Walla Walla Ooh La La!

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walla walla

BY ABRA BENNETT
PHOTOS BY SHEL HALL

 

Yearning for a taste of France minus the ten hour flight and the expensive air fare? “It’s Walla Walla!” chorus a trio of French winemakers, all of whom live and make wine in the adorably-named town. Want to treat yourself to what a visiting French friend described as “the best croissant I’ve had since I was a child?” That too is in Walla Walla. Farmstead sheep and goat cheese, exotic chocolates, charming French people, a town square with live music and hot weather all summer long, and plenty of local wine, all make for a heady, near-France experience right in our own state.

Walla Walla and France, they have a history together. Way back in 1824, Walla Walla had a Frenchtown. Granted, it was settled by French Canadians, but they had been French until quite recently, when they fled the French Revolution for Canada’s welcoming shore. French people have been coming to the Walla Walla area for nearly 200 years, and lots of them have stayed. More recently, and famously, there’s been a wave of young French winemakers adding to the area’s French je ne sais quoi.

Every story about Walla Walla these days seems to begin with the wine. So, for a change, let’s start at the beginning, with that perfect croissant, just as you would every morning if you were there.

A couple of blocks off Walla Walla’s Main Street, you’ll find the Colville Street Patisserie, where owners David Christensen and Tiffany Cain produce not only stellar morning treats but also little pastry art works and beautiful cakes, much like those you’d find in any pastry shop in France. “The irony is that we’ve never been to France at all” admits Tiffany with a giggle. Nonetheless, David says “Half the stuff we make is straight out of the French repertoire.” In a locavore spirit that any French baker would appreciate, they buy honey (for many pastries) and beeswax (for cannelés) from a local beekeeper, and use milk and flour from local producers. In an effort to use local fruit as much as possible, last year they posted a message on Facebook asking for people to bring in rhubarb from their gardens in exchange for bakery credit. The outreach netted them a whopping 600 pounds of rhubarb, which they were then forced to use in every conceivable way, including making rhubarb gelato.

The bakery’s seating area is packed, but everyone’s speaking English. Do the French people in town frequent the patisserie? “Yeah, sure” says David, “but my best French customer always comes in for a cinnamon bun!”

That was my first clue. I’d been admiring the French influences on Walla Walla, but if the French were eating all-American cinnamon buns, maybe I had it backwards. Maybe it’s Walla Walla that’s influencing the French.

After a breakfast of buttery, shattering croissants, you probably want something creamy, salty, intriguing for lunch, something for picnicking by the roadside, as you might do in France. A twenty minute drive through rolling wheat fields takes you to the Monteillet Fromagerie where Joan and Pierre-Louis Monteillet preside over their baa-ing kingdom: 32 acres of farmland on the Touchet River, with flocks of sheep and goats, their partners in cheesemaking.

Pierre-Louis was born in Millau, France, not far from Roquefort, so cheese is in his blood. Joan began as a wheat farmer, like her parents, but decided to get out of the business when the specter of Monsanto loomed on the horizon.  “We just wanted to make cheese,” she says “but we had no idea about animal husbandry. Look at these girls,” she says, sweeping her hand across the view of her peacefully munching flocks, “they give us everything they have.” Pierre-Louis and Joan turned to friends in France for lessons in cheesemaking and caring for animals, and never looked back. They now make fourteen varieties of sheep and goat’s milk cheese ranging from fresh chèvre and ricotta through soft-ripened and aged cheeses, with names like La Reine Blanche, Majean, Causse Noir, and La Fleur du Midi.

Monteillet’s American touch?  Pierre-Louis says “Our cheeses are a blend of two thirds goat milk and one third sheep milk and are named for the areas around my home in Millau. There they don’t blend the milk, it’s mostly sheep cheese. Here the main feed is local alfalfa, but in France they have those vast common grazing grounds, that’s not in the tradition here, since the land is in wheat.” Also, Monteillet cheeses are pasteurized, not the norm in France where soft raw milk cheeses are prized. He emphasizes that it’s the aging of their cheeses that make them so special, even without the famed cheese caves of his native France.

