What do winegrowers do in winter in Walla Walla?


When Jean-François Pellet, director of winemaking and partner of Pepper Bridge Winery, moved to Walla Walla, Washington, he had a two-year contract and had no intention of staying. Born and raised outside of Geneva, Switzerland, he had been a winemaker in Spain, Switzerland, then Napa Valley, California – and Walla Walla seemed like a brief stopover en route to somewhere else. Then something unexpected happened: he fell in love with the place.

“Here I am, 20 years later,” he laughs. “It’s been a great trip.”

Bluewood is the perfect place to meet up with friends for an epic day of skiing. (Photo: Visit Walla Walla)

First, like any winemaker worthy of the name, he is drawn to the region’s terroir. Walla Walla is in southeast Washington, a 40-minute flight from Seattle or about a four-hour drive from Seattle, Portland, or Boise, at the foot of the Blue Mountains. The heavily forested mountain ridge acts as a rain shadow, so the valley’s loamy soil, deposited in a flood ten or 12 thousand years ago, remains much drier than other parts of the State. The soil is also rich, but not too rich. “It’s perfect for vineyards,” says Pellet. And unlike some regions that are only known for one particular grape variety, the soil of Walla Walla supports exciting diversity. “Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot… We also have a good Sauvignon Blanc,” he says.

Speaking of diversity, the city itself is a charming hamlet built around three colleges – Whitman, Walla Walla University and a large community college – so it’s a hotbed of culture, music and personality. Restaurants, winery tasting rooms, pubs and boutique inns line the historic streets. Pellet’s favorites include Hattaway is on Alder, an upmarket spot that puts a southern twist on local ingredients, and The Green Lantern for a down-to-earth pub with great food. Pellet isn’t a big beer lover, of course, but Burwood Brewing is the place to be for those who are. Whatever your budget or taste, this town has really come into its own, says Pellet. “It reminds me of Europe, and it just keeps getting better.”

Finally, of course, there is skiing, which has become the family pastime of Pellet, his wife and their two children. An hour from downtown Walla Walla, Bluewood is a reminder of the sport’s golden age. The vibe is low-key, weekend lift tickets are $65, kids under six, not to mention parking, are free (yes, free). And the powder? It lasts for days.

That’s part of why the two Pellet kids are still around, creating their own tunes every weekend. (For visitors, midweek is even better — with empty elevator mazes and an adult ticket costing just $55.) They both grew up knocking on doors here, and his daughter now teaches the skiing while she completes her undergraduate degree. They also go ski touring with their dad when the conditions are right. “Skiing at Bluewood is part of their DNA,” says Pellet.

two skiers tearing up the mountain in Walla Walla
An hour from downtown Walla Walla, Bluewood is a reminder of the sport’s golden age. (Photo: Visit Walla Walla)

Like Pellet, Pete Korfiatis, a former U.S. Ski Team coach who now runs Bluewood as general manager, is also a converted Walla Walla, brought here by his native wife. “There’s no pretension here,” he says. “It has a vintage 1979 feel. You can get one of the best burgers for around $10, and everyone takes care of everyone else. The staff know all the little kids running around. Mine included,” he adds with a laugh.

Although Bluewood might look relatively small on the map (about 24 trails), marked trails only make up about 10 percent of the terrain, Korfiatis says. Thick groves of old trees protect fresh snow for days, which seems almost pointless, considering this little pocket is a thunderstorm vortex that produces 300 inches of snow a year. And then there’s the altitude – it’s the second-highest resort in the state – which keeps it as light and dry as cold smoke. “We have epic tree skiing,” says Korfiatis. “It’s the best kept secret. There are terrain drops, twists and turns – it’s an adventure wherever you go. You can spend a whole season here and not come close to skiing everything.

Convinced to visit Walla Walla? Check out comfy and cozy downtown hotels like The Finch, which offers 20% off lift tickets, and Marcus Whitman, which has been a city landmark since 1928. A little north of town , the Eritage Resort is located on a vineyard and has its own restaurant.

Wherever you land, you can’t go wrong, says Pellet. “Everyone here goes out of their way to make sure all of our guests leave with a great experience,” he says. “It’s one city, and we all work together. We are all doing a very good job.

A scenic four-hour drive from Seattle, Portland, or Boise, or a short nonstop flight from Seattle, Walla Walla is home to more than 120 wineries, a nationally acclaimed culinary scene, and diverse arts and entertainment. Nestled next to the Blue Mountains, Walla Walla has easy access to an abundance of outdoor recreation.


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