Rarely do small towns like Walla Walla, Wash., appear on the travel itinerary. And its a shame because some of America’s small towns, while appearing pedestrian to the uninitiated, are actually hot pockets of outdoor fitness, eco and fashion hipness, historical awareness and gastric innovation.
Walla Walla sits in a sunny valley surrounded by rolling hills covered with dark green vineyards, and behind those hills stands the sublime Blue Mountain range. It almost looks like Tuscany. And it is quickly becoming a food and wine lover’s dream destination.
What looks like smalltown USA from the outside looking in, with its plain-looking, 1920’s-era frontier style architecture, is actually populated by cultural creatives from all over the country, in part thanks to Whitman College, but also because of the region’s intense focus on winemaking and organic agriculture. And typically where there’s good wine, good food follows.
Main Street USA, Walla Walla with the Marcus-Whitman Hotel in the background.
In fact, Walla Walla was recently touted by Sunset Magazine for not only owning America’s Best Main Street, but also for being one of Our Favorite Small-Town Foodie Haven’s.
But it’s not all about food and wine. Walla Walla is located on the Oregon Trail near the Washington and Oregon border, where the Whitman Mission National Historic site attracts thousands of visitors each year. A trip through the mission provides a deep education into a tragic and controversial story that you and your kids won’t find in a textbook.
Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa established the mission in1836, and by 1847 they were both dead; Marcus took a Tomahawk to the head, while Narcissa was shot trying to escape what has become known as the Whitman Massacre, an act that prompted the Cayuse War. A seven-day pass to the Whitman Mission site is just $3.00, and ‘kids’ under 16 get in free .
Just a few miles West of the Whitman Mission is Walla Walla’s spectacular new Wine Valley Golf Club. Draped across Eastern Washington’s massive wind-swept dunes like a lonely emerald carpet, Wine Valley offers up traditional links golf in a beautiful setting. For a more detailed review of the course, and more photos click here.
Being surrounded by rivers and mountains, plus a warm, dry climate, Walla Walla is also ideal for outdoor adventure. To the west about 35 miles, the Snake River and Yakima River merge with the Columbia River near the Oregon border, and the massive convergance of water provides ample fishing and boating opportunities on the Columbia and its many tributaries.
And the Umatilla National Forest of the Blue Mountains, located to the east of Walla Walla, provide ample hiking, fishing, camping and cycling opportunities.
Walla Walla’s Wine Wanderer
Flying Trout Winery is owned and operated by 27-year old Ashley Trout who originally came to Walla Walla from the East Coast to study at Whitman College, but started working in the town’s wineries during her freshman year. She was hooked instantly on the winemaking process, and upon her graduation from Whitman had earned a better education working in the vineyards than she had studying liberal arts at the exclusive, private college.
During the summer after graduating, Trout was injured in a rock climbing accident and missed the crush (wine harvest) in Walla Walla, because of a three-month rehabilitation. The time off made her realize how much she missed working in the vineyards. When finally healthy, she moved to Argentina in time for its crush, and begain establishing relationships at every level of the Argentine winemaking business, just as she had done in Walla Walla. It helped that she was fluent in Spanish.
“I kept coming back year after year to work in the vineyards for the Argentine crush,” she says. “After a while they realized I wasn’t just slave labor and started teaching me their craft. I also met a lot of the university winemaking students and grad students at the discos, who are really the future of winemaking.”
The climate in that area of Argentina is almost identical to the climate in the Columbia Valley. By establishing vines with similar grapes in two different hempispheres, Trout is unique, and calls her lust to make wine in both countries, a “fascinating bi-hemispherical terroir”.
Her efforts in South America also allow Flying Trout to issue two releases per year, from two different parts of the world, all of which gets sold-out within three weeks of being released. It pays to be a member of Flying Trout’s wine club.
Says Trout, “it’s nice (selling out early) because I can go back to being a winemaker instead of a saleswoman.”
What wasn’t sold out during our visit were the Fyling Trout wines aging in barrels in the wearhouse situated behind Flying Trout’s tasting room.
Drinking wine straight from the barrel should rank at the top of any list for ‘things to do’ in Walla Walla on a Friday afternoon, especially after a long bike ride. Even novice wine drinkers can learn to appreciate the subtle strawberry flavors still brewing in the 2008 Horse Heaven Hills Malbec, or the spicy, lingering flavor of apple that dominates the 2007 Rattlesnake Hills Malbec.
To join Flying Trout’s wine club, where club members get first access to cases of the winery’s latest releases, click here. Membership is free. To set up a visit to the tasting rom, call Ashley at (509) 520-7701, or email her at email@example.com.
Where to Stay and What to Eat
The most distinguishing, and tallest building in Walla Walla is the Marcus-Whitman Hotel, located in the heart of downtown, just two blocks from Main Street. In 1999, local techonology enterpreneur Kyle Mussman (check out his sailing blog) bought the building, saving it from being destroyed and then pumping $33 million into the rennovation of the old Marcus-Whitman Hotel. In the process he revived the classic hotel to the point where it matches its glory days when the old Marcus-Whitman Hotel played host to guests like former President Dwight Eisenhower, after whom a suite is named on the seventh floor.
