Walla Walla is home to the highest concentration of wineries in Washington state, yet in many ways, the region remains a local secret. Here a convivial rather than competitive spirit reigns among producers, with enthusiastic owners who will most likely be the ones pouring your flight. Visitors can pop into smart tasting rooms in town and venture out to the vineyards that dot the outskirts. The entire experience has that irresistible laid-back hospitality you hope to get in wine country.
Admittedly, Walla Walla has traditionally been more well-known for its sweet onions and golden wheat fields, but that’s changing as wine lovers are increasingly drawn to an area whose name stems from a Native American term for “many waters.”
You’ll hear locals constantly referring to the Missoula Floods, a cataclysmic event 14,000 years ago that swept through this portion of the state and the Columbia River Gorge, leaving behind well-draining silty and sandy soils that have become a hallmark of the terroir that assures consistently healthy grapes. Meanwhile, soils in the southern part of the region are comprised of heat-absorbing cobblestones that boost ripening, leading fruitiness, tannins and body.
Up against the big boys
Unlike those found in Napa and Sonoma, Walla Walla wineries are generally small production, meaning that if you fall in love with these wines (and you will) grab a few or a case during your visit because you may not find them when you get back home.
Red blends dominate with varietals including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, cabernet franc and malbec. But fans of whites won’t get the short shrift, as you can also find well-made chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling. Walla Walla is also emerging as an exciting region for sparkling wines, with winemakers producing bubbly in the traditional, charmat and pét nat methods.
Here are some of the must-see Walla Walla wineries that prove this enticing southeastern corner of the state should be your next wine getaway.
Husband and wife team JJ and Kelly Menozzi took the discipline and work ethic they gleaned from their more than 23 years of experience as Air Force pilots and turned it into a state-of-the-art operation in the Mill Creek area. But it’s not solely high tech, there’s a lot of passion here too. After a visit to the region in 2000, the duo decided to settle down. Today the pair crafts expressions from grapes grown in the vineyards surrounding their home and those sourced from local growers.
Their cabernet sauvignon has aromas of dry herbs, a peppery palate and fine tannins that are becoming a hallmark of Walla Walla cabs, while chardonnay gets added body and complexity from stirring it on the lees (a process the French call bâtonage). Meanwhile, Primo Volo is Aluvé’s signature, a Left Bank Bordeaux-style red blend that’s both elegant and age-worthy.
A visit to Foundry Vineyards gets you a twofer: the chance to sample terroir-driven wines made with minimal-intervention (owners are in the final stages of achieving organic certification) and the opportunity to peruse a gallery housing quarterly exhibits of contemporary art.
The Foundry itself was launched in 1980 by Mark and Patty Anderson and remains one of the most respected fine-art casting facilities in the country. Their children Jay and Lisa run the winery side of the operation, crafting both a stainless steel and oak-aged chardonnay, a grippy syrah and a plum-tinged sangiovese, all bottled with art-inspired labels.
But it’s their Pét Project that has them bubbled over with excitement: sparkling wines made with pinot gris, grüner veltliner or roussanne that spontaneously effervesce in the bottles during what’s called the méthode ancestrale.
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One of Washington’s only women-owned wineries, DAMA was founded by artist and Minnesota native Mary Derby, who created the Spring Valley Vineyard brand in 2004 with her late husband and now serves as winemaker for her second act.
Her philosophy is to dedicate her wines to pioneering, creative, passionate women who face their challenges head-on. Derby has a keen eye for sourcing fruit from some of the state’s best vineyards like Stillwater and Golden Ridge. All go into expressions like Cowgirl Blanc, an aromatic, juicy, floral sauvignon blanc, a cabernet franc-based rosé that pops with strawberries and vibrant acidity and Collage, a multi-award-winning blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Partial proceeds from wine sales are donated to the YWCA.
The tasting room in town feels more like a relaxed loft apartment, with cushy sofas on the second floor and a patio filled with shaded tables and a porch swing. Before you settle in, chat and taste with winemaker Cameron Kontos, a sixth-generation Walla Walla native who owns Kontos Cellars with his brother.
Alatus is their yearly flagship release, a mélange of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec aged in a combination of French and American oak that shows off the inherent character of each grape varietal. Gossamer is a Rhône-style blend of chardonnay, marsanne and roussanne, while Fysalides (Greek for “tiny bubbles”) is a balanced, food-friendly traditional sparkler made from chardonnay and pinot noir.
Dusted Valley Winery
An umbrella-covered table on a sunny patio is a perfect respite to take in the views of the Blue Mountains at this winery owned by a family of transplants from Wisconsin. Owner, winemaker and former food scientist, Chad Johnson, is rightfully proud of his wines – aged in barrels constructed with Wisconsin oak, by the way.
Dusted Valley Winery was also the first Washington winery to enclose all wines with screw caps. A focus on sustainability, obsessive attention to details and farming practices including low yields result in offerings like Squirrel Tooth Alice, a Rhône-inspired blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre with balanced acidity and tannins; the big, bold Bordeaux-esque BFM, which combines merlot with cabernet sauvignon and just a touch of petit verdot and malbec. As for what the name stands for, Johnson jokes that the potentially irreverent acronym is up for interpretation. These are serious wines from a family that doesn’t take itself seriously.
Washington by way of Spain, that’s what Valdemar Estates, located on the region’s south side, promises. The Valdemar family has been making wine in Rioja for five generations, but their Walla Walla venture is their first foray outside Europe.
As soon as you approach the modern, minimalist facility with architectural details including clean lines, warm wood and sleek metal accents you can tell it’s all going to be something a little bit different.
On the menu inside and outside you’ll find bottles from both places: a Garnacha rosado, tangy viura and incredibly complex Gran Reserva Rioja on the Spanish side, and three very different syrahs from Washington that range from delicate and feminine to big and well-structured. Pinchos and tapas like tomato- and garlic-rubbed grilled bread, jamon Iberico and a potato omelet let you find your perfect pairing.
Kelly Magyarics traveled to Walla Walla with support from the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.