I won't soon forget the first meal I ate in Walla Walla. It was six years ago, just as the local wine industry was beginning to boom. One of the area's leading viticulturists, a man of some sophistication, took me to what he pointedly called "the best restaurant in town." His quote marks hung in the air like smoke; before long, I understood why. The restaurant was a family steak house, on the model of a Sizzlerbut lacking the predictability of a chain. The room smelled like a school cafeteria, and the meat that arrived at our table tasted like something an office-supply store might sell.
Now I sit at a dining room table in Dayton, Washington, half an hour outside Walla Walla, reveling in the unmistakable, earthy scent of fresh truffles. Out here in the country where Lewis and Clark waited out a winter by eating horses, dogs, and fennel, chef Mike Davis of 26 Brix has prepared a lunch of home-cured prosciutto with grilled melon; corn soup with chunks of smoked trout; and a salad of arugula, toy box tomatoes, and those glorious black truffles. Still to come is free-range chicken roasted over the staves of French wine barrels. "I hate to use the cliché that this is the next Napa," says Davis, whose restaurant has been turning out the best food in the region since it opened last summer. "But I admit that I have thought to myself, 'I want to do for Walla Walla what [the French Laundry's] Thomas Keller did for Yountville.'"
Seated beside me are the Sisks, whose farm, Ideal Organics, grew the produce we're eating. Across the table are the Monteillets, our hosts, who opened the area's first fromagerie in 2001 and now sell exquisite chèvre to shops and restaurants as distant as Idaho. When I smell the truffles, I sigh with contentment—but also relief. I know I'll never have to eat that office-supply steak again.
There's an often told story, which I heard three times in less than a week, that back in the late 1800's Walla Walla chose to be the site of the new penitentiary instead of the state capital. Local historians dismiss it as apocryphal, but it might as well be true. Until quite recently, this city of 30,000 appears to have taken pains to deflect the attention brought by its humorously euphonious name, doing little to lure visitors and exhibiting a profound suspicion toward the unfamiliar. The wheat farmers who made up the bulk of the population were satisfied to live out lives as dry and monochromatic as the crop that paid their bills, set against a faceless panorama of grain elevators, chain motels, and squat, bungalow-style houses. Even today, Walla Walla seems to have been dropped onto this corner of the southeastern Washington prairie by sheer happenstance. (The Columbia River flows nearby but plays no role in the city's geography.) Most of downtown is still filled with dun-colored buildings that look more small-town Texas than Pacific Northwest. Venture off Main Street and you're on the set of The Last Picture Show.
Yet lately, life in Walla Walla has been transformed by the wine industry. Some of America's best vintages are currently being made in Walla Walla, which couldn't boast of a single commercially viable grapevine a quarter-century ago. Even as late as 1990, when tumbleweeds blew through an all-but-abandoned Main Street, only five wineries were operating here. By 2004, there were 59, producing the requisite Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot, but also redefining the area with Syrah and Sémillon.
The new tasting rooms that sprout from the wheat fields every month, making architectural statements with their obtuse angles and walls of glass, are attracting carloads of wine adventurers who stumble across a coveted bottle and then set out for the viticultural frontier for a weekend of tasting. The infusion of money, combined with a spirit of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, has helped remake the town. Restaurants aren't the only manifestation of the new Walla Walla: the art scene is growing (sculptor Jim Dine casts his works, including one on display at the Guggenheim Bilbao, at the Walla Walla Foundry), and boutique businesses—from the organic farm and the fromagerie in nearby Dayton to the Orchidaceae nursery, which ships plants nationwide—are suddenly thriving. There's even that ultimate validation of a burgeoning demographic, a Starbucks.
At the same time, gifted winemakers and resourceful businessmen are streaming in, seeking America's next great viticultural region or simply a fresh start, filling those once empty parking spots. Raised in Seattle, Nina Buty studied art history at Walla Walla's Whitman College, then left to travel the world. By chance, she married a local oenologist—Caleb Foster, who'd worked at the pioneering winery Woodward Canyon—and returned in 2001 to help him create Buty Winery, in a concrete hut beside the Walla Walla airport. Plans for a showcase facility with a sculpture garden are off in the future; for now, all resources go into the wines. Foster's oenology texts share shelf space with Buty's art books, and their crisp Chardonnays and densely packed Cabernet- and Merlot-based blends serve as both commercial products and Buty's artistic statements. "In a sense, making a wine is just like building a sculpture," she says.
