Walla Walla’s status as a barely-kept secret in wine is over. More than 120 wineries call this southeastern city in Washington State home, and dozens of tasting rooms fill the compact downtown. Locals swear that the area’s three colleges—which include Walla Walla Community College, notable for its enology program—infuse it with energy and creativity that’s apparent from the vineyard to science lab to tasting room. Throw into the mix unassuming hospitality, an enthusiastic community of collaborative winemakers and world-class bottlings, and you’ve got a wine destination that lives up to its hype.
Walla Walla is nestled inside the Walla Walla Valley, which is located just west of the Blue Mountains and east of the convergence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The valley, which extends partly into the northeastern corner of neighboring Oregon, has enviable growing conditions for Rhône and Bordeaux varietals. Within the Walla Walla Valley AVA, the Rocks District creates a distinct style thanks to cobblestone-rich gravels made of volcanic rock, while porous loess-covered foothills characterize the Blue Mountains.
Walla Walla’s downtown features more than 30 tasting rooms that highlight unique wine styles, passion projects and personalities. In the surrounding valleys, there’s plenty more to explore. While the wineries that have been around since the region’s beginnings in the 1970s and ‘80s certainly deserve a visit—Leonetti Cellars, Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole, for example—we asked industry insiders to point us toward even more buzz-worthy options that showcase what the region can do today.
Downtown Tasting Rooms
This tasting room far exceeds its cheeky tagline of “Hey. You Could Do A Lot Worse.” Kaleigh Brook, sommelier and manager of local bottle shop The Thief, says cool style permeates every detail of Time & Direction, with wine—Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and more—that “checks all the boxes.”
Stacy Buchanan, Walla Walla resident and creator of the wine-themed zine Blood of Gods, agrees. “This is the finest explosion of Rhône-focused wines and man-cave nerdiness,” she says. Time your visit right, and you might catch game night (Yahtzee, anyone?), a decades-themed listening party or any of the other frequent happenings. Tastings run $15 a person; reservations are recommended, but not required.
The six-generation farming family behind Spring Valley Vineyards, which produces estate-grown, limited-production wines, has been growing vines for more than 20 years. The tasting room’s aesthetic is sepia-toned American West, with wood beams and cut metal accents complementing heirloom photos. Buchanan heralds the operation’s Bordeaux varieties.
“[They’re] the bedrock that Walla Walla wine was built on, and they also have a dynamite Syrah,” she says. Reservations are required for the $30 tastings, which includes sips of four red wines. Those with an appetite can stick around for the Spring Valley Farm Supper, which for $175 gets you a farm-style meal prepared by a local chef served in the upstairs loft.
Drawn to this welcoming community of winemakers and the area’s viticultural potential, Doug Frost and his team create elegant wines with Walla Walla fruit. “The selection is fantastic,” says Brook. “Consistently top quality.”
Buchanan finds all the wines “delightfully tasty,” but particularly loves the Cabernet Franc and Grenache. The wines are available by the glass or by flight, alongside seasonal house-made juices. As for the space itself, you’d never know the 2,000-square-foot tasting room was once a Quizno’s. It’s warm and welcoming, with reclaimed wooden floors, walnut coffee tables, booth seating and a 10-foot-long communal table made with elm from a local lumberyard. Reservations are preferred.
“This is the best wine shop in eastern Washington and possibly the state,” says Buchanan of this shop, which made Wine Enthusiast’s 2023 list of the best wine shops in the country. It’s more than a bottle shop, though—it’s a community hub.
Twenty-five rotating bottles that reflect a wide range of international wines and local pours are always available by the ounce in this wine shop’s tasting room. Staff are eager to help guests choose a themed tasting flight, which they can enjoy in purple and teal chairs nestled beside the picture windows.
Frost, one of three people in the world who is both a master sommelier and a Master of Wine, swears by Gramercy Cellar, which specializes in minimal-intervention wines and extended aging. The highly-rated 2019 John Lewis Reserve, which earned 96 points from Wine Enthusiast, stands out in a strong collection of Walla Walla Valley Syrahs, while the crisp and fresh Picpoul is a nice change of pace when you’re weary of reds.
In the tasting room, wood beams and rugs create a cabin feel, while a subway-tiled wall honors founders Greg and Pam Harrington’s roots in New York City. Tastings consist of flights of five to six wines, mostly reds, and are available Tuesday through Saturday with reservations. It’ll run you $20 a person, but the fee is waived with a $50 purchase.
