town, although a sign on the door said the wine was sold out, please try again later….the locals said that they’re not really open any longer, ever.
Kontos is among the first handful of incubator wineries to venture out on their own. Producing 1400 cases means this is becoming a full time job and winemaker Cameron Kontos clearly knows what he’s doing. A 6th generation Walla Walla resident and 2nd generation winemaker, these are world class wines. I happened to simply walk in the front door of Kontos, because the bottle looked interesting. Plus, it was on the way to the hotel….this is exactly why wineries want walkable downtowns with tasting rooms. I tend to try and leave some time available in my schedule on these random stops now. The guys have Kontos have a light hand with Syrah, producing maybe the best acidity in a local version that I found on the trip. They’re also crazy enough to produce a 100% Malbec and try to sell it.
Walla Walla offers a lot of intrigue if you’re someone who wants to spend a couple of days in small town America. The wine is probably better than advertised which is saying something because of the hype surrounding Washington right now. The town’s fun and offers a slightly slower look into winemaking than do some others. The names are also smaller, which means you’re more likely to have a winemaker wander into the tasting room and pour a little something special. You’ll hear more about the wines and wineries from my trip in the coming days, wine club members will see quite a few Washington bottles showing up from this trip in the coming months.