Did Covid take away your summer vacation? Or related concerns have kept you close to home? Here’s an idea: a weekend road trip to the Walla Walla wine country.
Walla Walla, Washington, is an iconic “small-town USA.” It has an early-century feel with a trendy vibe. Its charming downtown boasts boutiques, restaurants and an overwhelming selection of winery tasting rooms. Many are “satellites” of wineries out in the countryside, and some are the winery, serving as combo production and tasting rooms.
Getting there is a visual delight. From Boise head west on I-84: it’s an easy four-hour drive through high dessert, green valleys, the majestic Blue Mountains and the Columbia River Basin. Take the exit just before Pendleton for Wildhorse Resort, and follow the signs to Milton-Freewater, Oregon, and its neighbor, Walla Walla, Washington.
The agricultural area has long supported grain crops and sweet onions, but grapes came on the scene in the early 1970s with founding wineries like Leonetti. Consider that it is on the same parallel in Europe as the northern Rhone Valley of France and Lombardy in Italy, which similarly produce Syrah, Pinot Noir, Dolcetto, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris/Grigio and more.
By the mid-80s, there were a handful of wineries and it grew exponentially. Today, more than 120 wineries dot the rolling hills of the Walla Walla Valley AVA (American Viticulture Association), which also includes The Rocks District AVA of northeast Oregon. Together they are contained within the larger Columbia Valley AVA.
First stop: Milton-Freewater, Oregon
As you near Walla Walla, you first pass through Milton-Freewater, Oregon. It’s a perfect place to stop and stretch your legs – and start your wine tasting adventure.
Watermill Winery, just west of the main drag (Ore. Hwy 11) and they also produce Blue Mountain Cider with apples from their orchards.
Zerba is right on Hwy 11 passing through town and has a fun crew in the tasting room.
Rotie (roh TEE), is west of town in a new elevated tasting room above their vineyard. Wonderful Rhone-influenced wines with a beautiful view.
Crossing the border into Washington
Favorites for good wine and good vibes:
Gifford Hirlinger – it’s like Cheers; lots of locals, and talented winemaker Mike Berghan knows your name. No tasting fee; rather, drop a donation in the jar for the WW Food Bank.
Tertulia – general manager Kristine Bono is on top of the game with fabulous tasting venues and a fun and unique grape-to-glass experience.
Walla Walla Vintners – Founded in 1995 and still making elegant wines; their Italian-influenced Sangiovese blend is very nice – as is the entire tasting experience.
Castillo de Feliciana – feels like you’re stepping into Spain, from the bodega to the Spanish wines. This family operation includes tastings of co-owner Deborah’s famous Sangria.
Doubleback – spectacular setting and wines in a state-of-the-art facility; they also have the Bledsoe Family Wines tasting room downtown.
Long Shadows – enjoy seven premium wines produced in partnership with international winemakers - while relaxing in the Chihuly-decorated tasting room.
L’Ecole No. 41 – the third winery on the scene in Walla Walla, with quality wines in a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse
Va Piano – Italian for “go slow,” it’s a recipe for an easy afternoon. Lots of excellent Italian varieties and their winery feels like it’s straight out of Tuscany.
· Washington produces the second largest quantity of wine grapes in the U.S. behind California
· Washington also is the second largest premium wine producer in the U.S.
· They grow 70 grape varieties in the state; the ratio is 59% red and 41% white
· Walla Walla gets around 8 inches of rain per year (compared to 38 on the Seattle side)
· Check websites or call ahead, particularly with the fluid COVID-19 situation. Many require appointments now or limit the number of guests.
· Most wineries charge a tasting fee of $5 to $20, often waived with a qualifying purchase.
· Bring snacks, stay hydrated, and don’t be ashamed to use the dump bucket!
· Green Gables Inn; the FINCH, Marcus Whitman Hotel, Hampton, Marriott
· TMACS, Brasserie Four, Walla Walla Steak Company, Cugini Deli, Andrae’s Kitchen