Until recently, Walla Walla was best known to outsiders, insofar as it was known at all, as the source of a certain sweet onion. That changed not long ago when Army Reserve buddies Gary Figgins and Rick Small established, respectively, Leonetti Cellar and Woodward Canyon Winery, laying the foundation of a wine industry that has transformed the small city (population 30,000) and the surrounding region in a scant quarter-century. Almost overnight, it seemed, Washington was producing world-class cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and glowing numbers of vintners were having equal success with such varieties as Syrah, viognier, and tempranillo. Walla Walla’s name came from American Indians in the region, meaning “many waters,” but increasingly it means “many wines” to tourists: The city now boasts more than 60 wineries, and it remains the focal point of a vibrant wine region that extends nearly to Yakima, 130 miles west.
Washington’s emergence as a winemaking titan has been sudden. In 1970, there were only two wineries in the stale, and now it is the second-largest wine producer in the U.S., after California, with around 360 wineries and 30,000 acres under wine grape cultivation. In contrast with neighboring Oregon, whose top wineries are on the cool slopes of the Willamette Valley, perfect for pinot noir, Washington’s top terroirs are in the state’s eastern deserts, where burly red wine grapes thrive in the baking heat (with ample help from irrigation). Not long ago Northwest wines were a novelty, but today they are setting the pace for their respective varietals, and while some Northwest wines are distributed across the U.S., much of the best is very limited in quantity and never makes it out of the region.
Chefs and innkeepers invariably follow where winemakers go, and in newly luxurious Walla Walla—”the town so nice they named it twice,” as the Chamber of Commerce likes to say—they’re sometimes to be found in the same location. The Whitehouse-Crawford Restaurant, where chef Jamie Guerin revolutionized local dining in 2000, is next door to the barrel room of the Seven Hills Winery, and both the ambitious Abeja Winery and the gracious Inn at Abeja are located in a gorgeously restored early 20th-century farmstead with five suites and cottages.