To wine novices, it might come as a surprise to learn that Walla Walla, a small town in southeastern Washington state, cultivates some of the nation’s highest-scoring Cabernet Sauvignon, or that it’s home to James Beard Award–winning restaurateurs. According to fifth-generation Walla Walla native and Blood of Gods zine founder Stacy Buchanan, the small hometown feel of Walla Walla—combined with its endless sunny days and rolling Blue Mountains landscape—is what contributes to its charisma. When Buchanan returned to the town after a long run in the music biz, he discovered that the number of wineries had grown exponentially since his departure in 1999. “There were something like 13 when I left and 113 when I returned [in 2007],” he says.
” … it’s such a restful, fun, indulgent place to visit… It’s the best-kept secret, but the secret’s been coming out.” —Stacy Buchanan
Since his return and career pivot to Walla Walla’s wine industry, Buchanan has watched this historically farming-focused town transform, with visitors from Boise, Portland, and Seattle making a beeline to Walla Walla to drink and play in the sun. “They just have stars in their eyes when they leave, because it’s such a restful, fun, indulgent place to visit… It’s the best-kept secret, but the secret’s been coming out.” While preparing for Blood of Gods’ Annual Merrymaking heavy metal and wine festival (which took place July 22), Buchanan shared some of his favorite spots.
It’s easily worth the trip (25 minutes by car) out to Bar Bacetto for a night to feast on celery root–filled agnolotti shaped by chef Mike Easton, whose Italian restaurant could be considered a reincarnation of his former Seattle-based Il Corvo. Easton’s wife, Erin, leads the bar program, mixing cocktails out of a vintage milkshake frother, as well as pouring a handful of amari and Italian wines out of The Cordial Room, a neighboring waiting area for the 16-seat eatery. Buchanan feels an affinity to Easton for their shared backgrounds in the punk scene, explaining, “He’s just down with being a scrappy, creative person with a vision, who wants to do something,” he says. “The vibe is just incredible.”
A newcomer to Walla Walla’s burgeoning brewery scene, Five Dollar Ranch has “captured the palates of a lot of locals,” says Buchanan of their no-frills approach to beer. Owner Josh Hulett takes pride in his attention to detail, serving flights with cards that detail the grain bill, the yeast strain, and even the hop varietals used at each step of the brewing process for signatures like the Goat Candy and HRH pale ales. “When a place proudly wears their hops on their sleeves, it feels like it’s done with intent.” Although the beer can be found on taps throughout Walla Walla, visitors to the flagship brewery can expect sweeping views of the Blue Mountains and the backyard “ranch.”
FVC Gallery ensures that early birds will be able to find a coffee that’s just as thoughtful as the region’s wine and beer. Founders Matt and Lonna Lopez channel the Pacific Northwest’s penchant for high-quality brews by sourcing from a variety of regional roasters, serving pour overs, espresso, and loose-leaf tea in handmade ceramics. They’re “very obsessive about coffee and the creation of it,” says Buchanan, “all those little details that come together to really elevate it.” Patrons can sip cappuccinos in the sun-filled café while gazing at the art gallery, which features a rotating mix of artists.
“It’s an awesome winery that’s doing a bit more experimental stuff, plus his palate is incredible, too.”—Buchanan
Hoquetus founder Robert Gomez embraces ancient traditions by placing an emphasis on amphora aging and wild and native yeasts. Gomez processes grapes out of The Winery Incubators in the Airport District. State grants and Port funds support this center for burgeoning winemakers, whose pod of five buildings rotates every two years to foster graduates of the local community college’s enology and viticulture program. Buchanan is excited about the innovative techniques that Gomez is implementing during his tenure, who makes note of a carbonic macerated Syrah. “It’s an awesome winery that’s doing a bit more experimental stuff, plus his palate is incredible, too,” he says. “He’s a very talented person.”
Passatempo Taverna pays homage to its building’s former occupants, honoring three family generations’ worth of old-school Italian food by refreshing the concept with an elevated approach. Feast on handmade cacio e pepe and prosciutto-peach pizzas out of the breezy, modern dining room on Main Street. Expect to find ingredients and produce that are heavily reliant on local farms, along with classic cocktails and an extensive selection of wines from the Pacific Northwest, Italy, and France. A handful of seasonal signature drinks include concoctions like the Holy Roller (which incorporates yuzu marmalade and apricot with yellow chartreuse). “They’re just phenomenally delicious,” raves Buchanan. “It’s on Main Street, so it’s really central and easy to get to. Passatempo is my absolute favorite place to get a cocktail in town.”
Quirk has amassed a neighborhood cult following for its imaginative small-batch beers, helmed by former home brewer Troy Robinson. Quirk pours brews like summer grisettes and raspberry imperial stouts out of its charming, homey space, which is part of several former WWII-era buildings that make up the town’s quickly growing Airport District. “I love them because they have a lot of variety,” exclaims Buchanan, who typically reaches for a Control Tower Pale Ale when stopping by Quirk. “It’s very small-lot, and very well-made beer.” On summer days, guests lounging on the newly built patio can grab taquitos dorados and massive quesadillas from the neighboring Agapas Mexican Cravings food truck. “They really have been turning into this cool hub that’s been getting busier and busier. It’s more and more popular.”
Musician-turned-sommelier Steve Wells became enamored with Walla Walla during a press trip to Washington wine country over a decade ago, leaving his hospitality career in New York behind to dive into the state’s viticulture community. Wells approaches the craft from an accessible angle, fermenting Grenache rosés, Mourvèdre, and Rhône-style varietals under labels like Space Pants and Bruce’s Island. “I don’t mean this to sound pejorative, but it’s like you stepped into a dorm room,” Buchanan says of the laid-back tasting room in Downtown Walla Walla. “There’s cool art on the wall, a video game system, a TV playing all kinds of movies, merchandising paraphernalia.”
In Walla Walla, vineyards aren’t solely wine-drinking hubs; they’re also venues for live music. Tranche is one of several wineries that showcase musical talent, booking a wide range of artists to play over half the year on their outdoor stage. Guests can jam to bluegrass, jazz, and rockabilly while taking in sweeping views of Tranche’s high-elevation Blue Mountain estate, where the vines produce wines that Buchanan describes as “softer, less tannic, and fruit-forward” due to their cooler terroir. “I like when you can just be standing and have this 360 view of everything from there,” he says of their outdoor grounds. “They’ve just been crushing it.”
Sourcing grapes from across the Walla Walla Valley, Yakima, and the Red Mountains, winemaker Todd Alexander makes hearty red blends from varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah. The Walls’ complementary PÁŠXA label, launched in 2021, spotlights several wines made from a single alluvial fan within the valley, and the name pays homage to the Indigenous tribes that once lived there. “Here are these amazing representations of this region, and then PÁŠXA goes one step further to make phenomenal Rhône-style wines from the Rocks AVA,” Buchanan says. He appreciates the convenience of their airy downtown tasting room, which offers flights from both labels with plates of tarte flambé.