Walla Walla - Wine Tasting Paradise?

What makes for a great wine touring destination? How about the following:

Great Wine:
- wineries making very highly rated Cabernet Sauvignon, red Bordeaux blends and Viognier
- wineries making the best Syrah and red Rhone blends in the U.S.
- wineries making the best Tempranillo and Sangiovese in the U.S.

Convenient & Appealing Tasting Locations:
- 30+ tasting rooms within walking distance in a historic down town setting
- 20+ more tasting rooms among vine-covered hills within a 10 minute drive
- Few crowds and minimal traffic

Affordable Fees:
- $5 tasting fees at almost every winery

Gracious Hosts:
- a pervasive, relaxed and unpretentious attitude where kids and pets are almost always welcome
- tasting rooms frequently staffed by winemakers and/or owners

After visiting nearly forty Walla Walla wineries in three days, I'm adding Walla Walla to my list of favorite wine tasting destinations! I know, forty wineries in three days is ridiculous. I had originally planned to visit Walla Walla, do some tastings and write some short reviews for the site, but decided that my time would be better spent taking pictures, verifying information and introducing myself. Also, wine tasting while traveling solo either involves hiring a driver, driving under the influence, or vast amounts of spitting...none of which appealed to me. The downside is that I missed out on tasting a lot of great wines, but the upside was that I was able to visit many more wineries. And other than the initial 15 seconds of my introduction - when winery employees and owners were bracing for a nonexistent sales pitch - everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming.

Walla Walla’s 100+ wineries are concentrated in four main regions: Westside, Downtown, Eastside and Southside. Day one was dedicated to the Westside and to the wineries located at the airport. The Westside region consists of approximately 17 wineries west of Highway 125 and scattered along Highway 12 and Old Highway 12. This entrance into Walla Walla wine country, where farm equipment and livestock dot the brown, rolling hills, is the perfect reminder that grapes, and the resulting wines, are an agricultural product. For the most part, the tasting rooms in this region are relatively large and well-appointed. Although some of the area's largest producers are in this region to include Waterbrook and L’Ecole, there are also small producers such as Glencorrie and Grantwood. After visiting four Westside wineries during the late morning on Thursday, I continued east on Highway 12 past downtown Walla Walla to the Eastside airport area. If your idea of wine country includes vine-covered hills and beautiful architecture, you'll probably be a little shocked by the airport area. Instead of beautiful country chateaus, the visitor is greeted by a relatively treeless, open area dotted with small, usually drab, structures. But I urge you, don't give up, because once you enter a couple of these buildings and start tasting the wines and talking to the owners and employees, the quality of the wine, the passion for winemaking, the high level of the service and the history of the place will win you over. The area is a former Army Air Base that was used in World War II to support 6,000 men. The 91st Bomb Group, which included “Jack the Ripper”, “Memphis Belle” and “Delta Rebel” trained at the base.

Urban Convenience
After visiting 15 wineries on day one and not tasting at any of them, I was more than ready on day two for a walking and tasting tour of historic, downtown Walla Walla. There are over 30 tasting rooms within a 42 square block area, most of which are open from 10:00 to 5:00. I overheard the attendant at my hotel tell a newly arriving tourist, "Just start walking down 2nd Avenue, and you'll find the wineries. They all make excellent wine so it doesn't really matter which one you go to." While I'm too much of a planner to spend my money and time in random tasting rooms, my day-long wine tasting extravaganza led me to the same conclusion as the hotel clerk. There wasn't a sub-par wine to be had, and I was consistently amazed by how friendly and laid-back the people in the tasting rooms were....sometimes almost to the point of familial. In one tasting room, as I was sampling some very nice Rhone blends, the tasting room attendant's puppy nestled between my feet, which wasn't a problem until the dog started chewing on my sandals and toes. Once I got used to it, it didn't distract me too much from the wine, and the attendant routinely walked around the tasting bar to tell the puppy to stop. Finally, my face must have given me away, and the attendant said "He's doing it again, isn't he?" I replied in the affirmative, and she finally banished the dog to the storage room.

Wine Country
Mention wine tasting to most people and they think rolling hills, vineyards and grand edifices dedicated to the making and serving of wine, and that's just what you get south of Walla Walla. Narrow, winding roads carry wine tourists through the vineyards from one winery to the next. Kids play on the lawns as bicyclists step into the tasting rooms to escape the heat and quench their thirst. Tasting experiences range from the grandeur of Basel and Amavi to the minimalism of Balboa. Regardless of which you choose, the surrounding scenery and hospitality are second to none.

If Walla Walla isn't wine tasting paradise, I'm not sure what is. In addition to everything mentioned above, many of the tasting rooms are staffed by owners and/or winemakers. While tasting with the owner/winemaker doesn't guarantee a good experience, it does guarantee that you'll be tasting with someone that knows almost everything about the winery and its wines. The best owners and winemakers combine their deep wine knowledge with a genuine warmth and friendliness and are epitomized by people such as Devin Stinger at Adamant Cellars, Muriel Kenyon at Otis Kenyon and Karen La Bonte at Trio Vintners.

I have to caveat my glowing assessment with the fact that this was one of my first trips since the birth of our children that didn't include kiddy pools and gigantic, stuffed animals. Maybe I was a little giddy, or maybe the dry, rugged terrain and rural setting reminded me of my childhood in nearby Montana, but I think Walla Walla is an ideal wine tourism destination. Critics of the area may argue that there are not enough high-end spas, restaurants and lodging or that it's too inconvenient, with the nearest large airport an hour away. To those critics I'll say, "you're right" as I'm busily planning my next trip to southeastern Washington.

Published: Oct. 4, 2012

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