Filled with oak paneling and marble floors, the lobby of the hotel is dark and cool, and a serence contrast to Walla Walla’s hot and sunny weather. What was once a hostel and designated for demolition is now a sophisticated space decorated in classic style, offering finely appointed and comfortable suites at reasonable rates, amazing customer service, and even an art collection on the third floor.
And then there’s the food.
Upon request, the head chef of Marcus Whitman’s The Marc restaurant, Hank “Bear” Ullman offer’s his dinner guests a chance to sit at the ultra-cool Chef’s Table. For $125 diners can eat at a table located in the kitchen, eating a custom-made five course meal that features locally grown and sourced produce and meats. The energy in The Marc’s kitchen is lively, with the chef’s working hard to please, and the off-the-menu food is off-the-charts good, making the experience worth the price tag.
The Marc's Chef's Table Guests Enjoy VIP Service. 'Bear' and his crew serving a recent party.
The menu from our visit to the Chef’s Table included: a first course of Oregon dungeness crab salad complete with orange and coriander finish; followed by a plate of wild Pacific troll-caught salmon, served on heirloom tomatoes and mizuna and topped with a tomato-saffron vinaigrette. Next to the salmon was grilled Oregon quail, presented over an English pea puree.
All of this was served alongside Flying Trout Winery’s Torrontes.
Next came a palate cleansing salad of local greens and apples, dressed with meyer lemon and a meyer lemon vinagrette. According to Bear, “the acidic salad breaks up the rapid-fire protiens coming at you with something simple and crisp.”
The third course, served with a local Syrah, took the dinner to the next level: Rocky Mountain buffalo filet on pâtes aux champignons, which consisted of locally sourced Buffalo tenderloin, served on top of a bed of bacon and a fois gras-wild mushroom pate. To top it off, two fried quail eggs, served over easy, were slipped between the bacon and the filet.
Rocky Mountain Buffalo Filet on Pâtes aux Champignons
By the fourth course some of Bear’s Chef’s Table guests started slowing down and getting full, but Bear kept the heat on, rewarding the heavier eaters by breaking out a melt-in-your-mouth Anderson Ranch free-range roasted rack of lamb, served with Bing cherry chutney.
The fifth course was dessert, and a surprisingly tasty, and strategic selection — Rock Star energy drink sorbet with Bing cherries.
Bear’s knowledgeable crew helps Chef’s Table guests, and all diners at The Marc pair glasses, or bottles of wine for each course, so even wine-drinking amateurs have a chance to experience what a proper food and wine pairing tastes like.
“It all goes back to relationships, connections and taking care of people,” says Bear. “I’ve been here for nine years now and have built fantastic relationships with the organic community and winemakers. We get asparagus the same morning it’s cut, we trim our own micro greens as we need them, and I have a farmer that is willing to get up at 3:00 a.m. to go pick squash blossoms before the sun hits them, so to be successful with this kind of product, all you really have to do is not mess it up.”
Ullman and The Marc certainly don’t mess things up, in fact, the Marcus-Whitman’s restaurant is spot on, just like the hotel.
Other restaurants worth checking out in Walla Walla include: the Saffron Mediterranean Grill, Whitehouse-Crawford, the Creekside Grill, and for breakfast the farmer’s market located on 4th and Main Street, which takes place each Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 a.m. — 1:00 p.m. Not only are there good eats, for cheap, but typically a band and a friendly atmosphere that will make you forget your wine hangover.
Walla Walla’s population is just over 30,000. It’s a small town. Don’t bother driving around. Instead, rent a bike from Allegro Cyclery. For $35 a day, Allegro will rent your bike of choice.
Jump on a comfy commuter bike, which will perform nicely on Walla Walla’s flat streets, and then cruise the city’s old neighborhoods at supersonic speeds, or take the bike trails leading out of town towards the surrounding vineyards. Allegro provides a Walla Walla bike trail map for reference.
Live the wine and food life like a Euro by renting a bike at Allegro! After a few quick laps around Walla Walla, you’ll be glad you did.
Why Should You Visit Walla Walla?
The wine and food explosion currently happening in Walla Walla, and within the Tri-Cities area in general, is sure to attract more attention and tourist dollars to Walla Walla, which let’s be honest, was struggling to find its identity twenty years ago. Now, its all about living close to the area’s rich, wine and sweet onion producing soil; where the food that’s consumed is grown next-door and picked that day, and where the vintners produce wines from vines that actually perculate with the distinctive flavors of strawberry, spicy pepper, grapefruit. basil, or plum.
The mountains and rivers that surround the city provide a plethora of outdoor adventure, and look inviting from a distance, a big contrast from the craggy Rocky and Cascade Mountain ranges. The golf in Walla Walla is championship-worthy, and the area is full of history lessons.
The vibe on Main Street Walla Walla is hometown cool — the candy shop is located in the perfect spot, right between the vintner’s wine-tasting rooms — and the people in Walla Walla are super friendly, welcoming, and down to earth.
Teddy Roosevelt, explorer extrordinairre, once said Walla Walla left, “”the pleasantest impression upon my mind of any city I visited while in the Northwest.”
When thinking about your next three-day weekend consider taking a trip to Walla Walla. But don’t go unless you can get a room at the magnificent Marcus-Whitman Hotel.