WALLA WALLA, Wash. – Walla Walla used to be best known for sweet onions and as home of the state penitentiary, where death row inmates once were hanged. But the remote town along the Washington-Oregon border has reinvented itself in the past two decades into a center of premium wines and wine tourism.
In the process, Walla Walla's once boarded-up downtown and quiet social scene have been transformed.
Dozens of wineries and tasting rooms, along with restaurants, bars and boutiques, have sprung up. New hotels are opening to house the thousands of wine aficionados who flock here each year.
"If the wine wasn't as high quality, you wouldn't have this," said Nick Velluzzi, a Walla Walla Community College professor who studies the wine industry. "The linchpin is high quality wine. You can have great restaurants, but if you have flawed wine, it doesn't matter."
Walla Walla had no wineries until the late 1970s. Now there are 120 in the area, and that number is expected to rise. Many are less than 10 years old.
Despite being 270 miles (435 kilometers) from the glitter and wealth of the Seattle area, Walla Walla regularly draws the sort of visitors who will drop $500 for a case of wine, residents said. The vibe in this town of 32,000 isn't as upscale as California's Napa Valley, but it's still pretty posh by eastern Washington standards.
A night at the rehabbed Marcus Whitman Hotel cost more than $150 midweek. Dinner at Saffron, a Mediterranean restaurant, can run about $150 for a couple, including a bottle of the local vintage. The town has about 1,000 hotel rooms, but many people also rent out homes.
The upscale targeting is deliberate.
Walla Walla is not looking for busloads of tourists or wild bachelorette parties, said Muriel Kenyon, whose family owns the Otis Kenyon winery.
"It's a higher-end buyer that is inclined to travel all this way," said Kenyon, who is also president of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, a local promotion group.
Tourists Sarah Golden, 25, of Orange County, California, and Valerie Miranda, 27, of El Paso, Texas, were trying wines at the Goose Ridge tasting room on a recent Wednesday. The two federal employees were on a temporary assignment in nearby Dayton and said they drove to Walla Walla after hearing about the wine industry.
"It's really exciting to come and learn about it," Miranda said.
The pioneering wineries in the valley started off winning major competitions, said Gordy Venneri, co-owner of Walla Walla Vintners, the valley's eighth winery, founded in 1995.
What put Walla Walla on the map was Leonetti Cellar, the region's first winery, which in 1978 was judged by Wine & Spirits magazine to produce the nation's best cabernet sauvignon, he said.
"That created such a frenzy," Venneri said.
But the prison town back then had too few hotels and restaurants to handle the tourists.
"In the early days there was not a decent place to eat in Walla Walla," said Martin Clubb, owner of L'Ecole No. 41, one of the pioneers of Walla Walla wines who opened his business in an old rural schoolhouse in 1983 and has won a slew of awards.
L'Ecole No. 41 is a few miles west of Walla Walla on Highway 12, and receives more than 26,000 visitors a year who pay a fee to taste its wines, Clubb said.
A 2015 report prepared for the state wine industry found Washington in 2013 had 808,000 wine tourists who made a total of 2.1 million winery visits. It did not break down the visitors by region.
But the study concluded Walla Walla was the second-largest destination of wine tourists, after the Seattle area. Spending on hotels in Walla Walla nearly doubled between 2004 and 2014, the report found.
It's difficult to put a number on how many wine tourists come to Walla Walla, at the base of the scenic Blue Mountains, said Heather Unwin, director of the local wine alliance.
What officials can look at is secondary sources such as sales tax revenues, and the increase in hotels and restaurants that indicate the number of visitors is growing, she said.
Velluzzi, the professor, wrote his dissertation on the wine industry's economic impact on Walla Walla.
He estimated the industry has a $300 million annual economic impact on the community, accounting for 20 percent of the economy.
To be sure, the Washington State Penitentiary — known as the "Concrete Mama" — remains the town's largest employer, with a staff of about 1,000. The imposing prison, which dates to 1886, has 2,000 inmates and contains the state's death row. The condemned were hanged here as recently as the 1980s.
Other big employers are private Whitman College and a federal Veterans Affairs hospital. Meanwhile, the area still produces plenty of Walla Walla Sweet Onions, said to be so mild you can eat them like apples.
Many of the wine tourists come from the Seattle and Portland, Oregon, metropolitan areas, plus eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana, said Ashley Riggs, spokeswoman for the wine alliance.
Venneri marvels at the changes since the 1970s.
"Not many people in those days thought it would be the industry it has turned out to be," he said.