Less than three hours from Spokane, Walla Walla is the perfect weekend destination for wine and food lovers. While many people know that Walla Walla has some wineries, most don’t know that there are more than 130 in the valley alongside fabulous food trucks and gourmet farm-to-table restaurants.
And in between the wonderful meals and wine tastings there is plenty to do, both indoors and out. You can take in a Walla Walla Sweets baseball game, bring your golf clubs, disc golf set or fishing pole, take a hike or mountain bike some trails in the nearby Blue Mountains, or grab a bike map and tour 500 mapped road miles through the rolling Palouse hills.
The Walla Walla Valley also has a thriving performing and visual arts scene, with regular music and theater events and many galleries to visit. And if you like history you can walk the Historic Homes Trail Guide tour or get lost in one of the local museums.
With so much to do, whether you are on a budget or in the mood for luxury you can find a first-class experience with small town values in Walla Walla.
Wine and Dine
Walla Walla wines are recognized internationally for their depth and complexity thanks to the unique local terroir and the diverse, skilled winemakers. Officially recognized as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1984, many grape varietals are grown in the Valley, with the top three being cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah.
Today grapevines cover more than 2,800 acres of the AVA, and that is expected to increase by more than 50 percent thanks to the SeVein Vineyard project. But none of this would have happened without the vision of the early winemakers, says Gordy Venneri of Walla Walla Vintners, the eighth winery in the region.
“They really saw in the early days that part of the success of a wine region is you have to get more wineries here, you have to build it,” says Gordy, who in this spirit helped many of his neighbors get started.
Gordy and partner Myles Anderson are self-taught but their wines are consistently awarded. Gordy grew up in Walla Walla and calls himself a native trout, but with such a rich potential in the soil and climate winemakers from around the world have made their way to Walla Walla.
One of the most respected is Jean-François Pellet, winemaker and partner at Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars. Having earned degrees in enology and viticulture, he worked in Spain, Switzerland, Germany and Napa Valley before visiting Walla Walla in 1998.
“Here I am 17 years later and I have no intention to leave,” he says, laughing.
With the diverse approaches of people like Jean-François and Gordy, perfect terroir for producing world-class wines, and a cooperative, friendly attitude, the Walla Walla Valley is a treasure chest of flavors, aromas, ideas and fun waiting to be discovered.
One immersive way to taste the region is on a trip with one of the local tour guides. Amy Bruner of Black Tie Wine Tours says this is the best way for people to experience Walla Walla wine, because they don’t have to worry about driving, and their chauffeur will be an expert local guide. “Depending on the different drivers, they have their own hidden gems,” explains Amy. Whether you go with a guide or a designated driver, check out the wineries during the day then come back to town for more tastings, meals and entertainment. The downtown is a walkable wonder, and many wineries that produce their wine elsewhere in the Valley have stand-alone tasting rooms here, like Cadaretta, Kontos, and Spring Valley.
Downtown is also home to some of the best food, with scratch-made Italian at T. Maccarone’s, Mediterranean at Saffron, sushi at Shiki Hibachi, French at Brasserie Four and much more.
One thing you will notice right away is that farm-to-table dining is the rule here, not the exception. With a rich local bounty of fruits, vegetables, grains and meats, including the local celebrity—the Walla Walla Sweet Onion—restaurants like The Marc at the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel and nearby Ox & Cart build their menus on what their neighboring farmers just harvested.
Many of the restaurants are open for lunch, too, but if you want something for the road stop by Walla Walla Gourmet Grocery for a to-go lunch box filled with salumi, cheese, dried fruit, nuts, bread, hummus and more. While you’re there, check out their well-procured salumi selection and walk-in cheese closet.
If you forget to plan for lunch on your wine tour don’t worry, the Valley has an abundance of quality food trucks. From authentic Mexican food to locally sourced bistro offerings, you’ll find them as you travel between tastings, and several wineries have trucks or restaurants on-site.
For breakfast, check out The Maple Counter Café with a menu bursting with house specialties like their three-inch-tall apple pancake stuffed with fresh apples and glazed with cinnamon. And at nearby Bacon and Eggs you will find internationally-inspired dishes like migas alongside Southern fare.
If you stay at one of the elegant bed and breakfasts make sure to have a meal with them. At the Green Gables Inn, chef Andrea Bughi–Johnson serves delicious hot breakfasts in the gorgeous historic dining room and prepares custom dinners upon request. Over at the Fat Duck Inn, DiRoNa Silver Spoon award-winning chef Rich Koby pairs daily seasonal courses with his favorite local wines.
Finally, be sure to check out the airport district where WWII-era buildings house roughly 20 wineries, often next door to each other like Corvus Cellars and Revelry Vintners. You’ll also find Burwood Brewing Company, Shot in the Dark Craft Distillery, and a once-a-month food truck night April through September.
In Walla Walla, the problem isn’t finding something to do, it’s choosing which locations to visit this time and which to save for your next trip. A farming community at heart, the people are friendly and excited to tell you about what makes their wine, and their valley, so special.
A Spokane-based food and drink writer with a fishing problem, Chris Lozier is the assistant editor of a national distilling trade publication. You can find his stories at chrislozier.com.