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From Wheat to Wine

Vintners flock to eastern Washington's Walla Walla

Bruce Schoenfeld
Posted: October 28, 2003

Seven Hills Winery has called downtown Walla Walla's historic Whitehouse-Crawford building home since 2000.
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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, 32, 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.

Now there are the two wineries on Main Street, another right around the corner and a fourth down the street. Now Robert Ames sells the wines of the world -- stylish stuff like Cornas and Brunello and cult wines from South Australia -- at Grapefields, a restaurant-cum-wine shop just down from the recently arrived Starbucks. Now the Backstage Bistro has Champagne and good jazz on Saturday nights, and local art galleries and the symphony are flourishing. And in the 3-year-old Whitehouse-Crawford, Walla Walla now has one of the finest restaurants in the state.

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. The Whitehouse-Crawford could hardly survive, manager Tom Olander says, without winemakers, winery owners, employees and their guests, and the tourists that the wineries are starting to attract.

Through a wall of glass at the Whitehouse-Crawford, diners can even stare into the barrel room of the Seven Hills Winery, which moved to this high-rent space in downtown Walla Walla in 2000. "Any sooner," says Casey McClellan, who owns the winery with his wife, Vicky, "would have been suicidally ahead of the curve."

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 handful of 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. At last count, 39 of them were operating within the appellation boundaries, with more on the way.

Over the last five 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. "All of a sudden, you have all these new people coming in from all over the world and bringing new ideas," says Mary Derby, one of the newcomers.

Formerly the wine director at Spruce, in Chicago, she came west with her husband, Devin, to help make wine from grapes grown on land that has been in his mother's family for five generations. "We visited here in 1990, and I remember thinking, ÔI'll never, ever move here,'" she says. "There was nowhere to eat, nothing to do. In terms of produce at the market, it was pathetic. When we decided to make the move, I figured I'd find a place in Seattle and commute. Then I saw what was happening here to the community and I started to rethink it. Now, we wouldn't be anywhere else."

Not everyone is as thrilled about the change. Farming made a lot of Walla Wallans wealthy after World War II, but they weren't urban sophisticates, they were farmers. When wheat prices plummeted and downtown all but died, they held tight to the only lifestyle they knew. They didn't sign on to live in the next Napa. "We're already seeing some real estate speculation," says Timothy Bishop, executive director of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation. "It's becoming an issue."

Not long ago, Leonetti Cellar announced its intention to plant what is now the Mill Creek Upland Vineyard, south of the city. Gary Figgins' son Chris, who has lived in Walla Walla his entire life, sent the nearby farmers neighborly letters to let them know what he had in mind. He hoped they could work together, he wrote, and he wanted to make himself available to walk them through the site and show them the plans.

Instead, Figgins got in return a letter threatening a lawsuit, with the signatures of 40 wheat farmers beneath. "We called their bluff and went ahead and planted anyway," he says. "In the end, nothing happened. But it gives you some indication of how some people think around here."

In a sense, it's hard to blame them. Wheat farmer Ed Stonecipher is 69, and his family has farmed wheat here for 120 years. He owns land north of town that borders vineyards on three sides, and he can't spray his crops from the air anymore because the wind might change.

Still, if he were a quarter-century younger and had some good water rights, he'd be planting grapes, too, he says. That's the future, not wheat. These days, he drinks at least a glass of wine every day. It used to be the cheap stuff out of a box, but now he likes some of the better local wines. "Once you've had those, you can't go back," he says.

Not far from Stonecipher's house is the newly built Northstar winery, owned by the Stimson Lane conglomerate and opened in the fall of 2002. Northstar makes only about 1,000 cases of exalted Merlot every year, from the best of Stimson Lane's Washington holdings. Nevertheless, the decision to invest in Walla Walla by Stimson Lane, owners of Washington's Chateau Ste. Michelle and California's Villa Mt. Eden and Conn Creek, among other properties, bestowed a sanction upon the area in a way that only a company of its size can.

Northstar may also bring more visitors to the valley than the rest of the wineries combined. In western Washington, Chateau Ste. Michelle attracts some 300,000 visitors a year, second in the Seattle area only to the Space Needle -- and they don't even have grapes there, at least not that they use for wine. "Stimson Lane is bringing a marketing budget that is enormous," says Baron. "It can attract tourists and journalists. It will help everyone, including a small guy like Cayuse."

