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Walla Walla, Washington's Wineries

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.


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