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Walla Walla: Vintners come of age with 70 area wineries

By VICTOR JUDD
NorthwestTravelAdvisor.com

On a Parisian Holiday a few years ago, my wife and I shared a table in a small cafe with some other American travelers. One of the ladies was telling us, quite loudly, that she had been "touring the wine country."

My wife and I exchanged a bemused glance and I asked, sort of gingerly, "Ummm, which one exactly?" The lady responded, "You know, THE wine country."

Considering that most of France is "Wine Country," I was curious as to which region she had been visiting. Bordeaux? Champagne? Burgundy? Apparently, clueless as she was, she thought France was like America with only one area renowned for wine production and she had just seen it. We joked that she was headed for "the cheese country" tomorrow.

A funny story, but what does that have to do with the Northwest? Well, for a decade now, America has been more like France. America no longer has just "the wine country." One must ask the same question that I did "Which wine country." Increasingly, the wine country that is mentioned first is Washington State. On top of that, within Washington State one must ask, "Which wine country?"

It gets confusing. And that's why we decided to go visit the "Wine Country" and tell you all about it. Or at least about a part of it because our livers, after years of over-work, must take things more slowly now. Also, we were driving. Our wine country in Washington stretches from the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula to the southeastern corner of the state, so wherever you are, you are not far from the Wine Country. However, because we all like our weekend getaways, we headed off to Walla Walla.

When driving down from the huge, parched expanse of the Columbia Plateau into the relative lushness of the Walla Walla River valley, the first thing that will draw your attention is the dozens no, hundreds of large white towers lining the hills to the south. What you are seeing is one of the largest wind farms in the country. These lumbering monsters stand around 300 feet tall and silently generate hundreds of megawatts of power. They look really interesting, and I am sure they are, but we are here to drink wine, so the windmills will have to wait until the next trip. Besides, it is always good to keep a reason and a destination in mind for another getaway.

Walla Walla meant "many waters" to the original inhabitants. To the current ones, it could mean "many great wines." There are about 70 wineries in the valley and almost as many vineyards. This creates a disconcerting abundance of choices for those who feel they must see and do everything in any given area on their first visit. Take my advice: don't try to sample everything in Walla Walla on one visit. There is just too much of a good thing. Relax, the wineries and the wine will still be around when you come back in three months. The season will have changed but everything else will be waiting for you just the way you left it. And remember you always need a good reason for another getaway.

So where to start? If you plan to visit on a weekend in the spring, summer or fall, hopefully you started several weeks (or even months) ago by making reservations at the Marcus Whitman Hotel and Convention Center. There are many nice places to stay in Walla Walla but the Marcus Whitman is the quintessential Walla Walla experience. Conceived and built in 1927 as a luxury hotel, the building dominates the downtown skyline (it is the downtown skyline) and the staff does everything right, so why stay anywhere else? If you really like a "period" feel to your accommodations, be sure to reserve a suite in the historic tower. It has all of the old fashioned elegance that is promised by a stay in a historic structure. Served in their elegant dining room, the complimentary breakfast buffet alone makes the stay worthwhile.

An alternative stay that is every bit the "Wine Country" experience but 180 degrees opposite in feel, is the Abeja Winery, just east of town, near the airport. The Inn at Abeja is "a stunning, turn-of-the-century farmstead where original outbuildings have been restored to lovely, spacious, individual and private guest accommodations." Their website tells you this and I didn't think I could say it any better. As our group of eight stepped out of our cars and looked through and around the hedges, taking in the elegant grounds and stately old (but renovated) buildings, we were all equally charmed. I had the impression of being in Kentucky, in thoroughbred racehorse country, and about to approach a champion's farmhouse. There is a choice of five suites or cottages, each a unique experience but all sharing the "country home" feel that comes with living on a vineyard right next to one of the country's best wineries. And, while you are here, be sure to visit the tasting room, you will be well rewarded. By appointment, Molly Galt will come out and share her extensive knowledge of all things wine and Abeja.

This is a wine tasting getaway, so you will want to visit another winery, of course. Our next stop was Basel Cellars Estate Winery. The first thing that came to mind as we approached Basel Cellars is "they have a LOT more money than I do." Basel's estate is a must do not miss it. From the minute that you drive through the towering wood and steel gate and up the long curving driveway, you and your friends will be talking of nothing else. And, of course, you will be impressed with their wines as well. We particularly liked their Forget Me Not, a white Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon mix that was pleasantly surprising. Lest I forget, if you and 17 guests would like to spend the night, get married or entertain the president of a small country, the courteous staff at Basel will be happy to make the arrangements. But, again, be sure to plan in advance.

I have to mention another favorite Dusted Valley Vintners. They have no guest rooms, towers or awesome gates to rave about, but we still managed to sip away a few delightful hours sitting on their patio gazing out across the vineyards. Chad Johnson and Cory Braunel made us feel right at home. We had never met them before but we departed on a first-name basis and we were even more familiar with their fine wines.

When heading off on a mission, it is always wise to remain aware of other possibilities. Taking a break from wine tasting, we wandered along Main Street. What was a declining town center in the 70's is now a remarkably fresh and vibrant city center. Surrounded by real shops and real locals, the wine-loving tourist can enjoy a safe and pleasant stroll while looking for that perfect souvenir, cup of coffee or gourmet pastry. That is how we happened upon one of our favorite Walla Walla treasures Brights Candy Company. Since 1934, Brights has been making people smile exactly the way we did when we first walked into their shop. Handmade candies of all kinds chocolates, truffles, divinity, peanut brittle, and fudge - surrounded us, but I was most taken with the caramel corn. Call me simple, but I know what I like. I sampled the chocolates but I bought the caramel corn (maybe I am just cheap?).

I should mention that 18 wineries have tasting rooms downtown, making a walking tour very do-able. It is fun visiting a winery's actual facility, especially if it is as appealing as Basel's, there is also a certain beauty in not being tempted to drive with a possible 1.1 blood alcohol content. Not that hurrying is at all encouraged, but it is possible to sample more wines without the long drive between wineries. Each tasting room has its own charm and is decorated to suit the parent winery's personality, ranging from the sleek European elegance of Waterbrook Winery to the rustic ranch look of Canoe Ridge.

Of course, no wine tasting getaway is complete without a reference to the exquisite dining. During our visit we dined at two of the most popular restaurants in town. Although enjoyable -- and one was particularly fun -- I must admit that I found the wines in Walla Walla more memorable than the meals. But I am a firm believer in second chances, so perhaps that gives me reason to plan another getaway in search of primo dining in Walla Walla.

Basel Cellars vineyards, photo by Victor Judd.

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