Weekend Traveler

Wall-to-wall wine tasting in Walla Walla, Wash.

The wine offerings at the Sleight of Hand Cellears tasting bar. (Bo Links)

The Walla Walla Valley is a burgeoning agricultural and wine region in the southeastern part of Washington State and northeastern corner of Oregon, nestled near the Palouse Hills and Blue Mountains. The town of Walla Walla sits just north of the Oregon border. Walla Walla means “many waters” — and is close to the Snake, Walla Walla, and Columbia Rivers. 

In 1806, the Indigenous people living in the region encountered the Lewis and Clark expedition. In spite of an 1850 treaty giving American Indians millions of acres of land, conflict ensued and the ceded land was reduced to about 200,000 acres. Regional instability continued for a decade until Idaho’s gold rush transformed the town . The population grew; businesses developed and Walla Walla flourished. After the gold rush, Italians settled in the area and immediately planted vineyards and the popular Walla Walla onions, and opened tasting rooms. 

Then Prohibition hit. But 50 years later, a reborn wine industry grew up. The Walla Walla Valley AVA was created in 1984. And still today, the verdant fields produce local ingredients for the chefs and growing culinary scene. 

Walla Walla is an inviting, wine-oriented small town with plenty of good wine, food, and friendly people. Locals deliver warm hospitality characteristic of a town dedicated to making itself an appealing destination. Recently, my husband and I spent a couple days exploring the area. Here’s what we found:


We stayed at The Wesley Walla Walla, about a block off the main street. This boutique hotel boasts all suites in a restored building some say was once a brothel. Redone in bright colors and modern furniture, the hotel has numerous amenities including a small pool and two hot tubs, lush gardens, and comfortable patios. Guests are invited to harvest from the herb and vegetable garden.

Our second-floor suite shared a full-sized refrigerator and coffee machine with three other suites. The larger suites have a full kitchen. All guests will find complimentary passes to numerous tasting rooms downtown.


The Walla Walla Valley has over 100 wineries, with about 40 tasting rooms in downtown itself. The valley is divided into six wine districts: Downtown, Airport, Westside, Eastside, Southside, and Oregon. 

A view of the plaza in downtown Walla Walla (Bo Links)

Summers in the valley are similar to the Mediterranean. Winters are generally moderate though freezing temperatures have occurred. The soil is rich, a product of the region’s volcanic history, cobblestones from the ancient riverbed of the Walla Walla River, and the flooding of Glacial Lake Missoula. 

We began our wine excursion visiting three wineries in the Southside district with stunning views of the Blue Mountains: Sleight of Hand Cellars, Valdemar Estates, and Saviah Cellars.

The vibe at Sleight of Hand is thoroughly relaxing. The owners, winemakers, and staff are dedicated to Pearl Jam (and a broad spectrum of music), which inspires their wine and the fun they have. The tasting room — a casual bar and funky living room — is decorated with Pearl Jam posters and other musical memorabilia including special wine bottles created for various concerts and charities. From their massive vinyl collection, we chose LPs to spin as we tasted through some of their collection. 

The wines do seem to be magical as evidenced in some of the names: “The Sorceress” Grenache, and the red blends “The Conjurer” and “The Archimage.” We savored the 2020 vintage of these wines as we spun platters on the turntable. In addition to many delicious wines, a good time, and great music, dancing is encouraged.

We were attracted to Valdemar Estates for a variety of reasons: The family’s Spanish roots in the Rioja, their winery in Washington, their commitment to accessibility for all visitors, and the quality of their wine. The family’s fifth generation brings their passion to both the wineries in Walla Walla and Spain and to a tapas bar in Woodinville. The beautifully crafted sleek facility in Walla Walla invites sensory experiences before sampling their estate vineyards and hand-crafted tapas. We focused on the 2022 Roussanne, 2020 Blue Mountain Syrah, and 2012 Conde Valdemar Gran Reserva with a plate of boquerones, reminiscent of Spain.

A selection of wines at Valdemar Estates (Bo Links)

Last up was Saviah Cellars, a family run winery that began in 2000. The owners’ heritage dates to the early Saviah family who settled in western Montana in the 1900s. The winery building has multiple rooms for tasting along with an expansive outside patio and greenhouse.

Saviah’s grapes are exclusively from the Walla Walla AVA and the Columbia Valley AVA (specifically the Rocks District). The experienced staff guided us through the tasting, and our favorites included the Rocks District 2020 Stones Peak Estate Tempranillo, the Syrah Waterstone Estate, the 2021 Syrah, and the 2019 Petit Verdot.

