By Liza B. Zimmerman
One of wine country’s most isolated destinations is now home to a major wine retailer and wine bar. The small town of Walla Walla, located on the far side of Eastern Washington, has long been a far-flung hamlet of 30,000 residents. It takes four to five fours to drive there from Portland or Seattle. The small airport just accepts puddle-jumpers coming over from Sea-Tac, Seattle’s main airport.
While parking may be free at the local airport, it remains difficult for some visitors to sort out how to arrive here. That has long been one of the region’s both challenges and benefits. It is actually one of the best, and most real, wine regions simply because visitors have to go through hurdles to get there.
However one of the area’s wine-style evolution limitations has long been the fact that local producers and executives don’t have access to the wines of the world, to taste and benchmark them relative to what they are producing. When a close friend of mine—who grew up in Walla Walla—moved back to this town 15 years ago from New York she was shocked about the lack of international wines available in this vibrant, yet rural, town.
A New Store Changes the Game
The Thief, a new 4,000-square-foot wine shop located right in downtown Walla Walla, has changed up that mix. Emily Riley, a restaurant executive who hails from Portland and managed local restaurants such as Whitehouse Crawford—the town’s first fine-dining destination—and Passatempo, a restaurant with a cocktail-focused bar, decided to change up that mix and it has already done wonders for the town.
Riley noted that the new shop currently carries, “approximately 500-plus different labels of wine from producers all over the world: France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Greece, Czech Republic, Greece and the U.S.” She added that, “The selection is constantly changing. We offer eight wines by the glass on a daily basis.”
In addition, “We have a diverse beer, cider, sake and vermouth/bitters selection as well. Countries represented include Belgium, Germany, France, Ireland, England, Denmark, Canada, Scotland, Japan, Spain and the U.S. We currently have approximately 200 to choose from.”
The store is even home to wines from even lesser-known countries such as Turkey and Lebanon. “She also touched on the fact that the store has plans to launch a wine club to promote both local Walla Walla wines along with esoteric choices.”
Riley has held a number of tastings in the store, featuring everything from rosé wine to sparkling wines from around the world. “Beginning this month, we will be featuring a blind tasting series on Monday evenings at the shop – our somm-trained staff will help lead people through the process of learning how to blind taste and help answer questions,” she added.
“We will be launching our website and wine clubs by the end of this month.” This may well be a great way to disseminate the fabulous local wines while encouraging support of esoteric British sparkling wines and less-known Barbarescos from Piedmonte.
What You can Find at the Feith
Riley and her partners have rented an enormous space on Main Street. They do glass pours, wine-by-the-bottle sales and allow guests to bring food in or snack on their antipasti boxes. These are supplied by the TMac restaurant across the street.
Locals love that they can grab a pizza and duck in for a lovely glass of wine, shared Kelly Menozzi, one of the owners of local producer wine producer Aluve. The presence of The Thief is upping the ante in a major way on the wine scene by allowing wine-focused focused consumers and producers to benchmark what they are making against international wine-production standards.
Walla Walla has long been known for a diversity of Syrahs—some of which are modeled on the Rhône Valley’s style—as well as different styles of Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots. The region is also making fanatic white, Rhône blends.
Whereas residents and local wine producers have long had to join wine clubs and drive to the Portland or Seattle, the game has all changed with the opening of The Thief.
Riley is a consummate collector of the odd and obscure in terms of wine. She adores older Barbarescos from producers such as Produttori—one on the best collective wine making operations in the world or in Italy. She also serves British sparkling wine. I had my first glass of one— Digby Fine English NV Brut— and really enjoyed it. She is also obsessed with odd labels and wines from areas such as Val d’Aosta in the far north of Italy near Switzerland.
What the Future Holds
Residents and tourists at this point don’t quite know what to make of the tasting space. Many were squinting while looking in the window. The Thief is one of the largest retail spaces in downtown Walla Walla and it is not always clear what is inside to those glancing in from the streets.
No doubt that Riley and her partners will sort this out. And hopefully everyone in the community will support them. The handful of producers I encountered at the farmers’ market the day after I visited the shop where all heading over there to taste and purchase.
She is also debating offering temperature-controlled local storage for local collectors. So there’s no doubt that Ms. Riley has plenty of plans on how to change up the local wine palate and selection.