Fall Wine

How Hotels Are Changing in Walla Walla

Then: Land of chain accommodations and one classic high-rise. Now: Blossoming resort town in wine country.

By Allison Williams October 10, 2022 Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Seattle Met

At Yellowhawk, the pool is the first resort perk in place.

From a lofty round room with a conical roof, the castle turret facsimile on the outskirts of Walla Walla, Dan Thiessen pulls out a map of the Yellowhawk property. Or rather a diagram of what it will become, once these plans spread around the grand estate house (and this circular gatehouse) come to fruition. Built in 1997 as a private residence, this property was repurposed into Basel Cellars Estate Winery. Thiessen and his fellow investors bought it in 2020 to turn it into a resort that could shake up the wine country landscape. On the map, he points to where pockets have been carved from the tidy vineyards around the central house. “Here, here, here—these will be the cottages.” 

Thiessen’s worked in the round before, in a stint at the now-closed SkyCity Restaurant at the Space Needle. But he’s much more at home here in Eastern Washington, not all that far from where he was raised on a cattle ranch; in 2018 he co-launched Walla Walla Steak Company and Crossbuck Brewing in town. 

Yellowhawk’s winery, already in production, will pour sparkling wines in the tasting room that takes up one wing of the estate house. Thiessen imagines an “individual wine country experience, where the cottages allow for a personal, semi-private escape.” While resorts dot the Cascades, the San Juan Islands, even the coast (well, in Oregon), this corner of the Northwest hasn’t seen anything like it.

For a town that brought more than $100 million in tourism dollars annually before Covid, Walla Walla has long funneled visitors downtown. For decades, the options boiled down to the Marcus Whitman Hotel—the tallest building in the valley and a classic if fussy property—and the chain hotels that ring the urban blocks. In the Best Western by the highway, the Marriott a few blocks in, there’s a kind of Sideways simplicity: clean rooms placed walking distance from tasting rooms and restaurants, nothing to upstage the sauvignons and syrahs.

Options slowly grew. Small bed-and-breakfasts operate on quiet streets, and the Inn at Abeja reimagined a nineteenth-century farmstead as a pristine but sedate gated getaway. In 2018, the 22-room Eritage Resort opened north of town. A James Beard Award–winning chef out of Seattle developed the initial menu and a manmade lake anchored its center. Now Eritage dishes Latin-inspired cuisine from a local chef and feels like a small, modern echo of Abeja’s serenity. The Finch turned an old Red Lion Inn into a hip boutique hotel in 2019, a less corporate idea of a downtown overnight.

What Yellowhawk has on these developments, however, is sheer size. The estate house Thiessen and company purchased still reflects the whims of its original rich owner—a hot-rod basement man cave, a private movie theater—but the Yellowhawk Resort to come is just as quirky. Thiessen points to a clearing for weddings, and the future site of a picnic area on the banks of the East Little Walla Walla River. The region’s first luxury spa, multiple swimming pools lined by cabanas. He pictures a working farm to stock the coming restaurant, with a petting zoo–like “chore hour” for kids. 

In June, ground broke for the first set of cottages. And resort life in Walla Walla made a massive step toward reality.

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