Walla Walla bing bang

Will success spoil southeastern Washington? Tourism and a desirable lifestyle now define the Northwest's hottest wine ghetto.
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The Marcus Whitman Hotel (right) in Walla Walla, Wash., with the Blue Mountains in the background. (Brent Bergherm) CLICK ON PHOTOS TO ENLARGE

Will success spoil southeastern Washington? Tourism and a desirable lifestyle now define the Northwest's hottest wine ghetto.

Much has already been written about the Walla Walla miracle, how an old, insular small town in the farm country of southeastern Washington emerged as a major wine center with all the accoutrements that go with it: tourism, fine food, and lots of newcomers looking for all-American livability.

Call it the new Willamette Valley, the new Napa, or simply the new Walla Walla – for anyone who remembers the old city, it's an amazing transformation to behold. This town used to be primarily known to the rest of us as a place of sweet onions and bad hangings at the State Penitentiary.

No more. Hanging is an option, not a mandate in Washington these days. And rather poignantly, during the last legislative session, Olympia lawmakers officially voted the Walla Walla Sweet Onion as official state vegetable – a title I thought was already held by the office of lieutenant governor.

It took years for the onion lobby to get the bill passed, but like most legislation, it comes too late: Walla Walla has moved on.

The city and environs are now defined by the grape. Vineyards and wineries are everywhere. Wandering through downtown recently, I was struck by the boomtown atmosphere: There are wine tasting rooms, wine cellars, wine bars, wine merchants, restaurants with wine menus – by appearances everything but winos.

Walla Walla is a wine ghetto. Even local mini-marts offer great wine selection. Want a case discount with your Big Gulp? The winemakers are organized. The head of Walla Walla's tourism office – yes, they have one – is a smart New Yorker named Michael Davidson who seems to know what he's doing. For instance, in a recent interview he immediately deflected any comparison to the Napa Valley. "We're not going to be the next Napa and we don't want to be the next Napa," he says. "Walla Walla is unique."

That says a lot. For one thing, it says that Walla Walla is ambitious on its own behalf – this is no copy-cat phenom but an original. They've got more charm than the Yakima Valley, more intimacy than Woodinville. It also says Walla Walla doesn't plan to be generic or to sell its soul for a tourism buck. No lederhosen like Leavenworth.

Success or failure will be based on the quality of the wine and the fact that in Walla Walla, the people pouring your juice are the same people who made it. It's intimate, and success or failure will depend on the quality of the wine and whether it continues to merit serious attention and generate genuine excitement.

Tourism is fragile, says Davidson. In other words, you have to pay attention, stay real, and not bet everything on a fad or a fantasy. Walla Walla doesn't need to be the Disneyland of food and wine. If things change, it can always fall back on, well, onions, or the penitentiary, or the lavender business, or the fact that it has a great school (Whitman College), or its history – after all, this is a region where the landscape has been shaped by Europeans for two centuries. Though I must say that hanging your heritage tourism hat on the Whitman massacre is a bit tired and grim. The National Park Service historic site feels like a cemetery, which it is. The other standby legacy, the Lewis and Clark expedition, is so, well, 2004.

And there's also the town's appeal as a place to live: affordable, good looking, cultured (in addition to restaurants, the wine boom is bringing art galleries, there's a farmer's market, and plans for a chamber music festival). Beyond tourism, Walla Walla is drawing more permanent residents – refugees from Pugetopolis and Portland. That, as we mossbacks know, is a double-edged sword. What goes with a good Merlot? Try traffic jams and a slice of density.

The debate over that has already begun. Check out the comment thread following an article in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin: "Walla Walla is a real community not a make-believe tourist trap." But the impact of tourism is being felt: If you like studies, one says tourism contributes more than $70 million to the local economy.

And what of Walla Walla's neighbors? How do they feel about its success? Davidson tells me that a newspaper editorial in the Tri-City Herald wondered why they were simply a "pit stop" for folks on their way from Yakima to Walla Walla, an embarrassing admission for a bigger urban area always on the make and with wineries of its own.

For some of Walla Walla's smaller neighbors, however, there is some trickle down. Head east from Walla Walla toward Lewiston, Idaho, and you'll pass through charming little Waitsburg – a place with a Mark Twain-era name and feel that is sprouting good restaurants and has a downtown with a lot of potential for food tourists. Seattle wine writer Paul Gregutt lives there part time and recently wrote a blurb about his favorite place for a Budget Travel magazine feature on America's "10 coolest small towns."

A little farther on is Dayton, a kind of Port Townsend of ag country. For years they've been sprucing up and restoring their fabulous turn-of-the-century architecture and main street. And they're attracting good food, too. On a recent pass through, I stopped at a place that served terrific nouvelle Filipino cuisine, which was a little like finding a pearl in your chicken-fried steak.

How far the Walla Walla wine miracle will flow in southeastern Washington is uncertain. I'll be writing about one of Walla Walla's distressed farm-town neighbors in a future post. But from my observation, after you leave Dayton, signs of a rural renaissance disappear. And don't go looking for a Starbucks in, say, Starbuck, Wash. Nor a great white wine to go with your chicken adobo. Not yet, anyway.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.