Travel: Go wild for Walla Walla, Washington

By David Cohen for Southern California News Group

Walla Walla, Washington, is known for much more than the sweet onions. Some of America’s best syrah, grenache, cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes are grown in the Walla Walla Valley. There’s also a flourishing restaurant industry, and numerous outdoor activities exist to neutralize the calories you will be ingesting during wine tasting and dining.

Here’s a primer on what to expect, and what’s worth checking out, during your next visit:


Five restaurants you won’t want to miss range from elaborate multi-course affairs to exquisite, unique tacos. Stay hydrated and be sure to eat a substantial meal before heading out to wine taste.

AK’s Mercado: An awesome array of tacos and other items created by chef/owner Andre Bopp. Don’t miss the suadero (chunks of succulent, marinated brisket drizzled with chipotle aioli and salsa verde), nor the tinga stuffed with braised pork, tomatoes, potatoes and tomacado salsa. 21 E. Main St.; 509-572-0728,

Bar Bacetto: Mike and Erin Easton sold their wildly popular Il Corvo in Seattle and moved to the countryside, offering three exquisite handmade pastas nightly along with homemade focaccia and a couple of appetizers. We ordered the rigatoni with ricotta cheese and nettle pesto and busiate, a corkscrew pasta tossed with roasted pork, white wine, tomatoes, rosemary and Calabrian chili flakes. A farm fresh carrot salad with pistachios, pumpkin seeds, olives, peas and fennel seeds also was deeply satisfying. 119 Main St., Waitsburg (25 minutes from Walla Walla); 509-316-0399,

Brasserie Four: Classic French fare is offered, such as rillettes of pork and duck with juniper berries and sage; white wine braised lamb shank with herbs de Provence and beef Bourguignon. 4 E. Main St.; 509-529-2011,

Hattaway’s on Alder: The motto is “local inspiration, Southern tradition.” Eclectic items may include barbecue chips with pork shoulder, bamolina barbecue sauce and pickled peppers; and mushroom braised beef cheeks over pasta with burnt shallot croutons and garlic creme fraiche. Save room for bread pudding with bourbon butterscotch sauce. 125 W. Alder St.; 509-525-4433,

Kinglet: For a splurge meal, opt for the seven-course menu designed by Chef Maximillian Petty from Seattle. $135/person (with paired wines with each course, add $85/person). Portions are relatively small, but the depth of flavors are complex and leap off the plate. Service is exquisite, anticipatory and genial. Sample items may include tempura fried oysters with caviar; lamb tartare with banana peppers and egg yolk fudge; and wagyu beef filet with onion petals, pickled ramp, and potato gnocchi. Reservations essential. 55 W. Cherry St.; 509-676-4550,

Wine tasting

High quality wines can be found throughout the Walla Walla Valley AVA (the American viticultural area encompassing land both in southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon), and in a sub AVA within the larger one known as The Rocks of Milton Freewater located just south of the Washington border in Oregon. The Rocks area is strewn with pebbles and cobblestones washed down from the Blue Mountains well over 10,000 years ago resulting in a 100-meter-deep rock layer in a matrix of sand and silt.

Both Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards and Steve Robertson and his daughter, Brooke, of SJR Vineyards and Delmas Winery were excited about these deep rock deposits of volcanic basalt. It reminded Baron of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape soils in France’s Southern Rhône, while Steve Robertson could see the benefits of wines growing down deep through the rocks in search of water and nutrients.

Both of those pioneers separately came up with techniques for protecting the growing parts of the vine which lay dormant in sub-zero Washington winters by covering them with the rocks for protection. Brooke refined the technique with mini head training so the entire plant could be buried.

When the vines’ roots have to burrow down as much as 9 feet to get nutrients and water, the resulting wines are rich and concentrated with smoked meat overtones and a pleasing earthiness that is apparent when swirling the wine in the glass. Both red and dark fruits are abundant and the finish lingers on the palate. I’m a big fan of wines made in “The Rocks,” and four of the six wineries I’m recommending are located in this distinctive area.

Cayuse Vineyards: Cayuse is not open to the public so we were very fortunate to do a tour and tasting with Trevor Dorland, president and director general of Cayuse. Finding bottles of Cayuse can be a challenge but secondary markets such as K & L Wines, The Wine Exchange and The Thief wine store in Walla Walla may offer occasional bottles for sale. While Christophe Baron is the guiding light of the winery, Elizabeth Bourcier is now the new head vigneron (winemaker).

A tasting of selections from their family of wines included God Only Knows Grenache, Cayuse Syrahs from Cailloux and Armada Vineyards, No Girls La Paciencia Vineyard and Horsepower  Syrah The Tribe Vineyard. Each and every wine was exquisite: rich, distinctive fruit in the nose, finishing savory with lingering minerality on the palate. Though Cayuse label wines are difficult to find, No Girls and Horsepower have somewhat more availability. The name No Girls refers to a time when winemaking was “a man’s job” and is meant to be a beacon for more involvement of women in all aspects of the wine industry. Horsepower refers to the vineyard where the rows of vines are spaced only 3 feet apart, so only draft horses, rather than tractors, can till the soil using a specialized plow made in Burgundy, France. 509-526-0686,

Force Majeure: Winemaker Todd Alexander has crafted many award winning wines from the Red Mountain AVA and the Walla Walla AVA focusing on syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and grenache. I particularly liked the 2020 Force Majeure Red Mountain Estate Parvati (52% grenache, 30% mourvèdre, 18% syrah), the 2020 Force Majeure Red Mountain Epinette (52% merlot, 26% cabernet franc, 19% cabernet sauvignon, 3% petit verdot) and the 2020 Force Majeure SJR Vineyard Syrah from The Rocks. Tasting fee: $50/person. Reservations essential. 52274 Pleasant View Road, Milton Freewater, Oregon (no outside signage); 541-833-3051,

