Native Americans named it Walla Walla, "place of many waters," but it's wine that's bringing the visitors to this town of about 30,000, once best known for its funny name and for a tear-free variety of onion.
"We're kind of a destination now," said Jerry "Spud" Cundiff, who has lived in Walla Walla for 75 of his 77 years. Cundiff, who's semi-retired, can be found, key in hand, at 7 o'clock every Friday morning winding Main Street's landmark 1906 clock outside Falkenberg's, his family's jewelry store.
A $53 million revitalization of its once- dying downtown core helped Walla Walla to win a 2001 Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A year later, the trust chose the city as one of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations, or "pockets of serenity amid the sprawling clutter and homogenization that have overwhelmed so many American vacation spots."
I decided to have a look for myself. I found a bit of Americana with a lively arts scene and three colleges, a community that wears its pride on its sleeve, calling itself "the town so nice they named it twice." And nice it is, with first-rate restaurants and accommodations, art galleries and wineries.
Walla Walla, just north of the Oregon border in southeastern Washington, isn't the easiest place to get to, but locals say that's part of its charm and helps to ensure that it won't become an overtrodden Napa Valley. Horizon Air (a sister airline of Alaska Airlines) has three daily flights to and from Seattle, a 50-minute hop, or it's 260 miles away by car on U.S. 12.
I flew in and stayed overnight at the Marcus Whitman Hotel, a recently restored 1928 landmark. Like many places in these parts, it is named for the ill-fated medical missionary Whitman, who came here with his wife, Narcissa, in 1836 and met a tragic end, killed by Cayuse Indians. (The Cayuse were decimated by measles, but they thought Whitman was poisoning them to make room for more white settlers.)
My first meeting was with Steven Van Ausdale, president of Walla Walla Community College. The school offers an associate's degree in winemaking through its four-year-old Institute of Enology and Viticulture, which operates its own commercial winery.
Van Ausdale called Walla Walla "a community in transition," a wheat farming area defying the downward economic spiral of small farm towns.
The difference, he said, is "the emerging wine industry and the climate it's created."
Taste of things to come
In 1977, the first of the modern wineries opened. Today, there are 59 wineries in Walla Walla Valley, generating $100 million-plus annually.
Walla Walla also is promoting visitor-friendly events such as the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance's annual Holiday Barrel Tasting Weekend, in December, when winemakers open their festively decorated barrel rooms.
As I toured the institute with director Myles Anderson, sampling a syrah and a cabernet aged in French oak, he spoke of the hands-on philosophy of the degree program.
"When students graduate, they've planted grapes, operated a tractor, pruned grapes, harvested grapes, scrubbed tanks," he said. "We want to teach students how to make and how to grow world-class wines." All 14 members of the first graduating class work in the industry in Washington.
The institute's dining room holds about 50 community and private events each year, serving Walla Walla College Cellars wines, made from grapes harvested in institute vineyards, with meals prepared by students of the culinary arts program.
The institute takes very seriously its role in preparing Walla Walla's hospitality industry -- including restaurants -- to pamper visitors. When the first culinary arts majors graduate next year, Anderson said, they will be trained in "serving, selling wine, waiting tables, working in upscale restaurants and kitchens."
The upscale restaurants are coming. The newest, 26 Brix, opened after my visit on a Main Street site that once housed a working-person's tavern and is getting good reviews around town.
I lunched the first day at CreekTown Cafe with Mike Shepard, until recently publisher of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin newspaper. I asked him what Walla Wallans were thinking about as they saw the metamorphosis of their community.
One issue, said Shepard, now publisher of the Herald-Republic in nearby Yakima, is that "grapes and wheat don't get along too well as crops."
"Some of the sprays used on wheat make grapes turn up their toes. Some of these folks have been wheat farmers for three or four generations. If you have grapes next door and they bring in a lot of dough, it might make your taxes go up." (Eight hundred acres of grapes produce the income of 3,000 acres of wheat.)
People also fret, he said, that tourism is going to cause traffic jams and put "drunk wine tasters all over the road. Are we going to be Napa?"
The city is close to adopting a 20-year master plan that recognizes the possible increase in visitors and the threat to its character.