If you’re planning your first visit to Walla Walla wine country take our advice and approach it as you would the wines themselves: with a Walla Walla wine tasting.
Although the city of Walla Walla has a delicious small-town feel, the wineries are quite spread out and individual. Each has its own special charms deserving of your undivided attention. In order to fully appreciate all that this scenic area has to offer, take your time and savor the experience rather than rush through in an attempt to squeeze in as many wineries as possible. Yes, this will mean that you may only visit a very small portion of the more than 120 wineries, but don’t worry you will be back.
As many before you can attest to it is hard to resist Walla Walla’s charms and she will surely leave you madly in love and wanting more.
Based on our own first Walla Walla experience we suggest you spend a couple of days with Jim of Tesla Winery Tours. Yes, Tesla, as in the famous American made electric car championed by the likes of Elon Musk. Jim, an ex Las Vegas police officer, a contributor to a greener earth and lover of all things space agey, relocated to Walla Walla with a plan to start a new business. He and his wife, Julia, fell in love with Walla Walla years ago and had been visiting as often as possible while waiting for the time they could call it home. When that time finally came Jim put several of his passions together and created Tesla Winery Tours, one of the areas best and most unique ways to explore this beautiful valley. After all, going green is the new sexy!
Jim will custom design a tour to perfectly suit your needs and wants, or you can do as we did and put yourself in his capable hands. Again, as a first-timer, we suggest the latter. The only thing we told Jim was that we would like to get a taste of each of the six regions that loosely make up the Walla Walla Valley. These are listed as Westside, Downtown, Airport, Eastside, Southside and Oregon.
Following is a sampling of what our first taste of Walla Walla wine country looked like. We didn’t feel rushed or overwhelmed and yet came away with a good sense of what this scenic region has to offer and a desire to hurry back for seconds.
Update November, 2018: We are very sad to say that our friend and colleague Jim Wright passed away and will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him. Walla Walla has lost a good man. However, we’re happy to hear that Christopher Wood is carrying on with Jim’s legacy and Tesla Winery Tours will continue to be a great choice for a Walla Walla Wine tasting tour.
Walla Walla Wine Tasting
Westside Wine Region
If you drive into Walla Walla from Seattle you will drive through the Westside wine region and past some of the Valley’s oldest and most established wineries. When you see L’Ecole and Waterbrook you’ll know you’re just minutes from town.
Long Shadows Vintners
The distinguished and unique Long Shadows Vintners is the creation of Allen Shoup. After leading Chateau Ste Michelle for almost two decades Mr Shoup realized a new dream by building a state-of-the-art winery in Walla Walla.
One of the things that make this winery so unique is the fact that each of the seven wines coming out of Long Shadows is produced by one of seven highly acclaimed vintners from the major wine regions of the world. Also, the tasting room is one of the most elegant we’ve seen and is adorned with a collection of Chihuly glass.
Tastings are by appointment only and are served to you in a relaxed but professional manner at your very own cozy seating area.
L’Ecole No 41
L’Ecole is one of the oldest wineries in Washington and was the third winery to start-up in Walla Walla. With a name like L’Ecole (French for small school) it’s no surprise that the building that now houses the winery started out as the school of what was then known as Frenchtown in 1915. Some additions and changes have been made to the building but there are still many original details intact such as the wood floors, the window panes and the mural in the basement.
Like many wineries in Walla Walla, L’Ecole has a story. It has been family-owned since its inception in 1983 when Jean (a school teacher) and Baker (a banker) Ferguson bought the school and started making wine in the basement.
Our guide, Paul, made a statement when talking about awards that L’Ecole had won: “This award doesn’t just represent us, it represents Walla Walla as a wine community. Walla Walla rises and falls together.” Which really summed up the attitude of everyone we met in this close-knit community.
Tasting room is open daily from 10am-5pm
Southside/Oregon Wine Region
As the name suggests, this region of Walla Walla wine country lies south of town and includes the area just inside the Oregon border.
Castillo de Feliciana
A charming Spanish style building nestled in the midst of 66 acres of vineyards houses the Castillo de Feliciana tasting room. If you like the idea of sipping a Tempranillo in an idyllic setting hosted by the charming Castillo family then Castillo de Feliciana is the place.
Aside from being a lovely spot to spend an afternoon the winery is also a fun event venue. Check the online schedule for a listing of concerts, dinners, movie and trivia nights and the romantic “Salsa Under the Stars”
Tasting room is open Fri-Sun 11 am-5 pm or by appointment
Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen
For dinner, we chose the highly recommended Saffron. This intimate Mediterranean inspired restaurant is popular and small so reservations are highly recommended. The menu is also not huge but everything is so delicious that it is still difficult to choose. We opted for sharing plates and were in foodie heaven with our choices of the Mezze Plate, Patatas Bravas, Beef Cheeks and Pacific Razor Clam Flatbread.
Eastside Wine Region
East of downtown is the scenic countryside and home to several award-winning wineries as well as the growing Mill Creek community.
Walla Walla Vintners
Another great story lies behind Walla Walla Vintners and if you’re lucky enough to be hosted by co-owner Gordy Venneri, as we were, you will likely get to hear it. I’ll let Gordy tell you more, but the basic story is that he and his friend Myles Anderson were winemaking pioneers in Walla Walla when they started as hobbyists more than 30 years ago. Their hobby has come a long way since then and Walla Walla Vintners is now one of the most respected wineries in Washington and recently named “Northwest Winery of the Year 2016” by Wine Press Northwest.
