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Walla Walla Winery Tour by Tamara Dwyer

When Tamara Dwyer's family settled in the Walla Walla Valley in the early 1900s, it was best known for growing wheat, onions, and asparagus. That changed 40 years ago, when commercial vintners discovered an old-time secret: The volcanic soils and watersheds of this valley, which stretches from eastern Washington into Oregon, produce excellent wines. On a homecoming roadtrip last July, Tamara made a tour of three wineries and contemplated the importance of strong roots.

Walla Walla Winery Tour!
Tamara Dwyer
Ready for a family outing in a red Mustang convertible

Tamara Dwyer
Acres of grapevines, with the Blue Mountains in the distance

Walla Walla River
Tamara Dwyer
A gentle stream boasting great fishing, the Walla Walla River also created an agricultural oasis in the high desert of southestern Washington state.

My family landed in Walla Walla, Washington, in the early 1900s. Some of my earliest memories are of endless wheat fields punctuated by small family farms growing onions and asparagus in the river valley. The farms often had grapevines growing up one side of the garden fence. The Italian families made wine, the German families made beer, everyone shared as they could, and no one paid much heed to Prohibition.

In the 1960s, vintners began cultivating grapes for the commercial trade; now there are long rows of vines supplying grapes to more than 100 wineries in the Walla Walla Valley. The valley gained federal recognition as an American Viticultural Area in 1984, and the local community college offers degrees in the vintner's craft. The landscape changed as people built impressive estates amid the simple farmhouses.

Last July, five of us went on a winery tour to explore this new development in our hometown. Grandma has lived in the area all her 80 years; Mom and Dad left after graduating high school in the '60s. I visit regularly, but I'd seldom driven south of town except to buy tax-free cigarettes in Oregon. It was a homecoming, celebration and roadtrip adventure all rolled into one.

We grabbed a map from the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce and piled into two cars: the parents in a red convertible Mustang, rented for a cool ride to the high school reunion; I was with the kids in a white Chevy, rented for a smooth ride and space to share with Grandma. My taste in wines is not much more refined than my taste in cars: I look for a smooth ride and plenty to share.

As we drove out of town, then a bit farther south on Highway 125, the golden wheat fields gave way to fields of carefully tended vines. The Blue Mountains in the distance were breathtaking. We crossed the Walla Walla River, then headed east on State Line Road.

The first winery, Northstar Winery, was the most beautiful facility we saw that day. To find it, turn left on Pepper's Bridge Road, then right on JB George Road. After a half mile, the road comes to a T. Turn left into a small lane, marked by a sign, and wend your way through a maze of grapevines until you come to the huge, gorgeous house with the wonderful view of the mountains and the valley. The view is as big as the winery's mission, which is nothing less than to make the best merlot in the region.

One of Northstar's fruity merlots pleased two of our crowd; a dry wine pleased two more. Grandma revealed that all she had learned about wine growing up was that each Italian family had two barrels: One was the everyday wine, and the other was the special reserve wine -- the good wine -- which was shared at baptisms and weddings. This was all special-occasion wine.

We returned to State Line Road, and then followed the signs to the next winery, Glen Fiona. Lured by the promise of a Celtic estate, we turned left on Braden Road, and left again on Lyday Lane. What we found was a big, half-furnished house in the middle of the wheat fields, Celtic music in the background, and cement floors. Ah, marketing. The wines varied quite a bit. One smelled like a fireplace to me; Mom, who has a better nose and a more refined palate, thought of a musty basement. On the other hand, Glen Fiona's finest cuvée was wonderful, and left us wanting more. It was here we starting buying our favorite wines to ship home.

We took State Line Road back to Highway 125, and then we turned left, to the south, and crossed into Oregon. Zerba Cellars was on the right-hand side of the road. We stopped because Grandma remembered the family's produce- and cut-flower stand, at the very same location, from her childhood. The pourer was a native who graduated from Walla Walla High School a year ahead of my parents. We tried and purchased several wines, and talked a long time. These wines, and the winery, have soul. Their 2003 "Wild Thing" was an easy-drinking blend. Their syrah, crisp and dry with a velvet chocolate finish, is a real treat. The wines I purchased that day went on to win several awards, and my investments doubled in value as fast as I drank them. The 2003 "Wild Thing" is no longer available, but the 2004 "Wild Z" I sampled this past spring is equally tasty.

If you travel to Walla Walla from out of state, plan to ship or carry your purchases home before you buy. Check the state alcohol board rules in your destination state and find out if there are any restrictions on how many bottles you are allowed to take home. If you are traveling by airplane, you might want to ship the bottles home instead of packing them into your checked luggage. Currently, the Transportation Security Administration will not allow passengers to pack more than 3 ounces of liquids in carry-on baggage; the friendly staff at the Pak N Ship, located downtown at 123 E. Main St. in Walla Walla, had the necessary materials and licenses to ship my purchases to my Texas home safely and legally.

After the generous wine pourings and accompanying frivolity, we thanked our two designated drivers for staying sober for the drive home. Three wineries was our limit. If you have a smaller group, or you do not want to designate a driver, consider hiring a limousine service for the tour. My cousin Linda and her husband, Tony Horner, are in this business; they are Walla Walla natives with extensive knowledge of the area. Contact Black Tie Limousines to schedule your tour. They will ensure everyone travels safely, and that no one misses a drop of any pour.

My trips to Walla Walla (still small-town charming) are a relaxing change of pace from my workaday life. The booming viticulture industry has changed the agricultural landscape and provides new social opportunities, such as special weekends celebrating the new vintage year. Grandma often mentions she looks forward to our next trip home, not only to see us, but also so that she can accompany us on another roadtrip.

Tamara Dwyer


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