WALLA WALLA, Wash. — We could bop to the live blues music coming from Charles Smith Wines long before we got inside the door. It was loud enough to match the reputation of Walla Walla's "rock star" winemaker.
It was Thursday, the weekly Blues & BBQ night at the sparely decorated downtown tasting room (at 35 S. Spokane St.) run by the flamboyant, big-haired Smith. He managed rock groups in Scandinavia before embarking on a career here that earned him "Winemaker of the Year" recognition from Food & Wine magazine in 2009.
Out front this night: a barbecue truck. Inside: a get-down band, full tables and a lone, dreamy-eyed woman dancing with only a wineglass as her partner.
My wife and I decided to keep looking for a dinner spot. We ended up around the block at Olive, a cafe / deli at 21 E. Main St. with rough brick walls, overstuffed chairs, butternut squash-and-goat cheese pizza, and an earnest young college girl on acoustic guitar trilling a nice cover of "Dancing With Myself" (maybe we should have brought along our friend from Charles Smith?).
It was Olive's weekly guest-winery night, with people queuing up in the back for sips from local Skylite Cellars. A winter weeknight, and the place was packed.
Add the for-sale paintings on the wall and you've got a formula that's catching on big in Walla Walla: great wine, good food, local art and live music.
On my last visit, in 2005, a half-dozen wine-tasting rooms dotted Walla Walla's small city center. Now, close to 30 have elbowed their way into downtown, with more than 120 wineries blanketing the valley, as Walla Walla has earned a reputation as perhaps the most prestigious of Washington's 12 winemaking districts.
"It's a small town, but it has this momentum to it, meaning the wine industry, the culinary (scene), and now a legitimate night scene on weekends," said Andrew Holt, of Tourism Walla Walla.
And there's something for everyone. While young families crowded Olive on Thursday, the next night we may have occupied the only table with a median age below 75 as we joined the 5:30 crowd at Sapolil Cellars, 15 E. Main, to hear silver-haired Carolyn Mildenberger on grand piano. One group of women had the distinct look of a book club.
As the pianist pounded out "Hello, Dolly" with more flourishes than a Vegas wedding march, an impish octogenarian tapped accompaniment with his fingertips on the piano top.
"Isn't she great?" Walla Wallan Louis Valiante, 89, asked us as he returned to his table. "I have a date with my wife here every Friday night!"
Sunday afternoon, we were sipping ice wine — "we call that 'apple pie in a bottle,'" the pourer quipped — at a table fashioned from a wine barrel in the Walla Faces tasting room, 214 E. Main. Up front, jazzmen Wayman Chapman and Jimmy Holden crooned "Just My Imagination."
There, we met Candice Johnson, the prolific artist who paints the whimsical faces seen on the winery's labels and on the walls of its tasting room and two inns.
"Music is really happening in Walla Walla," she told us, adding that some locals used to call the town "Walley World" — a
takeoff — because it was so wholesome. And quiet.
Wholesome, maybe still. Not so quiet anymore.
IF YOU GO:
Find a calendar of events, including nightly music at Walla Walla wine-tasting rooms, from Tourism Walla Walla: http://www.wallawalla.org.
Visit the visitor information office at 26 E. Main St.
More events at
, including a printable "Wine and Dine" guide.
Walla Faces winery sponsors a concert by Grammy-winning guitarist Peter Frampton March 24 at Whitman College. See http://www.wallafaces.com.
Find wineries, or sort by favorite types of wine, with a free app from the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance: http://www.wallawalla.mobilewinetour.com.