Friday, January 27, 2012

Walla Walla: Well Worth the Drive

Vineyards south of Walla Walla
In Walla Walla, visitors can discover how a sun-bleached, arid corner of Eastern Washington developed into a world-class wine growing region, and learn the unlikely connection between measles and the establishment of the state of Oregon.
Whitman Historic Park
The town, one of the oldest in Washington, had long been on the trade route of a number of Indian tribes who gave it the name, Walla Walla, meaning “many waters.”  In 1836, Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa arrived to establish a missionary and convert the Cayuse to Christianity. While they were not entirely successful in creating farmers out of traditionally nomadic tribesmen, the mission thrived and became an important rest stop on the Oregon Trail. One of the wagon trains brought with it an epidemic of measles.  Dr. Whitman worked tirelessly to treat his patients and was successful with the white settlers, but the natives, who had no prior exposure or immunity to the disease, were decimated.  Nearly one-half the tribe died during the epidemic and the Cayuse could only assume the disease was a ploy to rid the area of the tribe and take over their land. With that in mind, a group attacked the mission killing Whitman, his wife, and twelve others. When word of the massacre reached Washington, DC, Congress acted quickly to create the Oregon Territory, the first in the West.
Seven Hills Tasting Room
Walla Walla went on to become a thriving, regional agriculture center best known for wheat, sweet onions, frozen peas, and the state penitentiary. It can boast of the West’s oldest college (Whitman College), first commercial bank in the Northwest, and oldest, continuous symphony west of the Mississippi River. With its attractive downtown, historical buildings, tree-shaded streets, and college campus, Walla Walla seemed more like a small town transplanted from New England. But, in the 1970s, things changed for this sleepy college town as it transformed itself into an important food and wine destination.
Gary Figgins was an avid home winemaker with local roots going back to 1905 when his Italian grandparents settled in the area. In 1974, he planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling grapes and created Leonetti Cellar. His wines were so successful that it soon became apparent to others that Walla Walla just might be the next Napa Valley. Today, there are nearly 100 wineries in the region and over 1800 acres of land planted in vineyards.
At first glance, the landscape of the Walla Walla Valley looks like an unlikely place for grapes to thrive; even a cactus would look more at home here. However, a number of combining factors make it a prime grape-growing region. The soil, deposited by the Ice Age Floods of 10,000 years ago, consists of loam, silt, loess and small rocks, providing excellent drainage for the vines.  Long sunny days and cool nights create perfect growing conditions, and the arid climate requires irrigation for controllable water management of the vines.
L'Ecole 41 Tasting Room
With so many wineries and tasting rooms to choose from, a visit can seem a bit overwhelming. The first step is to check out the comprehensive Winery Guide produced by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. It can be viewed online, picked up in local hotels and shops, or ordered at 509-526-3117.  Offering detailed maps and winery descriptions and hours, it makes planning a wine tasting route much easier. Most of the wineries are concentrated in several areas: west of town along U.S. 12, in the downtown area, near the airport, and south of town towards the Oregon border.
The burgeoning wine industry and increase in tourists have created a demand for fine restaurants with exciting menus and extensive wine lists. Several imaginative, young chefs from the Seattle area have migrated to Walla Walla and opened restaurants to fill that need. What other small town in Eastern Washington has wood-grilled octopus and wild boar lasagna on the menu?
Whitman Monument
Beyond wine and food, the town offers some pleasant shopping, art galleries, and walking tours of the downtown, college campus, and historic neighborhoods. A few miles west of town is the Whitman Mission Historic Site with a short film and museum telling the sad tale of the Whitmans. While the original buildings are long gone, a marked trail meanders through the mission site. On a small knoll, stands a monument to the Whitmans with an expansive view of the Walla Walla Valley.  One wonders what Marcus and Narcissa would have thought about the grilled octopus and $40 bottles of Syrah now available in their little mission town.

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