For most of its history, Walla Walla, Wash., was known to the rest of the nation as a town with a comically memorable name and for little else. Walla Walla paid little attention. A civilized community where civility was stretched thin over great open spaces, a prosperous community in an area where money's been growing tighter for the better part of a century, a stable community dominated by families who've dominated trade and the professions for even longer. Walla Walla has always known who it was, whatever other people thought. Now that Walla Walla is becoming known and respected not just at home but round the world, the town is taking that in stride, too. Wine is what's put Walla Walla on the map, wine that has made the town a destination for tourists—no, make that "travelers," because people who come to Walla Walla these days know why they're coming and what to expect when they arrive. Beginning with experimental plantings by scions of old, established farming families like the Figgines and the Smalls, wine grapes have spread across the dusty and rocky soils of the Walla Walla Valley like a beneficent plague. Twenty wineries roost among hundreds of acres of vines south of town to the Oregon border and beyond. Half a dozen more occupy old warehouses near the airport; half a dozen tasting rooms dot the decorous early 20th-century downtown. Among them are names—Leonetti, l'Ecole No. 41, Woodward Canyon—that are often seen in magazines and newsletters devoted to the world's great wines. The site of a nationally respected, 120-year-old liberal-arts college (named for the pioneering missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman), Walla Walla has always been something of a cultural oasis in Eastern Washington. The coming of the wineries has made it a pretty good place to eat as well as drink. Restaurateurs tired of the frenzied competition for customers in Seattle and other big cities have settled in Walla Walla and set up restaurants that aim high, searching out fresh local ingredients and developing menus good enough to put beside the remarkable wines the region at its best produces. Jamie Guerin's Whitehouse Crawford, which shares elegantly remodeled factory quarters with premium Seven Hills Winery, is fast developing a national reputation through word of mouth alone for its superb nouvelle-Américaine cuisine. Lodging has also grown more traveler-, as opposed to tourist-, oriented. Bed and breakfasts are abundant, for those who enjoy their intimacy; one, the Inn at Abeja, transcends the category in the polished amenities of its winery-side appointments. Downtown, the old and dignified tower of the Marcus Whitman Hotel has sprouted a skirt of convention and conference facilities but remains a reminder of more spacious days. This summer, even the most wine- oriented visitor may want to pay some attention to another Walla Walla distinction, its connection to the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery, which passed through the Palouse and Snake River country going and coming in the fall of 1805 and spring of 1806. In addition to its role as a destination in its own right, Walla Walla serves as a satisfactory terminus for explorations of more diffuse regions of Washington's extraordinary wine bounty. Wineries large and small cluster near Interstate 82 between Union Gap and Benton City in the lower valley of the Yakima River. Walla Walla can also be a jumping-off point for a venture down the Washington side of the Columbia (incomparably more scenic than the Oregon side) to the state's newest vinous hotbed between Maryhill and Bingen, where a number of younger winemakers are doing wonders, particularly with hot-country grape varieties, on the enormous variety of soils and climate zones offered by the precipitous cliffs of the Columbia Gorge. (Once there, it's a quick trip over the river to Oregon's lush orchard and wine country along the Hood River.) Of course, one can enjoy the amenities and product of many Washington wineries without traveling any farther than Woodinville, where the two giants of the Washington trade, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia, preside with dignity over a Sammamish Valley–ful of smaller labels. But one doesn't really appreciate the astonishing fact that Washington is becoming a name in world wine as well known, if not respected, as Germany's Mosel, France's Loire, Italy's Piemonte. And the capital of Washington wine, from a world perspective, is Walla Walla, comic no more. email@example.com
The Word on Wine •The most comprehensive source of information on Washington state's wine industry is the Web site of the Washington Wine Commission, www.washingtonwine.org, which offers detailed information on, and often links to, individual wineries, as well as maps of each of the state's far-flung wine regions. •The Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau's publication Gateway to Washington's Wine Country contains a very useful winery map along with helpful information on lodging, outdoor activities, and historic sites, plus other information to facilitate a visit. A copy of the brochure can be ordered via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. •A comprehensive visitors packet including information on food and lodging and a separate, detailed map of the valley wineries can be had with a toll-free call to the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce at 877-998-4748. •Many Walla Walla wineries are open to the public, but others open only by special arrangement if at all, so it's essential to ascertain the status of wineries you wish to visit to avoid annoyance and disappointment. •The big public event of the Walla Walla wine year, which takes place before work in the vineyards begins to preoccupy everyone, is Vintage Walla Walla, presented by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. This year's event takes place Saturday, June 5, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Reid Center on the Whitman College campus, 345 Boyer Ave. Forty-three of the valley's wineries will be pouring more than 100 different wines, including a rare selection of older vintages, rare wines, and new releases. Tickets are $75 and must be purchased in advance at www.vintagewallawalla.com or by phone, 509-526-3117. •All you're likely to need to know about visiting sites and landmarks along the Lewis & Clark Trail can be found in a brochure published by the Fort Walla Walla Museum, 755 Myra Road, 509-525-7703. The brochure can also be ordered by a toll-free call to the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce at 877-998-4748. •There are a number of guidebooks devoted to Northwest wines and vineyards. The most compactly informative and up-to-date is The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook by Andy Perdue (Sasquatch Books, 2003, $14.95 paper). Perdue is editor of Wine Press Northwest, which reviews hundreds of Northwest wines every year, so he is well positioned to offer an overview of the current state of the industry. Although tightly focused on specific winemakers and their wines, his book affords an invaluable quick reference and is just the right size to fit in a purse or glove compartment. •If you can't wait until June to hit the wine trail, Oregon's Yamhill County celebrates Memorial Day with Weekend in the Wine Country, May 29–31. Eighty-plus wineries offer their wares (some along with catered picnic lunches), most of them concentrated around the short stretch of Oregon Route 240 between Carlton and Newberg. A map and event information can be found at www.yamhillwine.com.