There are only so many occasions on which a responsible adult can justify consuming alcohol and food nonstop for an entire week. Turning 40 is one of them.
Such a fate befell my wife, Cary, last August, and so, in a celebratory mood, we set out on a five-hour drive from our home in Seattle to the state’s wine capital, Walla Walla in Washington’s southeastern corner, which can aptly be described as Napa in bluejeans.
Thirty years ago, only the denim part of that description would have applied. In the region, an agricultural powerhouse, it hadn’t yet dawned on farmers to grow grapes.
“Back in the ’80s, downtown was dying — truly falling apart,” said Mike Spring, a former fire chief who owns a brewpub, Chief Springs Fire and Irons Brewpub, in nearby Dayton. “The wine industry has brought Walla Walla back to life.”
Indeed, thanks to fine restaurants like Saffron and Whitehouse-Crawford, as well as charmingly off-kilter wineries such as Charles Smith and Sleight of Hand, Walla Walla has become a destination for gastronomes and oenophiles alike. But as a local brewer, Court Ruppenthal, puts it, “People drink wine all day and say, ‘Now what I really need is a beer.’ ” For that, pulled-pork pizza, hush puppies and an unexpected dollop of top-notch French cuisine, the Touchet Valley towns of Waitsburg and Dayton beckon.
With the Blue Mountains in the distance, my wife and I pointed our Mercury toward the northeast along a curvy 20-mile stretch of Highway 12, past grain silos, a rural schoolhouse, seemingly endless golden hills of wheat and a famous local camel named Izzy.
“The drive is like the Disney country drive,” said the local restaurateur and mixologist Jim German. “You have these vistas into the mountains in between these rolling hills. It reminds me of the Sabine Hills outside of Rome.”
We soon arrived in Waitsburg, a Rockwellian town of some 1,200 citizens at the eastern edge of Walla Walla County. The area’s wine boom — Walla Walla is home to more than 130 wineries — didn’t make it this far, but Mr. German, a Seattle expat, did. In 2007 he and his wife, Clare Johnston, opened jimgermanbar, a now-defunct hybrid art gallery-cocktail lounge, in an old brick building they’d purchased on Waitsburg’s sleepy Main Street. The establishment offered a dose of urban cool to a place described by Jim McGuinn, owner of the gloriously overstuffed Walla Walla record store Hot Poop, as “two weeks from everywhere, somewhere between Mayberry and ‘Happy Days.’ ”
Mr. German closed his bar last summer, lured by the opportunity to revamp and reopen a beloved Italian diner, the Pastime, in downtown Walla Walla (the new joint will be called passatempo, or pastime in Italian).
But across the street from their old establishment, the spacious, down-home Whoopemup Hollow Cafe chugs on, its golf-ball-shaped hush puppies and upscale-Dixie aesthetic attracting loyalists from an hour in every direction. Run by Ross Stevenson and Leroy Cunningham, a couple who moved to the area from Seattle, the restaurant has enjoyed an unlikely decade-long embrace from a mostly conservative local clientele.
“I guess we’re pretty lucky, considering we’re in a town of 1,200 people,” said Mr. Stevenson of his ability to stay afloat on the quaint commercial strip. He and Mr. Cunningham will soon open a second Whoopemup in downtown Walla Walla. Living in Waitsburg, Mr. Stevenson said, “is definitely not for everyone.”
“These smaller towns are boom and bust, he added. “ We’ve seen plenty of businesses come and go in Waitsburg since we’ve been here.”
Court Ruppenthal’s brewery, Laht Neppur (his surname spelled backward), is one that’s managed to stick it out. After graduating from the wine program at Walla Walla Community College, Mr. Ruppenthal intended to open a winery but figured out pretty quickly that there were enough of those around. The best $28 he ever spent, he said, was to commission a sign that read, “Caution: Brewery Ahead,” which he credits with being the primary magnet for newfound clientele (the sign recently went missing). “Just a piece of plywood affixed to a telephone pole,” he said of the sign. “It’s a farm community; it’s all like that.”
Mr. Ruppenthal’s wife, Katie, is the face of Laht Neppur’s operation, while Court is the mad scientist, whipping up wildly adventurous beers like a jalapeño-infused peach IPA and strawberry cream ale. The brewpub itself adheres to the plywood-on-a-pole aesthetic; ivory-colored and unassuming, it could be mistaken for a package-liquor store on the West Texas plains, with a gravelly, tin-roof courtyard punctuating the shopworn vibe.
We ordered pitchers and pizza that we expected to be of the Red Baron variety. Instead, what we got was a pulled pork, Walla Walla sweet onion and barbecue sauce pie that worked against all odds.
Some 10 miles farther down Highway 12 is the Columbia County seat, Dayton (population, 2,500). With a main boulevard wide enough to host an Old West gunfight, the municipality’s economic heart stopped in 2005 when the Green Giant cannery moved to Peru. For decades, the company’s cartoonish Hulk-meets-Tarzan icon was carved into a hillside. It has faded considerably now, replaced by the cheese-yielding goatherd of Monteillet Fromagerie, which produces small-batch chèvre and brebis with a Francophile’s flair.