The next day, we started at College Cellars, located in the Airport District at the Institute for Enology and Viticulture. It was a great choice not just because the wine is a draw but because it is a teaching winery. Tasting wine with the next generation of winemakers, growers, and others was invigorating. They have worked the soil, grown the grapes, created the wine, tested blends, and are dedicated to and passionate about their work and Walla Walla wine. Because the town is such a close-knit community, you can meet numerous graduates at the tasting rooms and restaurants.

The Syrah, Million Bubbles Sparkling, and Tempranillo at College Cellar. (Bo Links)

The modern tasting room (with outside patio) incorporates the institute with classrooms and labs. We tasted a number of wines and singled out favorites including these estate 2019s: Syrah and Tempranillo plus the 90 Million Bubbles Sparkling Rosé. 

Also in the Airport District is Golden Ridge Cellars, part of a group of five small wineries designed as incubators for people entering the industry. The winemaker is an alum of the Institute for Enology and Viticulture. Their intimate tasting room and production facility is a wonderful place to sample their small batch, award-winning artisanal wines. Don’t miss these estate wines: 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2016 Red. Unfortunately, one of the wines we couldn’t resist — the 2018 Cabernet Franc — is now sold out, but grab the next vintage when it is released. 

The author’s favorite wines at Golden Ridge (Bo Links)

Downtown, we visited two tasting rooms: House of Smith and Moonbase Cellars. At House of Smith, the first 1999 vintage Syrah was sold out of the back of the owner’s old Astro van. He’s fervent about the wine and Walla Walla. Today, in an industrial chic tasting room with sidewalk patio, visitors have the opportunity to savor a variety of wines while listening to a curated playlist of rock ’n’ roll. We enjoyed the 2020 Charlotte, named for the owner’s daughter, a blend of seven varietals including Counoise, Picpoul, and Cinsaut,

Moonbase Cellars is a small family-owned winery. The husband-wife team fell in love with Walla Walla, and the rest is their story of producing wines reflective of their passion and the terroir. They source grapes from two AVAs: Walla Walla and Columbia Valley (the Rocks District). We sat at the short bar in the cozy tasting room. Among the top choices are the 2021 Max Q Reserve (currently not available, but get on a waiting list) and the 2021 Les Collines Syrah.  


In the morning, it was a short walk to our favorite coffee spot: the Coffee Perk. In addition to offering a choice of delicious coffees, they bake an array of breads served as one grand moist slice, like banana walnut and blueberry swirl with crumble.

If it’s a larger breakfast you’re after, try Bacon & Eggs. There isn’t much that’s kept off their extensive menu. 

Our dinner favorite was Passatempo Taverna. Its industrial chic interior includes a long bar and banquettes in one room with a second dining area on the other side of the bar. When the weather is nice, there’s a patio for outside seating. After sipping wine all day, we opted for mocktails and chose the Crowd Pleaser, a tasty concoction of grapefruit, lime, cinnamon, and ginger beer served on the rocks. The international wine and spirits list boasts about the same number of Walla Walla wines as Italian imports.

Staff at work inside Passatempo Taverna (Bo Links)

We couldn’t resist all of the prosciutto on the menu. We began with the lusciously decadent hand-rolled pork and prosciutto meatballs served with a thick red sauce and topped with basil. Next up, the prosciutto and cranberry pizza brought together an olive oil pie with mozzarella, pickled cranberry, and arugula. They also serve an array of Roman-inspired pasta dishes like cacio e pepe and other artisanal pizzas and beef from a Washington ranch. The chef and her team are inspired by local ingredients and the relationships they have developed with purveyors and farmers.

At the modern Hattaway’s on Alder, we sat at the bar.  From there, we had a bird’s-eye view of the tightly arranged dining room (the noise level was pretty high), the smaller eating areas in the next room, and a peek at the kitchen activity. The sidewalk patio is open on warmer days.

The cuisine highlights the northwest with a southern flair. I chose the grilled octopus with a butternut squash hash and a Vietnamese sauce. It’s difficult to get octopus that isn’t soft, mushy, or chewy, and unfortunately they missed the mark. My husband had the shrimp fried rice, which came together better than the octopus. Wild shrimp were mixed with shitake sofrito, collard kimchi, crispy shallots and kicked up with chilis and a stir-fry sauce. We both chose a local beer on tap. The wine list includes many Walla Walla varietals and international wines. 

Walla Walla is a gem, discovered more and more by those in the know. Don’t wait to explore what the valley has to offer.

Visit for additional information on the area.

Connect with Patty Burness on Instagram (@pburness) or Gmail ([email protected]). Comments: [email protected].

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