In a shop in downtown Walla Walla, a T-shirt the color of cabernet hangs in the window, printed with a saucy message: “Walla Walla for wine, Napa for auto parts.” Washington’s biggest wine town doesn’t suffer from much California envy.
Napa Valley may boast more than 400 wineries. And the low, brown hills around Walla Walla may be home to only a quarter of that. But a city once best known for its bookend campuses—liberal-artsy Whitman College and the state penitentiary—is now defined by its own relaxed brand of wine tourism.
Tastings in California wine country can soar to $50 per person, but most wineries in Washington charge just $10, waived with a bottle purchase. Just sipping a single taste? Pourers tend to shrug the entire fee away.
Other wine regions may sport Michelin-starred restaurants, but Walla Walla puts on a global banquet at small-town prices. Il Corvo’s Mike Easton helped open Passatempo in downtown Walla Walla last year, and the handmade pastas—starting at just $20—are as notable as the fact you can get in without a reservation on a weeknight. Whoopemup Hollow Cafe, a mainstay in nearby Waitsburg, opened a Walla Walla branch last year to dish Creole gumbo (a whooping $6 per cup), jambalaya, and catfish. Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen isn’t afraid to serve Turkish flatbread half a world from the Bosphorus, and even at Whitehouse-Crawford, a steaks and salmon standby, the best appetizer is pork belly buns glazed in hoisin—half a meal for $12.
The question is whether things can stay this affordable, this chill. The hotel landscape and town skyline is currently dominated by stately Marcus Whitman Hotel, thrice renovated since 1999; no Napa hotel could hope to be at once so historic and affordable (and still have nice sheets). But in 2019, a luxury Penrose Hotel and Spa will open in the city’s old Oddfellows Hall, and one owner is the man behind Napa Valley’s Bardessono Hotel, where rooms go for $1,100 per night.
This fall, Walla Walla’s first honest-to-goodness resort opens six miles into the wheat fields, yet E’ritage is trying to be the antiresort: just 10 rooms under a swooping roof and a check-in living room instead of a counter. Though the hotel comes from local vintner Justin Wylie, its restaurant will be launched by James Beard Award–winning chef Jason Wilson; he says the goal is to woo with nearby ingredients, not cosmopolitan flair. “It’s not the expected tasting menu, where things are crazy,” he says. E’ritage might use vineyard cuttings as wood-fire fuel or feature Columbia River sturgeon, but the goal is to serve locals, not just those 10 rooms of tourists. Walla Walla’s natural resources need little help to impress. If you want affectation—or auto parts—there’s always Napa.