More than Wine and Onions in Eastern Washington’s Wine Country
The concentration of tasting rooms in Walla Walla, the epicenter of eastern Washington's wine country, means Main Street downtown provides some of the best people watching anywhere in the Northwest. On weekend afternoons, you can sip an iced coffee, enjoy a pastry, or have your own wine tasting at a sidewalk table while watching progressively more intoxicated groups of tourists dodge college students on bikes.
But take it from someone who lived there for six years: a delightful weekend in Walla Walla, featuring a backdrop of wheat fields and some of the best food Washington has to offer, is possible without ever picking up a wine glass.
As it's transformed over the past 40 years from a rural wheat and onion farming community to a wine tourism destination, the town has added breweries and several restaurants with big-city quality craft cocktails at eastern Washington prices—alongside the dozens of wineries spread across the valley.
Despite a tragic city decision in 2013 to paint over a two-story octopus mural that once graced the toy shop, this college town has become undeniably cool thanks to its easy walkability, small-town whimsy (the amateur baseball team mascot, Sweet Lou, is an anthropomorphic onion who's perpetually winking at you) and aided by the many young entrepreneurs, including some Whitman College graduates, who have opted to forgo the big-city life and form documentary film production companies, organic farms, and microbreweries.
It's the sort of place you could easily spend a weekend window-shopping, or
bypass downtown altogether to visit cheese makers and cideries nestled between farms along the Washington-Oregon state line.
The drive from Portland takes about four hours and winds past some of the region's best scenery through the Columbia River Gorge. Irrigon, north of Interstate 84 along US 730, marks a good rest stop en route, with a public bathroom and a beach where you can swim in the Columbia on warmer days.
When you get to your destination, stop by Graze for a bite, but be prepared to wait a bit if you get there right at lunchtime. The veggie torta crams cucumber, lettuce, pickled daikon, sprouts, red pepper, avocado, jalapeños, black beans, and more onto delectable bread, with chipotle sauce and melted cheese to round out a tower of deliciousness that stops just short of religious epiphany.
Agriculture remains the lifeblood of the Walla Walla Valley, and a little exploration in nearly any direction yields wonders, whether you're there to sample wine, sniff lavender, or see if the famed Walla Walla sweet onion is really sweet enough to be eaten raw like an apple. (At least one fourth-generation farmer still performs this taste test on an onion from each of his fields every year.)
Just over a half-hour drive northeast on US 12 brings you to Dayton, home of artisanal French cheesemakers Monteillet Fromagerie and agrotourism hub Blue Mountain Station, which includes a meadery, craft distillery, and several food manufacturers with wares to sample or buy.
Or head south and find tasting rooms dotted throughout vineyards on both sides of the state line. Dragon's Gate Brewing, 20 minutes south of downtown Walla Walla in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, is a hidden gem specializing in farmhouse ales. You'll wonder if you've gotten lost along the way as you navigate a few back roads to find the place, but the scenery is so beautiful you won't mind: green pastures with the occasional horse, cow, or sheep, and rolling vineyards. Visit in September, when the wheat harvest is wrapping up for the season, and you'll find no better illustration of America's amber waves of grain.
For those who want to remain more stationary, downtown Walla Walla offers its own charms, including a Saturday-morning farmers market (May–October) where you can grab a bag of the famous onions.
Lodging options include the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel, which boasts a beautiful lobby and one of the best bars in town, and the Finch, a newer boutique hotel with an outdoor fire pit. You can visit the free "Museum of Un-Natural History" for some irreverent local art, or browse plaques scattered on sidewalks that share regional tidbits, like the former Edgewater Park Dance Pavilion, opened in 1926, where visiting orchestras delighted crowds and dancers paid per number to get on the floor. (Curiosities about many historic buildings in downtown can be answered by browsing the research reports on the website of the outdatedly named Walla Walla 2020 project.)
About a mile from downtown, Pioneer Park offers plentiful green grass and an inexplicable aviary housing peafowl and Szechuan white-eared pheasants amid more pedestrian waterfowl. It's wonderfully out of place in a town of 34,000 people, sustained by dedicated effort from volunteers and civic clubs as well as the city.
Gelato at the Colville Street Patisserie makes a hot eastern Washington afternoon bearable, and Passatempo Taverna offers the best cocktails and artisanal Italian food you'll find for at least a few counties (reservations typically required for weekend dining).
A more casual diner can choose from taquerias sprinkled around the city. Taqueria Yungapeti's Walla Walla burrito, with steak, onions and cheese, is a perennial favorite. (Bonus: unlike in Portland, you will not find culinary crimes such as chilaquiles served with kale and chickpeas.)
The best part of a Walla Walla weekend, however, is simply sitting somewhere beautiful drinking something you enjoy. Whether you plop down outside one of the incubator wineries by the Walla Walla Airport or bring your own sunset picnic to a wheat field along the highway, you'll be getting the most out of a weekend away from the city.
Reading List Driving east? Leaving Portland’s liberal bubble is always a good chance to catch up with the work of journalist Leah Sottile, whose writings on right-wing extremism in the rural West have often helped explain or even predict shocking events like the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation or the January 6 siege of the US Capitol. Her true-crime book published this past summer, When the Moon Turns to Blood: Lori Vallow, Chad Daybell, and a Story of Murder, Wild Faith, and End Times, examines a set of killings in an apocalypse-obsessed community in Idaho. —Margaret Seiler