These days, it’s not the wine causing all the buzz in Washington’s Walla Walla Valley. It’s the new crop of creative, farm-fresh food.
You'd think that a guy like actor Kyle MacLachlan would be a superstar in Washington's Walla Walla Valley. He grew up in the area, a blossoming wine-producing region in the remote Blue Mountain foothills, and in 2005 he started his own small line of Cabernet here. MacLachlan is such a big Walla Walla booster, in fact, that he recently donated the 34-foot Airstream trailer he used on the set of Twin Peaks to a local fromagerie so that twentysomething food-industry interns would have a decent place to live cheaply while they learned a new skill.
And yet if you spend much time in Walla Walla, you'll find that MacLachlan is a minor attraction compared with Pierre-Louis and Joan Monteillet. Never heard of them? Perhaps that's because they devote their days to crafting artisanal cheeses. That's the funny thing about Walla Walla: In this valley (a four-hour drive east of Portland on I-84, followed by a stretch through lovely quiet byways), the real celebrities aren't who you'd expect, not even the vintners.
These days, of course, any first-class wine region worth its grapes is dotted with white-tablecloth restaurants. But what's different about Walla Walla is that it's also sparked a full spectrum of foodie alternatives, from scrappy taco trucks to start-up farms to bars serving artfully concocted cocktails. And one cheese that you might say is worth its weight in gold.
Milton-Freewater, Ore., to Walla Walla, Wash.
You could breeze through the entire Walla Walla Valley in a few hours, but that would mean blowing past hidden treasures such as tiny Milton-Freewater, Ore. Pioneers settled the hamlet more than 100 years ago, and the orchards they planted are still the town's main livelihood. Fruit stands seem to outnumber buildings by three to one.
Or you could skip the fruit and head straight for dessert. Petits Noirs, an artisanal chocolate shop, looks almost dowdy in its brick house on Main Street—until you open the door to its splashy turquoise walls and orange and lime-green vintage furniture. The chocolate is like that, too: tame on the outside, surprising and exotic within. Co-owner James Boulanger, who left New York City's popular Sullivan Street Bakery to relocate here, uses fruit from area farms and herbs from his own garden to create complex confections designed to play off the valley's wines
and produce. The spicy Syrah paired perfectly with the chocolate he calls Fresh Fig.
It's 10 minutes along Highway 12 to the town of Walla Walla, but there are plenty of side roads that will make you want to get lost in all that lushness. Back in 1990, before the wine industry took hold, the 530-square-mile valley had only six vineyards. Today, there are more than 120 crisscrossing the rural landscape.
My husband, Darrell, and I had called ahead to schedule a private tasting with Gramercy Cellars, about a half-mile north of the Washington state line. Our host, Brandon Moss, 27, led us to the outdoor "tasting room"—four bottles and two glasses perched on the end of a wine barrel. As we sipped our way through a Tempranillo, two Syrahs, and a Cabernet, Brandon told us about the unusual route he took into winemaking. He grew up in the area on a small family farm, but he left in his teens to study dentistry at Oregon State. "After four years, it hit me," he explained. "I wanted to create those stained teeth, rather than clean them."
Another 15-minute drive, this time going north along Highway 125, took us to the Maxwell House, a 100-year-old Craftsman-style B&B. Like a favorite aunt, owner Penny Maxwell Bingham met us at the door with just-baked chocolate-chip cookies. We settled in and, when dusk fell, hopped on a pair of cruiser bikes that she lends to her guests. Eight blocks away is the downtown Brasserie Four, a bistro tucked into a redbrick strip along Main Street. As we ate our potato soup and moules frites, I felt for a moment as if we were in France.
Walla Walla to Waitsburg, Wash.
The same mineral-rich soil that produces award-winning vines also makes for gorgeous produce. Early Saturday morning we biked to the Walla Walla Valley Farmers' Market to see the goods in all their rainbow-hued glory: countless kinds of violet and indigo berries, mounds of yellow sweet corn, and tomatoes in more varieties (and colors) than I knew existed.
As much as anything, it's the abundant produce that has fed the valley's thriving street-food culture. After visiting the farmers' market, we pedaled seven blocks north and found ourselves at a taco truck called La Monarca, parked in an unassuming industrial lot. If the night before had transported us to France, we were now in Mexico—and for a mere $5.50. Nearby, we stumbled upon Salumiere Cesario, where the owner, Damon Burke, steered us to a jar of house-made pickles, just-made-that-morning hot mustard, and a fresh loaf of French bread.
From Walla Walla, we took a half-hour drive north along Highway 12, past rolling wheat fields sprinkled with white clapboard farmhouses, and arrived in Waitsburg around dinnertime. The three-block strip lined with towering oaks and 19th-century brick buildings is all Norman Rockwell charm. True to its small-town vibe, the locals were tremendously friendly, although, curiously, many recommended a place with a decidedly un-small-town-sounding name: the Jimgermanbar, a spare, low-lit lounge in the center of Waitsburg. The food menu was handwritten on two rolls of butcher paper mounted on the white-washed walls. Owner Jim German specializes in classic cocktails, yet he's more than happy to make the standards. But it's more fun to give him a starting point (Campari, for instance, or Oregon's own Aviation Gin) and let him work his magic. Believe me: You'll sleep like a baby afterward.
Waitsburg to Dayton, Wash.
Waking up to sheets of rain the next morning, it was tempting to stay put inside. But we weren't about to let a little vintage Northwest weather keep us from Monteillet Fromagerie down the road.
The cheese shop is set on a 32-acre ranch (farmstays are also available), and when we drove up, the herds were being watched by a trio of enormous, snowy-white Great Pyrenees guard dogs. Inside the tasting room, Joan and Pierre-Louis greeted us warmly and began unwrapping some samples. Like Brandon, the aspiring dentist turned vintner, the Monteillets took a roundabout route to their profession. They spent 20 years working a 2,000-acre wheat farm that Joan's family owned in the area, then purchased their own plot of land and began experimenting with making cheese. Their Cardabelle Chèvre oozed a creamy, molten river when we cut into the rind. My favorite, Le Roi Noir, was a soft-ripened chèvre dusted with edible flakes of pure gold—just the right amount of bling for this laid-back scene.