WALLA WALLA — American Indians 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 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 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."
Visitors will find a bit of Americana with a lively arts scene and three nearby 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, Calif. The Marcus Whitman Hotel, a recently restored 1928 landmark, was a good base for my visit. 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.)
Walla Walla is "a community in transition," a wheat farming area defying the downward economic spiral of small farm towns, in the view of Steven Van Ausdale, president of Walla Walla Community College. The school offers an associate's degree in winemaking through its 4-year-old Institute of Enology and Viticulture, which operates its own commercial winery.
The difference, he said, is "the emerging wine industry and the climate it's created."
In 1977, the first of the modern wineries opened with Gary Figgins' Leonetti Cellar. Today, there are more than 60 wineries in Walla Walla Valley, generating $100 million-plus annually.
The institute's dining room hosts about 50 community and private events each year, serving its student-made College Cellars wines 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, institute director Myles 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 last June on a Main Street site that once housed a working-person's tavern.
What are Walla Wallans thinking about as their community changes? Mike Shepard, until recently publisher of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin newspaper, said people fret 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.
And they wonder, "Is the bubble going to burst?"
Preserving a rich history
For now, there are no signs of a bursting bubble. When strolling picturesque Main Street, visitors can witness how gracefully the renovation has transformed the downtown area.
The 1920s Beaux Arts buildings, whose tenants once included banks and bordellos, now house wine-tasting rooms, art galleries and boutiques. Bon-Macy's department store occupies part of the 1917 Liberty Theater site.
At Merchants Ltd. deli and gourmet shop, which boasts a 1915 soda fountain, Bob Austin, whose family opened this Main Street business in 1976, said, "There was nothing downtown but banks, a couple of jewelers and a couple of greasy spoons and taverns." Downtown seemed doomed, like so many other downtowns across the United States, to fall victim to suburban shopping malls.
Walla Walla wasn't exactly chic. When Austin asked to borrow $7,000 for his business' first espresso machine in 1978, the bankers "just shook their heads," he said. "Now you can't throw a rock around Walla Walla without hitting an espresso machine."
People now shop downtown, he said, because they "would just rather walk around these nice old storefronts."
Grapefields is one place that's a good fit on Main Street. Chef-owner Nicole Bunker grew up in Walla Walla, moved away and returned — as have others. She opened the smart wine bar and cafe four years ago in an 1874 building shared with Falkenberg's Jewelers. The state's first constitutional convention was held upstairs in the building in 1878. Now Bunker lives upstairs.
"People come to visit Walla Walla and end up moving here," she said. Still, she doesn't think that change is so rapid that it's going to stress the community, which she calls "kind of Hometown, USA."
Prepare to feast
After staying at the Marcus Whitman, I moved into a chicken coop. Well, a former chicken coop — the chicken house cottage at the Inn at Abeja, four miles east of town. It's one of five lovely guest cottages in converted outbuildings on a century-old farm site that's now home to Abeja ("ah-BAY-ha") Winery.
The chicken house was delightful, with two fireplaces and denim and country plaid decor. Breakfast was a feast served in the former dairy barn, a big, inviting space with stone fireplace and deep leather sofas. I had dinner in town at the Whitehouse-Crawford Restaurant, which has been garnering raves in national food magazines. This vast but inviting space in a 1904 former lumber-planing mill has an open kitchen, rafter ceilings and a treasury of historic photos. And the food's terrific.
Earlier, Bob Austin had told me, "The only thing wrong with Walla Walla is that it's so far from the ocean." It compensates by having good skiing in the Blue Mountains, within an hour's drive, and a network of cycling paths, as well as tree-shaded Pioneer Park.
What lies ahead?
With only about 17 inches of rain annually — about half the Seattle average — Walla Walla's climate is ideal for growing grapes in the valley's rich volcanic soil.
A converted 1915 two-room schoolhouse just west of Walla Walla, in Lowden, houses L'Ecole No. 41, where the original chalkboards hang in the tasting room.
The winemaker and co-owner is Martin Clubb, president of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance. He and his wife, Megan, fled the corporate life in San Francisco in 1988 to take over L'Ecole, which was established in 1983 by her family. She's the winery co-owner and the president of a Walla Walla bank.
The alliance represents both grape growers and wineries and focuses on maintaining quality — "You have some winemakers who started making wine out of their garages," Martin Clubb said. "It's a very flooded market. A new brand in today's marketplace is tough, no matter how good the wine is."
Rather than fret that success might spoil Walla Walla, he accentuates the positive. "Six years ago, there wasn't a decent place to eat," he said. "Now, it's a fine dining destination."
And, he noted, those who do come from Seattle don't just come for the day, which is good news for hotels and restaurants. (Port of Walla Walla data show that hotel-room tax revenues almost tripled between 1999 and 2003.)
The community college's Van Ausdale, while lauding winemaking and tourism as smokestack-free, said, "I think you have some people wondering just how far, how fast, is this going to go? Can we shape this change to preserve some of our traditions and values?"
But deli owner Austin sees Walla Walla's remoteness as its trump card.
"People don't come to Walla Walla by accident," he said. "You don't take a wrong turn and wind up in Walla Walla. We're still in the middle of nowhere."
Seattle Times staff contributed to this report.