Where to eat, drink, and play for two days in wine country
By Andrew Collins
The Walla Walla Valley AVA straddles both Oregon and Washington and cradles a remarkable variety of wines—Grenache, Cabernet, and Merlot just to name a few. More than 120 wineries thrive in this sweeping landscape of rolling hills. Just south of the Washington border, The Rocks District appellation near Milton-Freewater has been called “the most distinctive terroir in America,” by Wine Spectator thanks to the prodigious basalt cobblestones found in the region’s mineral-rich soil. This sun-drenched destination has an uncharted feel (the AVA wasn’t officially christened until 2015), with 40 vineyards providing a green splash of vines against the cool silhouette of the Blue Mountains.
In Milton-Freewater, a tour of the historic Frazier Farmstead, an 1890s homestead, offers a glimpse of the region’s early pioneers. Each June, the museum’s Summertime Festival celebrates the town’s heritage with live music and plenty of Walla Walla Valley wines. (Mark your calendar for other notable events, like Brews by the Blues in July and Milton-Freewater ROCKS! in August.)
Stop by Petits Noirs, an artisan chocolatier downtown, whose decadent creations—violet smoke salt truffles, pumpkin-sesame toffee—complement the region’s full-bodied red wines. Watermill Winery, which was founded by one of the state’s oldest apple-growing families, is a local favorite. An adjacent sister operation, Blue Mountain Cider Company, pours craft ciders made from heirloom apples in a taproom with an expansive patio. Food trucks are regularly on hand to dispense tasty street fare.
North from town, stop by a few more of Milton-Freewater’s noteworthy wineries, including TERO Estates (which also has a tasting room in downtown Walla Walla), Zerba Cellars, and Spanish-inspired Castillo de Feliciana. Fans of craft beers should also make a point of visiting Dragon’s Gate Brewery, whose Belgian-style farmhouse ales are brewed with ingredients grown on the property’s pastoral 10-acre estate. In the evening, join the locals at the charming Milton-Freewater Drive-In for an evening of flashback fun under the stars.
Home to Whitman College since 1882, Walla Walla has long been a center of education, trade, and youthful energy. Plug into the scene at Colville Street Patisserie with espressos and fruit-filled brioche or kouign amann. Among downtown’s distinctive galleries and shops, keep an eye out for the many local sculptures and public art installations. On Saturdays (from May to October), check out the Downtown Farmers Market for local melons, goat cheese, jewelry, and even upcycled furniture fashioned out of wine barrels.
Sample wines at more than a dozen downtown tasting rooms, including Locati Cellars and Seven Hills Winery—the latter is set in a handsomely converted 1904 lumber mill. Just outside downtown, take a quick trip to the past inside Fort Walla Walla, a living history museum that recalls the area’s role as a 19th-century furtrading post.
Finish the day with a drive along US 12, taking in views of undulating farmland east and north of town, stopping at Klicker Berries & Antiques for fresh produce and prepared snacks, before sampling some gems at Dumas Station Wines, which occupies a historic rail depot 25 miles northeast of Walla Walla. On your way back, grab a bite in Waitsburg, whose funky little downtown is home to a few superb eateries, including Laht Neppur Brewing Company, where you can tap into house brewed beer, pub grub, and pizzas.