— WALLA WALLA WASHINGTON — Most people think of Walla Walla as an agricultural area primarily known for Walla Walla Sweet Onions and, of late, its budding wine industry. However, there is a cultural and historical side to this small countrified town that should be explored. Walla Walla is also home to some of Washington States’ best Golf courses.
For the last two years, Walla Walla was chosen as ‘America’s Best Wine Region’ in the USA Today 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards. While garnering these awards, Walla Walla has a blossoming farm-to-table culinary scene and strives to enhance the beautiful qualities of this central Washington town, making it more appealing every day.
Today with wine being Walla Walla’s primary industry, one can discover 120 wineries and 2800 acres of grapes.
Walla Walla in Native American means place of many waters. Walla Walla’s original settlement was at the junctions of the Snake and Columbia Rivers, so the name seems apropos.
Walla Walla is a relaxed, laid-back town with a casual atmosphere that emphasizes its agricultural community and cultural endeavors.~Cori Solomon
1. The Journey to Walla Walla
The beauty of Walla Walla begins as you travel down the Columbia Gorge. You move from the lush green treelined horizon filled with waterfalls and the presence of Mount Hood in the background to the barren desert of Eastern Washington.
Think of yourself traveling down the Colorado River in Arizona with the red rock formations all around you, carving their way along the river, then changing color palette to browns, ocher, and mustard color. You have an image of the depth and beauty of the Columbia Gorge.
Soon you begin to see vineyards lining the banks of the Columbia River. The changing landscape takes you on a journey that moves through agricultural lands and into the small-town charm of Walla Walla.
2. Immerse in Walla Walla History
The best place to learn the history of Walla Walla is Fort Walla Walla. Give yourself an interactive glimpse of the history of the area. From the pioneer village to the various exhibits in the main building, you will discover the name Fort Walla Walla was used for several posts in southeastern Washington at different times throughout history.
Fur traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company established three structures using Fort Walla Walla as its name between 1821 and 1855. The military used the name for three separate forts. Although Walla Walla’s history started before the Lewis and Clark expedition, this military expedition put Walla Walla on the map.
The museum lies on 15-acres within Fort Walla Walla Park and is part of a 640-acre military reservation.
3. Sculpture Stroll
Stroll the Whitman College Campus, and you will discover 21 sculptures hidden around the campus. It is like a treasure hunt finding these eclectic works of art utilizing different mediums and creating a statement of diversity for the arts.
4. Main Street Walla Walla Walk
To get the flavor of Walla Walla, take a stroll down Main Street. Beginning at its iconic clock located on Main Street near 2nd Street. Pop into one of the dozens of restaurants, antique shops, art galleries, wine tasting rooms, and bars.
One eclectic shop that offers antiques, knick-knacks, and art is Tra Vigne. Housed in an old hardware store, this store even offers wine stave rocking chairs.
One must stop at Heritage Square to view “Windows of the Past,” a colorful mural composed of historical and contemporary photos from ethnic and cultural groups living in the Walla Walla Valley from 1850-1950. These images are reproduced in porcelain enamel on steel panels and inlaid on the historic façade of Henry Osterman’s 1902 Odd Fellows’ Temple. This façade came from the first significant public building in Walla Walla. In 1993, the temple was torn down, but the hand-carved sandstone façade was dismantled relocated to Heritage Square.
5. Artsy Walla Walla
Most people visit Walla Walla for its wine, but one must not forget the artistic side of Walla Walla.
- Walla Walla Foundry: If you are a sculptor casting in metal, you will cast artwork at the Walla Walla Foundry. It started in 1981 by Mark Anderson as a bronze casting operation and is now considered one of the most prominent contemporary art fabricators globally, with many renowned artists using the facilities. Today this art production house casts in a variety of materials.
The best way to visit the Foundry is over a glass of wine. The Anderson’s established vineyards in 1998. They opened their tasting room with the concept of featuring art and wine—their flagship wine, an artisan blend, commemorates artists who worked at the Foundry on the labels.
- Combine Art Collective: Enjoy an eclectic collection of art from 15 local artists. Stroll through the gallery and discover unique original art from glasswork, etchings, ceramics to whimsical sculpture. Each artist has a different style to achieve their own creative statement.