Ready for a little chocolate? Head on down to nearby Milton-Freewater, where Lan Wong and James Boulanger have their boutique chocolate shop Petits Noirs. Lan was born in France but lived there only until the age of four. Returning to her birthplace after college graduation, intending to study art and design, she was quickly seduced by Paris’ pastry and chocolate shops. Back in the US, following a grueling three months spent visiting every single chocolate shop in New York, and an apprenticeship in chocolate making, Lan and her partner James, an American artisan baker whose last name literally means “baker” in French, launched Petits Noirs.

Their emphasis is on working with winemakers to craft chocolates that complement their wines. For example, when Virginie Bourgue of Lullaby Winery brought her haunting rosé to Petits Noirs in search of the perfect pairing, they created a jasmine-infused white chocolate truffle topped with crushed roasted pistachios. James says “Some people have notes that they want to bring out in their wine, like if the wine is floral, we might offer them a violet truffle, if there’s a lot of tannin, salt in the truffle will complement it. Fresh fig is one of our most wine-friendly truffles.” Lan adds “normally we don’t do white chocolate, but for that particular wine we thought it would be really great, and it was just beautiful as a pairing.” Although their creations generally start with French chocolate, Lan explains that “Our chocolate is not too sweet, dark but not intensely so, we make it for American tastes but based on French style.”  Once again, there’s a little clash, then a co-mingling, of the old country with the new.

When you’re ready for dinner, Walla Walla even boasts a French restaurant, Brasserie Four. Chef/owner Hannah MacDonald grew up in Walla Walla but “went straight to Paris after high school graduation.” Learning French cuisine from the family with whom she lived for a year while attending college, she now proclaims “French culture is in my soul, French cooking is all that I know.” Serving classic French dishes, but in decidedly American-sized portions, Hannah exults in the fact that “All of the French winemakers eat here, they come in to have a dish that brings them back to their culture, like cassoulet, or roasted marrow bones.” Brasserie Four also offers an enviable collection of cheeses and astute wine pairings.

Furthering the image of Walla Walla as a food and wine heaven, there are also the award-winning Center for Enology and Viticulture, and the Wine Country Culinary Institute. Chef Dan Thiessen, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who was formerly chef at several well-regarded Seattle restaurants, now directs the culinary program. “We spend an entire quarter talking about the French mother sauces, those are the foundations of cooking that we still continue to teach, what guys like Escoffier developed for the culinary profession” he says. “A lot of our training is fundamentally built on French tradition.”

Like Thiessen, a lot of people with serious credentials have made their way to Walla Walla. Marie-Eve Gilla of Forgeron Cellars got her Master’s in winemaking in Dijon, Virginie Bourgue  of Lullaby Winery got hers in Champagne. Gilles Nicault of Long Shadows Wineries got his viticulture degree in Avignon, and Serge Laville of Spring Valley Vineyard was taught about wine as a child by his grandfather and later apprenticed his way into expertise. They’re all making wine in Walla Walla now, along with several other French winemakers, including Christophe Baron of Cayuse VIneyards, who comes from a centuries-old Champagne-producing family and whose wines are so appreciated that only subscribers can buy them (there’s a waiting list to subscribe).

Duane Wollmuth, Executive Director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, credits Baron for the flowering of the local wine industry, saying “Christophe Baron was the first to locate his vineyards in the rocks, and that has had a significant influence on winemaking in the area.” The Walla Walla economy owes a lot to the wine business, and the wine business owes a lot to the area’s rocky terroir, which was first identified and appreciated by a French winemaker.

