Walla Walla—the river-laced Washington State college town close to the Oregon border—was named after a Native American expression for “many waters.” Wheat built the city’s fortunes in the 1800s, and Walla Walla sweets—the crunchy, juicy, and virtually tear-proof onions that originally arrived with Italian immigrants—have spread the name far beyond the state’s borders. More recently, however, Walla Walla has become a place of many wines. Thirty years after Gary Figgins made his first Cabernet in a farmhouse basement—the now legendary Leonetti Cellar—Walla Walla Valley is home to nearly 100 bonded wineries. One of the newest, Long Shadows Vintners, is seven wineries in one, with a coterie of international superstars making signature wines from Washington grapes. However long a shadow these vintners cast, though, the winery (which is closed to casual visitors) isn’t really what travelers are looking for here. Since my last visit, 18 years ago, Walla Walla has been thriving as a young wine region of passionate garagistes and down-to-earth wineries where it’s still possible to drop by a tasting room, talk to the winemaker, and learn more about winemaking than you ever could during a canned tour. If that’s not enough, you can spend the night nestled in a cabin among the vines. If, that is, there’s room at the inn.
Accommodations can be scarce on weekends, but we snagged a weekday night in a slow period at Abeja, an inn and highly regarded winery on a century-old farmstead whose owners have restored and furnished the outbuildings with whimsical folk art and antiques. A creek rushed through the trees just over the hill from our quarters in the elegant Locust Suite, originally a garage that serviced the farm’s tractors and cars. There, while peering at the past on the plank walls scribbled with oil changes and old license plate numbers, we sniffed the present: The reserve barrel room is on the other side of the bedroom wall.
Abeja winemaker John Abbott’s peers call him meticulous, and it’s not hard to see why: He watched as his workers carefully removed the green stems that can create bitter tannins, hand-sorting the fruit as it entered the destemmer and again after it departed. But Abbott’s attention to quality began much earlier in the process. Abeja is a member of Vinea, a group of Walla Walla Valley grape growers and winemakers with a holistic approach to sustainable viticulture. “We’re digging in good compost and adding compost tea from worm castings,” he said. “If we keep vines healthy and happy, they will survive pests and diseases. Rick Trumbull, at the compost facility on the Oregon side of Walla Walla Valley, can explain all of this.”
Which is how, the following morning, we found ourselves standing between towering rows of decomposing wood chips, vineyard clippings, and cow manure all cooking nicely into a fragrant sustainable fertilizer. An impassioned Trumbull was warming to the subject. If the science sailed over my head, the sermon was clear. “Some of these soils have been farmed so long they’re nutrient-poor and depleted of minerals, so we’re putting them back,” he explained. “It’s no quick fix. It will take decades to make them healthy again.”
We’d come to see the compost with Vinea president Jean-François Pellet, a third-generation Swiss winemaker who is developing Pepper Bridge winery as a model for sustainability. The day in Pellet’s pickup had been a rollicking ride through the past—15,000 years’ worth—as he described the cataclysmic deluges of water, ice, and earth that sculpted the Columbia Plateau and created the mineral-rich Walla Walla Valley soil that’s so ideal for growing grapes. He showed us the stony lowlands that remind the French—and Francophiles—of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. (Christophe Baron, for example, came here from his family’s Champagne house to open Cayuse Vineyards.) And then, jouncing up and down the glacial loess of Seven Hills Vineyard, we glimpsed the future: The 200 acres owned by Pepper Bridge, Leonetti, and L’Ecole No 41 are the source of some of Washington’s finest grapes.
A plush estate-grown Pepper Bridge Cabernet came to dinner that evening with Pellet and his wife at Whitehouse-Crawford, the restaurant that saved a 1904 planing mill headed for demolition—preserving the original brick walls and red-fir floor—and transformed Walla Walla in the process. Chef Jamie Guerin, ex-chef of Campagne, in Seattle, shifts easily from a classic steak and chanterelles to quail with a peanut mole sauce and pork chops zapped with Jamaican spices and a corn-coconut curry, and Whitehouse-Crawford has spawned other ambitious kitchens in the valley. “Suddenly the question is, ‘Where will we eat tonight?’” one bemused winemaker told me. “You can’t imagine what it was seven years ago. Pizza, tacos, and steak.”