Some 4.5 hours southeast of Bellevue, the heart of Washington State wine country beats in the Walla Walla valley. Verdant vineyards form the epicenter in an otherwise vast rolling landscape of dryland wheat. Local wineries are known for robust Bordeaux varietals like Merlot and increasingly for funky, savory Rhone varietals like Syrah grown in river-stone vineyards. Falling in love with the wines and forging relationships with the valley’s winemaking personalities happen almost immediately, but visitors often find themselves just as enamored with the charming downtown and bustling culture of Walla Walla itself. It doesn’t take long for wine-tasting visitors to catch the urge to belong to this community seeking inside tips from winemakers on how to live like a local.
In response to this observation, the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance (WWVWA) polled some of the region’s favorite winemakers for their favorite spots to eat, drink, relax, explore and enjoy life. They compiled several single-day itineraries into a limited-run curated experience spanning the fall season. Each Saturday from October 14 through December 16, 2017, participants will gain access to a new winemaker’s itinerary for a self-guided pay-as-you-go local experience. Prior registration is free online at WallaWallaWine.com/WWander but required for itinerary access and includes additional perks like complimentary tastings at select wineries, wine club privileges for the day, property tours and winemaker talks. The itineraries are completely unedited by the WWVWA and therefore reflect the personalities of the individual winemakers in refreshing ways.
A group of writers convened in the valley earlier this fall for a sneak peek into the campaign. We followed Woodward Canyon’s Rick Small’s itinerary. He grew up in the area and is considered one of the Walla Walla valley’s wine industry godfathers, along with Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellars. Because the winery is transitioning to the next generation, the itinerary also includes picks from his daughter, Jordan Dunn-Small.
We started the day with coffee and pastries at Colville Street Patisserie, a popular morning hangout, which opened in 2005. Owners David Christensen and Tiffany Cain bought the patisserie in 2008 and source many of the ingredients locally. The wheat for the pastries actually comes from Small’s Family Farm, the plums for the gelato from a local orchard. Coffee is roasted at Walla Walla Roastery out at the airport. The shop is best known for its laminated dough French pastries, particularly the kouign-amann—like a croissant taken to the next level with more sugar, salt and shattering crust.
Fortified, we headed to Pioneer Park for a morning stroll. The park was designed by John C. Olmsted, brother of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, and contains all of the signature Olmsted features including waterfalls, a gathering place, an educational component and recreational facilities. Sprawling lawns thick as emerald carpet spread out under massive 100-year-old sycamore trees. Ducks and geese frolic on the pond while an aviary houses peacocks, a collection of exotic pheasants and other birds. From the bandstand, it’s easy to imagine families enjoying Fourth of July activities on the lawn like an episode of the Gilmore Girls.
Reinvigorated by the fresh air, we began the wine-tasting portion of the day at Woodward Canyon a few miles west of town out on highway 12. The renovated farmhouse serves as a tasting room and is adjacent to L’Ecole No 41’s schoolhouse winery. We gathered out back on the patio surrounded by beautiful flowers, trees and a pizza oven. Jordan Dunn-Small poured Woodward Canyon Bordeaux blends while telling us about her family’s commitment to the valley and sustainable farming practices. From there, we drove to Long Shadows Vintners’ production facility with a beautiful appointment-only tasting room and event space. Shiny black surfaces and colorful Chihuly glass sculptures, including a purple chandelier, made our tasting feel festive as we watched puffy clouds dapple the hills with shadows through floor-to-ceiling windows lining two sides. The wine lineup featured a different world-class winemaker for each style—some of Rick Small’s favorites are Feather Cabernet Sauvignon by Randy Dunn and Chester-Kidder by Allen Shoup and Gilles Nicault.
Back downtown, we lunched at Brasserie Four, a French bistro serving classic dishes like Small’s favorite, moules frites. My bouillabaisse was easily the best I’ve ever tasted, with a slightly spicy tomato-fennel broth and succulent scallops, mussels and tender halibut. As Small suggested, I ordered “something foreign” to wash it down—in this case, a rich Côte de Beaune Chardonnay.
Heading south of town, we stopped in at Tertulia Cellars. Latin for a “social gathering,” Tertulia has a modern tasting room lit by its signature red lamp lined by a circle of friends dancing around the edges. We tasted Syrah and a stellar G-S-M from their Riviere Galets Estate Vineyard in the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater while taking a lesson from winemaker and pétanque aficionado Ryan Raber. Pétanque players will roll their eyes when the game is compared to better-known boccie ball, but it is a similar concept, though played on gravel instead of grass.
Our pétanque diversion ran a little long and we weren’t able to stop at Klicker’s Antique and Fruit Store, the retail storefront for famed Klicker’s Strawberry Acres. Small suggests picking up fall décor and pumpkins there. Instead, we picked up tacos from Mi Pueblito and headed to Burwood Brewing Company in the airport district’s incubator project. The shrimp fajita taco went swimmingly with the light-bodied pilsner. While snacking on some of the best tortilla chips I’ve had in recent history, who should roll in the door but local “rock star” winemaker Charles Smith and an entourage of visiting industry folks.
Against our better judgment, we finished the itinerary with one last food stop—dessert at Whitehouse-Crawford downtown near the Marcus Whitman Hotel. Several rounds of twice-baked chocolate cake with salted caramel ice cream later, many of us chose to walk back to our hotel, letting the crisp autumn air bathe our faces in its charming small-town glow.
For more information, visit WallaWallaWine.com/WWander.
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