Most of Walla Walla’s wineries are just 10 to 15 minutes from downtown, and a weekender’s best bet for tasting would be to spend one day visiting the 11 tasting rooms off of Pranger Rd, just south of town, and the next at the wineries near the airport, to the east.
The Pranger Rd wineries include quaint, hip and, in the case of Rulo—housed in a farm shed—downright down-home establishments. As Rulo’s Vicki Schlicker pours a taste of the 2005 Combine, a chardonnay-viognier blend, she tells my sister and me that Rulo is named after an old grain elevator outside of town. Schlicker and her husband, Kurt, an anesthesiologist, started Rulo in 2000 after moving from California, and they readily admit that their foray into winemaking was more hobby than serious venture. As such, there’s been a learning curve. “I don’t even know what a marketing director is,” says Kurt. “We’re just dorks who make wine.”
The next day, we head out near the Walla Walla Regional Airport to a bland and boxy row of buildings used by the Army during World War II. The Port of Walla Walla began leasing out the buildings to wineries in 1996; now some 15 wineries have tasting rooms here.
At Russell Creek we meet Larry Krivoshein, who started selling wine in 2000 after 30 years as a funeral-home director. He comes across as a bit surly, and is one of the only winemakers to charge for pours. “If you taste a bad wine, you’re not coming back even if it’s free, right?” he remarks. By the third pour, we realize that Krivoshein is actually a big softy. He devotes an entire wall—one that isn’t covered with accolades, such as Wine Spectator ’s 91 rating for his 2003 Select Merlot—to snapshots of his grandkids.
Down the row, we stop by Dunham Cellars, which sells 22,000 cases a year. Run by 33-year-old Eric Dunham and his parents, Dunham Cellars has become wildly popular. Its 1995 cabernet sauvignon was deemed one of the finest wines in Washington by Wine Enthusiast , and the winery’s Three-Legged Red, a $19 table wine, is a commercial favorite. The label depicts Dunham’s dog, Port, who lost his leg to a pit bull.
By the afternoon, we’re back at the Marcus Whitman Hotel to rest up for dinner. Built in 1927, the 127-room facility has undergone a $35 million renovation, including the addition of conference rooms. Our brand-new suite is positively voluminous, with a sitting room, Wi-Fi and two flat-screen TVs.
When chef Hank “Bear” Ullman opened the hotel’s restaurant, The Marc, in 2001, the former Westin Hotels superstar “threw out the rules” of small-town cooking, along with the menu. Any tendency toward country fare is gone. “You will never see meatloaf on our menu,” says the hotel’s owner, Kyle Mussman, a salt-and-pepper-haired millionaire who made his money in telecommunications and has financed much of the hotel’s reinvention.
Tonight’s meal is a rehearsal for an upcoming winemaker’s dinner at the Marcus Whitman, which hosts them several times a year. This one features wines from Three Rivers, whose 37-year-old winemaker, Holly Turner, is on hand to lend her palate. The seven-course meal, which includes heirloom tomato salad with edible flowers, lobster over fennel and watercress, and elk tenderloin bathed in cherry sauce, lasts three hours. When Ullman likens the gastronomic adventure to “an extreme sport,” we agree he isn’t kidding.
Strolling out of the Marc, we meet a quartet of California winemakers who came to Walla Walla to see what all the fuss was about. They joke that they aren’t going to tell anyone how great it is here, because they don’t want it “turning into another Napa.” Whether it does or not seems beside the point. But the time to visit is definitely now.