Drink Washington State proclaims to, “takes you all around the state without having to leave your seat!” I love their fresh, crisp “Welcome to Columbia Valley” Chardonnay and their bold “Escape to Walla Walla,” mainly cabernet sauvignon but with some cabernet franc, merlot, and petit verdot. They also have a tasting room downtown (9 S. 1st Ave.), but I prefer this spot in a little cottage at the heart of the “incubators.”
At the old train station (Walla Walla is big on repurposing buildings) I discover two new establishments that are both worth a visit. On one side lies Walla Walla Steak Co. (416 N. 2nd Ave. Tel: 509-526-4100. www.wwsteakco.com), with an upscale, clubby feel and a menu that, while focused on its eponymous meat, offers a wide variety of delights, from an amazing scallop sashimi with wasabi aioli to the best crab cakes in the history of crab cakes. Be sure to save room for dessert, which could be a Washington State apple crisp but, if you’re like me, it will be their incredible warm chocolate chip cookie thing called a hearth oven cookie, served in an individual cast iron pan. I could easily eat two of them. Or maybe three. (Don’t worry. I restrain myself. I’m sorely tempted, though.)
On the other side of the station is a fabulous new craft brewery, Crossbruck Brewing (416 N. 2nd Ave. Tel: 509-526-4100. www.crossbuckbrewing.com), where head brewer Steven Brack is doing some wonderful things. As I look over the beer menu, I try to remember, is it “wine before beer is reason to fear” or “wine after beer,” but then realize I’m going to have wine before AND after the beer (God bless designated drivers) so I order a taste of all three current offerings. The IPA, called “Hazy Schmazy” (I imagine because it’s unfiltered) is my favorite, carrying a beautiful hoppy flavor without the bitterness. After sips of the mellow Grölsch and the high-alcohol, bold but smooth double IPA, I’m eager to see what Steve is going to bring next, and I am ready for some food. Whereas the steakhouse is open only for dinner, the tap room is open all day, so stop in and see some of the craft brewing going on in the area as well as sampling some great food from fried chicken to soup made from that local celebrity, the Walla Walla onion. Maybe you’ll be lucky and grab a seat in the vintage train car parked outside!
More great dining awaits at Saffron (330 W. Main St. Tel: 509-525-2112. www.saffronmediterraneankitchen.com), a beautifully-designed spot that travels throughout the Mediterranean for its inspiration, while using local ingredients for freshness. I have tender, charry grilled octopus to start while my friend has their fab falafel. I have Dungeness crab stuffed into Turkish-style, while she has a beautiful piece of halibut on a bed of shishito peppers. You’ll see the influences of Italy, Spain, Turkey, the Middle East, and much more here in one of WW’s top dining spots, recently relocated to this elegant locale.
Wondering how to do all the wine tastings? I have the answer: Tesla Winery Tours (Tel: 253-797-6596.
www.teslawinerytours.com). If you’re looking for a designated driver, an expert guide to take you to places you didn’t even know existed, and a great ride in the luxury of a spacious Tesla, Chris Wood is your man. I happily silence my GPS lady, leave my car keys behind, and set out with Chris for a day of adventure, discovery, and, of course, wine. “I want everyone,” says Chris, “to experience Walla Walla in a way they wouldn’t on their own and see why I love it so much.” He takes groups of up to six, so it’s a very personalized experience, and whether you want to spend your whole day sampling the wares of various wineries, gasping over geological formations and amazing views, or simply tooling around town in style, this amiable and knowledgeable tour guide is someone you should meet.
Our first stop is Tranche Cellars (705 Burney Dr. Tel: 509-526-3500. www.tranche.wine), where I sample some of the best wine I’ve experienced in the area. With mainly Rhone varietals, they’re doing great stuff, and I love the beautiful setting among their own estate vineyard, outdoor patio (you’ll often find entertainment happening there), and, of course, the wine. Their Chardonnay is beautiful, clear, and crisp. The GSM has a similar crispness combined with boldness. Their Syrah is, in my tasting guide’s words, “a crowd pleaser,” intense, deep, and lingering. There’s a boldness to the wines at Tranche that doesn’t sacrifice subtlety or smoothness.
Chris drives me through Pioneer Park, on which Frederick Law Olmsted consulted, with its aviary full of peacocks and other bird life. We drive through the gorgeous campus of Whitman College, which looks like an Ivy League school plunked down into the middle of this western town. He drops me for lunch (yes, I did a wine tasting before lunch!) at T-Macs
(4 N. Colville St. Tel: 509-522-4776. www.tmacsww.com), a wonderful gay-owned spot at the heart of town where I have a delicious salad, with farro and arugula giving it a crunch and a sharpness that contrast perfectly with the silky burrata that rests on top. Chicken cacciatore is rich and filling, accompanied by silky-smooth polenta. Service is gracious and attentive, and I can see why this is a favorite with both locals and visitors. Even with a long-popular spot like T-Macs, changes are occurring, and by the time you arrive in Walla Walla (I’m confident that I’m convincing you to go there), there will be a new T-Macs, in an expanded location but serving the same great food.
Now it’s time for some adventure, and Chris and I drive through the Walla Walla valley into Oregon (the Walla Walla Valley straddles the states), past cows grazing in emerald fields. We arrive at the Ferguson Wall, a fractured basalt wall that towers over the landscape, full of amazing whorls and marked by fissures that reflect its formation during the Ice Age Missoula flood. We continue up above the wall to an amazing viewpoint overlooking the Blue Mountains, the city of Milton-Freewater, and Walla Walla in the distance, and I can see how the combination of mountains and desert has created a unique landscape here. I also remind myself that without the benefit of a Tesla tour and Chris’ expertise, it’s pretty well guaranteed I’d never have found this spot.
Speaking of great views, you definitely get that (as well as some great wines) at Doubleback Winery (3853 Powerline Rd. Tel: 509-525-3334. www.doubleback.com), where the tasting room overlooks an incredible vista of fields and hills. Their Elizabeth Chardonnay is bright and not super-oaky, while the trio of cabernet sauvignons I sample is an object lesson in the aging process, from a barrel sample to a fairly newly-bottled 2016 to a beautiful, smooth and rich 2013. It’s easy to see how the wine changes with the aging process, and I love sitting in this sleek new room gazing out at the gorgeous vistas, sampling their wonderful wines.
As I get ready to leave, I remember the words of one local, which provide the exact reason you should visit: “There’s no reason to be in Walla Walla if you don’t want to be in Walla Walla.” Chances are you won’t just stumble upon this town.
Instead, watch it develop an identity that’s quite apart from any big city, since there aren’t any within hours. Walla Walla is its own, distinct self: friendly, small-town, producing great wines, offering lovely restaurants, and surrounded by gorgeous
scenery. Most importantly, there’s a sense of change in the air, a sense of growth, a sense of “we’re not quite sure where this is going.” One thing is for sure: you need to come along for the ride. Years from now, you’ll be able to say “I was in Walla Walla before it was `Walla Walla.’” That will be a good feeling.