When when you you visit visit Washington Washington State State, , you you should should really really visit visit Walla Walla. Sorry, even after my daughter Kenna’s raised eyebrows and shake of the head in response to hearing my first line, I just could not resist the temptation.
Three years ago, Kenna committed her collegiate life to Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA, located in the very southeastern corner of Washington. Bordered by Idaho to the east and Oregon to the south, this sleepy little burg has a great history, a vibrant academic community (Whitman is rated in the top 50 Liberal Arts schools nationally and in the top ten on the West Coast by US News and World Reports), world class vineyards and wineries and of course is home to the famed Walla Walla sweet onion farms. Kenna could not have picked a better place for Sue and I to enjoy visiting our youngest coed…and we visit just about every chance we get! We were back in town three weekends ago for the Spring Release wine festival on the tail end of a rough couple of travel weeks detailed in my previous post.
Located about five hours east of Seattle, across two mountain passes and what has to be eight biospheres, Walla Walla was incorporated in 1862, but put on the map by Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa who founded a mission about four miles outside of present day main street to “help’ the native Cayuse tribe to understand and accept Christianity…people can be so giving. The couple set out from the comfort of their home in New York in May of 1836, hooked up with some fur traders and other missionaries and lit out (I love that phrase and rarely get to use it) for the Oregon Country. For those who may have forgotten their American History, the Oregon County encompassed most of the west coast in the early 1800s and was claimed by the English, the Spanish, the Russians and the French. The Whitmans got off “the train” in the middle of nowhere. Their daughter, Alice Clarissa was born a year after their arrival in 1837.
The Whitman’s were molded from incredibly hardy stock. Marcus was a licensed doctor and Narcissa was a physics and chemistry teacher, but both had aspirations of frontier mission since childhood. They built an outpost comprised of multiple buildings by hand, raised sufficient crops for themselves and travelers and took in a total of eleven orphaned children. Early on, the Whitmans were cautiously accepted by the native tribespeople and
they worked with them for more than ten years, before the walls, quite literally came crashing down. In 1847, there was a severe outbreak of measles. While the Whitmans cared for and probably saved many of the natives, Cayuse tradition holds that medicine men responsible for the outcome of their patients. More than half the Cayuse population was wiped out by the epidemic and on November 29, 1847, Chief Tiloukaikt led a war party to the mission and killed the Whitmans and nine others and took fifty-three other women and children hostage. So ended the bold journey of the Whitmans, but their legacy certainly remains in the region. Their mission, named Waiilatpu or “place of the rye grass,” is now a National Historic Landmark and a great place to spend a couple of hours getting a feel for life in the wild west in a now very serene setting.
So what does Walla Walla has to offer the modern traveler. If you like wine, especially reds, this valley could become your new fermented grape Mecca, home to nearly two thousand acres of world class vineyards cultivated out of former wheat fields. Greater
Walla Walla now lays claim to more than 120 wineries and rivals both Napa and Sonoma when it comes to award-winning appellations. Though grape growing and winemaking in the region date back to Italian immigrants in the early 1800’s (those guys never go anywhere without their vino!!!), the first bonded winery in Walla Walla was the now world-renowned Leonetti Cellars, which dates back in 1977, followed in a few years by the equally popular and, spectacular Woodward Canyon. While both still produce some of the best reds on the west coast, the wine lover can visit (and taste!) scores more small production labels and typically still converse with the winemaker.
The impetus for our most recent visit was to attend the Spring Release dinner at Five Star Cellars, to enjoy their 90+ Wine Spectator rated cabernets, merlots and red blends (their Stellar blend is one of my favorite wines of all time). Each May, the Spring Release event is a weekend long tasting and many of the wineries put on special dinners for their wine club members. Winemaker Matt and his lovely wife Traci have been producing their heavenly wines at Five Star for more than a decade. There is little pretension in the wineries of Walla Walla. When tasting in there, I always feel like I am meeting regular folks with a true passion for their craft rather than the now corporate feel I often get when I visit and taste in Napa.
On the Saturday following the Five Star dinner, we took some friends to Garrison Creek Cellars which is located just outside of town, in the midst the 240 acres Les Collines vineyard. We met winemaker and friend David March a couple of years ago when he asked Sue for a bite of her chocolate dessert at the bar of T. Macaronies, a great local restaurant. I warned him that he was taking his life in his hands, but she shared and so did he, inviting us out the next morning for a private barrel tasting of we now know to be some of the best wine to come out of the valley. We did have to Google him and Garrison Cellars that night at the hotel as Sue was certain he was an ax murderer! We then visited Ensemble Cellars and picked up some more of Craig Nelson’s interesting blend not only grapes, but vintages. Each release is a Bordeaux style blend, but with the added twist of having three years of “juice” in each bottle…talk about a little extra work! We hit a few more of our favorites on this very tough day of tasting and, as we always try to do, found a few more.
Before we hit the aforementioned tasting trail, we met up with our youngest daughter Kenna, who just finished her junior year at Whitman College, bright and early at the Walla Walla farmers market. You see, the entire valley has not been converted to vineyards and the weekly market plays host to regional farmers selling sustainable, organic produce at this small, but festive market. There are lots of crafts and live music to make this a destination event each week for locals and tourists alike from May through early October. Onions are so big in this area, they have created an annual festival around them each July. Heck, there is even a bronze Walla Walla Sweet Onion “planted” on main street!!! I have to admit that I have never tasted a better onion…and I like onions.
Sunday morning Sue was off on a 40 mile bicycle ride and I was off to the award winning Wine Valley golf course. The rolling hills of the valley serve both athletic endeavors very well, provide beautiful scenery as far a the eye can see…which is a very long way on a crisp, bright, sunny day! The region is awash with places to hike, bike, play golf or play in small boats on the water. One can do all of these things at the gorgeous Rook Park which is the result of a Core of Engineers project to divert a small river and stop flooding in Walla Walla. What resulted was an 18+ acre park with a lovely small lake and a myriad of trails for running, riding, walking, or my favorite…strolling.
If the arts are more your thing, the town puts on some incredible music festivals throughout the year and Whitman College and Walla Walla University both have strong visual and performing arts programs so there is always something going on. For those who are ready to compete with all of those valley wineries, the Walla Walla Community College also has a nationally acclaimed enology and viticulture program with degrees that vary from Associate of Arts in Viticulture to Fermentation Science Certificate…who knew…I just like drinking the stuff!
When you go, your trek will undoubtedly be a little easier and more comfortable the month’s long wagon train ride the Whitman’s endured. As I mentioned previously, you are about a five hour drive from Seattle or the roughly the same distance from Portland. If you embark from Seattle, you are treated two beautiful mountain passes and from Portland you experience a spectacularly scenic drive through the Columbia River Gorge (think Lewis and Clark!). For those not inclined to traverse mountains, plains and gorges, you can also fly directly into Walla Walla from Seattle or Portland on Horizon Air, the sister airline of Alaska Air. Once in town, you can stay at the beautifully restored Marcus Whitman Hotel or one of the fabulous bed and breakfast establishments (the Fat Duck, Vine and Roses and Abeja have all been written up in many travel journals).
For dining, you have many options at all price points. At the high end, you have Whitehouse-Crawford set in an immaculately restored 1905 brick lumber mill and T Macaronies. More casual fare can be had at Olives, Sweet Basil and Graze. To satisfy your sweet tooth, I highly recommend indulging in the wonderful Colville Street French Patisserie.