Walla Walla for wine lovers

Person walks through vineyards in walla walla

This once-sleepy Washington town is now a top destination for travellers seeking world-class wine and food in a relaxed and scenic setting.

Walla Walla has become an enclave for discerning wine and food lovers. Located a little over four hours’ drive from Seattle, the town is small (with a population of approximately 34,000 people) and surrounded mostly by farmland. But the diversity and calibre of its restaurants, food shops and wine experiences have elevated it to the level of a much bigger destination, and mitigated the past perception that its location was too remote for a visit.

Walla Walla is popular among both travellers and the trade, winning multiple national readers’ choice awards as a top wine-tourism destination as well as industry accolades for its various restaurants and tasting rooms. Its growing success is thanks in part to a migration of talented Seattle chefs who left the city for a simpler, more affordable lifestyle. But even the best chef needs a great support team, and the culinary arts programme at local Walla Walla Community College has been deftly laying the groundwork, building a pool of well-trained cooks and food professionals ready to support the burgeoning restaurant community.

Walla Walla’s high concentration of tasting rooms and estate wine programmes have added to the region’s appeal among wine-interested travellers. The town of Walla Walla sits at the centre of the surrounding appellation (or AVA) of Walla Walla, which is home to nearly 150 member wineries and community partners. Today, it has become one of Washington State’s best wine-travel destinations, second only in popularity and convenience to Woodinville, located in the Seattle metropolitan area.

The town’s amenities have evolved too, with newly renovated downtown hotels and nearby resort locations offering a mix of lodging, as well as e-bike rentals and professional guided tours that make personalised experiences easy and fun.

Here’s what to do and see on a standout visit to this casual but classic destination.

Getting there

Walla Walla’s regional airport has direct service from Seattle and Portland, a short hop away by plane. If you have trouble getting a flight into Walla Walla, people also fly into the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco, Washington, just an hour away.

Walla Walla Airport, 45 Terminal Loop, Walla Walla

Tri-Cities Airport, 3601 N 20th Ave, Pasco

If you’d rather reduce your flying time and combine it with a bit of driving, Walla Walla is only around four hours on the road from either Seattle or Portland. Most drive from Seattle, but that includes a trip over the Cascade Mountains. As a result, it’s an easier (not to mention beautiful) drive from Portland along the Columbia Gorge. For another possible option, it’s also four hours’ drive from Boise, Idaho.

Where to stay

For anyone visiting Walla Walla without a car, staying downtown is the best option. An airport shuttle arranged in advance with your hotel will get you to where you are staying. Once there, you can walk to everything you need. Downtown includes a wealth of tasting rooms now, most taking walk-in visitors, though you’ll still want to look up their hours. And the region’s best restaurants are an easy walk as well. 

Walla Walla's downtown is full of tasting rooms, restaurants and shops that capture its laid-back charm.
Walla Walla's downtown is full of tasting rooms, restaurants and shops that capture its laid-back charm (photo credit: Mark VanDonge)

When I first visited Walla Walla years ago, the only realistic option for decent accommodation was the Marcus Whitman Hotel downtown. Today, it remains a classic. The feel of the main lobby is a bit of a throwback to an older time, but the rooms are comfortable and it offers an easy, central location. The original part of the building is the tower hotel, which is now adjacent to a newer part that includes a conference centre. The annual, three-day Celebrate Walla Walla wine event hosts its keynote seminar tasting here every summer. The hotel also offers an airport shuttle service in case you don’t want to rent a car. 6 West Rose St, Walla Walla, WA; tel: +1-509-525-2200

For a more modern feel, The Finch boutique hotel, also in downtown, offers newly renovated rooms and pet-friendly bookings. The lobby includes a welcoming meeting area, and an outside fire pit for evening get-togethers. It’s an old road motel that got upgraded, so there are no elevators and the rooms are spread across multiple buildings with long outdoor hallways. But the rooms are comfortable and local goods are dotted throughout, whether in bedding, bath products or snacks. The Finch also offers its own guide service that will pick you up at the airport and help you plan your time in the region. 325 East Main St, Walla Walla, WA; tel: +1-509-956-4994