As she steers into the parking lot of the Foundry, where works by Funk Art's Robert Arneson are displayed beside David Bates's three-dimensional pastiches and the works of local sculptors, Buty tells me she never thought she'd live in Walla Walla once she left Whitman. "Creativity has always been here, but before now the ideas were only sustainable for a month or two," she says. "Restaurants would open with all kinds of ambition, but they couldn't stay in business for long. Now, with the influx of money, and people who have come to Walla Walla to enjoy the wine, we've reached a critical mass."
Walla Walla may not turn into another Napa, because the closest big city, Seattle, is a five-hour drive away over a mountain pass (Napa is only an hour's drive from the Golden Gate Bridge). But it does seem poised to become America's second destination for wine tourism. Dayton's Weinhard Café, 26 Brix, and downtown's Backstage Bistro, and the Whitehouse-Crawford—which reinvented Washington dining east of the Cascades when it opened in 2000—have recast restaurant meals here from rudimentary pit stops to something you can plan a night around. What you ate, and the wine you drank with it, have become prime topics of conversation during coffee breaks at businesses around town. Of course, it doesn't hurt that many of those businesses are wineries.
One afternoon, I wander into Grapefields, a bright and uncluttered wineshop and café. The wine list is the entire store: buy a bottle, and the clerk who is also your waiter will pull the cork. The owners have stocked the shelves with hard-to-find European treasures but also some rarities from top Washington producers. I come from Colorado, which takes a church-and-state attitude toward retail wine sales and on-premises consumption, so the idea of choosing a bottle off the rack and being allowed to drink it over a meal seems wonderfully subversive. It goes without saying that not so long ago my hand-fired pizza with plump forest mushrooms would have been the best dish in Walla Walla; the Corbières rosé I drank would have been simply unobtainable.
Tasting the rosé, I remember the first Walla Walla wine I tried, back in the early nineties: Rick Small's 1988 Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time, it struck me as the best American bottling I'd come across that wasn't from California. Then I uncovered one of Gary Figgins's Leonetti Merlots, a wine that had been just a rumor to me for years, and several impressive releases from L'Ecole No. 41, which is set in an old schoolhouse in nearby Lowden. I was a believer.
Small and Figgins, Army Reserve buddies, started Walla Walla's wine industry as a glorified home-economics project in the late seventies. They began on a modest scale, trucking in fruit from other parts of the state, not having any notion that Merlot and Cabernet would actually flourish amid the wheat and sweet onions. They made wine in Walla Walla only because they lived in Walla Walla. But L'Ecole's Marty Clubb, the son of a Texas oilman, has a business degree from MIT. He'd spent time in Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. What, I couldn't help but wonder, had brought him here?
It turns out that his wife, Megan, has century-old Walla Walla roots that run deeper than the oldest vines. Megan's father, Baker Ferguson, was running Walla Walla's biggest bank when he started L'Ecole in 1983. He soon learned that you can't manage a winery as a hobby—not a successful one, anyway. So he dangled the possibility of an eventual position at the bank to lure his daughter home from San Francisco, where she had a high-powered finance job, and told her to bring along that husband of hers to handle L'Ecole.
Clubb took to the wine business, and soon L'Ecole was thriving. But the transition from San Francisco was a struggle for the Clubbs. Walla Walla seemed smaller than its 30,000 inhabitants, in part because nobody new ever moved in. "It was the kind of place," Clubb recalls, "where, if you dialed a wrong number, you knew the person who answered the phone."
The change happened so fast, locals like the Clubbs didn't see it coming. First, two wineries set up tasting rooms on Main Street. Then, the once glamorous Marcus Whitman hotel, built by a civic consortium in 1927 as a local showpiece but converted to subsistence housing in the late seventies, was restored by a Walla Walla organization headed by cell-phone millionaire Kyle Mussman. His group gutted the interior, creating a hotel and conference center. The guest rooms had handcrafted desks, DVD players, two-line phones, terry-cloth bathrobes, and a higher level of luxury than the area had known. Until the first 75 deluxe rooms opened in February 2001, Walla Walla had had few visitors, only aspirations.
In retrospect, the Marcus Whitman was the tipping point. Today, the property isn't always full, or even close to it, and the service doesn't quite reach the level of the appointments. (By appearances, half the staff is still enrolled in high school, and breakfast—even on weekday mornings—means a visit to a nearby Denny's.) But its mere existence signifies that local money has faith in the city's future. Watching the stream of well-heeled hotel guests during one of the several formal tasting weekends held each year at area wineries, it's impossible for Walla Walla residents not to think of themselves as shareholders in a stock destined to rise.