Where to Eat: Walla Walla locals universally recommend Passatempo Taverna, an authentic and rustic Italian restaurant with homemade pasta and a broad wine list that highlights top local pours. Other notable spots include Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen, where offerings like wood-grilled quail share space with Egyptian fried chicken dressed in house-made garlic yogurt; and AK’s Mercado, which features tacos and tortas with fillings like braised brisket with chipotle aioli and fried shrimp topped with pickled carrot and daikon radish.
Where to Stay: When it comes to a downtown location, the Finch is unbeatable. The 80-room, artfully designed independent hotel offers bicycles, a landscaped plaza outfitted with a wood-burning fireplace and lawn games. Don’t miss the Finch’s winery of the month partnership; guests get a free tasting upon check-in as well as honorary member-for-a-day deals at the winery.
Wineries in Walla Walla Valley
Just 10 minutes south of town, in the Oregon section of the Walla Walla AVA, the Rocks District offers a distinct microclimate and terroir. The rocky soil is reminiscent of the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape region in France and does well with the same Rhône varietals: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. All three are specialties of Rotie Cellars, a favorite of Frost and Buchanan, whose Rotie Rocks Estate tasting room offers jaw-dropping, 360-degree views of the Walla Walla Basin. The angular and modern space, which was designed by Seattle architect George Suyama, gives visitors the sensation of floating over the surrounding vineyard.
Reservations for the $30 tastings are highly recommended. Feel free to bring your four-legged friend and hang out on the outdoor patio.
This five-acre property specializes in organic farming practices that result in fresh and elegant styles. Brook is especially impressed by the variety of their offerings. “Sparkling wines, fresh reds and their Syrah—they are killing it,” she says. The “Stonewashed” Syrah and Mourvedre blend has particular depth, and bottlings of lesser-known grapes like Xarel-lo, Carignan and Macabeo are also on offer.
Grosgrain’s chic and airy tasting room, which gives the illusion of a tastefully designed living room, is anchored by a a white stone-covered fireplace—an excellent spot to cozy up with a glass of wine.
Reservations for the $25 tastings are recommended; walk-ins are subject to availability.
Frost includes Abeja, a winery and inn set on a historic homestead estate that dates to 1863, on his shortlist for visitors. Named 2023’s Winery of the Year by Great Northwest Wine, Abeja is dotted with turn-of-the-20th-century buildings, vineyards, gardens and lavender fields, with the creek cutting through. It produces light and accessible Chardonnay and a sophisticated and balanced flagship Cabernet Sauvignon in addition to other notable pours.
At the appointment-only tasting room, housed in a renovated barn, the $40-a-person Traditional Abeja Tasting includes sips of current-release wines from the winery’s Beekeeper and Columbia Valley collections. On sunny days, tastings move outdoors to the patio, which affords a panoramic view of the Blue Mountains.
Where to Eat: At the Kitchen at Abeja, don’t miss the five- and seven-course menus with dishes like lemon ricotta agnolotti swimming in porcini broth and Snake River Farms Denver steak served with mashed potatoes.
Alternatively, Valdemar Estates, a quality winery, is also home to tapas spot Pintxo by Valdemar. Here, diners can tuck into slivers of jamon Iberico and piquillo peppers stuffed with Dungeness crab, in addition to charred octopus crowned with chorizo aioli. “I don’t know that there is better food in Walla Walla,” says Brook.
Finally, if you’re up for a drive, Brook says the 18-seat Bar Bacetto is worth the 30-ish-minute journey north to Waitsburg. Here, James Beard Foundation Award nominee Mike Easton whips up freshly made pasta and focaccia alongside classic cocktails. Reservations are necessary for this intimate, 21-and-up spot.
Where to Stay: Brook also strongly recommends the Barn B&B. The property is all suites, each with its own zen-like, 205-square-foot private garden. In the common areas, relax in the outdoor heated pool and hot tub, and enjoy international cuisine in the dining room, which boasts a soaring 30-foot-tall ceiling and tables made with local live-edge black walnut. In addition, several wineries offer lodgings, such as the peaceful Inn at Abeja and Casa Grosgrain, a four-bedroom, remodeled vineyard house at Grosgrain Vineyards.
Published: January 26, 2024