If you’ve drunk Walla Walla wines you know they have a distinct style, and it’s big, bold, some might even say brash, definitely not a French style. But why not, I wondered, given all the French influence? “The grapes grown here and the climate and the soil are not the same as in France, and it’s fair to capture and showcase that,” says Virginie. Gilles adds “A lot of the French winemakers have been here for quite a long time, so we definitely have a touch of the New World…. When you take a bottle of American wine to France the French people say `Wow, that’s so alcoholic, it’s outrageous!` And when you bring a French wine to the US it seems maybe a little thin, maybe a little acidic.”

Marie-Eve picks up the theme “Our wines here are Americanized, they’re just bigger.” She adds “Here you have to make those really big, really extracted, really powerful, really oaky, wines to be considered serious and successful.”

Explaining why American wines can be so huge and overpowering in comparison to French wines, one French winemaker, under cloak of anonymity, dares to say “Americans were raised on Coca Cola, so they need something they can really taste.” Ouch. Or should I say aïe aïe?

Serge sums it up diplomatically. “I think people here with more wine education are starting to appreciate more European-style wines….but what people here like in general is more on the ripe side. It’s our job not to make the wines too big, not too overwhelming, not too sweet, not too oaky.” And he cautions, “as a French winemaker making American wine you have to be careful to balance both worlds.”

“We French are so comfortable here” says Gilles. “It reminds us of Europe” adds Marie-Eve. “When I left for Paris I never, ever thought I’d be back. But I’m so happy now to have my restaurant in Walla Walla” says Hannah MacDonald. “Hopefully someday we’ll be able to go to France” says Tiffany Cain, wistfully.

And so, influence turns out to be a two-way street. Walla Walla may be French-inflected, with a joie de vivre that you can feel as you walk through its lovely downtown, but its European flair is definitely American-influenced. Don’t expect the breathtakingly beautiful drive across the Vantage Bridge and down the Columbia River to take you to Paris. But don’t dismiss Walla Walla as a dusty wheat town in a far-off corner of the state, either. There’s cosmopolitan food and wine, cool well-preserved old buildings, and a lot of people who are passionate about what they’re doing and who are bringing the best of the old world into the new. It all adds up to an unexpected level of sophistication with, ooh la la, that delicious French touch.

Abra Bennett has divided her time between France and Bainbridge Island for the past several years and loves French wine and cuisine. Her blog French Letters, about her adventures in both places, is frenchletters.wordpress.com.
Sidebar: Walla Walla Visitor Information

 

***Walla Walla Farmers Market Saturday-Sunday, 9am-1pm, May-October
4th and Main St. www.gowallawallafarmersmarket.com

***Colville Street Patisserie 7 days a week starting at 9am; closing hours vary by day.
40 S Colville St, www.colvillestreetpatisserie.com

***Monteillet Fromagerie Friday-Saturday, noon-5pm, or by appointment.
109 Ward Rd, Dayton, www.monteilletcheese.com

***Petits Noirs Thursday-Sunday, 11am-5pm, or by appointment.
622 S Main St, Milton Freewater

***Brasserie Four Tuesday-Thursday noon-9pm; Friday-Saturday noon-10pm.
4 E Main St, www.brasseriefour.com

***Wineries
The Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance has developed a smart phone app that lets you search by varietal and by day, for example, if you want to taste syrah on a Sunday, it will tell you exactly which wineries are open and their hours. www.wallawallawine.com/mobilewinetour

***Lodging
If you want a lovely apartment with a kitchen right in downtown Walla Walla try the Walla Faces Inn. www.wallafaces.com/historic_downtown
Hotel accommodations can be found at the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel. www.marcuswhitmanhotel.com

***Dining
For a splendid and fancy dinner try The Marc, in the Marcus Whitman Hotel. Excellent sandwiches are to be had at Graze, 5 S Colville St. For good hole-in-the-wall Mexican food it’s Taqueria Yungapeti, 320 S 9th Ave.

***Shopping
For a gigantic, mostly vegetarian supermarket just minutes from downtown Walla Walla, go to Andy’s.
1117 S College Ave, College Place

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