- Squire Broel Gallery: The Gallery is tucked on the second floor of a historic main street building. Squire Broel’s work crosses a brevity of contemporary subjects and is influenced by his experiences throughout the world. After graduating from Seattle Pacific University, he traveled to Southeast Asia, and you can see the influence in his art. Squire worked at the Foundry, honing his sculptural and casting skills, working with influential contemporary artists such as Jim Dine.
Working at the Chihuly glass studio allowed Squire to develop his unique style of glass art. Squire’s monumental pieces and his Totemics are found worldwide, including many locations throughout Walla Walla. For Squire, the Totemics represent the earth and markers placed upon it. Most interesting is one concept he utilizes in his paintings. Squire signs his painting on the back of the artwork, thus allowing his patron to choose what direction they want to hang the piece.
After visiting the Combine Art Collective, two artists insisted I visit Foodscape Specialty Market and Bottle Shop. It was tucked away in a commercial building that many a patron enters from the alley.
Owner Hannah MacDonald brings the Walla Walla community together by honoring the food of the valley. How about a picnic in one of Walla Walla’s many parks or wineries instead of dining out. Perhaps during a visit to Whitman College, you can enjoy lunch from Foodscape in the tranquility of Cordiner Glen, also known as Narnia.
7. Unique Winetasting Experience
Aiming to do something different, Caprio Cellars offers a food and wine paired tasting. Your tasting starts when you are greeted at the entrance with a glass of Cuvée. It sets the mood for a wonderful tasting. As you walk inside the tasting room, you feel as if you have entered someone’s home. Dennis Murphy, the proprietor, is a home builder, so he channeled his efforts into making you feel at home in his winery.
Caprio Cellars has an in-house chef. It is amazing to see the trailer kitchen; this small area produces some outstanding cuisine.
Dennis’ Italian background plays a role in his love of wine. His grandmother, Eleanor, is remembered in both the vineyard and wine named after her. Eleanor wine is a ‘must sample.’
Tastings are booked by appointment only.
8. Pioneers of the Wine Scene
A visit to one of the pioneering wineries, L’Ecole No 41, is a must while visiting Walla Walla. The Ferguson family helped establish the Washington Wine industry and Walla Walla as a prime wine region. They were the third winery founded in Walla Walla. The family’s legacy continues under Marty Clubb, son-in-law to the Ferguson’s runs the winery.
Today, the Ferguson’s are a fixture in the wine business. Still, their ancestors in 1869 established the Baker Boyer Bank in Walla Walla and the oldest bank in Washington State. With six generations in banking and three in the wine business, the Ferguson’s presence dominates Walla Walla’s history. Today, their continued focus lies in promoting Walla Walla wine in their L’Ecole No 41 winery.
The name L’Ecole No 41 refers to the schoolhouse housing the winery and tasting room. The schoolhouse built in 1915 is located in the historic community west of Walla Walla called Frenchtown. Frenchtown got its name from the French-Canadians who settled in the valley in the 1800s. The winery’s name comes from the French term for school, L’Ecole, and the winery’s district, number 41.
A characteristic of L’Ecole wines is the consistent balance. I have enjoyed every wine I have sampled from this winery.
FAVORITES: in white, the Columbia Valley Semillon, and the Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in red.
9. Take in More Wineries
- Gramercy Cellars: Specializing in Rhône and Bordeaux wines, Greg Harrington and Brandon Moss started focusing on Syrah. Today they have expanded their range and showcase their wines. In Washington, their motto is “old-world-meets-new Rhône and Bordeaux varietals.” Many Gramercy Rhône varieties are showcased as single-vineyard estate wines that come from one of three estate vineyards.
FAVORITES: In white, the Viognier is like no other with its bright acidity and creamy textures that enhance the tropical fresh fruit flavors. For Reds, I suggest the “Third Man” Grenache and the L’Idiot due Village Mourvédre. The latter is an excellent representation of the complexity that is found in Mourvédre and is often overlooked.
