Call it the Napa of the Northwest.
Walla Walla is a Native American term meaning "many rivers." Yes, there are rivers, but the many can run red with tantalizingly fermented grapes. A geologic gold mine for its 1,600 acres of vines with its arid and sunny climate, lava-enriched plateaus, and ancient ice melts, Walla Walla hit the trifecta for good wine. You can find most varietals, but the area is known best for merlots and cabernets. This little town has grown a lot in just a few years. In 2008 we took an anniversary trip in August to sample the wines. We stayed at then-new Walla Walla Inns at the Vineyard - a gorgeous view and small but luxurious room in a big house atop a vineyard (now $275/night). That year downtown had its charming core, but many spaces were vacant and some of the airport wineries were still under construction.
Given the economic downturn since 2008 we wondered what we'd find this last weekend. Wow. A bustling, vibrant downtown, more wineries (about 150), more high quality dining, more lodging, more of everything. The place is booming. It's impossible to taste even a third of what's there in one trip, so we just built upon the first effort. For a lovely little drive, beautiful vineyard, and quality approaching our own Coeur d'Alene Cellars' Opulence (yes, it's my favorite), Walla Walla Vintners is the ticket. Don't confuse them with other names including "Walla Walla;" there are at least three different vintners who use it. Our volunteer pourer, Al, described his array of reds thus:
"This is like a luxury car show, and the worst is a BMW." (Al drives a Mercedes.) Also up there in exceptional quality is K. That's it, K. Also known as Charles Smith, but don't look for him on the tourist winery map; he's not there. You can't miss the "K" on the right, on the way to Walla Walla Vintners east of town. Let's just say he's different. He's a long-haired ex-rocker, so popular in Japan they made him a video game character, and he really, really knows his wine. And Schitzus; a handful run in and out of the cellar, looking for affection.
Et voila, Walla Walla has gone French. Forgeron Cellars downtown is owned by Marie-Eve Gilla, a French native with a Master's degree from Dijon and training in Burgundy. It shows; her wine has that oft-sought but seldom achieved balance of flavors and layers. Bon apetit. For artistry, a canine theme, and of course, good sipping, don't miss Dunham Cellars at the airport, home of Three Legged Red and Four Legged White. Yes, they're named after cellar dogs. The owner's son designs their labels, turning them into full-sized paintings in the cellar's festive party room, a World War II-era hangar.
Notice the dog theme? Check out the photo book, "Winery Dogs of Walla Walla," featured in most cellars. While pacing yourself between tastings, if you like protest art or just appreciate the bizarre (think Dadaism), don't miss the Museum of Un-Natural History on Main. Call it weird, offensive, or genius; it's a unique experience. Artist Gerry Matthews and wife Pat Stanley have quite a list of acting, and life, credits incorporated into endless detail on display to the careful observer.
This time we tried the other end of the lodging spectrum - the Colonial Motel. The $59 price worried me, but Tripadviser reviews proved accurate: simple, but clean, quiet, charmingly landscaped, and impeccably run by a lovely, not-so-retired couple. Thank you, Mrs. Tuttle. We've paid far more for less elsewhere; this way we had that much more to spend on wine. Speaking of cost, $5 tasting fees are refundable with purchase at most Washington wineries. And to my husband, thank you for eight wonderful years. Would that they could become 80, but each day with you is a joyful gift to uncork. Like fine wine, it just gets better.
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at email@example.com.