Walla Walla, Washington 2016: A quick girls’ weekend trip to Walla Walla during their annual Sweet Onion festival. Onions, great food, and wine, wine, and more wine…
I’d never been to Walla Walla, WA, or knew much about Walla Walla other than that it was in Eastern Washington, contained the state penitentiary, and was the home of the infamous Walla Walla sweet yellow onion.
My friend and I read that there was an annual Sweet Onion Festival every year in June, and we decided this year we’d check it out. In addition to onions, we assumed we’d be guaranteed sunshine on the east side of the Cascade Mountains (sunshine is not as frequent in Seattle in June), and we’d heard there was lots of great wine in the area and were hoping to do some wine tasting. Onions, sunshine, and wine–(three great tastes that go great together?) A girls’ trip seemed in order.
We left cold, rainy, Seattle at 6:30 AM to get a head start on the long drive. We were all wearing sundresses and tank tops, expecting gorgeous rays of 75 degree summer sun to blind us at any moment as we went over Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascades.
To our disappointment, the rain and 56 degree temperatures continued to follow us from Seattle. Confident that the 75 degree sunshine that the weather report promised us would appear any moment, we cranked up some disco on the stereo and sallied forth to wine and onion country.
We ran into a little snag in our route with an accident fully blocking both lanes of a highway, and had to detour which turned our 4.5 hour drive into a 5 hour drive, but it wasn’t too bad. We had snacks. We arrived in Walla Walla at 11:30 AM, and checked into the Motel 6.
The Motel 6 was clean, basic, and the beds were comfy. A fridge was included, which we utilized. There was a laughably small pool off of the parking lot, and a convenience store next door. The best thing about the Motel 6 however, was the location. It was right in downtown Walla Walla and in walking distance to everywhere.
**Note: Hotel reservations recommended in advance for the Onion Festival weekend.
Unfortunately, it was still rainy and not any warmer than when we left Seattle. Gretchen (who is always prepared) had brought a couple umbrellas which helped tremendously as we walked around town. We were hungry, so we scouted out somewhere for lunch.
We didn’t scout very long. Despite the umbrellas, we were unprepared in our cardigan sweaters and sundresses for rain and the light wind that seemed to be picking up. We settled on the first place that looked good, which was Wingman Birdz & Brewz.
The food was good and the service was friendly. I had the “Second Runner-Up Grilled Cheese” which was grilled cheese on brioche with three kinds of cheese, tomato, bacon, and avocado. It was delicious, albiet a little pricey at $12.00 for grilled cheese.
The rain and wind still weren’t letting up after lunch, so we ducked into the little Macy’s on Main Street in hopes of finding raincoats on sale. We were in luck, and found a raincoat and a hooded sweatshirt for $15 -$20 each in the deep discount section. Macy’s is a pricey store, but when they have a sale, they have a SALE.
The locals kept remarking on how unusual the weather was, and lamenting about the poor Onion Festival that was getting rained out. We passed the small corridor of vendor tents comprising the festival on our walk, but just didn’t feel like being in the rain. It didn’t look like we were the only ones, there weren’t a lot of people milling around at the festival.
We explored a couple antique shops, and a great little soap and body care shop on Main Street called Midnight Oil Soap and Apothecary. The very creative and fun soaps and personal care products are all made by the owner Kim on her farm outside of town, many made from goat milk from her own goats. I was enticed by some glittery cucumber melon body butter, which I regretted not purchasing then as we discovered the next day that she was closed on Sundays. Fortunately, she sells her products online as well. If you’re looking for a gift for someone, this is a great place to shop.
The rain still wasn’t letting up, (despite the weather reports on our phones still proclaiming 73 and sunny weather for the afternoon) so we decided it was time to start wine tasting. We ducked into the first tasting room we encountered, which was the Mark Ryan Winery.
