Walla Walla isn’t just a town in Washington, it has become a world-renowned wine region and culinary destination in the United States that all wine lovers should explore.
Walla Walla is a small farming community tucked in the southeastern corner of the state that is home to 35,000 people, three colleges and miles of farm land filled with oceans of wheat fields and islands of coveted Washington vineyards. Named by Sunset Magazine as the “Best Town in 2018”, as well as one of five global finalists for “Wine Region of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast magazine, Walla Walla is a hidden gem waiting to be explored.
What makes Walla Walla wine so amazing? Read one to learn more about the Walla Walla Valley and why it is one region wine loving travelers MUST sip in.
Geographic Makeup of Walla Walla
One of Washington’s 14 federally recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), Walla Walla is a small farming community tucked in the southeastern corner of the state, sandwiched between the Cascade Mountains and Columbia River to the east and the Blue Mountains to the west. This unique situation has created an agricultural heaven and an outdoor enthusiast’s dream.
While it’s the wine that draws travelers to Walla Walla, viticulture is just a fraction of what is being harvested in the Valley… As you drive into the Walla Walla, you will see small patches of bright green vineyards among swaths of golden fields of wheat, sweet onions and miles of apple orchards, some of the largest crops in this agricultural paradise.
To understand the Walla Walla Valley AVA it is helpful to understand the geographic makeup of Washington State. Most people consider Washington to be dark and quite rainy. However, given a few unique geographic features this is only true for western portions of the state, which also happen to be the most populated (Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia). The eastern portion of Washington is actually quite sunny, dry and what some call a desert. Only six to eight inches of rainfall a year might be the reason.
The Pacific Ocean and the Olympic Mountains form the western boarders for the state, helping to protect the Puget Sound and Seattle areas from the cool, winds off the Pacific Ocean. With the Cascade Mountains to the east, a “rain shadow” is created keeping the moisture in the Puget Sound and Seattle areas, while protecting the eastern portion of the state, aka the Columbia Valley. As a result, the Columbia Valley – home to nine of the 14 AVAs in Washington, including Walla Walla – has the perfect climate for producing wine as well as the ultimate weekend getaway for those living in Portland and Seattle who miss the sun.
While most of the Columbia Valley is quite dry, Walla Walla receives more moisture than others. With the Columbia River to its west and the Blue Mountains to its east, Walla Walla is cooler and wetter than a number of the eastern growing regions. This allows a limited number of vineyards in the eastern section of Walla Walla to dry farm, which is an extreme rarity in Washington and a technique that can result in outstanding wine. Something to note is that the Walla Walla Valley AVA straddles the states of Washington and Oregon with about two-thirds of the vineyards being on the Washington side.
What’s the secret to Washington’s wine success?
The answer lies in Walla Walla’s global positioning. Wine regions around the world fall between 30-50 degrees of latitude. Walla Walla’s latitude is 46° N, the exact same as the wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy in France. So, both regions are exposed to the same angle of the sun and length of day, which impacts the growing conditions grapes are exposed to. Pair this with deep, well drained soils formed in loess on hills and the unique diurnal shift – day-to-night temperature variability – Walla Walla is poised for the world renowned wine region it is becoming.
Washington State has some of the most dramatic fluctuations of any wine region in the world with up to a 40 degree Fahrenheit different between day and night time temperatures. The diurnal shift ensures that wine grapes are balanced between its ripe sugars and crisp acidity.
Tip for all you wine loving travelers…PACK A LIGHT JACKET EVEN IN THE SUMMER MONTHS!
A Little Walla Walla Wine History Lesson…
Vines were first planted in the Walla Walla Valley as early 1850s by Italian immigrants. However, like everywhere else in the country, National Prohibition put a cork in wine production in the early 1900’s. It wasn’t until the 1970’s when the area saw a renaissance in its wine industry.
In 1974, Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar began planting grapevines. Three years later – 1977 – Leonetti Cellar became the first commercial winery in Walla Walla. Figgins along with other pioneers in the area including, Woodward Canyon Winery and L’Ecole N°41 helped kick start the Walla Walla wine region and establish it as an official AVA in 1984.
The region grew slowly with only 50 wineries operating in the Walla Walla Valley in 2002. Today the area is booming, with more than 120 wineries (2019) calling the Walla Walla wine country home.
When to Visit Walla Walla
The Walla Walla wine region has four distinct seasons so if you’re visiting for wine, the absolute best time is during the spring and fall with summer coming in at a close second.
April / May: The spring season is filled with bud break, beautiful flowers and cooler temperatures, yet warm enough to picnic outside and enjoy all the outdoor activities the Walla Walla wine region offers beyond the vines.
September / October: Fall is harvest. There really isn’t any better time to be in the Valley than when everything is happening! Temperatures are still warm, yet not boiling during the day making patios and picnics the perfect pairing with a glass of local wine. This is peak season though, so prices may be higher than other times of the year. If you can travel during the week, you’ll find lower prices paired with all the same wonderful activities but at a lower price point.
Summer: With school out and countless outdoor activities, the Walla Walla wine region is a great summer destination. Keep in mind that temperatures during the day can be between 90-100 degrees so plan to spend some time cooling off with a nice rose’ or an afternoon paddle boarding. Better yet, pack a picnic lunch and pair the two together.
