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Is Walla Walla America’s new wine capital?

The Travel + Leisure book “Unexpected USA” explores some of the cool but lesser-known travel destinations across the country. In this excerpt, author Bruce Schoenfeld takes a closer look at why Walla Walla, Wash., is an unexpected vintage gem.

I won’t soon forget the very first meal I ate in Walla Walla.

It was 11 years ago, just as the local wine industry was beginning to boom. One of the area’s leading viticulturists, a man of some sophistication, took me to what he pointedly called “the best restaurant in town.” His quote marks hung in the air like smoke; before long, I understood why. The restaurant was a family steak house, on the model of a Sizzler but lacking the predictability of a chain. The room smelled like a school cafeteria, and the meat that arrived at our table tasted like something an office-supply store might sell.

Now you can sit at a table in Dayton, Washington, half an hour outside Walla Walla, and revel in the scent of just-picked basil. Out here in the country where Lewis and Clark waited out a winter by eating horses, owners Mae Schrey and Anne Jaso and their kitchen staff at the Weinhard Café serve up caramelized-sweet-onion tarts, pan-seared scallops, and pies that range from pecan bourbon to raspberry rhubarb. Things have come a long way from the days of the office-supply steak.

There’s an often told story, which I heard three times in less than a week, that back in the late 1800’s Walla Walla chose to be the site of the new penitentiary instead of the state capital. Local historians dismiss it as apocryphal, but it might as well be true. Until quite recently, this city of 33,000 appears to have taken pains to deflect the attention brought by its humorously euphonious name, doing little to lure visitors and exhibiting a profound suspicion toward the unfamiliar. The wheat farmers who made up the bulk of the population were satisfied to live out lives as dry and monochromatic as the crop that paid their bills, set against a faceless panorama of grain elevators, chain motels, and squat, bungalow-style houses. Even today, Walla Walla seems to have been dropped onto this corner of the southeastern Washington prairie by sheer happenstance. (The Columbia River flows nearby but plays no role in the city’s geography.) Most of downtown is still filled with buildings that look more small-town Texas than Pacific Northwest. Venture off Main Street and you’re on the set of The Last Picture Show.

Yet lately, life in Walla Walla has been transformed by the wine industry. Some of America’s best vintages are currently being made in Walla Walla, which couldn’t boast of a single commercially viable grapevine a quarter-century ago. Even as late as 1990, when tumbleweeds blew through an all-but-abandoned Main Street, only five wineries were operating here. By 2009, there were more than a hundred in the region, producing the requisite Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot, but also redefining the area with Syrah and Sémillon.

The new tasting rooms that sprout from the wheat fields every month, making architectural statements with their obtuse angles and walls of glass, are attracting carloads of wine adventurers who stumble across a coveted bottle and then set out for the viticultural frontier for a weekend of tasting. The infusion of money, combined with a spirit of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, has helped remake the town. Restaurants aren’t the only manifestation of the new Walla Walla: the art scene is growing (artist Jim Dine casts his works, including one on display at the Guggenheim Bilbao, at the Walla Walla Foundry), and boutique businesses — from the organic farm and the fromagerie in nearby Dayton to the Orchidaceae nursery, which ships plants nationwide — are suddenly thriving. There’s even that ultimate validation of a burgeoning demographic: no fewer than five Starbucks dot the streets.

At the same time, gifted winemakers and resourceful businessmen are streaming in, seeking America’s next great viticultural region or simply a fresh start, filling those once empty parking spots. Raised in Seattle, Nina Buty studied art history at Walla Walla’s Whitman College, then left to travel the world. By chance, she married a local oenologist — Caleb Foster, who’d worked at the pioneering winery Woodward Canyon — and returned in 2001 to help him create Buty Winery, in a concrete hut beside the Walla Walla airport. Plans for a showcase facility with a sculpture garden are off in the future; for now, all resources go into the wines. Foster’s oenology texts share shelf space with Buty’s art books, and their crisp Chardonnays and dense Cabernet- and Merlot-based blends serve as both commercial products and Buty’s artistic statements. “In a sense, making a wine is just like building a sculpture,” she says.

As she steers into the parking lot of the Foundry, where works by Deborah Butterfield are displayed beside Chuck Ginnever’s bronze castings and the works of local sculptors, Buty tells me she never thought she’d live in Walla Walla once she left Whitman. “Creativity has always been here, but before now the ideas were only sustainable for a month or two,” she says. “Restaurants would open with all kinds of ambition, but they couldn’t stay in business for long. Now, with the influx of money, and people who have come to Walla Walla to enjoy the wine, we’ve reached a critical mass.”

