Updated: Apr 9
All roads lead to this oasis that brings the best of golf and gastronomy together in one place.
By Tony Dear - CG Editor
As published in
Cascade Golfer April 2022
What is it about towns like Walla Walla? Whether it be ley lines, some other mysterious source of powerful, subterranean energy or perhaps something divine, the "Place of Many Waters" - a nod to its proximity to the Snake and Columbia Rivers - somehow manages to punch well above its weight.
Less than 13 square miles in area and with a population barely 35,000 people give or take, the whole of this extraordinary, far-off place in southeastern Washington is considerably greater than the sum of its parts.
Walla Walla is situated between the Columbia Rivers's sweeping turn to the north and the Umatilla National Roest and Blue Mountains. And, though it endured its share of problems during its formative years in the 1850s. when settlers clashed with the Walla Walla, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Yakima, and Umatilla indigenous peoples, it has certainly enjoyed a rich bounty since incorporating in the winter of 1862.
The fertile valley in which it sits saw Walla Walla become a significant agricultural center. In the second half of the 19th century, it yielded wheat, apples, peas and the two crops for which it became famous nationally if not globally - onions and wine grapes. Incredibly, given its size, it was referred to as 'The Cradle of Pacific Northwest History'. And the accolades have continued pouring in during the first quarter of the 21st century.
In 2001, it was named a Great American Main Street Award winner and in July 2011, USA Today selected it as the friendliest small city in the country, an award Rand McNally duplicated as part of its annual Best of the Road contest. A year later, it was runner-up in the best food category for Best of the Road and the 40,000/47-chapter American Planning Association designated it a Great Places in America Great Neighborhood. In 2013, it was second again in Best of Road's best food category.
Perhaps its most gratifying award though was earned in 2020 when the Walla Walla AVA (American Virticultural Area) won USA Today's Readers Choice Award for Best Wine Region. Forty-three years after Gary and Nancy Figgins had established the town's first winery at Leonetti Cellar, Walla Walla was recognized as the nation's finest wine-producing area. And to prove the win was no fluke, it won again in 2021.
But there's more. There are three colleges here; the 115-year old Walla Walla Symphony is the oldest continually operating symphony west of the Mississippi; and the city has produced a number of notable individuals including the 1956 Nobel Prize winner Walter Brattain, journalist and writer Edward P Morgan, NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe and the actor who first portrayed Batman on TV, Adam West.
And though hit won't win any Nobel Prizes, certainly isn't the oldest of its kind west of the Mississippi and will never be as cool as the original Batman, Walla Wall Added another world-class attraction to its impressive collection in 2009 with the opening of Wine Valley Golf Club.
Fifteen minutes west of town, Wine Valley was a Dan Hixon design that some regard as the best golf course in the state and which man other were it not for Gamble Sands and Chambers Bay.
Prior to Wine Valley's arrival on the scene, Hixon's design resume was pretty short consisting of just one course. And though his debut project and Bandon Crossings in Oregon had wone widespread approval, Wine Valley's co-owners, John Thorsnes and Jim Pliska (also the owner of Creswell, Oregon's Emerald Valley GC) still took a chance hiring him to transform about 250 acres of wheat and alfalfa fields into a golf course good enough to attract people out of Walla Walla, let alone Spokane, the Tri-Cities, Yakima and yes even Portland and Seattle.
But Pliska had known Hixson for some time and was confident he had the talent, good golfing sense and capability to do the job. Plus, he had a number of elements working in his favor - none that would guarantee sucess perhaps, but things that Hixson could definitely take advantage of.
First, the site was neither flat nor steep but featured the variety of dips, ridges, hills and valleys that would maintain a golfer's interest the whole way round. Second, the soil was loosely compacted loess, a fine silt laid down during the Ice Age that would help the course drain and produce firm surfaces that make for fun golf. Third, thanks to the effect of the economic downturn the previous year, golf course construction was virtually at a standstill meaning some of the best shapers and construction experts were available for hire.
Kye Goalby, Brian Cesar and Dan Proctor were the expert shapers that created the beautiful bunkers and contoured the exciting greens, while respected, Portland based general contractor Rexius did all the heavy lifting, built ponds, and laid irrigation pipe.
The result was magnificent, a course that, 13 years later, is firmly established in Washington's three and one whose name would have spread much further than it has if it were located within an hour's drive of a major city.
Despite being 300 miles from the nearest coastline, Wine Valley plays very much like a links course. There are no trees, so your ball is at the mercy of the wind, and the ground is firm so you can pitch your approach shots short of the green and have them roll up to the hole. The mounds, rise and swales can produce some awkward, unexpected bounces so it usually pays to play the ball along the ground rather than in the air. This is the sort of golf you want to play again and again, and many are visitors who come off the 18th green and wonder how soon they can tee it up again on the 1st.
At some point though, you'll need to stop playing golf and enjoy what else the city has to offer. You'll certainly need to visit one or more wineries to visit the tasting rooms or stock up for your own cellar/cooler/garage/fridge at home.
Dylan Gibbard, Director of Sales and Service at Vistit Walla Walla, recommends three wineries within a few minutes' drive of Wine Valley GC - Waterbrook, Reininger and Three Rivers. "Waterbrook is the fourth oldest winery in Walla Walla and the only tasting room with a full on-site kitchen, he says. "Reininger reflects the adventurous spirit of owner/winemaker Chuck Reininger who was the first to use fruit exclusively from Walla Walla. And Three Rivers has beautiful views from its massive patio, and it's a great place to grab some wine on your drive back to town."
When you arrive, you'll need to eat. And again, Gibbard has some suggestions. Thee are handful of really top-notch fine-dining options in town, but Gibbard says Walla Wall Steak Co. is an excellent choise where you'll find the finest certified USDA Prime steaks including The Hatchet - a signature, 34-ounce bone-in rib eye for two. A more casual experience
can be found at Public House 124 which offers premium cocktails and beers as well as wings, burgers, fries and flatbreads. "for more of a pub/sports bar-type atmosphere," says Gibbard, "head to Hop Thief Taphouse where you pour your own drinks from one of 40 rotating taps."
After all that, you might need to put your head down. Stay & Play packages are available at the historic landmark hotel The Marcus Whitman which opened in 1928, or the more familiar Hampton Inn and Courtyard by Marriott which offer tee-times and Veterans Memorial GC and Walla Walla Country Club as well as Wine Valley.
Again, we don't know quite how Walla Walla came to be such a remarkable little town, but it most assuredly is. And far from being some distant, untouchable Shangri-La that's tantalizingly out of reach, it's only four and half hours from Seattle.
The original article is available at Walla Walla Awaits Thanks to Cascade Goler / Varsity Communications for allowing the article to be pushed here.