We tasted several wines, some with names that led me to believe that Mr. Ryan is an avid Pearl Jam fan (“Crazy Mary” and “The Dissident” for example). The tasting room had nice atmosphere and a very friendly host who came around to pour the wines for us while we sat by the window. We did find the $10 tasting fee to be a little steep here, but it is waived if you buy a bottle.
The Dissident was our favorite wine that we tasted, a hearty red blend of cabernet, cabernet franc, merlot, and petit verdot.
Walla Walla has 25+ tasting rooms in the downtown area, which is actually a little overwhelming. We decided to ask our friendly host where she recommended we head to next, and she recommended the Rotie Cellars tasting room across the street.
The Rotie Cellars tasting room felt like a law office waiting room, pretty bland with not much character. The wines were quite the opposite, however. We loved them all, but the Southern White was my favorite. A very summery, fruity and refreshing wine for a hot summer day. The name and flavor made me want to go sit on a big porch in Georgia, eating peaches and drinking this wine on a hot, sticky, southern summer night.
There weren’t a lot of wines to taste (I think we tasted 4?) but they were all very nice. Tasting fee was $5.00.
We asked our friendly wine server at Rotie where he recommended going next, and he directed us over to 2nd Avenue just off of Main Street where there were a few of his favorites.
We found Spring Valley Vineyard, which our Rotie server highly recommended. This tasting room proved to be our favorite one hands down.
In addition to fabulous wines, Spring Valley is a family run vineyard with a lot of family history going back to the 1890’s. The service was excellent, with a dose of the family history to go along with it. I don’t know what the tasting fee was because we all bought wine here (it was waived with purchase, whatever it was), but if it is $10.00 it is worth it. They invite you to try all six of their wines, each one proudly named after a member of their family. You can taste the love in each sip.
In addition to delicious wine and excellent hospitality, we were served a chocolate truffle with our last wine–a Syrah named Nina Lee. The truffle was infused with the Nina Lee Syrah as well. That is the wine I went home with, along with a little two pack of the truffles to share with Paddy later.
When we left Spring Valley, we were significantly buzzed but couldn’t resist one more tasting room next door at Maison Bleue, another family-run winery with extensive vineyards in the Walla Walla area and two in the Columbia Valley.
At Maison Bleue we tasted four reds and two whites, including two different Chardonnays. The first Chardonnay was aged in stainless steel, the second was aged in a traditional oak barrel. I’m not a fan of oakey Chardonnay, but the stainless steel aged chardonnay was very nice. The Syrah was my favorite red, but I’m a little partial to Syrah.
When we left Maison Bleue– low and behold–the sun was finally out. A little drunk, we walked back to the hotel to lay in the sun near the tiny parking lot swimming pool. One of us may or may not have fallen into the pool fully clothed. The sun was nice. Eventually we were joined by children doing cannonballs, so we retired to the room to take naps before dinner.
For dinner we had made an 8:00 PM reservation at The Ox & Cart at the recommendation of the wonderful people at Spring Valley Winery. We’d had visions of enjoying more lovely Walla Walla wine with a nice dinner, but we were a bit wined out. The waitress gave me a funny look when I ordered a bloody mary, and asked if I had an evening hangover. Yes, something like that. The bloody mary was excellent–it came with house pickled pearl onions.
We were hoping that there might be a special dish for the onion festival highlighting the Walla Walla sweet onion, but it didn’t seem that many restaurants were on board with that. Nonetheless, The Ox & Cart was a great choice for dinner. It is part of the new farm-to-table style of cuisine focusing on regional organically grown food.
Gretchen and Kari shared the Amberjack Crudo appetizer, which they said was outstanding. I felt like I needed some fresh veggies in my life, so I ordered the Spring’s Bounty Salad as a starter, a fresh mix of asparagus tips, fava beans, cucumbers, and other veggies with green garlic and a champagne vinaigrette. It was just what I needed.
