If you ask some people about Walla Walla, they'll tell you it's a town in the middle of nowhere, known best as the home of "The Pen" -- putting a roof over the heads of criminals ranging from the Green River Killer to the Barefoot Bandit, the place where Sweet onions are imagined to grow from cracks in sidewalks, and where the Liberal Arts are still worthy of study at hoity toity Whitman College. OK, sure, it IS in the middle of nowhere, but there's a heckuva lot more going on here than meets the eye. A quick four-hour trip to the other side of the state plops visitors into the hotpants of emerging American winemaking and through a time machine of life -- back to a place that still operates like things did "back then". Back when you knew your neighbors and when neighbors would go out of their way to help each other out.
Vineyards fronting the Blue Mountains
Walla Walla is a small, determined community with great, and diverse, history. Its people take great pride in their town and will go to great lengths to share that pride with you. It's a place where you'll belly up to a bar and end up sharing stories with the 3rd generation wheat farmer on your left, the renowned winemaker on your right, and, across the way, one of the country's preeminent "terroirists". The community's embrace of newcomers is what inspired Meet Your Maker and its diversity could sustain this column for years to come. Unfortunately, it's time to move on so, sadly, this is my last Meet Your Maker column. That said, here are my Top Four Favorite Things About Walla Walla -- one for each hour it will take you to get here and visit. Hope to see you soon!
4. The history
Contrary to popular opinion, Walla Walla is home to more than onions and criminals. The city is actually one of Washington's oldest (incorporated in 1862) and was originally slated to be the capitol of Washington. Baker Boyer Bank, the state's first bank, still sits in its original building at the corner of 2nd and Main Streets -- where it's been since 1869. Walla Walla's lovingly maintained downtown houses many of the area's tasting rooms and restaurants and these gracefully aged structures make a stroll down Main Street not only pleasant to the palate, but also to the eye.
The area was settled, and has grown, because of its agricultural bounty. Warm, sunny days and crisp nights, also known as the diurnal flux, both encourage and deter sugars, creating the tasty, crisp, delights that made Washington apples -- and now grapes -- so famous in the first place. Generations of families have farmed and cared for land here and this inherited expertise shines in the hand of natives such as Walla Walla Vintners' Gordy Venneri and Justin Wylie of Va Piano Vineyards.
3. The neighbors
While locals may consider it a haul, a trip to the neighboring towns of Waitsburg, Dayton or Milton-Freewater will take less time than getting to Ballard from...pretty much anywhere.
Milton-Freewater, Oregon, is Walla Walla's closest neighbor and a quick trip to explore the U-Pick orchards and backyard farm stands is worth the trouble. Even if you can't cart everything home in time to cook it, it's still amazing to stand in the middle of an asparagus field and realize, for all the work, a pound is worth well more than every penny you pay for it. On the other end of the spectrum is the totally unexpected surprise that is Petites Noirs, where Lan Wong and James Boulanger lovingly handcraft sinful truffles in flavors ranging from hot cinnamon and Pendleton whiskey to roasted beet and rose petal. Bonus: Speaking of sinful -- booze, gas, condoms and cigarettes are cheap in Oregon. Stock up!
To Walla Walla's North is the tiny town of Waitsburg, population 1,200, home to some of Washington's best Palouse country views and worst-kept secret sanctuaries of food. Jimgermanbar is THE destination for fans of masterful cocktail expert Jim German, who creates drinks that are emotions in a glass -- yes, even the shedding of a tear has been witnessed. In Jimgermanbar's minute kitchen, Jim's wife Claire Johnston mixes up flavors from around the world in salads, small bites and entrees, and, to the delight of diners, can be heard enthusiastically hand-pounding each and every mouth-watering schnitzel ordered. Across the street at the Whoopemup Hollow Cafe Ross Stevenson and his talented crew spice it up with creative takes on classic Southern dishes -- from gumbo and jumbalaya to crawfish pie, hush puppies, and attitude. A post-gorge walk down this tiny town's Main Street is a joy for photographers with its picturesque buildings and quirky shops. Steer clear of Waitsburg Hardware & Mercantile or you're as likely to go home with a kitten or puppy as you are a roll of duct tape.
Izzy the Camel is also one of the great things about Waitsburg. Bring carrots!
Just a few miles East of Waitsburg lies the town of Dayton, a town pulling itself up by the bootstraps after its biggest employer, the Jolly Green Giant, closed its asparagus canning factory in 2005. But for every door that closes, another opens, right? Proof positive is Reggie Mace, modern day renaissance man of mead. Not only is this bearded daredevil crafting surprisingly tasty mead for the masses at Dayton's Mace Mead Works, he's also bottling up some to-die-for red wines under his Mortal Vintner label. Just outside of Dayton is the picturesque Monteillet Fromagerie, where Pierre-Louis and Joan Monteillet -- who have a love story for the ages -- nurse a gorgeous family of goats and sheep to create hand-crafted chevres, crackers, butters, spreads and other delights. Watching how hard these two bust their asses to live their dream is true inspiration.
Wheat is King around Walla Walla but any chef will tell you, the quality, freshness and variety of other crops, from asparagus to peaches, is unmatched. It's not surprising then to learn that most chefs are serving up foods that may have started the day in a field before ending it in your belly. French favorite Brasserie Four, Italian-inspired T. Maccarone's, and forever friendly Public House 124 are three of downtown's most popular restaurants with a focus on the fresh and seasonal, not to mention the best places for people watching-- for tourists and locals alike. Whitehouse-Crawford is the local spot for romance with classic, but creative, fare and its historical setting. For those on the move, Andrae Bopp caters to hungry wine tasters with his indulgent mobile food truck and drive-thru at the local Farmer's Co-Op gas station. An example of indulgent? The AK-47: a poutine-topped, bacon-wrapped, ¼ lb. hot dog.
Breakfast and sweets also figure prominently in the wine country diet. The fresh-made gelato, pastries and cakes at Colville Street Patisserie rival any big-city bakery and the ginormous Apple Pancake at next-door neighbor the Maple Counter Cafe, has folks lining the street on weekends. A favorite hangover cure is a full 2 oz. morning pour and huevos rancheros at spunky Bacon & Eggs.
Yeah, duh. This is a given because the quality and range of wines made in Walla Walla is simply astounding. Most people don't even realize that Washington is the second-largest grape growing region in the country, much less that many of the wines it produces rival even Old World standards. But what I love best are the stories of the winemakers helping to propel Washington wine to the forefront of the international palate. There's the maverick, the protege, the pioneer, the nice guy, the natural, the mathematician, the rebel, and the tunnel-visioned believer -- and that's just scratching the surface. Washington's is still a young wine community, in the scheme of things, but it's one with lifetimes of stories its makers tell with their wines. Let's hope you're listening -- and tasting.
Check out the "Meet Your Maker" archive.