Four months after singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile won three Grammys for her album By the Way, I Forgive You, she ventured into the wine business in 2019, co-founding XOBC Cellars with her wife, Catherine Shepherd, and two friends. The brand uses grapes from around the musician’s home state of Washington, a place she calls “Napa in blue jeans.” Its three signature bottles (named for her wife and two daughters) are produced in the Walla Walla Valley, a region without the California hotspot’s name recognition — yet — but twice the charm.
Walla Walla is a quiet city of 34,000 people in eastern Washington, near the Oregon border. The valley had just six wineries in 1990; thanks to a boom in the 2000s (on average, a new winery opened every 30 days), it’s now home to more than 140. Last year, USA Today named it the best wine region in the country.
Plenty of stars agree. Walla Walla natives Drew Bledsoe, a former quarterback, and Stephen Amell, an actor, both have wineries here, as does actor Kyle MacLachlan and country band Little Big Town. Amell’s wine club once teamed up with actor Jonathan Bennett for a Mean Girls-inspired collection: Wednesday Rosé and a blend called “It’s a red, duh.”
Reds really do reign supreme; the region is best known for its cabernet sauvignon and merlot, although grenache and syrah are gaining popularity. You’ll also find under-the-radar whites, like fiano and semillon, as well as rosé, sparkling, and pét-nats. Thanks to Walla Walla’s diverse soil types and varying precipitation, a variety of grapes can thrive here, leading many winemakers to experiment with new flavors and styles.
If Napa is like a luxury department store filled with designer names, Walla Walla is the quirky boutique showcasing indie brands at a lower price point. This fall, I visited the region on a press trip with Kia and can officially say: Whether you’re a certified cork dork or casual wine drinker, consider this West Coast gem for your next destination.
Where To Drink
Walla Walla is primarily home to small production wineries, which comes with a few perks. Don’t expect to see any jacked-up prices — most tasting fees are less than $25, and the cost is often waived if you buy some bottles. In terms of startup costs, the region has a lower barrier to entry, which has translated to more diversity among the industry’s players. Many vineyard owners and winemakers are women, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+.
Visitors can also have potential face time with the people who know the products best. “You get to meet the people who are making the wine or who own the wineries a lot of the time, and that isn’t always the case when you’re traveling to experience wine country,” says Maryam Ahmed, a wine educator and winemaker.
Not sure where to go? Here are Ahmed’s favorite wineries.
SMAK: Four times a year, winemaker Fiona S. Mak releases a new rosé inspired by the season and decks out her tasting room to match. It’s the first Washington winery owned and operated by an Asian woman.
Itä: Want a taste of the future? High in acidity and lower in alcohol content, winemaker Kelsey Albro Itämeri offers a new style of wine emerging from Walla Walla. She uses grapes you already know and love, like pinot noir, and serves up the unexpected, too — your grandmother wouldn’t recognize her carbonic twist on zinfandel.
Delmas: The vineyard is built on a sea of rocks, lending its wines a funky minerality. Although this second-generation winery is just over the Oregon border, it’s still within Walla Walla’s AVA (American Viticulture Area, aka a region where wine is produced). Their bottles usually sell out via their mailing list, but Ahmed says it’s well worth it if you can get your hands on one.
Abeja: The crown jewel of Walla Walla, in Ahmed’s view, is located on a historic farmstead in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. The award-winning winery is also home to an inn and a prix fixe restaurant inspired by local flavors. It produces cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay, among other offerings.
Valdemar Estates: For five generations, the Martínez Bujanda family has been making wine in Spain, and now they’re in Walla Walla, too. On-site, try a range of varietals with the $20 Tastings and Tapas deal. The building itself has a strong focus on accessibility, including tour information with QR codes that link to American Sign Language translations, and hands-free wine holders.
Foundry Vineyards: This tasting room offers award-winning organic wines, including pét-nats made from 100% fruit with zero additives. The site has strong creative roots; it doubles as one of the largest contemporary fine-art casting studios in the world and has a rotating gallery of work on display.
SuLei Cellars: Wife team Tanya Woodley and Elaine Jomwe own this small-production winery with two labels: SuLei focuses on single-vineyard, single-variety wines, while Roller Girl has a wider range — but both offer plenty of sub-$20 bottles that Ahmed calls delicious.
Vital Wines: Raise your glass to a good cause — 100% of this nonprofit’s net proceeds go toward programs that support health care organizations and education programs for vineyard stewards and their families. The tasting room showcases a range of flavors and styles, including collabs with outside winemakers and vineyards.
Grosgrain Vineyards: Snuggle up by the cozy fireplace in this airy, chic tasting room. This is the place to try organic wines made from under-the-radar grapes. (Xarel-lo? Carignan? Macabeo? Sure!) Their bottles are simply fun to drink, Ahmed says.
Kontos Cellars: Local pride runs deep at this winery run by sixth-generation Walla Wallans, the second Kontos family generation in the industry. Try “The Boss,” a Bordeaux made with the solera method, where each year’s wine is blended into the next. As they put it, this “[gives their] daughters the opportunity to someday make wine with the same juice that their grandfather had a hand in making.”
For more, use the Map My WA Wine to find additional wineries.
Where To Eat
Drinking on an empty stomach isn’t cute, but luckily, Walla Walla’s food scene has been on a roll lately.
Take in some culture along with your morning brew at FVC Gallery, a coffee shop with a contemporary art gallery and shop featuring clothing and home goods. Make a reservation at Bacon & Eggs, beloved by locals for its hearty breakfasts — otherwise, prepare to wait in line for your sandwich (scrambled eggs, cheddar, pesto mayo, bacon, and tomato on sourdough).
End the day with the rigatoni bolognese at Passatempo Taverna, a rustic Italian spot, or try the chickens and grits at Hattaway’s on Alder, where you’ll find local flavors with a Southern twist (plus a cocktail menu if you need to switch it up).
Take The Scenic Route
Although the area is known for its wine scene, the ultra-scenic drives are worth putting down your glass. I was surprised to find that I liked driving around just as much as I liked touring the vineyards. The views feature undulating hills covered in golden wheat fields, neat rows of grapevines, winding roads, rugged mountains, and vibrant sunsets.
During my trip, I test-drove four Kias — including the Niro (the hybrid version rings in at less than $30,000 and uses 53 miles per gallon) and the Seltos (a compact SUV that comes in an array of colors, including ruddy orange and olive green) — during a 100-mile loop that crossed the Oregon border.
Along this route, I stopped at Abeja and Delmas wineries to purchase bottles to taste later, back in my suite at Eritage Resort, which features modern architecture, pond views, and hearty chilaquiles in its restaurant.
Walla Walla is an ideal road trip spot. If you need a break from imbibing, try exploring the Stateline Loop, or take in the views on an hour-long drive to Palouse State Falls or the two-hour trip to artsy enclave Joseph, Oregon.
If you’d like someone else to play DD, you can book a tour or driver.
How To Get There
It’s about a four-hour drive from Seattle, Portland, and Boise. If you’re coming from Oregon, take the scenic route along the Columbia Gorge.
There’s a 40-minute flight between Seattle and the Walla Walla Regional Airport (ALW). On your way there or back, stop into the nearby winery incubator program, which houses five small producers and often hosts tastings. These winemakers are often grads of the community college’s enology and viticulture program, a local industry powerhouse.
Alternatively, several Midwestern and Western cities fly into Tri-Cities Airport (PSC), an hour’s drive from Walla Walla.
If you plan to bring home souvenirs, fly Alaska Airlines — your first checked case of wine is free. Cheers!
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