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.
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.
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.
Pack a light jacket even in the summer months!
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.
Walla Walla is a Native American term meaning “place of many waters,” given the area is home to seven water tributaries. Today, however, Walla Walla is turning water to wine, and becoming the “place of many 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.
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!!)
Read on to find Carpe Travel’s first-hand travel tips and recommendations to help make your stay in Walla Walla Wine Country a memorable one.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I laughed when I heard the term, “It’s the Walla Walla Way” but there is a way in Walla Walla that’s unmatched by other popular wine regions I’ve visited. It’s rare to see the winemaker or the chef working when you’re visiting, let alone have them sit down and talk to you. Not in Walla Walla. It’s literally the way they do things…at least for now.
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.
DAMA Wines, Rotie
Armstrong Family Vineyards
Bledsoe Family Wines
MORE TO SIP IN…
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!)
Eternal Wines isn’t out among the vines, it’s pretty darn close to the Airport District 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.
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. You might find it 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.
Tucked down in the southeastern corner of Washington, Walla Walls is a 4½-hour drive from Seattle and equally far from Portland, Oregon. For sipping through the wine country, you will need a car unless you plan to stay in the the downtown tasting rooms. It’s always my personal recommendation to hire a driver. See our recommendations on Walla Walla wine tours…
Be sure to check out these Walla Walla Festivals and Events that are not to be missed!
2021 Events Coming...
2021 Events Coming...
Top 12 Things to Do in Walla Walla... 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.