I’m on lunch break on Day 1 of the Wine Bloggers Conference and it dawned on me that many of you reading this blog have probably never been to the host city of Walla Walla. Having lived for several years in the (somewhat) nearby town of Spokane, Washington, I’ve spent some time in Walla Walla and wanted to share my thoughts. First things first, Walla Walla is located in the Southern corner of Eastern Washington. Second things second, Eastern Washington produces some of the toughest people I’ve ever met in my life. I mean like eight seconds on a bull tough and tractor accident tough. I would never have survived growing up in Eastern Washington. So while I’ll go on to describe the charming quaintness of this wine producing region, it’s important to understand that beneath that recently laid veneer lies an amazing community that built this city well before the doctors and lawyers started flying in for weekend tastings (yep, that would be me).
Until wine hit the mainstream consciousness, I imagine that Walla Walla was probably best known for one of three things: (i) Pretty damn cool name; (ii) Sweet Onions; and (iii) Drew Bledsoe. If you know Bledsoe as the winemaking entrepreneur at Doubleback rather than an NFL quarterback, then you’re likely relatively new to the Walla Walla scene.
I started going to Walla Walla in the mid-90’s on hunting trips with friends to the base of the Blue Mountains. At that time, you could count on one hand the number of wineries – almost all of which seemed to be located in trailers on grounds near the airport. Those wineries are still there and I highly recommend touring them on a Schwinn (Noelle was introduced to Five Star Cellars very early on in her wine education and still swears by their Sangiovese). I understand that they have even added several breweries and even a distillery out there as well.
So what’s the status of Walla Walla today? Well, imagine if Charlie Daniels and Norah Jones sang a duet. With the proliferation of wine production in the area came the vinophile tourists, which has in turn changed the landscape to include higher end restaurants, a smattering of art galleries, etc. I can guarantee you that you will hear visitors say the line “this is what Napa was like 50 years ago” almost reverentially when you visit. And maybe they’re right – I have no frame of reference. Of course, Napa had the benefit of nearby major cities of San Francisco and Sacramento. As one speaker stated this morning “Walla Walla is on an island – five hours to the closest metropolitan area” (I’m sure Spokane won’t take offense). I can tell you however that you will find an amazing community that embraces both their position as an up-and-coming wine producing region along with its proud farming heritage.
With no further ado, here are a few of my favorite spots in Walla Walla, a list which is so spectacularly incomplete that I was required to change the name of this blog post:
- Wine Division: You don’t want Walla Walla wine recommendations from me (you want them from Noelle). Nonetheless, be sure to check out Gramercy Cellars (our favorite), Sleight of Hand (best party atmosphere, seriously, I really want to share a bottle with these guys), and L’Ecole (best school house). My apologies to Drew Bledsoe – I just haven’t been to Doubleback yet – but I promise I will on this trip. Honestly, there are so many amazing wineries in the Walla Walla Region that you simply can’t go wrong. Oh yeah, Rotie Cellars as well!!
- Non-Wine Division: Be sure to check out Olive (best informal meal), Hot Poop Records (best business name – ever), Whitman College; Public House 124; and a VRBO House Rental that converted a huge wine barrel into an extra bedroom. Seriously. I’ve slept there – it’s awesome (assuming you’re not claustrophobic).
- No Longer In Business Division: I admit that it makes no sense whatsoever to tell you about these places that are no longer in business. But alas, we can always hope for their return: (i) Salumerie Cesario (Noelle once got kicked out of the cheese closet for making a mockery – true story); and (ii) Chillville – a collection of Airstreams that you could rent for a few nights next to the Airport district tasting rooms. Of my great regrets in life, not staying at Chillville before it was shuttered is definitely top five (but still pretty distant from my ill-advised bolo tie phase in the early 90’s).
Anyways, that’s my two cents on Walla Walla which is truly a kick-ass town that I highly recommend visiting to anyone with an interest in wine (or seeing the “Hot Poop” business sign).