Gramercy Cellars: Greg Harrington and Brandon Moss continue to make some of the best syrahs and cabernets in the Walla Walla Valley at very reasonable prices. I particularly enjoyed the 2020 “Third Man” Grenache (77% grenache, 21% syrah, 2% mourvèdre). The 2018 Syrah “Lagniappe” Red Willow Vineyard is rich with blackberry and ripe cherry aromas and flavors.  Also look for the “John Lewis” Reserve Syrah, another elegant winner. Appointments recommended; closed Sunday and Monday. 635 N. 13th Ave., Walla Walla; 509-876-2427,

Long Shadows: A distinguished winemaker in his own right, Gilles Nicault, also produces wines together with nine famous consulting winemakers including Michel Rolland (Pedestal Merlot) and Randy Dunn (Feather Cabernet Sauvignon). Tastings $20-$30/person, $50 with a tour. Reservations suggested. 1604 French town Road, Walla Walla; 509-526-0905,

Reynvaan Family Vineyards: We had the opportunity to spend a couple hours talking with winemaker Matt Reynvaan and sampling his exquisite wines.  We tasted the Foothills in the Sun Reserve Syrah, grown at the base of the Blue Mountains, that was redolent with the flavors of black berries, beets, grilled meat and smokiness — true old world quality. Also beautifully rendered was the 2017 “In the Rocks” The Contender, mainly syrah with a touch of marsanne.  These are deeply delicious savory wines with distinctive minerality and staying power. While not open to the public, their wines are available at Total Wine and intermittently at The Thief wine store in Walla Walla. 6309 Cottonwood Road, Walla Walla; 509-525-3462,

Rotie Cellars: This Rocks district winery dazzled us with virtually all their tasting offerings.  Winemaker Sean Boyd produces wines that are very reminiscent of France’s Rhône Valley.  Both the Northern Blend (95% syrah, 5% viognier) and the Southern Blend (65% grenache, 15% mourvèdre, 10% syrah, 10% cinsault) were spectacular. The 2020 “Big G” (100% estate grenache) — evoking raspberry notes and smoked meat qualities — and the 2020 Love Rocks 470 (100% estate syrah) offers beautiful red fruit, richness and the classic “Rocks” funkiness. Enjoy the gorgeous views of the surrounding vineyards. Reservations recommended. 84328 Trumbull Lane, Milton Freewater, Oregon; 509-301-9074,

  • The eastern edge of the Walla Walla Valley AVA is...

    The eastern edge of the Walla Walla Valley AVA is bordered by the picturesque Blue Mountains. (Photo by Dorene Cohen)



Where to stay

We fell in love with the Fat Duck Inn, a 1928 craftsman house that has been turned into a magnificent bed and breakfast by Kim and Tim Gratzer. These consummate hosts are knowledgeable, funny and provide full made-to-order breakfasts with 10 different selections from which to choose. Tim is quite the chef and you can also book a four-course dinner (appetizer, soup or salad, choice among four mains, and dessert) for $65/person.

Both Kim and Tim are well connected to the wine industry and can arrange tours and tastings for their guests. At breakfast, don’t miss the pulled pork omelet, the brisket scramble and the lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberry sauce. Freshly baked cookies are available each afternoon.

Best of all, after spending the night at the Fat Duck Inn, you’ll feel like you’ve just reconnected with old friends — scintillating conversations and a joie de vivre that reflects their entire operation. Centrally located, it’s an easy walk to Pioneer Park and its waterfowl aviary, lake and picturesque walking paths. 527 Catherine St., Walla Walla; 509-526-3825,

10 things to do

1. Walla Walla Farmers Market; Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

2. Pioneer Park aviary, lake and walking paths

3. Hot air ballooning both sunset and dawn by Seattle Ballooning (Walla Walla location)

4. Visit Blue Mountain Cider Producers

5. Sample Belgian-style ales at Dragon’s Gate Brewery

6. Visit Bennington Lake for hiking and paddle boating

7. Blend your own wine at Northstar Winery

8. Take the walking path along the Mill Creek dam area

9. Visit the Fort Walla Walla Museum

10. Visit the Blue Mountain Lavender Farm (early June to mid-July)

Getting to Walla Walla


  • Walla Walla Regional Airport (ALW) offers service to and from Seattle via Alaska Airlines.
  • Tri-Cities Airport (PSC) in Pasco, a 45-minute drive to and from Walla Walla, offers service via Alaska, Delta, United and other airlines.
  • Spokane International Airport (GEG) is a 3-hour drive to and from Walla Walla.

Note: Alaska Airlines allows each ticketed passenger to bring a case of wine home, and it will fly for free.

Best times to visit: Summers are hot, sometimes approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and winters can easily drop to below freezing. Spring (April and May) and fall (September and October) offer the best weather conditions.

2023 calendar

  • July 11-15: Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine — Merlot
  • October to December: Wander Walla Walla Valley Wine (winemaker self-guided itineraries on where to eat, drink shop and play)
  • Nov. 3-5: Fall Release Weekend
  • Dec. 1-3: Holiday Barrel Weekend. Barrel tastings of future releases along with food, art and music

Wait! There’s more

Other recommended wineries open to the public:

  • Dama Wines
  • Figgins Winery
  • House of Smith Wines
  • Sleight of Hand
  • Tranche Estate
  • Valdemar Estates Winery

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