I like surprises. I like new discoveries, and I like the anticipation of something that’s about to happen. That’s why Walla Walla is such a fun place to visit. With over 100 wineries, a slew of great restaurants, and a gorgeous pastoral setting, this town in eastern Washington State is a real “find.” There’s a feeling of “almost there,” that this town of just over 30,000, with a wine industry that’s really only existed since the 1970s, is on the verge of big things.
As one local friend put it, “it’s great to see what all the fuss is about before there’s even a fuss being made.” For me that sums up Walla Walla perfectly. So let’s check out this winning little town that proceeds in its unpretentious way without
attitude or self-aggrandizement. Unlike many well-known wine regions (Sonoma, Napa, Niagara), it isn’t within shooting distance of a major city; Portland is three hours away, and Seattle four. So you really have to make the decision to come to
the area. While rural, Walla Walla is more progressive than you’d expect, an oasis of political blue surrounded by a sea of red, so it’s the best of both worlds: liberal and welcoming while still maintaining its small-town charm.
My trip to Walla Walla carries surprises at every juncture. The first surprise, after a 40-minute flight from Seattle and a short trip from the tiny local airport, comes when I check into Inn at Abeja (2014 Mill Creek Rd. Tel: 509-522-1234 www.abeja.net). Sierra, at the front desk, leads me to my room, the Hayloft Suite. As we open the door and go up the stairs, I comment, “what a beautiful lobby… where is my room?” and she’s like, “ummm, this IS your room!” And what a room it is, with a gorgeous sitting room, spacious bedroom, and large balcony overlooking acres of fields, streams, and vineyards. I can’t remember when I’ve stayed in such a lovely spot, and I feel like I’m in my own vast country home, lord of all I see. Who knew such graciousness existed in this tiny town on the edge of nowhere?
A few days later I check into Eritage (1319 Bergevin Springs Rd. Tel: 509-304-9200 or 833-ERITAGE. www.eritageresort.com), a brand new spot. It’s a very different look from Abeja. Where the former was stylishly vintage, Eritage is sleek and new, with rooms in a light cocoa hue, gas fireplaces for those cold Walla Walla nights, and, the sure sign of a chic hotel, a coffeemaker it takes me ages to figure out how to use. A firepit on the patio calls me for evening relaxation, and their wonderful restaurant has instantly become a local favorite. About six miles out of town, with a great view over distant mountains, it feels utterly removed yet convenient to anything you’d want to do.
More surprises await. Heading to lunch, my GPS tells me “you’ve arrived” when I pull into a gas station. I’m thinking, “What on earth did they arrange for me?” I step to a counter at the side of the convenience store and order. Lo and behold, when my food arrives it’s absolutely amazing. Well, this is Andrae’s Kitchen (765 W. Rose St. Tel: 509-572-0728.
www.andraeskitchen.com) and it’s one of a kind—it is literally at a gas station, but the food is farm-fresh, perfectly prepared, and befitting the most elegant of surroundings. They do everything by hand here: grind the corn brought in from Mexico for the tortillas (definitely try their tacos), smoke the meats, and bake the bread, etc. As Andrae proclaims, “Yes, we’re a gas station, but you’re going to get off-the-charts food!” This is not surprising from a chef whose pedigree includes such spots as Le Bernardin, Bouley, and Balthazar. One more Walla Walla surprise.
The next one comes at Bergevin Lane Winery (1215 W. Poplar St. Tel: 509-526-4300. www.bergevinlane.com), where owner Annette Bergevin tells me she moved back to her hometown from the Bay Area, where she met her wife, who also happened to be from Walla Walla (the town, I soon discover, gives rise to many of those “small world” moments). LGBT life here is quite accepted/valued, she remarks, “especially in the wine industry…you can’t judge a book by its cover in Walla Walla.” We head back to the barrel rooms for a barrel tasting, and it’s fascinating to sample the same Cabernet Sauvignon/
Malbec blend out of barrels that still have a very oaky quality. A Petite Verdot is light and lovely, with the slightest hint of oak (“it’s from a second-use barrel, and I really like the way it came through,” smiles Sean). Back in the tasting room, we sample Linen Rose, a fascinating blend of five Bordeaux varietals, the Viognier entitled Love-Struck, which has a pleasant, almost tropical feel, and the deep berry and spice-infused Dreamweaver, made from 100% Malbec. I leave Bergevin Lane with the pleasant sensation of having experienced not only great wines but a world of friendliness and openness.