Walla Walla may not turn into another Napa, because the closest big city, Seattle, is a five-hour drive away over a mountain pass (whereas Napa is only an hour’s drive from the Golden Gate Bridge). But it does seem poised to become America’s second destination for wine tourism. Dayton’s Weinhard Café, downtown’s Backstage Bistro, and the Whitehouse-Crawford — which reinvented Washington dining east of the Cascades when it opened in 2000 — have recast restaurant meals here from rudimentary pit stops to something you can plan a night around. What you ate, and the wine you drank with it, are now prime topics of conversation during coffee breaks at businesses around town. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that many of those businesses are wineries.

The first Walla Walla wine I tried, back in the early nineties, was Rick Small’s 1988 Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time, it struck me as the best American bottling I’d come across that wasn’t from California. Then I uncovered one of Gary Figgins’s Leonetti Merlots, a wine that had been just a rumor to me for years, and several impressive releases from L’Ecole No. 41, which is set in an old schoolhouse in nearby Lowden, Washington. I was a believer.

Small and Figgins, Army Reserve buddies, started Walla Walla’s wine industry as a glorified home-economics project in the late seventies. They began on a modest scale, trucking in fruit from other parts of the state, not having any notion that Merlot and Cabernet would actually flourish amid the wheat and sweet onions. They made wine in Walla Walla only because they lived in Walla Walla. But L’Ecole’s Martin Clubb, the son of a Texas oilman, has a business degree from MIT. He’d spent time in Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. What, I couldn’t help but wonder, had brought him here?

It turns out that his wife, Megan, has century-old Walla Walla roots that run deeper than the oldest vines. Megan’s father, Baker Ferguson, was running Walla Walla’s biggest bank when he started L’Ecole in 1983. He soon learned that you can’t manage a winery as a hobby — not a successful one, anyway. So he dangled the possibility of an eventual position at the bank to lure his daughter home from San Francisco, where she had a high-powered finance job, and told her to bring along that husband of hers to handle L’Ecole.

Clubb took to the wine business, and soon L’Ecole was thriving. But the transition from San Francisco was a struggle for the Clubbs. Walla Walla seemed smaller than its 33,000 inhabitants, in part because nobody new ever moved in. “It was the kind of place,” Clubb recalls, “where, if you dialed a wrong number, you knew the person who answered the phone.”

The change happened so fast, locals like the Clubbs didn’t see it coming. First, two wineries set up tasting rooms on Main Street. Then, the once glamorous Marcus Whitman Hotel, built by a civic consortium in 1927 as a local showpiece but converted to subsistence housing in the late seventies, was restored by a Walla Walla organization headed by cell phone millionaire Kyle Mussman. His group gutted the interior, creating a hotel and conference center. The guest rooms had handcrafted desks, DVD players, two-line phones, terry-cloth bathrobes, and a higher level of luxury than the area had known. Until the first 75 deluxe rooms opened in February 2001, Walla Walla had had few visitors, only aspirations.

In retrospect, the Marcus Whitman Hotel was the tipping point. Today, the property isn’t always full, or even close to it, and the service doesn’t quite reach the level of the appointments. (By appearances, half the staff is still enrolled in high school, and breakfast — even on weekday mornings — means a visit to a nearby Denny’s.) But its mere existence signifies that local money has faith in the city’s future. Watching the stream of well-heeled hotel guests during one of the several formal tasting weekends held each year at area wineries, it’s impossible for Walla Walla residents not to think of themselves as shareholders in a stock destined to rise.

All week, I’ve been holed up at the Inn at Abeja, a three-cottage and two-suite bed-and-breakfast in a restored farmstead a few miles east of downtown. My split-level suite has Wi-Fi, a CD player I haven’t had time to use, and several hundred channels of DirecTV. The bookcases are stuffed with authors I actually want to read, from David Sedaris to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the cabinets are stocked with Riedel stemware to show off the local wine. At breakfast on my first morning, I found fresh mango chunks awaiting me, and juice that had been inside the orange moments before. Lucinda Williams was singing on the sound system, and poached eggs and warm bread were headed my way. I could have stayed there all day.

In the B&B’s Locust Suite, with its Craftsman-style cabinets and slate floors, I notice pencil marks scratched on the wooden walls. Dating back to the mid-1940’s, they record the maintenance status of the farm vehicles. I see that a Pierce Arrow needed an oil change; I find myself hoping someone attended to it before the transmission balked. For a moment, I visualize what it must have been like here on a September day when that long-departed Pierce still had a fresh coat of paint. The wheat farmers would have been busy stocking provisions against the coming cold; unlike winery owners, they had no $50-a-bottle cases of Merlot to ship to customers during bleak months.

Excerpted from “Unexpected USA.” For more from Travel + Leisure, .

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