Walla Walla, WA is emerging (and now has a Courtyard Marriott). That much was covered in the first part of this series. But once you’ve unpacked and refreshed at the Courtyard Walla Walla, you’re officially on the wine-tasting clock. The rolling earth of Walla Walla, USA Today wine mecca, is cut unevenly into more than 160 wineries, all of which clamor for local distinction against competition also formidable in the global wine game. It’s high-stakes, high-quality winemaking—insulated by a rare small-town warmth but potentially overwhelming nonetheless. Where to even begin?
Where to begin
Imbibe Wine Tours. The life’s work of two partners and former Seattle residents is as easy a means of wine discovery as there is in Walla Walla. The guys know enough about wine and the people making it to talk you through a full Walla Walla experience, which is good because you may actually need them to. Every tour with Imbibe is customized, and so every itinerary is yours. If you have a list of vintages to check off, that means they can do it for you, door-to-van-to-wineries-to-door. Just as importantly, if you barely care about wine and want only to have a blast day-drinking your way through sunny Walla Walla—well, they can do it for you. You’ll certainly drink plenty, and learn a lot along the way, too. Here’s a taste (from the winemakers as well as Imbibe):
- Leonetti Cellar is the region’s oldest (1977) and most famous name
- The big reds are the most famous, but the range of varietals is wide
- The Enology & Viticulture (basically, wine) program at Walla Walla Community College was the first of its kind and remains the country’s best (and a reliable source of cheap, local talent)
- The land so divinely suited to winemaking in Walla Walla’s eastern Washington wears the scars of the cataclysmic Missoula Floods millions of years ago
There are wineries downtown, just minutes from the Courtyard on Main Street, and there are wineries out in the wilder greens beyond. Imbibe can guide you, but here are five wineries to start:
1. Foundry Vineyards (site)
Most notable as the winemaking arm of one of the coolest places I’ve been in a while, the Foundry. Just beyond the tasting room on what could be any street anywhere, the Foundry is a heaving, churning organ of creativity on a scale unprecedented in modern times, to put it conservatively. It’s where the world’s premier contemporary artists go to see their grandest visions come to life as 40-foot bronze sculptures and reconfigurable, transportable masterpieces. Technological wizardry and master craftsmanship find symbiosis here, and I only know this because I’ve now been to Walla Walla. Before last week, I had no idea.
They typically don’t do tours, so Foundry Vineyards is literally as close as you can get—with wine. Exclusive Foundry works and presumably the overflowing Foundry vibe elevate the tasting experience.
2. L’Ecole No 41 (site)
You ring the bell on the way in, because it’s a converted schoolhouse (école is school in French). In a region once known as Frenchtown, founders Jean and Baker Ferguson fashioned the old school into the nucleus of their winemaking retirement project, which opened as L’Ecole No 41 in 1983 as the third winery in the region. And the name is not the only vestige of the building’s former life. In fact, enough has been preserved to lend a unique character to the winery, from the Douglas fir floors to the massive windows to the engraving of a student’s name in one of the stairwells.
The wine is also exceptional as Wine & Spirits Magazine tells it. The publication has honored L’Ecole No 41 as its Winery of the Year twelve years in a row (not quite what it sounds like). Its 2011 Ferguson Vineyard was also notably just named the world’s best Bordeaux blend, so be sure to check that out at the cool bar.
3. Walla Walla Vintners (site)
Probably my favorite vineyard because of one man: Myles Anderson, a co-owner and the guy who led our tour. Marching around his sun-soaked property, which stretched right out into the horizon, Myles shared his own unabashed and honest take on all things Walla Walla wine. He talked about the losses an early winter freeze might be bringing them, his place in stewarding the Walla Walla Community College program, and his old guard winemaker friends. He also veered outside the immediacy of wine facts, even delivering the story of the Missoula Floods. He was authentic Walla Walla as I remember that now.
As for the wine, it’s great. They only bottle about 6000 cases a year at Walla Walla Vintners, and only reds, so it’s small-time stuff compared to some of the competitors. But in wine, and in Walla Walla, that’s fine. Their Cabernet Franc is their best-known, but I most enjoyed the Syrah.
4. Pepper Bridge Winery (site)
As the ordering here is chronological as I lived it, I will note that we ate cold cuts, cheese and damn-good pesto at Pepper Bridge Winery before our tour, as was included in our Imbibe package. And then, the tour: On perhaps the most stunning grounds of the day, Norm guided us through the winemaking process with the most depth and visual support yet, sprinkling in small- (Pepper Bridge is owned by three families) and large-scale (a Cabernet Sauvignon must be at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon varietal to be considered a Cab Sav in Washington) knowledge along the way.
Things wrapped up on a balcony with wine and most definitely the best views of the day. There’s just one white wine in production, so be prepared for more reds.
5. Charles Smith Wines (site)
The perfect place to end our day, and I have to think any wine-heavy day. Charles Smith is in the heart of downtown Walla Walla, smack on South Spokane Street. For reference, the van dropped us off here and never returned—because Charles Smith is maybe, conservatively, ten minutes walking from the Courtyard Walla Walla.
In experience, meanwhile, Charles Smith is anything but conservative. It’s a grand, brick-and-metal-toned space with cool textures, a far cry from the traditional vineyard estate, and it’s dripping with west-coast cool. Radiohead and Beck played from speakers high above, and apparently, a food truck and dancers post up outside from time to time. Of the quality of the wines, I can’t say much, because the day had already been long and I don’t know wine well to being with. What I can say is this: Charles Smith Wines is amazing—and so is Walla Walla.
Tip: If you’re flying Alaska Airlines out of Walla Walla or Pasco (or one of a few other airports), you’re allowed to check one “properly packaged case of wine without charge for domestic itineraries.” You have to be a member of their awards program (Mileage Plan), but that’s free, too—so stock up and take advantage. More on the policy here.