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How to Drink Wine Like a Pro in Walla Walla
Ian White | Photo: Courtesy Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance/Richard Duval Images | July 23, 2014
What to sip, where to eat, and where to stay in Washington's hottest new wine region.
Walla Walla might be a tiny city nestled in a valley in the southeast pocket of Washington, but for wine nerds—professional or recreational—it's one of the west coast's best spots to geek out. In 1999, Walla Walla claimed only 15 wineries, but since then there’s been something of a wine industry explosion, with a corresponding improvement in quality to match. Today’s tally is 120 wineries in the area—making it one of the west coast's fastest-growing wine regions. Here’s a word of advice: Visit now—before the tourists really take over.
Meet the makers: Walla Walla’s vintners of the moment.
The Young Guns Wine Society is four friends with multi-generational roots in Walla Walla who grew up to be winemakers. While they each have their own winemaking style, the common thread between these witty gents is Walla Walla’s signature laidback vibe that makes you feel like you’re part of the posse.
Justin Basel, Winemaker at Foundry Vineyards
Foundry balances modern art and sculpture with urban feel and bold, spicy wines—all hand-made, small-lot, and exemplifying the earthy flavors and smooth style that make Walla Walla shine.
Cameron Kontos, Winemaker at Kontos Cellars
Kontos Cellars only makes 1,400 cases and focuses on premium Bordeaux varieties. The flagship, Alatus, is a personal favorite—robust and full of dark fruit. Kontos has a light touch, focusing on letting the grapes and farming do the talking.
Greg Matiko, Winemaker at Skylite Cellars
Skylite Cellars is a boutique family winery with simple style and complex wines. Winemaker Greg Matiko is a modest guy filled with quiet confidence and his wines are delicate but packed with bold flavor. Skylite Reserve is my top pick in Walla Walla.
Josh McDaniels, Winemaker at Sweet Valley Wines
McDaniels learned to make wine while in high school, and after a $1,000 investment from his father, he has turned his dream of making wine into a career. His wines were a hit at the Young Guns Wine dinner at Celebrate Walla Walla 2014.
Where to sip in the valley.
The west side of the Walla Walla valley is where you’ll find a lot of the older, more established wineries like L’Ecole No 41. This is a great place to get started and get a feel for some of the Oregon Trail history. Northstar and Cadaretta are also worth visiting, and the events at the Cadaretta Glass House makes it worth joining the club if you plan to return.
The east side where you’ll find the Mill Creek growing area and the much talked about Windblown Loess soils. Three top picks in the area are the Walla Walla Vintners, aMaurice, and widely-celebrated Figgins Family Winery (by appointment only). Also located on the east side is the Airport District, where over 25 wineries have set up tasting rooms inside old WWII-era buildings. Be sure to hit Buty Winery and Dunham Cellars.
Walla Walla is famous for deep rocky soils, up to 300 feet in some areas, which is mostly found on the south side. Expect epic views and hands-on vineyard experiences. Try Sleight of Hand and Dusted Valley, both excellent examples of earthy wines from The Rocks.
In the heart of town, El Corazon Winery is Walla Walla’s little secret. It’s still under-the-radar, but quickly becoming a trendy spot for its adventurous blends and Cab Franc. Well, that and because it’s little more than a garage filled with barrels, music, and sassy decorations.
Doubleback Winery is owned by Walla Walla native and football great Drew Bledsoe. If you miss Drew, head to the brand new bar Octane, as the owner was Bledsoe’s receiver in high school and he’s sure to have a good story or two. There are 25 tasting rooms downtown, and everyone knows everyone, so ask for advice or just stop when you see an open sign.
Where to eat when you're done sipping.
The gourmet scene in Walla Walla is distinctly casual, so skip the slacks even if you’re going to upscale French restaurant Brasserie Four, which serves a farm-to-table menu of classic options like Steak Frites and Charcuterie, and, of course, an expansive Walla Walla wine list. For hearty Italian dishes with modern flair, T. Maccarone’s is your spot. Or should a juicy burger and local beer better fit the mood, Public House 124 is the best spot downtown. To get your Mexican fix, don’t miss Dora’s Deli and Worm Ranch, which became famous after the Daily Meal named their vegetarian tacos the best in America last year. Judge for yourself. There's always ballpark hot dogs: The whole town goes to see the Walla Walla Sweets play baseball. Hit up a game and mingle with locals and winemakers in the stands if you’re there for a home game.
Where to sleep when you're done eating and sipping.
The Walla Faces Inns is a boutique hotel with two great options: Downtown or the middle of a vineyard. (I mean, how could you not pick the vineyard?) Both offer modern, clean, artistic, and well-outfitted suites, but the downtown location is a bit more convenient, while the vineyard options is better for recluses. 51 East Main feels a bit more like a local’s hotel and is near downtown, great for easy walking to the restaurants, tasting rooms, and bars that line Main Street.
But first you gotta get there.
Your best option is flying into Walla Walla Regional Airport, which is only 15 minutes from downtown. Alternatively, Tri Cities Airport (Pasco) is 45 minutes away and there are wineries along the highway (bonus!). Either is better than schlepping four hours from Seattle.