All week, I've been holed up at the Inn at Abeja, a five-cottage bed-and-breakfast housed in a restored farmstead a few miles east of downtown. There's a Wi-Fi computer link in my split-level suite, a CD player I haven't had time to use, and several hundred channels of DirecTV. The bookcases are stuffed with authors I actually want to read, from David Sedaris to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the cabinets are stocked with Riedel stemware to show off the local wine. At breakfast on my first morning, I found fresh mango chunks awaiting me, and juice that had been inside the orange moments before. Lucinda Williams was singing on the sound system, and two newspapers were tucked beside my plate. Poached eggs and warm bread were headed my way, just as I'd requested when I was contacted before my visit. I could have stayed there all morning.
In the hotel's Locust Suite, with its Craftsman-style cabinets and slate floors, I notice pencil marks scratched on the wooden walls. Dating back to the mid 1940's, they record the maintenance status of the farm vehicles. I see that a Pierce Arrow needed an oil change; I find myself hoping someone attended to it before the transmission balked. For a moment, I visualize what it must have been like here on a September day when that long-departed Pierce still had a fresh coat of paint. The wheat farmers would have been busy stocking provisions against the coming cold; unlike winery owners, they had no $50-a-bottle cases of Merlot to ship to customers during bleak months.
From almost the day the Whitehouse-Crawford opened in 2000, the L-shaped bar tucked into a corner of its dining room has served as an unofficial clubhouse for the town's wine-and-food community. It isn't just because a winery, Seven Hills, shares the same circa-1904 mill building, separated only by a wall of glass—and it certainly isn't the draconian corkage fee that the restaurant imposes on anyone who wants to drink his own wine with dinner, even if he made the wine himself. Jamie Guerin's menu is as urbane as any in eastern Washington (house-made agnolotti; griddle-seared sole with hot pecan sauce; squab breast and Bartlett pear with 12-year-old vinegar), and the high-ceilinged space makes you feel sophisticated each time you step through its doors. The waitstaff moves briskly; the bartender has that big-city twinkle in his eye. The hardwood floors, exposed brick, and open kitchen place the restaurant's sensibility somewhere between San Francisco and Seattle, with just a bit of New York bustle thrown in.
On a Thursday night, I'm sipping wine there with K Vintners owner Charles Smith, who used to manage rock bands in Copenhagen. At 43, Smith has the hair of a heavy-metal guitarist and an irreverent manner that just about mandates self-employment. "I didn't want my future to be decided by the talents of other people and the whims of the record business," he tells me. Instead, he returned to wine, his first love: he'd been a sommelier at the Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage in his early twenties. If anything, his iconoclastic style has become more pronounced. He keeps a '49 Cadillac parked in the driveway of his winery, and has painted a huge block-letter K on the building's front door. And yet, his Syrahs may be the most graceful this side of Hermitage.
"Three people showed up at the tasting room the other day, and I wasn't in the mood for it," he reports. He tells me that he handed out glasses, then gave a droning, half-hour monologue about wine making while his visitors waited for something to drink. Finally, Smith led them to the barrel room and flicked a switch that filled the room with the booming chords of Led Zeppelin, and the tasting was on. An hour later, the visitors staggered into the light, dazed but gratified. I was sipping Smith's Pepperbridge Vineyard Syrah, so I knew why. His Syrahs—the left-of-center grape variety that provides the bulk of his tiny output—have the heft of heavy metal, but on the palate they're all Billie Holiday.
As Smith's story ends, I notice Christophe Baron, the Champagne-born pro- prietor of Cayuse Vineyards, striding toward our table with a wine bottle in each hand. To our left is another winemaker we all know, and at a table beyond is a chef I met earlier in the week. My food—braised halibut with sweet peppers, then steak with gnocchi and a smoky, leather-scented chimichurri sauce—is infused with the ambition of a chef who wants to make a difference, and the energy in the room could power the city for an entire week. I leave at midnight, intoxicated by a sense of limitless possibilities—and an awful lot of the local wine.
