Before I start on this post — let me make a big apology to Walla Walla lovers. I too love this place but I have gotten too casual about it (I go quite often) and so when I first wrote up this blog post, I really didn’t check my spelling, facts, etc. the way I would for most places. So, the result, predictably, was lots of errors. Fortunately, this site has keen observers and they have made corrections. I humbly put them in, grateful — and embarrassed.
My sentiments still stand…the names of inns and restaurants have been changed to their rightful spelling.
Very high on my list of romantic getaways is a wine country retreat. Most people have at least name recognition with the wine country of Napa Valley, Sonoma, Santa Rosa, and the contiguous valleys that go all the way up Humboldt county — but little Walla Walla is a jewel that is less known — but no less worthy.
This town is in the wine region of Washington state and is home to more than over 100 wineries, about 80 of which are open to the public either on weekends or by appointment. The quality of the wine is superb, the scenery is stunning, and there are fine restaurants and places to stay.
Why don’t you know about it? Because unlike Napa or Sonoma, Walla Walla is not a short drive from a major city. It is about a five hour drive from Seattle or a quick one hour flight. But it isn’t something that most people will do for an afternoon or on a short mini visit to the Northwest. But if you’re in the mood for romance (or fine wine) you are really missing something.
First of all, Walla Walla is like what a California wine town must have been 40 years ago, a small turn of the century downtown that is more for locals than visitors. There are very few “tourist shops,” although there are plenty of tasting rooms and festivals. Locals will fill the fine restaurants unless you get your reservations in early (if you like truly wondrous food that you aren’t upset paying top dollar for, book Saffron as soon as you arrive). Also very good: T. Maccarones and another favorite of mine is Brasserie Four — where I am boringly attached to the yummy Mussels and Yam frites. Whitehouse-Crawford is usually very good but I have to admit I had a mediocre meal last time I was there. Olive is a new yuppified restaurant with good lattes, great lunches, picnic supplies and a very good selection of wine.
The fun and the romance however goes beyond roaming the in town tasting rooms ( I particularly like Tru for Champagne, Da Ma for very good wine with great cowboy art on the label and Rollat ). Get a car and go to the Oregon border (about ten minutes from downtown Walla Walla) for deluxe scenery — rolling green hills in the spring, yellow in the summer and fall — and the beautiful Blue Mountains (they do have a blueish cast) in the background. Tasting wines in the informal and modestly priced (or free) rooms is intimate (be sure to make someone the designated driver though — some of these wineries pour very generously).
The Washington side of the line has some alluring tasting rooms with knock-your-socks-off wine. Bereson is a casual place with excellent wine. Nearby is Saviah, Va Piano and Waters (which has an especially pretty setup). I buy all of their wines. Go up the hill and you see bigger operations: Pepperbridge, (known for their Merlot) and Northstar, also known for their reds.
Tertulia Cellars and Amavi have architecturally interesting rooms. If you make a private appointment you can see Garrison Creek. This is a gorgeous winery set in acres and acres of wine grapes. Sipping their wine looking out at the Blue Mountains is about as romantic as you can get (but go early in the summer if you can. They are a small boutique producer and their wine sells fast). If you cross the Oregon border you can visit Zerba, which has a tiny log cabin on the highway, and Watermill Winery, which is right in Working Class Milton-Freewater producing a very fancy Malbec and great hard cider.
But that’s just one part of the area. There are amazing wineries on Highway 12, including one of my all time favorites, Woodward Canyon. L’Ecole is in a lovingly restored school house and is a big producer of moderate and excellent red wines. They also make two high end wines — Apogee and Perigee (delicious!) A classy experience all around can be had at Long Shadows, a collective of six wine makers who have made a big success of their wines (they must have: the tasting room is decorated with a number of impressive Chihuly glass creations). The wine has won all kinds of awards.
Finally, the last intense area of wineries is out by the airport. The Port of Walla Walla has built numerous small industrial type buildings — unadorned but cheaper to rent, so that they can “incubate” young winemakers and wineries who can’t afford to do a more presentational tasting room. It is fun and efficient walking around them.
On the other side of the highway are some more excellent wineries — and some more beautiful scenery — Walla Walla Vintners, Abeja, a’Maurice, and K Vinters (who recently got a 100 on their Royal City brand and whose Syrahs are justly famed). Speaking of Abeja, that’s the place I like to stay and it wins the romance sweepstakes in any state. Two couples collaborated on putting the winery and an inn together to make a destination inn. I have been there seven or eight times, but let me warn you, you have to win the lottery (literally!) to get in there on spring barrel and other important wine weekends. They have a lottery for people on their wine list and there are only nine rooms to be had. But what fabulous rooms they are!
This time I stayed in the summer kitchen that used to be a small farm outbuilding but now has a modern small living room and kitchen, and upstairs a big tub (two people can definitely cuddle in there), a shower and a big bed overlooking the vineyards. It is decorated beautifully with fluffy towels and quilts and big robes to make you feel well taken care of. A new room, just finished in July, is called Edison and it is a beautiful big bedroom and kitchen with an enormous window looking out into and among the trees that makes you feel like you are in a tree house. I have seen all the rooms — I would be happy to stay in any of them.
The innkeeper Mary is delightful, and a fine cook. Your room comes with breakfast and this July visit we had lemon soufflé pancakes one morning and a superb herb and cheese omelet the other next day. Sitting out in the garden under the trees, soft breezes rustling by us, hearing the river beneath us — it doesn’t get better than that.
If you can’t stay at Abeja, there are other charming places. Try Walla Walla Inns and Walla Faces Winery .They have lovely apartments downtown but also a few rooms right off of Highway 12 not far from the airport that has beautiful views of the hills and a pool. Girasol is also situated among wine fields very close to Pepper bridge and Northstar and is very romantic. The major hotel in the city, the Marcus Whitman, has been renovated and has a classy lobby and restaurant. If you wanted a place to stay in town so that you could eat and drink a lot and not have to drive, this would be a good choice.
During the winter Walla Walla is a pretty sleepy (and cold) college town, but starting in late March and going until November it comes into its own as a romantic destination. It gets hot in late spring and very hot in July and August.
The whole area is getting into the wine and food act now and two nearby towns also are quite charming and have attractions. Waitsburg has the Jimgermanbar which is renowned for its owner’s mixology, and the Whoopem-Up Café with celebrated home cooking. Dayton has a Fromagerie (a goat farm that produces cheese) with international interns and seriously good products). These places make for enjoyable excursions.
The area is growing every year. Each time I go I hear more international accents but so far, I haven’t seen the kind of buses that invade Napa on summer weekends. I hope it doesn’t come to that (although I love Napa despite the heavy tourism and I will write about it soon in my list of the country’s most romantic places). Still, I would say see Walla Walla now — it has a casual charm that won’t last forever.