Winter: It’s cold in Walla Walla during the winter. Vines are dormant and a lot of wineries are closed since they have sold out of their wines and/or it’s just not busy enough to remain open. (This is when calling to make a reservation can REALLY help.) You may find yourself sipping in the downtown tasting rooms more than among the vines.
What to Expect from Walla Walla Wines
Grape production in the Walla Walla Valley is dominated by red varieties with Syrah being one of the areas most awarded varietal. However, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted and gaining ground in the areas awarded wines.
Top Grape Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, Grenache, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Viognier
The growing season is longer in Walla Walla than other areas of the Columbia Valley so you will see more vineyards starting to experiment with warm climate grapes such as Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, and Malbec. (I’ve been impressed with the Petit Verdot I’ve sipped!!)
Where to Stay in Walla Walla Wine Country
Carpe Travel’s Top Picks
- Downtown B&B: Fat Duck Inn
- Downtown Hotel: Marcus Whitman Hotel
- Luxury Resort Among the Vines: Eritage Resort
- Vineyard B&B: The Inn at Abeja
Click over for more Carpe Travel’s recommendations on hotels and Wall Walla Bed and Breakfasts.
Where to Eat in Walla Walla Wine Country
Carpe Travel’s Top Picks (read the in-depth reviews)
- Hattaway’s on Alder
- Andrae’s Kitchen
- Walla Walla Steak Co.
- The Marc Restaurant
Carpe Travel has gone into more detail on the Walla Walla restaurant scene so make sure to click over for more detail. For a quick reference though, these are some of my top recommendations for Walla Walla restaurants.
Walla Walla Wineries
At the time of this posting there are about 120 Walla Walla wineries which can be found throughout the Valley. There is a high concentration of tasting rooms in downtown Walla Walla, there are currently about 30. You can literally spend an entire weekend on foot walking up and down Main Street, Rose Street and 2nd Avenue enjoying some of the finest wines produced in Walla Walla. However, I highly suggest you get out into the wine country. There’s something to be said about sipping among the vines.
While I didn’t have the chance to explore the four tasting rooms in the Marcus Whitman Hotel, I suggest you try – Mansion Creek Cellars, Locati Cellars, Lodmell Cellars and Treo Vintners. I also had a few wineries repeatedly recommended to me by locals – including winemakers – in other words you should try, College Cellars, Cavu Cellars and Dunham Cellars. (Let us know in the comments what you think!)
While Eternal Wines isn’t out among the vines, it’s pretty darn close and soooo worth popping into. Not only are the wines amazing, but they have a great story to pair with them. Make sure to see Carpe Travel’s Airport District tasting ideas.
Suggested Walla Walla Wine Tasting Itineraries
Walla Walla Wine Weekend
Downtown Tasting Rooms
Getting To & Around Walla Walla
Tucked down in the southeastern corner of Washington, Walla Walls is a 4½-hour drive from Seattle and equally far from Portland, Oregon. To be honest, it’s not a convenient place to get to from just about anywhere. While Walla Walla does have its own airport, most flights are coming in and out of Seattle (a 45-minute flight), which helps BUT not always. I found it much easier, cheaper, and faster to fly into Tri-Cities (airport PSC) and then drive an hour into Walla Walla.
It literally would have taken me seven hours to fly into Walla Walla from Denver, instead it took me less than four hours to fly into Tri-Cities and drive into Walla Walla. I’m all about saving time when I only have a few days to explore.
The one caveat to doing this is that there are not an abundance of Uber or Lyft drivers, and driving services are pretty limited as well. You will be more likely to be able to grab an Uber or Lyft from Tri-Cities into Walla Walla, but don’t count on being able to use either service when you’re in Walla Walla. The number of drivers in the Valley is slim, to say the least. With that said, you will either need to rent a car (and have a DD for winetasting) or hire a service. I always opt for the latter because it’s just not worth risking it.
When it comes to Walla Walla wine tour drivers and services, there aren’t a ton so make sure to book yours early. On my trip to Walla Walla I had a miscommunication with one service that left me driverless two days before getting into town. Talk about scrambling!!!
James over at Main Street Drivers was able to help save me from an ensuing panic attack by pairing me up with one of his drivers. Note, Main Street Drivers typically only offers the “Your Car + Our Driver” concept but James was able to set me up with Will, who offered to take us in his car.
For those of you who will be driving into Walla Walla or have a rental Main Street Drivers IS THE WAY TO GO! The price point is at least 50 percent less than what you pay other Walla Walla wine tour drivers AND the guys driving know the area, can set up your tour and make recommendations on the fly. Everything you want in a wine tour, but in your car and for a lot less money.
On a side note, Will – who drove us around all weekend – also drives for Walla Walla Localites, and offers the same price point as Main Street Drivers. If you don’t have a car for Main Street Drivers, give him a ring. He’s a wealth of local information and connections. (You will need to call him to set things up – 509.629.2244.)
A few other wine tour services in Walla Walla who were booked during my visit but were extremely professional in helping direct me to others who might be able to help include the following. (They also rank well on Trip Advisor and Google Reviews and I saw them out and about during my visits.) Check them out if Main Street Drivers or Walla Walla Localites don’t work out.
Black Tie Wine Tours | d’Vine Wine Tour | imbibe winetour
Things to do in Walla Walla Wine Country Beyond the Vines
While wine is one of the main draws for travelers to Walla Walla, there are an abundance of activities to uncork beyond the vines.
Walla Walla Wine Country Map
More on Walla Walla and Washington Wine