Grapes West: Plan a trip to Walla Walla, Wash., for wine, food, fun

I can get all the wonderful wine I want at tasting rooms right here in Idaho, so why make a trip over to California, Oregon or Washington to sip and swirl?

Because nearby spots such as Walla Walla have matured as wine travel destinations and they present the full, concentrated spectrum of culinary tourism: accommodations, fun, food, farmers markets and a host of free-flowing wine varietals available downtown or throughout the countryside.

The Walla Walla Valley and AVA (American Viticultural Area) have arrived as first-class wine destinations and they continue to grow, joining the region’s agricultural heritage of grains, fruit and truck crops such as asparagus and those famous, sweet Walla Walla onions. The region is like many, where wine grapes over the decades have trumped other crops because of what they can fetch in a growing national and international wine market.

To put Walla Walla’s wine scope in perspective, Napa, Calif., has about 450 wineries in roughly 45,000 acres planted in wine grapes. Walla Walla has 100 wineries dependent on around 2,000 acres planted in grapes. Among other varietals, Walla Walla is producing fabulous reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese and Tempranillo. On the lighter side you’ll find rosés and some unusual styles of whites such as Albariño, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and even Picpoul.

The wine lure has not been lost on the other components of culinary tourism. There are venerable old hotels like the stately Marcus Whitman that towers above the city, the new Courtyard by Marriott and a selection of standard motels (at more modest prices). Though this burg of 32,000 people — home to prestigious Whitman College — can roll up and go to bed rather early (even on weekend nights), it is a wine-lover’s paradise during the daylight hours year-round. My first get-to-know-you visit in July 2014 was just that — a chance to get my bearings and sample some tasting rooms and places to stay and dine. I returned again a little over a month ago and was delighted with my visit.

About a four-hour drive from Boise, Walla Walla is not a day trip. Lodging will cost you anywhere from $100 to more than $200 per night if you want to take a suite at the Marcus Whitman. Even if you don’t stay there, you ought to sample the hotel’s excellent food offerings and bar (great wine choices and cocktails) — one of the few places open late into the evening.

I have twice stayed at the Best Western in town (for around $100) and found it to be just right for my needs, since I just sleep there and spend my days out discovering new wines, sampling farmers market fare on Saturdays and some fantastic restaurants. Though there are lots of nice breakfast spots, I find myself returning each morning to Bacon & Egg for the coffee and a menu of extraordinary egg dishes ranging from Southwestern styles to uptempo takes on biscuits and gravy and Benedicts. For dinner, I recommend a reservation at Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen, which serves up a seasonal menu of pastas, flatbreads, steaks, chops and seafood dishes to pair with an amazing selection of local and regional wines. The Saffron Pappardelle pasta (house-made Italian sausage, eggplant, basil and Pecorino Toscano) sea bass and hanger steak are among my favorites.

As for wines, you can find plenty just strolling around town, or drive a bit out to the country. I favor the Merlots at Fort Walla Cellars and Seven Hills, the Cabs at Fort Walla Walla and the Syrah, blends and Tempranillo at Gramercy as well as some whites and rosés at Palencia — all located in the downtown area. As I ventured out west of the city, I enjoyed the full line-up at L’Ecole for reds and whites and was quite fond of a Sangiovese at Helix. Part of the Walla Walla AVA is actually in Oregon, so don’t miss out on a beautiful Barbera from Zerba. Do research the area and make your plans using a website like the one offered by the Walla Walla Wine Alliance. And do stop off at the Henry Earl Estates wine bar downtown for excellent wines, surroundings and happy hour deals. Try the Henry Earl Chardonnay for an unoaked and non-malolactic fermentation style and a taste as unpretentious as Walla Walla.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Reach him at 377-6437 or follow @IDS_HelloIdaho