Walla Walla has become an important wine center and an exciting place to visit, but it wasn’t always that way. When Sue and I first came here years ago you could count the wineries on one hand and Main Street, which really was the main street of the town, was strictly for locals and their everyday needs. If there was a destination address on Main Street it might have been Brights Candies or the historic theater across the street.
Walla Walla’s business was agriculture back them –wheat, peas, and the famous sweet onions — and the banks and suppliers that farmers need to get along. A state prison and prestigious Whitman College — an unlikely combination — were the urban anchor bookends.
The farms are still there and still very important and so are the prison and the college, but what draws thousands of tourists to Walla Walla today are wineries and vineyards. Sue and I paid a quick visit to the valley in the middle of the week shortly after Labor Day and here’s what we found.
Urban Wine Village
Although the buildings look the same from the outside, downtown has been transformed by wine tourism. It is possible to spend a few days enjoyably tasting wine just by meandering up and down Main Street and its tributaries, without every getting into a car or walking too far from your hotel.
Winery tasting rooms line the streets along with restaurants, cafes, tourist shops … and Brights Candies. Strolling on a weekday afternoon watching people sitting at sidewalk tables sharing bottles of wine presents a scene that could not have been imagined twenty years ago. As the sun went down, lights and music came up and people of all ages appeared — seniors, families with children, college students. Lots of dogs, of course. A nice mix.
With so many tasting rooms in just a few blocks, product differentiation is important. Cayuse, the ultimate local allocation-list cult wine, is famous for having a brightly painted tasting room … that never seems to be open. How exclusive is that? Other wineries keep their doors open as much as they can because direct-to-consumer sales and wine club commitments are critical to their economic sustainability.
One tasting room featured wine slushies as a way to stand out in the crowd. Kinda like a Slurpee at 7-11, I guess, but with alcohol from the wine base. Didn’t try it but I wouldn’t entirely rule it out on a 90-degree August day. Something for everyone.
Slowly then Suddenly: Critical Mass
A successful wine tourism sector requires a critical mass of visitors, tasting rooms, accommodations, food, and drink, which have all slowly and then suddenly come together on Main Street. Or at least that’s how it feels to us, and this is backed up by a 2019 economic impact study (pdf here).
Although many of the visitors surveyed indicated that they first came to Walla Walla ten or more years ago like us, nearly a quarter only made their initial visit in the last two years (see table II-11). And they returned because there is so much to do, see, and taste. Impressive.
Even the prison gets some love. We stopped to taste at The Walls, which is named for the prison walls that are just a short distance from the winery. The wines were powerful but elegant — a difficult balancing act — even the “Concrete Mama” Syrah (another reference to prison walls). Sue was especially fond of a Tempranillo from The Rocks district called “Wonderful Nightmare.”
Rioja to Walla Walla
The newest wine tourism destination is south of town near the Oregon border — Valdemar Estates. The winery facility opened just a few months ago, but it is already getting hundreds of visitors each day. The winery is the project of Jesus Martinez Bujanda Mora, the fifth generation of his Spanish winemaking family, who has planted a flag here in Walla Walla.
The winery and tasting room are stunning, with stylish contemporary Spanish flair, but I think visitors come for a unique experience. They can taste Valdemar’s Walla Walla and Red Mountain Syrahs — with additional wine offerings in the pipeline. But there’s more because Valdemar’s Spanish wines are also available. And you can taste them, comparing old world and new, in the best possible way, gazing out over vineyards with plates of tasty fresh-made tapas to pair with the wines.
Delicious tapas and fine wines — no wonder that visitors are attracted to Valdemar Estates. And the winery seems committed to becoming part of the community, advancing the region and not just their own wines and business.
Love Me Like the Rocks
It will be interesting to see how this project develops, especially as a new center of gravity develops in Walla Walla. Wineries and tasting rooms are just about everywhere in this area — Main Street, out at the airport, near the Blue Mountains, in the vineyards south and west of town, too. But there’s one area that hasn’t seen much development … yet.
Some great wine comes from the rocky vineyards across the state line in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, including iconic Reynvaan and Cayuse, but not many visitors head this way. Is this the next frontier for Walla Walla wine tourism? Come back next week for our closer look at the future of The Rocks.