Walla Walla Pedicab — Pedicabs

Walla Walla Pedicab

Jennifer Margulis/Special to The OregonianOne of the most-respected winemakers in the Walla Walla Valley Appellation, Cayuse's Christophe Baron is known as the "Rock Star" because of the rocky soil in his biodynamic vineyards.

Walla Walla is a city of more than 31, 000 inhabitants with a name that's fun to say. It's also enjoying a lot of buzz, and not because of the name (which means "place of many rivers" in the Sahaptin family of Native American languages).

With its wines, especially its signature syrah, winning awards and high marks in magazines, and new restaurants opening, tourists are flocking to Walla Walla to see how this region - once known mainly for its sweet onions, wheat fields and Green Giant pea-packing plant - has transformed itself into a wine and food destination.

The drive from Portland through the gorge is, well, gorgeous: The wide Columbia River is on your left as you pass cliffs with cascading water, lush green hills and towering Douglas fir, alder and cottonwood trees. After The Dalles, the green backdrop gives way to a drier, more desolate, starkly beautiful landscape of sagebrush and rock.

After driving into Washington, a fruity sign less than 20 minutes from Walla Walla announces "Welcome to Wine Country, " and you know you're near.

If you're expecting a dinky town with a few small vineyards and a tasting room here and there, as I was, you're in for a surprise. This is a city that lives and breathes wine, and it's no exaggeration to say there are tasting rooms on every corner (I counted five in one block) nestled alongside cafes, clothing stores and fancy gourmet food markets.

Then there are the vineyards: More than 85 wineries operate on over 1, 400 acres. It seems mind-boggling, but the Washington Wine Commission estimates that a new winery opens in this state every 14 days.

First, hit the deli

The first thing you need if you want to spend the day touring Walla Walla vineyards is to grab a high-protein, high-calorie picnic lunch (and designate a driver). My friend Sue, who's a wine connoisseur, and I get our jumbo cheese and veggie sandwiches on homemade whole-grain bread, a hunk of salami and some Italian sodas from Merchants Delicatessen (21 East Main St.; 509-525-0900, merchantsdeli.com).

Who says 10 a.m. is too early to drink syrah? Our first stop is Bergevin Lane (1215 W. Poplar St.; 509-526-4300, bergevinlane.com), just a few minutes outside downtown.

I've never had a Walla Walla syrah, and these are incredible: The 2007 Princess Syrah has an elegant earthy flavor and the 2005 syrah a big, rich black-pepper taste. The less expensive, everyday wines, including a $16-per-bottle Calico White, are crisp and aromatic and a little too drinkable.

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