Why Walla Walla:
Having had a positive experience flying Avelo airlines to Eureka, I booked a cheap flight on them to the Tri-Cities region in eastern Washington to visit the Hanford Reactor. When looking for things to do in the region, I noticed that Walla Walla, just 45 minutes away, has both a national park service site as well as one of the most famous wine regions in the United States.
July 18, 2023: A City So Nice They Named It Twice
My Avelo flight from Burbank landed on time at the Tri Cities Airport in Pasco, Washington at noon. I picked up my rental car and was shocked to learn that I had been upgraded to a red Camaro, a sports car that has not one, but two country songs written about it. The car is wicked fast, but the tiny windows are difficult to see out of.
I zoomed onto Highway 12 and headed south and then east. For most people in the US, the landscape of eastern Washington is a big mystery like “what is the meaning of life” and “how many licks does it take to reach the center of a tootsie pop”. The answer turns out to be empty rolling hills covered with golden grass. The Columbia River, much like the Nile, brings life and lush growing conditions but only to the adjacent land.
In the sweet onion-farming town of Touchet, I stopped for lunch at the Seedhouse Saloon where I got a MASSIVE wrap for $11. The energy of the town and saloon reminded me of the Great Plains.
Continuing east for 10 minutes, I reached my first scheduled stop of the afternoon in Walla Walla: Whitman Mission National Historic Site. The site covers an incident in early American history that I knew nothing about.
In 1836, as part of The Great Awakening, a group of Christian missionaries from Pennsylvania traveled to Oregon. Among this group was Dr. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. Their goal was to spread Christianity to the tribes of the Pacific Northwest. They set up shop in the territory of the Cayuse tribe who numbered 500 people.
Originally, the found some success. The Cayuse- most likely driven by curiosity – attended church services and got baptized. However, the Whitman´s mission also provided medical services to white settlers immigrating to the area along the Oregon Trail. As the White settler numbers increased, the Cayuse became concerned.
Tensions boiled to a head in 1847 when a settler-instigated measles outbreak killed half of the Cayuse. However, due to natural immunity, very few White settlers died. The Cayuse blamed the Whitmans for their misfortune and killed them.
The death of the Whitmans became a national news story and started the Cayuse War between settlers and the tribe. 5 Cayuse were hung for the murders of the Whitmans and the US government formally organized Oregon as a US territory in response.
When the site was dedicated in the 1800´s, public opinion was fully on the side of the Whitmans. They were doing God´s work and were punished by savages. However, nowadays, the public (and the National Park Service´s) opinion has shifted and the Whitmans are seen as instigators and invaders. While the Whitmans never killed or attacked anybody, their efforts allowed other white people to come to Oregon and ultimately destroy an ancient culture.
The Park Service site contains a museum with a park film and hiking trails to see the mission. While none of the buildings are still standing, the ruins and the mass grave for the Whitmans and the 9 others who died that day are visible.
With the heavy history out of the way, it was time to drink wine. I drove 2 minutes east to reach the Reninger Winery. The owner, Mr. Reninger, used to be a mountaineering guide in the Cascades. His interest in geology led him to wine, as it is because of geology that Walla Walla has such good wines.
Good red wine come from temperate latitudes with hot summers and not too much rain. Walla Walla (and all of Eastern Washington) fits that description, as it lies in the rain shadow of the Cascades. However, Walla Walla also has a unique soil content due to an Ice Age flood that drained Lake Missoula. Add in the perennial water source of the Columbia and Snake Rivers and you have a perfect place for growing wine. Walla Walla has the same latitude to other famous wine regions around the world including Bordeaux and Burgundy.
The taste of the grapes and the wine can be affected by the tiniest factors: a slightly different angle of planting on the hill, a slight change in elevation that changes the temperature, a different type of soil. For these reasons, the forces that be have created American Viticultural Areas or AVAs, micro regions of wine. Only grapes grown and processed within the AVA can bear the name of the AVA on the bottle. Washington has 20 such AVAs, of which Walla Walla Valley is the most famous. As of the writing of this blog post, 120 wineries are part of the Walla Wall Valley AVA, which extends into Oregon. Also, worth mentioning that the other AVAs in the region have incredible names such as Candy Mountain and Horse Heaven Hills.
It turned out that Mr. Reninger had to attend to a big group coming from a restaurant in Moscow, Idaho so I was left in the care of the manager…who happened to be leaving the job tomorrow to start his own winery. The manager (I think his name was Jason, so we´re going to go with that) wanted to show me a good time so he went above and beyond to explain the wines to me.
The typical wine tasting cost $25 and includes 6 pours, but nearly every time I got a “revisit” or a bonus pour. One of the most interesting lessons I learned was tasting two versions of the same wine: 1 aged in a new barrel for 5 and the other aged in a used barrel – the used barrel had a cleaner flavor. He also explained that “legs” are a measure of the density of the wine and do not necessarily equate to quality of the wine.
While cabernet sauvignons and merlots are the most popular grapes from the region, Jason said that the signature wine of the region is the Syrah. That is because the grape is less resilient and adapts its flavor profile depending on the climate more so than other grapes. In other words, a good Syrah is harder to find. After telling Jason that my favorite wine from the flight was the Syrah, he took me to the barrel room in the back. Jason opened a barrel and syringed Syrah from it and into my glass. He said that this wine still had a year to age but wanted to show me the importance of aging. Needless to say, I got my money´s worth here and would highly recommend the Reninger winery to anybody in the area.
I wanted to visit a second winery and Jason suggested I drive to the Rotie winery. Rotie is in Oregon and in the middle of a micro-region known as The Rocks. True to its name, The Rocks has rocky soil therefore produces different wines that many considered to be superior. Therefore, many of the wineries in the Walla Walla Valley AVA grow grapes here or purchase grapes from here.
The Rotie winery is a unique two-story modern concrete structure with an outdoor tasting room on the second floor with stellar views of the estate grapes. The servers here were college students from Washington State working their summer job, so they did not have the same level of knowledge as Jason. However, that did not stop me from enjoying a glass of Syrah and taking in the atmosphere.
I then drove back to Washington state and into the town of Walla Walla. I quickly stopped by Whitman University, a Christian college named for the Whitmans.
For dinner, I went into the cute center of town, which was full of high-quality restaurants. I ate at a very solid sandwich shop and washed it down with ice cream before driving back to the Tri Cities for the next part of the trip.
Walla Walla is a wonderful place. The highlight is the wine. While I am no wine-o, I can understand why wine critics consider it one of the top 3-5 wine regions in the United States and why people regularly drive here from Seattle. The town itself is also among the most charming in the region and has a quality food scene to pair with your wine.
If you don´t like wine…I probably would not visit. The Whitman site is interesting but takes at most 75 minutes of your time.