Situated between the Blue Mountains in the southeast and the low, rolling hills of the Palouse to the north, the Walla Walla Valley (mainly in Washington but crossing into Oregon) has a unique topography. While it feels in a low position compared with the nearby mountains and hills, the Walla Walla Valley – itself a sub-region of the larger Columbia Valley AVA – is actually at 300m altitude.
It also has an ideal climate for winegrowing. Four hours’ drive east are the dry, sunny plains of Idaho, while the same distance west is coastal Seattle, boasting more rainy days a year than almost anywhere else on the US West Coast.
The Walla Walla Valley enjoys the middle ground: moderate rainfall, sunny days and slightly cooler temperatures than Washington’s more westerly Yakima Valley AVA.
But it’s not that simple, as within the Walla Walla Valley AVA there are clear differences. Its eastern border, which abuts the Blue Mountains, is colder and gets three times more rain than the west.
This makes the valley’s wines difficult to define in terms of regional typicity. Consequently there is a focus here on individual vineyards and their distinct terroirs.
To date, the Walla Walla Valley only has one official sub-AVA, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, on the Oregon side of the valley, but there are moves to define more.
The Walla Walla Valley’s ascent from farming to renowned wine region has happened largely over the past 30 years. But three founding Washington wineries were making a name for themselves well before that: Leonetti Cellar (founded 1977), Woodward Canyon (1981) and L’Ecole No41 (1983).
The region became an AVA in 1984, and between then and 2010 a 100 new wineries joined those three pioneers. Today, there are more than 120 producers in the Walla Walla Valley.
Walla Walla Valley: top tasting rooms to try
This modern, artistic winery and tasting room has a southwestern bohemian vibe. Co-owner and fashion designer Kelly Austin’s keen eye is evident in everything from the winery’s furnishings and art to the colourful, textural and eclectic wine labels. And the wines are equally as unique. Don’t expect big toasty reds or your usual Syrah and Bordeaux varieties. At Grosgrain, visitors will find a diverse collection of site-specific wines and rare offerings such as a Lemberger Pét-Nat and crisp Albariño. Tasting appointments recommended, but they accommodate walk-ins based on availability.
- Address: 2158 Half Acre Lane, Walla Walla, WA 99362
- Open: Thursday-Monday 10am-5pm
Doug Frost, a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier, started this project in 2018 with friend Brad Bergman and brought on Taylor Oswald as winemaker. Their vineyards and winery are actually across the border in Oregon, on the southern border of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, but this venue in downtown Walla Walla is their tasting room. Echolands sources fruit from expressive sites within the AVA – such as Les Collines, Blue Mountain and Seven Hills – that produce ageworthy wines. Varieties include Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Production is very limited, with only a few wines to try in the tasting room and some wines available only to wine club members. The tasting experience at Echolands is educational yet relaxed.
- Address: 7 West Alder, Walla Walla, WA 99362
- Open: Thursday-Monday 11am-5pm
Prospice (‘look to the future’ in Latin) was founded in 2017 by Matt Reilly and Jay Krutulis with a shared desire to produce elegant, expressive wines from top-quality Washington fruit. The boutique winery has already found acclaim, particularly for its Resurgent Vineyard Syrah from a high-elevation hillside site near The Rocks District. To date, the winery’s focus has been on Rhône varieties, including working with a local viticulturalist and grape grower to find the right sites for Grenache in Walla Walla Valley, however, they also make several wines from Bordeaux blends from top vineyards in the AVA. Reservations are required for the 60- to 75-minute tasting experiences, which include six wines.
- Address: 145 E Curtis Ave, Walla Walla, WA 99362
- Open: Fridays-Saturdays 11am-6pm, Sundays 11am-5pm
Founded in 2006, Rotie Cellars, named for owner-winemaker (and former geologist) Sean Boyd’s favourite northern Rhône region, was one of the first wineries in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater to plant Rhône varieties. This sub-AVA of the Walla Walla Valley is actually on the Oregon side of the border and is the only one in the US defined by its soil type: well-draining, gravelly, rocky solis that serve as heat conductors for the vines and contribute to lower yields and intense, floral wines. Boyd’s aim is to make ‘traditional Rhône blends with Washington State fruit’ (although those with The Rocks designation are from Oregon). They all have moderate alcohols and see very little or no new oak. Tastings are by appointment only.
- Address: 84328 Trumbull Ln, Milton-Freewater, OR 97862
- Open: daily for appointments at 11am, 12:30pm, 2pm, 3:30pm
On land that was once an airfield during World War II, the Airport District is now home not only to the Walla Walla airport but also a collection of wineries, breweries and distilleries operating out of renovated hangars, mess halls and garages. It also houses the Port of Walla Walla Regional Airport Incubator Program, which helps small craft drinks brands launch their businesses affordably. Current micro-winery incubator tasting rooms include: Eternal Wines & Drink Washington State, Smak Wines (100% rosé focused) and Itä Wines.
- Open: varied; check each business’s website
- Address: Piper Ave, Walla Walla, WA 99362
Downtown Walla Walla: where to eat
Opened in 2022 just a few blocks from the city centre, Kinglet offers fine dining from its late-1800s premises that was once a tree-processing mill. Named after the tiny but tenacious kinglet bird found in the Blue Mountains that flank the Walla Walla Valley, the restaurant’s focus is on seasonal, local and sustainable ingredients. Reserve seats at the communal chef’s counter and enjoy the five-course tasting menu, with or without wine pairings.
- Address: 55 W Cherry St, Walla Walla, WA 99362
- Open: Thursday-Sunday from 4:30pm
With its retro-style booths and 1950s-era cocktail glasses, Passatempo exudes a casual neighbourhood Italian ristorante feel. Dig into a plate of handmade pasta, gnocchi or slice of sourdough pizza, made using ingredients sourced from local farms and specialty purveyors.. Highlights include the carbonara pasta made with organic farm-fresh eggs, pork and prosciutto meatballs, and rigatoni alla Bolognese.
- Address: 215 W Main St, Walla Walla, WA 99362
- Open: Thursday-Monday 4pm-9:30pm
While there are many great spots for tacos in Walla Walla, AK’s Mercado is known for its large homemade corn tortillas as well as gluttonous menu items such as voodoo fries with pulled pork and jalapeños. Locals can’t get enough of the braised short rib, smoked brisket, grilled fish, mole and braised pork tacos topped with pickled onions or veggies, cotija cheese and chipotle or serrano aioli.
- Address: 21 E Main St, Walla Walla, WA 99362
- Open: Thursday-Tuesday 11am-10pm
Walla Walla Valley: beyond wine
While wine is the primary drawcard of the Walla Walla Valley, there’s much more for visitors to do. For active outdoors lovers there’s skiing and snowshoeing during winter, and in warmer months there’s cycling (or renting electric bikes), kayaking or bird watching. Downtown Walla Walla has also become a haven for artists: there’s a number of studios and galleries, sculptures dotted around the city and the Whitman College campus, and First Friday Art Tours held each month. The region is also home to the Tour of Walla Walla (a criterium cycling race) in early June, Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine (a social and educational wine event) in July, and the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede in late October.