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?