Walla Walla, one of the most well-known wine regions in the state of Washington, features more than 120 wineries. And in 2021, USA Today named it “America’s best wine region” in the USA, thus thrusting it even more into the spotlight.
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.
The Walla Walla American Viticultural Area was established in 1984. 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.
Although Italian immigrants planted wine vines in the 1850s, the wine industry declined and didn’t rebound until Leonetti Cellar, the first commercial winery, established in 1977. Other early pioneers in the region include Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole No. 41. Today, nearly 3000 acres of prime vineyards grow throughout the valley. The culture here is rooted in camaraderie and a spirit of collaboration to lift everyone in the wine industry.
Walla Walla Wine Region
With six districts within the Walla Walla Wine Region, there’s plenty to choose from. The vibrant Downtown District provides an eclectic, walkable experience. The Airport District wineries, set in a former World War II army airfield, include 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.
So come for a long weekend or stay for a week. There’s so much to explore. To help you get started, here are four recommendations for places to taste in Walla Walla.
L’ Ecole No. 41
Housed in a historic schoolhouse in Frenchtown just west of Walla Walla, L’ Ecole No. 41 is the third oldest winery in the region. Guests love the charm of the 1915 schoolhouse, its natural light, and the authenticity of the building. The old chalkboard and lovingly restored hardwood floors feature prominently in the downstairs tasting room. An expansive grassy area around the building dotted with picnic tables provides an outdoor alternative for wine tasting.
L’ Ecole is known for producing superior quality wines crafted for richness and complexity. Each bottle is handcrafted with a commitment to the quality in the vineyard and the winery.
The 2018 Ferguson, a richly structured Bordeaux blend, is L’ Ecole’s flagship wine. However, their Semillon and Merlot, the two wines L’Ecole started with, remain popular with guests.
With a full professional kitchen, the tasting room offers small bites and charcuterie boards. L’ Ecole also operates their downtown wine bar near the Marcus Whitman Hotel.
When owner Dennis Murphy opened the doors to Caprio Cellars in 2019, he wanted to create an experience for his guests, not just open another tasting room. And what an exceptional experience it is! When guests arrive, they are greeted outside the tasting room entrance with a glass of sparkling wine. Caprio conducts four tastings a day, by reservation only, with no more than 20 people per seating. The tasting room’s elegant and modern interior provides comfortable seating and expansive views of surrounding vineyards.
As guests move through each tasting, wine servers provide unique and delicious small bites to accompany the wine. Seasonal bites are prepared fresh by the winery’s onsite chef, Ian Williams, in a custom-designed food truck kitchen next to the tasting room.
The 2018 Eleanor, a Bordeaux-inspired blend dedicated to Dennis’ grandmother, is Caprio’s flagship and most popular wine.
Guests appreciate the extraordinary hospitality and relaxed atmosphere. But one of the unique benefits of this wine tasting experience is that Caprio Cellars does not charge a wine tasting fee, and the small bites are complimentary. But Caprio wines are so delicious that guests typically don’t leave empty-handed. Dennis says it’s a model that works for him and his customers appreciate his hospitality.
Seven Hills Winery
Seven Hills Winery, founded in 1988, features downtown Walla Walla’s only historic winemaking facility. As the 5th winery in the region, Seven Hills helped champion Walla Walla’s wine industry. Housed in a former storefront, the building dates to 1904. Its gorgeous brick exterior still features a sign advertising furniture and store fixtures. Beautifully restored wooden floors and a clean, white interior compliment the industrial look of the tasting room. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide a view of the winery’s production room.
But the comfortable, spacious seating provides a casual, relaxed atmosphere for tasting some of Washington’s best wines. The 2018 Pentad, a blend of five varietals, is Seven Hills flagship wine. Their 2017 Merlot Seven Hills Founding Vineyard, featured in Wine Enthusiast, comes from 41-year-old vines.
Staff provides friendly, knowledgeable tastings. And the best part is the winery is just steps from the Marcus Whitman Hotel in downtown Walla Walla.
Port of Walla Walla Incubator Project
In 2000, the Port of Walla Walla built the Incubator Project to provide fledging wineries with a low-cost location to start and develop their businesses. Funded by state grants and Port funds, the goal was to help newcomers to the wine business improve their chance of business success during the first few formidable and typically costly years.
Located near Walla Walla’s regional airport, the Project’s distinctive pastel-hued neighborhood showcases five buildings, each 1600 square feet. One winemaker uses her building as a tasting room only, while others use it for production, too. One even hosts music and social events in the back of his building. Current tenants include Eternal Wines, itä Wines, Golden Ridge Cellars, Hoquetus Wine Company, and SMAK.
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 Wines, 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 in the back alongside her self-made “Pebble Beach.”
Hoquetus Wine Company
Robert Gomez, Hoquetus Wine Company winemaker, just opened in June. He likes to let the grapes “speak for themselves.” You’ll love his Riesling made from grapes out of the Les Collines Vineyard.
Golden Ridge Cellars
Michael Rasch, the winemaker at Golden Ridge Cellars, specializes in Bordeaux blends. He grows his own grapes and was previously producing wine at his home. But when his production expanded, it was time to move into a bigger facility, and the opportunity to join the Project came along.
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 plot on their property, and now she has her own winery. She makes six different wines from Sauvignon Blanc to Merlot using grapes sourced from the eastern foothills of the Blue Mountains. Her Semillon scored 91 points in Wine Enthusiast.
Brad Binko, the winemaker at Eternal Wine, produces a whopping 26 wines ranging from single- vineyard Syrah to Rhone blends. Eternal Wines hosts a Thursday night concert series on its back patio during the summer, including food trucks.
If You Go
Tesla Winery Tours
One of the best ways to tour the Walla Walla wine region is with Tesla Winery Tours, Walla Walla’s Luxury Tour Company. Owner Chris Wood worked in the wine industry for years. He knows the wineries, the people, and the region. Through this elevated experience, guests learn about the history of Walla Walla, the “four corners” of the region, the terroir, and the fruit.
Your tour is guaranteed to be exclusive as well as educational. Tesla Winery Tours is happy to take you to the wineries of your choice or help you plan the itinerary. Tours are billed at $99/hour in the Model S and $120/hour in the 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, it 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 see guests line up at the front door before it even opens.
Visit Walla Walla
Walla Walla is an easy drive from Portland (243 miles) or Seattle (272 miles). Alternately, Alaska Airlines offers flights in and out of Walla Walla Regional Airport.
For more ideas on wineries, itineraries, and lodging, the Visit Walla Walla website offers plenty of information.