The Walla Walla AVA in the eastern part of this state offers superb festivals, dining and touring options, says Paul Gregutt. Read the Washington State travel guide, including the best wineries to visit, plus top places to stay, eat, shop and relax. As published in the Decanter April 2013 issue.
Walla Walla AVA fact file:
Planted area: 130,630ha (31% in Oregon, 69% in Washington)
Total plantings: 647ha: Cabernet Sauvignon 41%, Merlot 26%, Syrah 16%, Cabernet Franc 4%, Sangiovese 2%, Chardonnay 2%, Viognier 1%, other reds 7%, other whites 1%
Elevation: 120m to 600m
Washington State Wine country can seem like the end of the earth – even for those of us who live here. Eastern Washington, where most wine grapes are grown, is principally a barren desert. Blistering hot and bone dry in the summer, with bone-chilling cold in the winter, to the unwary it can seem uninviting at best. But there is a landscape of spectacular beauty if you know where to look, and for value, variety, amenities, quality and convenience, wine touring in Washington offers an experience that can equal, and often surpass, what you will find anywhere else in the country.
Though Washington is often seen as a relative newcomer to fine wine production, commercially made wines date back to the late 1960s. Today the state is home to more than 700 wineries and is the number two wine producer in the country. A long way behind California, of course, except where it counts – in quality and value.
Those who want to experience Washington wines first-hand will find many surprises. Despite its reputation for endless rain, western Washington has dry summers, with moderate temperatures. There are dozens of wineries within a short drive from the Seattle-Tacoma airport. But what you will not find here are vineyards. Yes, there are a few hectares scattered on the various islands of Puget Sound, and a few more up in Woodinville, but for all intents and purposes, Washington wine grapes are grown in the eastern half of the state.
The Cascade mountain range, which runs from the Canadian border south and on into Oregon, divides Washington into a wet (west) side and dry (east) side. The dry side is where the vineyards are. It’s mostly desert, quite hot in the summer and reliably sunny. It’s also vast. The (almost) allencompassing Columbia Valley AVA contains nigh on 4.5 million hectares, and the many sub-AVAs are scattered throughout this vast region.
Walla Walla wonders
If time is a constraint, make Walla Walla your main destination. It’s an easy 50-minute flight from Seattle and plops you into the heart of a region lush with vineyards, wheat fields, row crops, rolling hills and a thriving tourist industry. Within the Walla Walla AVA are 120 producing wineries and more than 100 tasting rooms, many set amid well-tended vineyards. The officially designated wine region spills over the state line into Oregon, bordered to the east and south by the Blue Mountains. Vineyards on both sides offer diverse soils and have proven very successful with Rhône and Bordeaux grapes.
The city of Walla Walla was one of the first to be founded in Washington State. Settlers heading west in covered wagons began to arrive in the mid-1800s, and many stayed for the moderate climate and rich, productive soils. The town is ringed by the snowcapped Blue Mountains, verdant vineyards and thousands of unbroken acres of rolling, wheat- covered hills, known as the Palouse. Superb dining and year-round recreational and cultural activities make it worth visiting for a full week if you have the time. The town celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2012, and was recently designated the Friendliest Small Town in America. Walla Walla’s Main Street is packed with century-old brick buildings that are home to numerous well-appointed tasting rooms, restaurants, boutiques and galleries.
Among the best-known wineries are Abeja, Cayuse, Canoe Ridge, Dunham Cellars, K Vintners, L’Ecole No 41, Leonetti Cellar, Northstar, Pepper Bridge, Walla Walla Vintners and Woodward Canyon. In the past decade they’ve been joined by more than 100 boutiques, so wine-tasting opportunities abound. The best times to visit, not surprisingly, are the spring months of May and June, and the harvest season, which extends from early September through late October. At these times temperatures are moderate, the skies are clear, the wineries are humming with activity and the locally grown produce, organically farmed meats, farmhouse cheeses and other local products are widely available.
There are a few weekends each year during which virtually all wineries open to visitors. Spring Release Weekend (3–5 May in 2013) is when they will pour the new white wines from the previous autumn’s harvest, and reds from the two previous vintages. Library selections are often available too, and many wineries offer food and live music. Be forewarned – the limited lodging and dining options mean that reservations are essential.
Following close on the heels of Spring Release is a key non-wine event for the region – the Balloon Stampede Weekend (May 10–12), during which dozens of hot-air balloons cloister at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds. Soon after there is the rechristened Celebrate Walla Walla event, scheduled for 20–22 June. This year the varietal focus will be on Cabernet Sauvignon, with tastings and seminars featuring more than 70 Walla Walla Valley winemakers, and regional wine critics.
The second major wine tasting weekend is Fall Release, on 1–3 November. Though it falls just outside the optimal weather window, it can often be surprisingly mild. Harvest is wrapping up, wineries are soaked in the scent of newly fermenting grapes, and the buzz of the grape crush energises everyone. Autumn colours are still in evidence, the air is crisp and clean, and there are rich autumnal menus at all the local restaurants, perfect for the ripe red wines being debuted. This is the most under-rated and often most delightful time to visit, as it’s busy but not overcrowded, never too hot, and rarely very cold.
How to get there:
By plane: To Seattle, then take a connecting flight to Walla Walla.
By car: From Seattle to Walla Walla – the five-hour drive includes a moderately steep mountain pass that can be snowbound from November to March.
Written by Decanter