Vintage Walla Walla

An explosion in wine production helps revive a Washington town.

By Margaret Shakespeare

The tasting room of Cayuse Vineyards

Credit: Brent Bergherm

In the fall of 2002, I traveled to the Walla Walla Valley, a region straddling the Washington-Oregon border that has emerged in the 21st century as a formidable wine-producing region. I had especially been impressed with its red varietals—such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot—and I wanted to connect what I was tasting with a place, with soil, climate, elevation, and exposure, all those things collectively called terroir, which gives wine grapes their particular regional character.

The Cascade Mountains slash through Washington State, and though wet weather is typical to their west (think of rainy Seattle), near-desert conditions pertain to their east. There I stood one day in sparkling sunshine, squinting at rolling hills of green vines. Grapes—and grape growers—like it here for the northern latitude, the cool nights, and the low, predictable rainfall. And the wines I tasted, grown in the Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills vineyards, reflected the land: The acidity and complex fruit in the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot resulted from the long hot days of the growing season, their lively earthiness from the mineral-rich soil.

That evening, I joined a congenial group of winemakers at the Whitehouse-Crawford Restaurant in downtown Walla Walla, a town of 30,000. As we dug into plates of local cheese, Dungeness crabs, Penn Cove mussels, and Walla Walla sweet onions—and poured local Chardonnays, Cabernets, Vio-gniers, and Syrahs—I learned that something important was going on in town, in large part because of wine. Downtown Walla Walla, its blocks lined with historic buildings, had become practically lifeless during the second half of the 20th century. The presence of a new mall on the outskirts of town galvanized downtown merchants, who began to revitalize in 1984. With the region designated an American Viticultural Area that year, wineries slowly trickled in, some using old buildings—a schoolhouse, a railroad engine facility, barns, and farmhouses—to house crushers, fermentation tanks, and tasting rooms. Walla Walla won a Great American Main Street award in 2001, and the valley, long prized for dry-farmed wheat, had a vital new industry with tourism value.