For an entree I had the Oregon Sole with crispy potato cake and sauteed spinach, which I didn’t expect to be battered and fried but it was great regardless. I found it a tiny bit under-seasoned and could have used a bit of salt to jazz it up, but salt wasn’t provided on the table.
Gretchen had the Buttermilk Fried Chicken with waffles, which she said was amazing. Kari had the Study in Foraged Mushrooms with charbroiled morels and porcini mushrooms, asparagus and wheat berries.
All the food tasted extremely fresh and a lot of care was put into each dish. If I go back I may be tempted to bring some sea salt along in my purse though.
After dinner it was about 10:00, and we were tired but curious to see what kind of Walla Walla nightlife was going down. We did not find much. We found two bars that had some action–one was very crowded and the other had some kind of punk band all ages show going on. We weren’t feeling it for either of those scenes.
There was also a country/classic rock band playing the remnants of the little Onion Festival on Main Street, to a crowd of about 20. It was cute.
We were hoping to find a bar to have a quiet drink in, but there wasn’t much of any place that we saw to have a quiet drink in open at 11:00 PM. We were tired from an early morning and all that day drinking, so we decided to turn in for the night.
We woke up to the Eastern Washington summer sun shining full force outside. We checked out of the hotel and walked into town in search of sustenance.
We walked by Bacon and Eggs, which must be awesome because it was packed with a line out the door. We weren’t in the mood for a long wait, and decided on the Olive Marketplace on Main Street. There was no wait, and had shady tables outside on the sidewalk. Their menu was amazing. I wanted everything, it was hard to decide. Breakfast flatbread pizza with pork belly and farm fresh egg? Chevre asparagus strata? Maple braised pork belly with sweet potato hash? It was all too much. And that doesn’t even cover their baked goods, which were completely out of control.
Kari had a fig danish and the vegetable benedict with roasted veggies, Gretchen had the baked brioche french toast with pink lady apples and fresh berries, and I had the smoked salmon benedict with lox and poached eggs on a home baked biscuit with spinach. It was all outstanding.
I got a peek into the kitchen from the expansive dining area and there were several huge, delicious looking layer cakes standing on the kitchen island that were waiting for something.
You order at the counter, and food and coffee are brought out to you when they are ready. The prices were very reasonable. They also had a large display case of deli items such as olives and fancy cheeses ready for someone’s picnic. Their lunch menu looked amazing as well. I will definitely be coming back here next time I make it to Walla Walla.
After breakfast, we decided to check out the Sweet Onion Festival on Main Street. It was mostly two blocks of vendors lining the street, all selling arts, handicrafts, and local gourmet foods. I bought some organic garlic and some Walla Walla sweet onion mustard.
There were also some good photo opportunities:
We walked around the main part of town a little longer, visiting another great antique store called Tra Vigne on Main Street that had all kinds of treasures. Gretchen found a pie safe that she was in love with but was too big to transport back in her car. However, we found out that the owner does trips to Seattle and will deliver for a very reasonable price.
We made one last stop at Bright’s Candies to pick up some jelly beans for Kari’s kids before we headed home. They sell all kinds of classic candy as well as ice cream and house-made chocolates.
The drive back to Seattle took about 5 hours again, due to a slight slow-down on I-90 due to a couple of accidents. The long drive was worth it though, it was a short but very fun weekend.
I liked Walla Walla more than I thought I would, and I would absolutely visit Walla Walla again. The only large drawback is the long drive from Seattle. While the Sweet Onion Festival was cute, it turned out not to be the main draw. The main draw to Walla Walla these days is wine. It was the perfect place to sample some of the great wine that Washington State has to offer, with many vineyards you can drive to outside of town and tour, and a plethora of tasting rooms in the downtown area that don’t require driving (always something we look for with wine tasting). In addition, there seemed to be a number of great restaurants to compliment all that great wine, something that Paddy and I have had trouble finding on some of our other Washington wine tasting adventures.
I am looking forward to bringing Paddy back to Walla Walla in the future, and staying a bit longer than one night to see more of the area.