Where to eat

The long-standing favourite restaurant for wine lovers in Walla Walla is Brasserie Four. It serves dinner Tuesday through Saturday, as well as lunch at the end of the week. The menu is entirely French, featuring rotating daily specials as well as stalwart classics like my favourite, their boeuf bourguignon. Relying on red wine and veal stock as the base, they manage to make a hearty and flavourful dish that is wonderfully comforting without being overly heavy. I can’t eat either the moules frites or bouillabaisse due to my shellfish allergy, but I’m consistently told they’re delicious. For starters, you can rely on their half-dozen oysters, escargots, rillettes or pâté options, or just keep it simple with pommes frites.

The wine list absolutely includes the full range of regional favourites, but it also consistently offers a few choice French selections like Chinon (perfect for the bouef bourguignon) or, to keep things affordable, sparkling Limoux. They also allow you to bring up to two of your own bottles of wine (if they aren’t on the list) for $25 corkage. 4 East Main St, Walla Walla, WA; tel: +1-509-529-2011

Opened about five years ago, Passatempo Taverna helped pique interest in outside chefs moving to make an impact on the Walla Walla food scene. An Italian-style taverna, Passatempo was launched by investor Mike Martin initially joining forces with local legend Jim German. Today, it’s led by chef and GM Sam Shelton. The team have created what has become one of my favourite eateries. The house-made Roman pastas are a must, followed by one of their wood-fired Margherita pizzas, and then a choice from their seasonal meats. It’s all good.

Passatempo boasts what I see as the best wine list in town. It’s led by Robert Gomez (who also has his own label, Hoquetus) and brings together some of the region’s more food-friendly wine selections (including older vintages) and a surprising collection of Italian wines including some of the country’s most loved options. If you’d rather go for a cocktail, Kate Williams leads the bar programme, bringing creative inventions to the list alongside the classics. The cocktail list and liquor selection at Passatempo are among the best you’ll find anywhere. They also offer a list of non-alcoholic mixed drinks that are impressively delicious. 215 West Main St, Walla Walla, WA; tel: +1-509-876-8822

Hattaway’s on Alder happens to be a newer spot, but it’s quickly gained an impassioned local following. The menu takes advantage of the seasonal produce, local meat purveyors and distinctly Northwest flavours of the region while relying on dishes with an inspired take on the food traditions of the south-eastern United States, where the owners originate. You’ll find fried chicken flavoured with herbs, duck fried kimchi rice, beef-tongue pastrami, spätzle and garlic, butter-sautéed halibut cheeks, and grilled pork collar served with chimichurri for dinner. Dessert includes evolving flavours of bread pudding and, in the right season, peaches all over the menu.

The wine list is mostly built around the best of the Pacific Northwest and includes some rare older vintages of Christophe Baron’s various Bionic wines, or more classic options like Pepper Bridge and Leonetti. But it also features some of the region’s newer producers such as the collection of seasonal rosés from Smak wines, Sémillon from Itä, Syrah from Hoquetus or the Cabernet from Force Majeure. They mix in a few worthwhile selections from Italy and France such as G D Vajra Barolo and various champagnes. Or, if you’d like to stay semi-local but move to the lighter side of things, they also have a nice collection of Willamette Valley options. 125 West Alder St, Walla Walla, WA; tel: +1-509-525-4433

For a combination of Turkish spices, mixed mezze with pita, beef cheeks with golden raisins and saffron, head to Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen. The menu includes a range of dishes inspired by the greater Mediterranean but much of it comes from its eastern side, where the sea meets western Asia. You’ll find kebbeh nayyeh, a dish of ground lamb and beef tartare brought together with Walla Walla sweet onions and roasted pepper. Or saffron malfadine, with cured tuna with spring peas, tomato and ricotta cheese with a hint of chilli spice and just a touch of fennel. They also make their own pastas and sausage.

