What happens when the highway moves: Part II. Read Part I.
“I’ve been anticipating this for a long time,” says L’Ecole No. 41’s owner and managing winemaker Marty Clubb.
What Clubb has been anticipating is the Washington State Department of Transportation’s completion in May of the latest phase of improvements to highway U.S. 12. Phase 7 of the 8-phase project moved the main highway to Walla Walla to the north between the communities of Touchet and Lowden. This means that two of Washington’s oldest and most prominent wineries, L’Ecole and Woodward Canyon, are now off the highway.
“The first week or two, there was quite a bit of confusion,” says Jordan Small, general manager and co-owner at Woodward Canyon. “Folks had a harder time finding us.”
Adding to the challenge for Woodward is an address change from West Highway 12 to Old Highway 12. (L’Ecole’s address remains 41 Lowden School Road.) That news came on short notice.
“We didn’t get the change of address letter until about a week ago,” Small says. “Google Maps hasn’t updated. USPS isn’t updated. You can only do so much preparing before it happens.”
For both wineries, the larger concern is any longer-term impact. “I do think that we will get slightly less drop-in traffic here is my guess,” says Clubb. “How significant will that be? I don’t know.”
In 2010, a previous phase of the project moved a number of Walla Walla Valley wineries off the highway. Looking at that change through the lens of time, the picture looks stark.
Three small wineries – Bunchgrass, Skylite, and Glencorrie – have gone out of business, though this could be for reasons unrelated to the highway move. Reininger, along with Cougar Crest and Three Rivers, remain but felt a major impact.
“We saw an immediate, 30% drop in our visits,” says Chuck Reininger, owner and winemaker at Reininger. “It took three to four years to regain that.”
There are reasons to believe the effects on L’Ecole and Woodward will be much less severe.
First, the wineries are extremely well-established. Second, unlike in 2010, GPS is now omni-present, assisting travelers with such changes, and social media helps spread the word. Third, the pandemic shifted winery traffic from mostly drop-in to mostly by-appointment.
Woodward estimates that only 10-15% of its tasting room traffic is currently drop-in. “The majority of people are planning to come visit,” Small says.
L’Ecole has made other recent changes that should cushion any drop-off. In 2021, the winery opened the Heritage by L’Ecole Wine Bar in the Marcus Whitman Hotel in downtown Walla Walla. This year the winery opened a satellite tasting room in Woodinville.
Critically for these two wineries, which are side-by-side, there is a nearby exit on the new highway. “We worked really hard to make an exit right here on Dry Creek, and there is,” Clubb says.
Wineries impacted by the 2010 changes also got an exit. However, that was not part of the original plan.
“We fought like hell to get the Spalding Road exit,” Reininger says. “They said they weren’t going to do it, and that would have been devastating to us. I don’t know if we would actually have survived that.”
The exit ultimately was built. However, there was still a major impact.
“It took a lot out of us and even took a lot more out of the smaller wineries that weren’t so close to Spalding Road,” says Reininger.
At present, both Woodward and L’Ecole are taking steps to ensure their customers know about the change. There is temporary signage on the highway. Permanent signage will ultimately be added. The first major test will come in July, during the valley’s annual Celebrate Walla Walla event.
“There will be a learning curve for customers,” says Small.
The U.S. 12 project first started in 2003 and, when ultimately completed, will increase the number of lanes between Wallula and Walla Walla from two to four. The overall goals of the project, which is a partnership between the state and the U.S. Highway 12 Coalition, are to increase safety, reduce congestion, and improve freight mobility. The final phase will expand lanes in the 10-mile stretch between Boise Inc. and Nine Mile Hill.
Despite the initial confusion and a hazy, long-term impact for Woodward and L’Ecole from the highway move, Small believes there are positives. For one, there is an immediate safety improvement.
“It’s definitely easier to turn back out onto the highway when you’re leaving because it’s not nearly as busy,” she says.
Meanwhile, for people who have long used L’Ecole and Woodward as a milepost on their trip to the valley, the new, four-lane highway has a speed limit of 70 miles per hour. The previous speed limit in Lowden was 40.
“It’s going to really speed up the trip into Walla Walla,” Clubb says.
Image of Dry Creek exit on new highway U.S. 12.