By contrast, 26 Brix trades on a restrained sensibility that feels almost European. If the Whitehouse-Crawford is a Walla Walla Cabernet, full of brightness and flexing its muscles, 26 Brix is an ethereal Pinot Noir aspiring to Burgundian elegance. Jazz piano plays on the sound system; conversation is modulated. Mike Davis's cooking, sensible and balanced even in its flights of fancy, fits perfectly. One day, I eat both brunch and dinner at the restaurant, from biscuits in a venison gravy in the early afternoon through a seared breast of Muscovy duck with warm apple-and-fennel salad and the sublime creations of pastry chef Matthew Zack, an emerging superstar, at night. At dinner, I meet a Spanish couple, in town from southern California for Cayuse's annual tasting weekend. "This is my third trip here in a year," the husband says, ticking off on his fingers the wineries' Spring Release weekend, their holiday barrel tasting, and the Cayuse celebration, as he polishes off a tomato tartare topped with cucumber sorbet. "I come for the wine, but now I'm going to start coming for the food."
The next morning, I walk off the meals with a stroll down Main Street, from one end of downtown to another. I pass a street-corner sculpture I haven't seen before, and just beyond it a new Internet café selling gourmet jams and jellies. The New York Times is on sale at the Starbucks, and two cars with California plates are parked outside the Waterbrook Winery tasting room—but not, I can't help noticing, a single tumbleweed.
There are three daily flights to Walla Walla from Seattle, but the closest airport—with direct flights from Seattle, Portland, and Denver—is in Pasco, less than an hour to the west. Summers in southeastern Washington are dry, with daylight lasting late into the evening—one reason the grapes tend to ripen so well. The shoulder seasons, spring and fall, linger, giving way to more extreme weather only after weeks of breezy sunshine.
WHERE TO STAY
Green Gables Inn
Classic, six-room B&B in a 1909 house on the Whitman College campus, with historic touches (Art Nouveau armoires, claw-foot tubs). DOUBLES FROM $125. 922 BONSELLA ST.; 509/525-5501; www.greengablesinn.com
Inn at Abeja
Each of the five cottages is different, from floor plan to décor. The inn is closed from mid-December through the end of February. SUITES FROM $200. 2014 MILL CREEK RD.; 509/522-1234; www.abeja.net
Marcus Whitman Hotel
A full-service property, near the restaurants and tasting rooms of Main Street. DOUBLES FROM $89, SUITES FROM $199. 6 W. ROSE ST.; 866/826-9422 OR 509/525-2200; www.marcuswhitmanhotel.com
WHERE TO EAT
Eclectic New American bistro in a gallery setting. DINNER FOR TWO $40. 230 E. MAIN ST.; 509/526-0690
Wineshop-restaurant with light entrées. LUNCH FOR TWO $20. 4 E. MAIN ST.; 509/522-3993
Highly evolved food in a casual 1899 hotel. DINNER FOR TWO $100. 207 W. MAIN ST.; 509/526-4075
Storefront steak house with frilly accents across the street from a Victorian Hotel in rural Dayton, a short drive from Walla Walla. DINNER FOR TWO $50. 258 E. MAIN ST., DAYTON; 509/382-1681
Ambitious cooking, an extensive Washington wine list, and the most sophisticated scene in town. DINNER FOR TWO $100. 55 W. CHERRY ST.; 509/525-2222
WHERE TO SIP
Walla Walla's producers are far more informal than those in Napa. This means that face-to-face encounters with winemakers are eminently possible, but it also means you should call ahead to make sure someone will be there when you arrive.
Beefy reds and a full-throttle Chardonnay in a glorified Quonset hut by the airport. 535 E. CESSNA AVE.; 509/527-0901
Washington's most accomplished Syrah, along with sophisticated blends that belie their cartoonish labels. 17 E. MAIN ST.; 509/526-0686
The Syrahs and Cabernets here are world-class. 150 E. BOEING AVE.; 509/529-4685
Offbeat producer Charles Smith makes complex Rhône-style Syrahs. 820 MILL CREEK RD.; 509/526-5230
L'Ecole No. 41
Taste consistently good wines made in a restored schoolhouse on the road to Pasco. 41 LOWDEN SCHOOL RD., LOWDEN; 509/525-0940
Seven Hills Winery
Drink sturdy Cabernets, Merlots, and blends while gazing into the Whitehouse-Crawford dining room. 212 N. THIRD AVE.; 877/777-7870
A Walla Walla original that still produces one of the more reasonably priced of America's great wines. Cabs and Merlots are elegant and ageworthy. 11920 HWY. 12 W., LOWDEN; 509/525-4129