For those wanting more mainstream dinner options still sprinkled with global flavours, their grilled chicken is served with a side of fava beans and orzo cooked in Turkish spices. Or the hanger steak is wood-grilled and served with adobo sauce. They also have the greatest range of dessert options in town, outside the Colville Street Patisserie. My favourite is the apricot charlotte with cardamom, pistachio and rose water, but don’t ignore the Basque cheesecake either. It’s impressively light and flavourful. Their wine list focuses on food-friendly, mouth-watering options like sparkling wines, flavourful rosés and a range of rich whites or higher-acid reds that pair beautifully with the menu. There are bottles from around the world as well as local favourites. 330 W Main St, Walla Walla, WA; tel: +1-509-525-2112

For some of the best croissants on the West Coast, head to Colville Street Patisserie on the corner of Colville and Alder in downtown Walla Walla. There you’ll also find excellent coffees, desserts, bread, and cookies worth buying by the dozen, and even gelato. 40 S Colville St, Walla Walla, WA; tel: +1-509-301-7289

If you are staying at a place with your own kitchen, or you’ll be grilling later, pop in next door to Butcher Butcher for some of the best meat selection you’ll find anywhere, much of it farmed nearby. 30 S Colville St, Walla Walla, WA; tel: +1-509-593-5486

Getting around 

For wine tasting in Walla Walla, tasting rooms abound. Which to visit depends largely on your personal preferences. If you’re traveling without a car, the downtown area now features plenty of tasting rooms to keep you occupied while touring by foot. But thanks to the size of the surrounding Walla Walla AVA, there are numerous tasting rooms outside of town too.

 Downtown Walla Walla is home to many walkable, walk-in friendly tasting rooms, as is the larger Walla Walla AVA.
Downtown Walla Walla is home to many walk-in-friendly tasting rooms, as is the larger Walla Walla AVA (photo credit: Walla Walla Valley Wine/Richard Duval Images)

The regional winery association, Walla Walla Valley Wine, has put together an online winery and tasting room map that breaks down their locations within the surrounding AVA, including of course the various options in the town itself. This is a great resource for helping you consolidate your visits and make best use of your time. The Walla Walla AVA is full of great places to tour, but they can also be a little spread out with only open land in between.

The east-side wineries (literally east of the town) tend to have nice views of the Blue Mountains, while those on the west side of the AVA are among the region’s oldest. Don’t forget that while the town of Walla Walla is fully in Washington state, the Walla Walla AVA sits equally in both Washington and Oregon, so there are wineries to visit not only to the south side of town, but also just a little further south and only a few minutes away in Oregon.

If you want to tour the region but avoid renting a car, then bicycle rentals are an option. Allegro Cyclery offers a range of bicycle types to allow for comfortable touring, serious bike training, or a little assistance with an electronic bicycle. 200 East Main St, Walla Walla, WA; tel: +1-509-525-4949

There are also personal drivers who can either get you between destinations on your self-planned tour or plan the tour for you. For a higher-end private experience, Tesla Winery Tours will be your designated driver and plan the tasting visits on your behalf. They require a four-hour minimum, and you book them at an hourly rate. They request no tipping and, since it’s an electric car, there is no fuel charge and no emissions! Tel: +1-253-797-6596

If you stay at either the Marcus Whitman or The Finch, they can also recommend local drivers available to bring you between tastings.

One more fun thing to keep in mind when visiting is the winery incubator programme near the airport. It isn’t the most scenic part of town, but there you’ll find five new and small-scale wineries in their first few years of business. Many were also founded by a graduate of the community college’s oenology and viticulture programme, which works closely with the same school’s culinary programme. You’ll sometimes find one of the incubator wineries hosting a tasting with snacks made by one of the culinary programme graduates thanks to their getting to know each other in school.

The incubator buildings were built by the Port of Walla Walla to help newly founded wineries gain a foothold in the region. They offer affordable winemaking space with room for tasting. For wine lovers, it’s a great location to support newer businesses while visiting five wineries side-by-side at the same time. The incubator is one of my favourite programmes in the region, and the kind of community effort that has helped make Walla Walla such a vibrant food and wine destination. 594–602 Piper Avenue, Walla Walla.

Main image credit: Walla Walla Valley Wine/Richard Duval Images.