- The Walls Vineyards: To understand The Walls, one must know what it stands for in Walla Walla. The Walls is what locals call the Washington State Penitentiary. It signifies Walla Walla’s least talked about but perhaps most infamous landmark. Also called the “Concrete Mama,” it represents two different sides of Walla Walla. One signifies the contrast between what goes on inside where lives seem frozen in time while outside the town continues to grow and prosper.
For owner Mike Martin it is a metaphor for our lives. We all put up walls to protect ourselves and constantly battle to bring those walls down. Mike sees wine as a channel to break down those walls, especially when looking at the social aspect of wine bringing us together.
FAVORITES: McAndrew a Chardonnay, blending three clones, including a suitcase clone from Puligny Montrachet, and named after Dr. McAndrew, the first to plant grapes in the Columbia River Gorge.
Mahana is a blend of primarily Syrah, Viognier, and Grenache. Stanley Groovy is an unusual wine blend of Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, Tinta Cao, and Souzāo.
10. Sourdough Pancakes & Bacon Waffles
On a visit to Walla Walla, one must not miss having breakfast or brunch at The Maple Counter Café. Be prepared for a huge meal. I promise you will walk away stuffed. The proprietors Kory and Rachel Nagler perfected their famous pancake batter that comes from a sourdough barrel, the traditional method of nurturing yeast.
11. The Lunch Bunch
- Yamas Greek Eatery: Enjoy traditional Greek cuisine. This family-style restaurant features authentic Greek favorites. The Greek Salad was perfect.
- AK’s Mercado: Chef Bopp combines smokehouse barbecue with Oaxacan and other Mexican Cuisines. His restaurant started in a gas station and has progressed to its current local on Main Street. It is a local gathering place.
Try the Corn Salad if it is in season. The salad combines corn, aioli, parmesan, Cayenne, and tortilla chips. It is unique and different.
12. The Dining Scene
- TMACS: This trendy upscale restaurant with its outdoor patio offers farm-to-table cuisine created by Executive Chef Jose Meza. The service at this restaurant is excellent. One must take a peek at TMACS Epicurean Kitchen, where you can pick up local gourmet delights.
I enjoyed a RR Ranch Beef Tenderloin with parsnip puree, black garlic, green beans, baby potatoes, and wild fig demi-glace.
- Passotempo Taverna: From its beginnings as the Pastime restaurant, it was known as a family affair. Passotempo pays tribute to that Walla Walla restaurant but with a new modern flair. Combining the talents of two of Seattle’s restauranteurs and attorney turned vintner Mike Martin, they turned this Walla Walla fixture into a contemporary hip spot to dine and drink.
The restaurant features rustic Italian cuisine. One must try the pasta because it is made by hand. Another favorite dish is the chicken. The Walls wine studio is attached to the restaurant making this restaurant the perfect place to wine and dine.
- Walla Walla Steak Co.: Located at Walla Walla’s historic train depot, the restaurant welcomes you to the city with its traditionally classic steak house menu. The only difference, the restaurant features locally grown seasonal produce and certified USDA Prime and Choice Angus beef from Cattle Company Beef.
13. Modern Accommodations
For those who like contemporary retro lodging, The Finch is the place to stay. Think post and beam architecture meets modern convenience. Each room is uniquely appointed with infographic wall installations by regional and local artists, telling the guests stories about the experiences waiting outside their door. The retro refrigerator caught my eye immediately.
Often you will find a food truck stationed on the property offering various types of food.
14. Stay in Old World Charm
Immerse yourself in the history of Walla Walla with a stay at the Marcus Whitman. Old-world charm greets you as you enter the grand lobby of the hotel. The hotel, built in 1928, this premier hotel offers luxury and comfort in each guest suite. The Marcus Whitman is the tallest building in Walla Walla, so you cannot miss this icon.
The hotel is centrally located within walking distance of Main Street, cafes, galleries, and tasting rooms. The hotel even houses some of Walla Walla’s great tasting rooms.
Walla Walla is a relaxed, laid-back town with a casual atmosphere that emphasizes its agricultural community and cultural endeavors. For those who love Washington State wine, Walla Walla is the entrance to the Columbia Valley; the city, therefore, becomes the ambassador to Washington wines.
*Opening photo ©Visit Walla Walla
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Last Updated on October 2, 2021