Tour the Wineries of Walla Walla
In the southeastern corner of Washington, a once sleepy farming town has been transformed into one of the fastest-growing, most popular wine destinations in the U.S. outside of California. Formerly known for sweet onions, fruit and wheat, the town of Walla Walla has reinvented itself and become a magnet for fine wine lovers from everywhere. Wine lovers travel from all over the country and world to visit wineries in Walla Walla.
The Walla Walla Valley appellation covers over 500 square miles and was established in 1984. It is part of the larger Columbia Valley designation and stretches across the border into Oregon. See our Oregon wine country section too. Within a 30-minute drive of downtown Walla Walla are approximately 90 wineries, with more in the development stage. Since 2001 the number of wineries in this region has tripled.
The history of wine in the Walla Walla Valley is similar to other parts of Washington. Grapes were planted in the late 1800’s, mostly for home consumption and local commercial activity. It wasn’t until 1950, well after the end of Prohibition, that the first winery in the region was bonded. Significant interest in viticulture did not come until home winemaker Gary Figgins planted a tiny Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard and Leonetti Cellar was created in 1977. From there, a small but devoted group of part-time winemakers and local growers formed the backbone of what is now a thriving industry.
Some of the original pioneers in the Walla Walla wine world are still producing top-quality, critically acclaimed wines including Woodward Canyon Winery and L’Ecole No. 41. Both wineries are located west of Walla Walla and are often the first stop for tourists making the long trek by car. Other wineries began to trickle in throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s but growth has been explosive since the 21st century began. Today, Walla Walla is enjoying the kind of success it hasn’t seen since it was a boom town during the 1860’s Idaho gold rush.
In the heart of downtown Walla Walla are a number of excellent tasting rooms and wine bars that make good use of nicely restored brick buildings. Streets are wide, tree-lined and pedestrian friendly. Coupled with many excellent dining choices, downtown is also a good option for lodging. Well respected downtown tasting spots include Spring Valley Vineyards, Seven Hills Winery, Forgeron Cellars and Fort Walla Walla Cellars.
Heading to the east of the city, visitors should plan a trip to the Walla Walla Regional Airport. Through a unique business-government partnership, many small wineries have established tasting rooms in old WWII-era buildings, no longer in airport use. Highly recommended wineries are Dunham Cellars, Buty and Tamarack Cellars. A little further east of the airport there are three superb wineries that should not be missed: K Cellars for serious Syrah, Walla Walla Vintners for luscious reds and aMaurice Cellars for an elegant French-focused line of wines.
Driving south of Walla Walla you may suddenly find yourself in Oregon. There are a few tasting rooms in the town of Milton-Freewater, but most of the activity is in Washington. For an interesting look at a larger winery with a stellar reputation as a grower of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, visit Pepper Bridge Winery. Rulo and Eisenhower wineries are also nearby and consistently provide a wide assortment of affordable, food-friendly wines.
One of the most interesting new ventures in the valley brings together an impressive team of international consultants, each specializing in a particular wine, under the umbrella brand called Long Shadow Vintners. With such high-profile wine gurus as France’s Michel Rolland and the former winemaker for Australia’s most-coveted wine, Penfold’s Grange, this can only bring more international focus to this young, vibrant wine region.
With over 1,600 acres of grapes planted in the Walla Walla Valley, there are recognized vineyard sites that have developed reputations of their own. A few of these include Seven Hills, Canoe Ridge, Pepper Bridge and Les Collines.
Other highly rated wineries in the Walla Walla region are Abeja, Amavi Cellars (sister-winery to Pepper Bridge) Bergevin Lane and Cayuse Vineyards. Frenchman Christophe Baron has consistently received some of the highest accolades from critics for his Syrahs and Bordeaux varietals. Although Cayuse maintains a downtown tasting room the wines are always sold out. Highly rated newcomer Nicholas Cole Cellars is a winery to watch. New arrivals continue to flock to the area. There is still room for expansion in the valley and that is good news for consumers and wine-loving visitors.
Most wineries will charge modest fees for wine tasting, but cult favorites or super-premium wines are generally not available to sample. Many wineries have regular tasting hours but schedules vary a great deal and not all wineries are open to the public. Good times to visit to ensure the maximum number of wineries are open are the Spring Release weekend in early May or the Holiday Barrel Tasting weekend in early December. Both events attract thousands of visitors each year.