Dayton, which this Memorial Day will host its annual Mule Mania competition to crown the region’s most deft jackass jockeys, is about the last place you’d expect to locate four-star French cuisine. But it’s persevered unflinchingly since 1978, which is when Bruce and Heather Hiebert opened Patit Creek Restaurant at the edge of town.
The Hieberts, as Ms. Hiebert recounts, met at a “chicken-noodle soup and wine party” while attending Walla Walla Community College — she for nursing, he for culinary arts. “The wines were just jug wines,” she recalled. Walla Walla’s days as a top wine-producing region were a way off, but its agricultural aptitude could be found in the soup, as the chicken was freshly slaughtered on a fellow reveler’s farm.
Upon graduating, Mr. Hiebert took a job cooking at a Walla Walla restaurant, while Ms. Hiebert worked for the health department. Eventually, the couple was asked by a real estate agent, “You want to buy a restaurant?” The property was 30 miles away in Dayton. Undaunted, they took the plunge.
The restaurant’s décor — dark wood paneling and photos of Old Hollywood stars — has remained as frozen as its air-conditioning. (Bring a sweater, even if it’s 100 degrees outside.) The menu has, too, despite the Hieberts’ occasional flirtations with progress.
“Some dishes have never left the menu — chicken Florentine, the mushroom caps; Bruce always makes tomato bisque on Wednesdays,” said Ms. Hiebert, who’s become an accomplished pastry chef. “We once tried to change our menu seasonally, but there were so many outraged customers that we decided to just keep the favorites on the menu and do specials. People like what Bruce does — those big, goopy, French-style sauces, which are completely out of date. You try something light and they go, ‘Geez!’ ”
Yet despite her regulars’ stubborn palates and the commercial aftershocks of the cannery’s closure, Ms. Hiebert is bullish on the region’s evolution.
“It’s gone from cowboy to really nice places to eat and wineries and breweries,” she said. “I still have old farmers saying they like it like it used to be, but they’re forgetting how it was.”
People in their 40s have been known to express a similarly nostalgic affinity for their roaring 20s. Yet with our spirits high but hardly dry after a week in the wheat, my wife and I now know better.
IF YOU GO
Where to Drink Wine
For optimal local flavor, try the southside four-step of Gifford Hirlinger (1450 Stateline Road, Walla Walla; giffordhirlinger.com),Balboa (4169 Peppers Bridge Road, Walla Walla; balboawinery.com),Beresan (4169 Peppers Bridge Road, Walla Walla; beresanwines.com) and Sleight of Hand (1959 JB George Road, Walla Walla; sofhcellars.com).
Gifford Hirlinger occupies an ultramodern warehouse on the border of Washington and Oregon. It is laid back and family run, and the person pouring your wine is likely to have made it as well. Nearby, Balboa and Beresan serve up chewy reds from retrofitted barns in a shared parking lot, while across the street, Sleight of Hand — with its Pearl Jam posters, vinyl albums that customers may play and Neil Patrick Harris gracing its bottles in magician’s garb — offers a unique tasting experience.
If winter weather is not your thing,Spring Release Weekend, May 6 to 8 (wallawallawine.com/spring-release-weekend) is an optimal time to sample winemakers’ freshest fare.
Where to Drink Something Other Than Wine
Laht Neppur (444 Preston Avenue, Waitsburg; lahtneppur.com) is a Highway 12 microbrewery with adventurous beers and pizza served on picnic tables. A large pizza and a pitcher of brew is about $40.
House-produced pizza and beer can also be found at Chief Springs Fire and Irons Brew Pub in Dayton (148 East Main; fireandironsbrewpub.com; about $30 for a large pizza and a couple of pints of beer), while Tuxedo Bar and Grill (105 South D Street; 509-849-2244) in tiny Prescott serves 99-cent margaritas every Wednesday.
Where to Eat
Ross Stevenson’s hush puppies and southern cuisine are the stars at Whoopemup Hollow Cafe (120 Main Street; whoopemuphollowcafe.com; entrees $20 to $28, hush puppies $8), while Dayton’s Patit Creek Restaurant (725 East Dayton Avenue, 509-382-2625; entrees $23 to $42) has been a destination for fans of classic French food since 1978.
Where to Stay
Walla Walla’s elite Whitman College is named for the local pioneer Marcus Whitman, as is the stunning Marcus Whitman Hotel (6 West Rose Street; marcuswhitmanhotel1.tru-m.com; rooms $114 to $224 per night), which, after falling into disrepair in the late 20th century, recaptured its historic opulence upon reopening in 2001.
In neighboring Columbia County, the Weinhard Hotel (235 East Main Street; weinhard.com; $125 to $180 per night) brings Victorian charm to downtown Dayton, while Bluewood Ski Resort (bluewood.com) lures snow bunnies to the majestic hills nearby.