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Walla Walla

Vintners flock to eastern Washington's Walla Walla

Some farmers grow wheat right alongside grapevines.
Walla Walla
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Bruce Schoenfeld

Sipping coffee by the window of a Starbucks, Christophe Baron looks across East Main Street to the storefront entrance of his Cayuse Vineyards winery and tasting room, which is painted the gaudy yellow of Provençal tableware.

Then Baron shifts his gaze toward Waterbrook Winery, just three doors away. There are times, he says, when he can't believe that this is the same place as the downtrodden Walla Walla, Wash., he encountered when he first arrived from France in 1993. "There were seven wineries in the whole area," he says. "Downtown was completely dead. There were literally tumbleweeds blowing through the streets. It was the wild, wild West."

A world away from the coastal sophistication of Seattle, Walla Walla is a farming and manufacturing community with the values of the American Midwest and a location—in Washington's southeast corner, hard by the Oregon border—a long way from anywhere. For years, it was known for its annual harvest of sweet onions, its euphoniously repetitive name, and little else.

Almost everyone here believes that the transformation of this town of 30,000 from a moribund wheat-farmers' outpost to something of a tourist destination happened because of wine.

As a wine region, Walla Walla's evolution is unique. Instead of vines, it started with two winemakers. Gary Figgins and Rick Small began fermenting purchased grapes in their garages in the 1970s and ended up with Leonetti and Woodward Canyon, respectively, which are now among the top American wineries beyond California's borders. Figgins planted some vines in his backyard, but basically this was wheat land, with sweet onions slumbering through the winter and the occasional apple orchard for variety.

Figgins and Small inspired L'Ecole No. 41, founded by the owners of Walla Walla's biggest bank, and a few other low-output vintners. All of them trucked their grapes in from elsewhere in the state, and occasionally from as far away as California. The main reason was a killing freeze that occurs an average of once every seven years. A few wineries, such as Seven Hills, tried to make an estate wine on the Bordeaux model until two freezes within three years, in 1989 and 1991, put an end to that ambition. "It almost put us out of business," says McClellan. "We vowed we would never again depend on a single source of fruit."

But wine is a seductive business. Would-be viticulturists have lately come in force, buying up land and planting vines. From about 100 acres a decade ago, the appellation has grown in vineyard land elevenfold. Lifelong farmers are now pulling out their wheat as prospective winery owners roll in, cash in hand.

Big companies like the Chalone Group and Stimson Lane have built shiny new facilities, and boutique properties seem to be settled on every corner. That old house? That restored mill? That vacant lot? They're wineries now.

Over the last several years or so, the number of wineries has reached a critical mass, and the accoutrements of a true wine region have started appearing. It isn't just a few restaurants and the refurbished Marcus Whitman Hotel; the city's mind-set has changed, as has the population base.

This evening, the Walla Walla wind is blowing, but these aren't the winds of change; they passed through long ago. Instead of tumbleweeds down Main Street, there's traffic. Finding a parking space is harder than ever, though finding a glass of good Cabernet is easy.

If You Go...

Many small Walla Walla wineries are open by appointment only. Always call well in advance of your visit.

Don't expect luxe accommodations in Walla Walla. Except for the Marcus Whitman, a refurbished historic hotel, the best choices are bed-and-breakfasts. There are also plenty of chain motels.

On the dining front, Whitehouse-Crawford and The Marc, the restaurant at the Marcus Whitman, make an effort to apply modern creativity to locally produced ingredients. Both also specialize in cellaring some of the hard-to-find bottlings from Walla Walla wineries, and the markups are fair.

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