Walla Walla is one of the most well-known wine regions in the state of Washington. Established in 1984, the Walla Walla American Viticultural Area (AVA) now features more than 120 wineries in six distinct districts. Many of the region’s pioneers helped grow the industry in the early days by helping each other with knowledge and resources. In a similar vein of cooperation, one project stands out as a shining example of how the region continues to grow and support fledgling winemakers – The Incubator Project. So, when considering your itinerary for your next visit to Walla Walla, include a stop at this unique project. You’ll be inspired by the new winemakers and delighted with their wine.
The Walla Walla Wine Region
The name Walla Walla means “many waters,” reflective of the aquifers and rivers that provide abundant irrigation to the fertile valley. A once quiet farming community, the Walla Walla Valley has deep historical and agricultural roots. A soft, undulating valley floor, protected by rounded ridges, creates the perfect topography for wine growing. Two-thirds of it reside in Washington, and the other third extends into the northeastern corner of Oregon. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted grape, followed by Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc.
The Walla Walla Wine Region is comprised of six districts. The vibrant Downtown District provides an eclectic, walkable experience. The Airport District wineries are set in a former World War II army airfield, including the unique Incubator Project. Westside wineries offer amazing views across the valley. Eastside wineries reside among rolling hills and acres of vineyards. The Southside and Milton-Freewater Rocks District offer a unique taste of terroir in the Walla Walla wine region.
The Incubator Project
Established in 2000, the Port of Walla Walla founded the Incubator Project to provide fledging winemakers with a low-cost location to start and build their businesses. Many of the current and past incumbents from the Project are graduates of the Walla Walla Community College Oenology and Viticulture Program. Funded by state grants and Port funds, the goal is to help newcomers to the wine business improve their chance of business success during the first few formidable and typically costly years. The Incubator Project provides a home to five start-up wineries where they can grow their business for up to six years.
Located near Walla Walla’s regional airport, the project’s distinctive pastel-hued neighborhood showcases five buildings, each 1600 square feet. Current tenants include Eternal Wines, itä Wines, Golden Ridge Cellars, Hoquetas Winery, and SMAK.
Winemaker Fiona Mak uses her building as a tasting room only, while others use it for production. Each winemaker brings a different background to the project. But one thing they all have in common is a passion for making wine. And that passion translates to some delicious wines.
Fiona Mak, the winemaker at SMAK, produces only Rosé wines. She changes her tasting room quarterly to match the season. It was July when I visited, and the tasting room reflected a summer theme. She even set beach chairs outside behind the tasting room alongside her self-made “Pebble Beach.”
Fiona grew up in Hong Kong and went to Syracuse University, where she studied hospitality. Then she trained to be a sommelier. But, after harvesting in Napa Valley for Opus One and helping make wine for Artifacts, Fiona decided to change direction and start her own winery. That brought her to Walla Walla where she completed the Enology and Viticulture Program at Walla Walla Community College.
Her inspiration for Rosé wines came to her during a vacation on the French Riviera. When she noticed everyone around her drinking Rosé, she decided it didn’t have to be limited to a summertime wine. So now she makes a different version for every season – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. The production runs between 1200 cases to 1700 cases annually.
Robert Gomez, Hoquetus Winery winemaker, just opened in June 2021. Robert was a musician who worked in restaurants and bars to allow flexibility for his musical gigs. After becoming a sommelier/wine professional, he decided to turn to winemaking. That’s when he entered the Enology and Viticultural Program at Walla Community College.
He likes to let the grapes “speak for themselves” and leans towards natural winemaking. Keeping it boutique for now, Robert is targeting a production of 500 cases. You’ll love his Riesling made from the Les Collines Vineyard grapes.
Michael Rasch, the winemaker at Golden Ridge Cellars, specializes in Bordeaux blends. Michael, a former lawyer, started winemaking as a second career. When he and his wife moved to the area, they found a property with its own vineyard. Like other fellow winemakers at the Incubator Project, Michael studied at Walla Walla Community College.
Michael was producing his wine at home from the grapes grown on his property. But when his production expanded, it was time to move into a bigger facility, and the opportunity to join the project came along. Although he sells most of his grapes to other producers, he keeps enough to produce 700 – 900 cases annually. While all the wines we tasted were excellent, the 2017 Merlot was especially enjoyable.
Kelsey Albro Itä, the winemaker at itä Wines, got interested in winemaking when her parents moved to Walla Walla and bought a farm. She started a test vineyard on their property, enrolled in the community college, interned at the Walls Vineyards, and worked a harvest in Burgundy.
In 2019 she opened her winery in the Incubator. She makes six different wines, from Sauvignon Blanc to Merlot, using grapes sourced from the eastern foothills of the Blue Mountains. But in the future, she plans to plant more on her parents’ property.
Her Semillon scored 91 points in Wine Enthusiast. Like others in the project, Kelsey remains a boutique winery at 800 – 1000 cases per year.
Brad Binko, the winemaker at Eternal Wines, also attended Walla Walla Community College. In 2014 he started making wine and released his first vintage in 2016. In 2021 he produced a whopping 26 wines ranging from single vineyard Syrahs to Rhone blends. His single vineyard Marsanne, Rousanne, Viognier, and Grenache Blanc are his most popular wines and sell out quickly. He produces 3000 cases yearly, all out of his facility in the Incubator.
During the summer, Eternal Wines hosts a Thursday Night Lights Concert and Food Trucks on its back patio, an event especially popular with locals drawn to this vibrant spot.
If You Go
Tesla Winery Tours
Five wineries in one visit is a lot to cover. But Tesla Winery Tours, Walla Walla’s Luxury Tour Company, can get you there and back safely. Owner Chris Wood worked in the wine industry for years. He knows the wineries, the people, and the region. As he drives you to and from the wineries in the Incubator Project, you’ll learn about the history of Walla Walla, the “four corners” of the region, the terroir, and the fruit.
Tours are billed at $99/hour in the Tesla Model S and $120/hour in the Tesla Model X.
Marcus Whitman Hotel
In downtown Walla Walla, the iconic Marcus Whitman Hotel provides upscale lodging in a gorgeous historic building. A luxury 13-story hotel built in a classic architectural style offers spacious rooms and upscale accommodations. Its famous Marc Restaurant features its “winery of the month” tasting menu. Plus, six on-site tasting rooms just off the grand lobby make it easy to taste Walla Walla wine without the drive.
Marcus Whitman’s convenient location also makes it easy to explore nearby shops and favorite restaurants like AK’s Mercado, serving the best smokehouse barbeque tacos I’ve ever tasted; Walla Walla Steak Company, a favorite hometown steak house; and Walla Walla Bread Company, a restaurant so popular that guests line up at the front door before it even opens.
Visit Walla Walla
Portland is 243 miles from Walla Walla. Seattle is 272 miles from Walla Walla. And Alaska Airlines services the Walla Walla Regional Airport.
For more ideas on wineries, itineraries, and lodging, the Visit Walla Walla website offers plenty of information.