Despite their hard work and success they still pride themselves in being a somewhat small production winery preferring to focus on quality over quantity, customers over corporations and traditional hands-on methods over big commercial machinery and production. As we happened to visit during harvest and crush time we were thrilled to see some of this beautiful craft first hand and even tasted some fresh crushed green wine.
Note: Stay tuned to future posts for more on Gordy and our attempt at making his famous Italian meatball recipe!
Tasting room is open Fri and Sat or by appointment
A visit to Tranche Cellars is a fabulously two-faced experience. The first impression, as you drive up, is that you’ve been transported to the French countryside with fields and meadows and grazing sheep. Then, in contrast, you walk through the doors of the tasting room and find yourself in a sleek, modern, cutting edge space which actually turns out to be a reflection of the Tranche line of wines.
If you can, take the time to enjoy your tasting, or better yet a full glass of wine, at one of the tables on the picturesque patio overlooking the aforementioned field of sheep. If there’s a chill in the air they will have the open fire pit lit and you can sink into a most comfortable state of relaxation.
Tasting room is open daily from 11 am-5 pm
Airport Wine Region
The airport region is a wonderful example of successful upcycling. The old WWII military base buildings near the airport have been transformed into 20 wineries and lovely tasting rooms. Also in this area is the Port of Walla Walla Wine Incubators. Funded by state grants and Port funds, new start-up wineries get help in the early years to enable them to develop and grow and eventually move out on their own. It’s a fabulous concept that is so telling of the Walla Walla community in general.
When approaching the WWII hanger that is now home to Dunham Cellars, the only hint of things to come is the little garden of colorful tables set up outside. Still, it doesn’t come close to preparing you for the beautiful interior. Part tasting room, part boutique shop, part lounge and gathering room, Dunham Winery is the kind of place that feels like home and makes you want to linger a good long while.
The large, open, beautifully decorated space is perfect for gatherings and can be rented out for private dinners and cocktail parties. Or if you’re timing is right try to get tickets for one of their wine lunches or dinners or plan to attend the popular Dunham Days in late summer.
We also can’t help but mention the labels on their award-winning wines. From the intricately detailed Dunham brand to the original artwork by Eric Dunham and the loveable “Four Legged White” and “Three Legged Red” tributes to winery dogs, you may want to buy them to have on display. However, the wine is so good the bottles won’t stay full for long.
Tasting room is open daily from 11 am-4 pm
The newly opened, much anticipated rustic Italian restaurant of Passatempo is the result of the combined efforts of Seattle restauranteurs, Mike Easton and Jim Germain and co-founder of The Walls Winery Mike Martin. It may be fairly new but it is already a hot spot and will often require reservations.
On the menu, you will find a rather small but carefully selected and prepared list of antipasti, pasta, meats, and salads. From personal experience, we have no hesitation in suggesting the olives, the Mozzarella e Pomodori, the Bucatini Pasta, and the melt-in-your-mouth Bistecca. Also, be sure to try a craft cocktail like the Codex or Passatempo Punch.
There are more than 25 tasting rooms scattered along the charming streets of downtown Walla Walla along with some lovely boutique shops, art galleries and eateries. The downtown core is compact and walkable so it’s easy to spend a long afternoon tasting and shopping.
We mentioned Seattle-ite and Microsoft attorney turned Walls Vineyards owner Mike Martin in the clip above about Passatempo. After falling for Walla Walla’s charms years prior, Mike had set a goal to someday start a business in this cozy community. He later met winemaker Ali Mayfield and together they started The Walls.
Walls’ wine studio and tasting room adjoin the Passatempo restaurant and there is a lovely courtyard in between for your drinking and eating pleasure. With wine names like Lip Stinger, Cruel Summer and Stanley Groovy you know you’re in for a fun tasting.
The Marcus Whitman Hotel
If you have the misfortune of visiting downtown Walla Walla on a rare rainy day, The Marcus Whitman Hotel is your answer. Not only is this historic landmark a beautiful place to relax but it’s also home to several wine shops and tasting rooms with several more right across the street.
If you manage to pull yourself away from the tasting rooms and grande lobby to explore more of downtown be sure to return for dinner at The Marc Restaurant or a cocktail in the Vineyard Lounge. We did and we were not disappointed. Four of us shared several dishes and absolutely everything was amazing. I am still dreaming about the House-Ground Burger Dip Sliders with Bacon Onion Jam.
Where to Stay in Walla Walla
You can find plenty of accommodation options in Walla Walla including your favorite budget chains but there are also some charming and unique places to lay your head after a day of tasting. Here a couple to whet your appetite:
As mentioned above the Marcus Whitman Hotel is a heritage landmark in the heart of downtown Walla Walla. Complimentary breakfast and parking are included so you can leave your car and head off on foot to explore the downtown tasting rooms or hop in the Tesla for a winery tour with a full stomach.
A luxury Bed and Breakfast housed in a gorgeous Craftsman home on one of the prettiest, historic tree-lined streets in Walla Walla. They are also well-loved for their wine dinners so if you happen to be there for one of these events be sure not to miss out.
Thank You, Walla Walla!
We would like to thank everyone we met in Walla Walla for making our time in your lovely town so special. We will be back!
Note: If you want to find out more about Walla Walla check out Visit Walla Walla
**Also please check individual websites for hours before visiting as they may change from time to time.**
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Writer, traveler, wine & food lover and co owner of Discover the Pacific Northwest and Live Dream Discover.