Do you know Walla Walla, sometimes referred to as “the town so nice they named it twice?” Fortunately I know it, I love it, and thanks to a very generous invitation I was able to spend this past weekend there,
attending the first annual Friends of James Beard weekend.*
The festivities began at the lovely old schoolhouse that is now home to L’Ecole winery, where at least 15 different bottles of wine were placed on each table “family style,” if you grew up in a wine-obsessed family. I took my friend Laura with me, and this is where she learned about dump buckets, as it was impossible to actually drink all of those wines, but imperative to at least taste them all.
Of course there was glorious food to go with all that wine,
prepared by, from right to left, Executive Chef of the Marc restaurant Antonio Campolio, his Executive Sous Chef Erik Johnson, and Chef Dan Thiessen, Director of the Wine Country Culinary Institute. Needless to say, we all left that first dinner in decidedly cheerful spirits.
We then spent three thoroughly enjoyable nights at the historic Marcus Whitman hotel. Here’s owner Kyle Mussman showing us a cool mural depicting not only the hotel but also other scenes from historic Walla Walla life.
The hotel is full of striking details, like the beautiful plaster-work on the ceiling here, made to look like carved wood.
I was lucky enough to spend a night in the cushy Eisenhower Suite. The interior has been completely restored, but President Eisenhower did sleep in this exact spot.
The next day we took a fascinating tour of the Institute for Enology and Viticulture, where director Tim Donahue showed us the ropes, and had us taste some student-made wine, which was surprisingly good.
Then Chef Dan Thiessen showed us around at the culinary program’s kitchen and dining room, where students were busy preparing our lunch.
They do nice work, those students. The wine and culinary programs are very interesting in that they aim to be entirely self-supporting by selling their products, through College Cellars, for the wine, and the culinary program actually runs a food truck from which it can do catering, as well as a student café.
Then Laura and I got a private tour of the stunning Corliss Estates facility,
where winemaker Andrew Trio showed us what winemaking looks like when a winery has all the money in the world, which I think Corliss pretty much does. In addition to the Corliss label, whose wines are indeed very good, they also produce another label, Tranche, with the idea of making an edgier product.
The Tranche bottling line was running while we were there. Tranche was my big surprise of the trip – I’d never heard of it before, and their wines turned out to be some of my favorites of the entire weekend.
Ending the weekend with a bang and a fizz, the chefs prepared a gin and plum sorbet for 120 guests, using liquid nitrogen. It had been scorching in Walla Walla the whole time we were there, averaging about 96°, and I can tell you that a huge vat of liquid nitrogen spilling and fuming onto the floor can really drop the surrounding temperature in a hurry. It made for a very cool finish to a hot weekend, in every sense. It’s a treat to be surrounded by so many dedicated professionals who are truly passionate about what they’re doing, and the delicious products of their efforts.
If you haven’t been to Walla Walla recently, and especially if you’ve never been at all, there couldn’t be a better time. Go, eat, drink, and be merry – it’s the Walla Walla way.
*Full disclosure: my trip was hosted by the charming Kyle Mussman at his beautiful Marcus Whitman hotel.