In truth, Northstar doesn't have grapes yet, either; vines weren't planted on the 13 acres surrounding the winery until just this year. When they bear fruit, it won't be limited to Merlot -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and even Carmenère were planted as well. That means the vast majority of the vineyard's grapes will be used for something other than Northstar's flagship wine.

For Stimson Lane, the Walla Walla name has cachet when displayed on a label. Just as the Northstar winery validated the appellation, the appellation will help validate the winery. Walla Walla can do that now.

Perhaps sourcing fruit statewide as Stimson Lane does is the smartest way to go. Only seven of the appellation's 39 wineries were around for Walla Walla's last killing freeze eight winters ago. The arrivistes hear about it, but either don't believe it will happen again or figure they'll be prepared when it does.

Leonetti's Gary Figgins warns that it won't be so easy. The rest of the state has only so many grape sources, and if you aren't buying fruit from them now, you likely won't get any when you need it. In 1996, Figgins had to range as far afield as California to source Cabernet Sauvignon; he blended those grapes with what Washington fruit he could find and put "Appellation America" on the label.

You can get away with that if you're Leonetti, which has a waiting list for its mailing list and pre-sells every bottle it makes. Some of the newer wineries, those that haven't had time to build a track record or a loyal following, can't afford to miss a vintage if their Walla Walla grape sources suddenly yield no grapes.

That may be one reason why Baron glances up at the sky with a cautious eye as he walks down Main Street toward lunch. Baron saw potential in the local terroir for Rhône-style wines; now all his grapes come from local sources. He has been known to sleep out with his vines when the weather gets cold, knowing that his business is, quite literally, buried in the Walla Walla soil.

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. "This is still a real Main Street," brags the Business Foundation's Bishop, "where you can get your hair cut and buy vacuum-cleaner bags, along with the wine." But that may not be the case for long.

If You Go

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.

Leonetti and many small Walla Walla wineries are open by appointment only. Cayuse, Canoe Ridge and Waterbrook have downtown Walla Walla tasting rooms that are open to the public. Near the airport, Dunham and Reininger keep their tasting rooms open most days. Outside town, it's worth the 15-minute drive to L'Ecole No. 41 and Woodward Canyon for tasting. In town, tasting room and wine bar Grapefields is a convenient place to sample a range of Walla Walla wines by the glass.

Where to Stay

The Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center
6 W. Rose St.
Telephone (509) 525-2200; (866) 826-9422
Web site www.marcuswhitmanhotel.com
Rooms 75
Suites 16
Rates $75-$239
Historic hotel in the center of town, recently restored and updated with modern conveniences, including high-speed Internet connections. Tower suites are especially nice. Continental breakfast in lobby.

Green Gables Inn
922 Bonsella St.
Telephone (509) 525-5501
Web site www.greengablesinn.com
Rooms 5
Cottages 1
Rates $115-$145, breakfast included
Bed-and-breakfast with spacious rooms near Whitman College on a shady street away from downtown.

Inn at Abeja
2014 Mill Creek Road
Telephone (509) 522-1234
Web site www.abeja.net/inn.htm
Suites/Cottages 5
Rates $185-$205, breakfast included
Accommodations on the Abeja Winery grounds are free-standing cottages or attached suites, all with bedroom, living and dining room and full kitchen. Abeja is near several other wineries, about a 10-minute drive east of town.

Where to Eat

Backstage Bistro
230 E. Main St.
Telephone (509) 526-0690
Web site www.backstage-bistro.com/index.html
Open Breakfast, Saturday and Sunday; lunch, Monday to Saturday; dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $7-$24
Casual storefront has good barbecue and a list of local wines.

Grapefields Wine Bar and Café
4 E. Main St.
Telephone (509) 522-3993
Open Lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $8-$12
Combination wine shop, wine bar and casual restaurant in the center of town.

The Marc
The Marcus Whitman Hotel, 6 W. Rose St.
Telephone (509) 524-1799
Open Brunch, Sunday; lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $15-$30
In the Marcus Whitman Hotel, with a menu featuring organic local ingredients. Wine list focuses on Washington.

55 W. Cherry St.
Telephone (509) 525-2222
Open Dinner, Wednesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $12-$30
The most ambitious restaurant in town focuses on local seasonal produce. Wine list offers the top regional wineries, big and small, old and new.

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