Tumbleweeds somersault across the highway headed into little Walla Walla, Wash. The air is tangy, scented with sagebrush. Vistas seem endless, empty of people, with rolling hills that heave up in great earthen bosoms.

At a roadside pullout I find a sign warning: "Watch out for rattlesnakes." I half expect John Wayne to stroll out from behind it.

It looks like the Wild West out here in Walla Walla, like the kind of place where slow-talking menfolk in dusty ten-gallon hats drink whiskey, not some fancy fermented fruit drink served in high-falutin' crystal glasses with skinny stems.

But lucky travelers who belly up to a tasting-room counter in one of the Walla Walla Valley's small, artisan wineries are likely to get their socks knocked off, along with the Tony Lama boots they walked in with.

Grapes are growing in these dry lands of southeast Washington -- Vitus vinifera, fine European wine grapes -- and there's a posse of pioneering vintners making them sing. Their silky-throated merlots, sexy syrahs and operatic, oakey cabernets are seducing connoisseurs who describe Walla Walla as the next great American region for premium wines.

Vintners here aim high. "For some reason, people who are really passionate about quality have gravitated toward Walla Walla," says Wine Spectator editor-at-large Harvey Steiman. He has consistently rated the area's wines among the top in Washington, which has grown into the second-largest wine-producing state in the nation, after California.

Where fine winemakers gravitate, so gather wine lovers. Some, like me, are enthusiasts, eager to learn about the "ginger" and "candy apple" layers of the whites, the "blackberry" and "blood" of the local reds. Some are hard-core oenophiles with notebooks and personal spitting cups (sorry, buckaroos, these are for wine, not chaw). Drawn by the cachet of labels like Leonetti, Dunham and L'Ecole No. 41, they stroll streets where local talk centers on farming, livestock and weather and discuss nose, bouquet and palate feel.

Suddenly, Walla Walla is chichi -- the toniest tumbleweed town on the undulating horizon. "Walla Walla is cutting-edge Washington. It's definitely what people are talking about," says Doug Charles, owner of Compass Wines in the sea town of Anacortes, Wash. Charles collected cases of early local vintages before they became big-buck investments. People now trade them like stocks, he says.

The buzz is on. Small, high-demand wineries are selling out of every case and posting "sorry" signs on doors. Some have developed such cult status that they have waiting lists to get on waiting lists for mailing lists. Locals tell stories of divorce lawyers fighting in court to decide which spouse stays on that list. Those who make the cut flock in when new bottlings are released in fall -- a few arriving in private jets at the small Walla Walla Regional Airport terminal.

It's enough to crank up a good, coiled sneer on a leathery farmhand's face. But that smirk may fade. Even old-time clod-pickers are converting from alfalfa to vines. In an outback where wineries seem to pop up like prairie dogs, they know which way the wind blows.

The Anti-Napa In less than a decade, the number of Washington state wineries has increased more than 300 percent, from 80 to more than 208. By 1990, the 303,500-acre Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area counted six wineries. By 2000, there were 22. At last count there were more than 40.

That's good news for travelers, who may feel like pioneers as they mosey from winery to winery, exploring an up-and-coming wine country that is still largely undiscovered, untamed and untrampled by the masses. This is not Napa Valley, not Sonoma. Not even close.

"Folks in Sonoma like to compare themselves to Napa. They say they are the casual version of Napa, that they are the 'dirt kickers,' " says Steiman. "But those guys have their noses in the air. The real dirt kickers are in Walla Walla. They're out there, removed from everything, building something from scratch."

Insiders compare visiting Walla Walla to visiting Napa in its early days. Out here, wineries are an easy couple-dozen miles apart, with lots of wide-open vistas between. Except for special events, tastings are still free -- whether it's a $15 table red or a new $60 release.

There are no parking lots full of exhaust-belching buses, no organized limo tours, no wine trains, no hyped-up discount weekend packages and no Napa Valley-style traffic jams to sour the stomach between winery stops.

Truth is, there are no official organized wine tours at all. Visitors typically drive 275 miles southeast from Seattle or 235 miles east from Portland, Ore. Or they fly directly into the Walla Walla airport, rent a car and make it up as they go along, using maps passed out at the wineries.

Often as not, they find the winemakers themselves behind the counter pouring favorites, telling their stories, explaining geological intricacies of the Ice Age soils, or giving directions to a neighbor's vineyard, a real-deal Mexican restaurant, an unusual gallery exhibit or the new, cool Grapefields Wine Bar and Cafe in the gussied-up historic district downtown.

"Everyone is so friendly," says Connie LaMear, a wine collector who drove over a mountain pass and windswept plains from Seattle with her husband. "We went to Canoe Ridge and the winemaker was right there. He said, 'Hey, come on back.' He gave us a barrel tasting, right out of the clear blue.

"That's the environment. Everyone wants you to come in. They want you to be a part of it."

Drinking Buddies This free-range amiability continues behind closed doors. In an industry that can be brutally competitive, Walla Walla winemakers treasure their camaraderie. They swap ideas, collaborate on events, visit distributors as a team, wine and dine together in their spare time, and vie to produce the most interesting wine in the valley. "The winemakers here are dreamers, and sensualists," says Myles Anderson, co-founder of Walla Walla Vintners and director of the community college's two-year-old Walla Walla Wine Institute, which teaches students how to plant and manage a premier vineyard.

Not that folks here pay much mind to schooling. Self-taught vintners, some of whom now teach at the institute, are the foundation of Walla Walla's new-wave winemaking. Gary Figgins, machinist and home winemaker, set the stage in 1977 when he and his wife, Nancy, started Leonetti winery in a tack shed for horses. His buddy Rick Small was next, turning pro with Woodward Canyon winery in 1981.

Over the next two decades, people from all walks of life were swept up in the romance of producing hand-crafted specialty wine. Larry Krivoshein, who founded Russell Creek winery, is a retired funeral home director known to his wine buddies as "Digger." Casey McClellan, winemaker at Seven Hills Winery, is one of three local pharmacists who took on the grape. "It's like a second career for half the valley," says McClellan, who is still on call at the local hospital.

These winemakers love to innovate and, apparently, renovate. They have transformed dairy barns, farmhouses, shoeshine shops, World War II airplane hangars and charred old trolley stations into wineries. L'Ecole No. 41 pours its noted merlots inside the second/third-grade classroom of a handsome 1915 schoolhouse, with prices written on blackboards in chalk. Seven Hills shares a beautifully restored 1904 wood planing mill with the Whitehouse-Crawford restaurant, a first-class, two-year-old establishment that has already scored Northwest awards.

Whitehouse-Crawford is a sign of the times in this pretty little college town, where grand leafy trees shade turn-of-the-century mansions with Gothic gables, Tuscan columns and wraparound porches -- some transformed into charming, antique-filled B&Bs.

Whitehouse-Crawford owner Carl Schmitt imported a top Seattle chef who designs uptown meals honoring down-home goods: locally grown apples, homemade chorizo, bass in a L'Ecole No. 41 chenin blanc sauce, port-soaked figs that a local farmer brings in by the bucketful. The atmosphere is elegant: cool jazz in the background, orchids on the table, exposed bricks and beams and a beautiful old fir floor made from the mill's original joists.

The wine, Walla Walla's finest, is served decanted. "The wine industry needed us as much as we needed them," says Schmitt, a former banker who admits, with a chuckle, that he never made the mistake of making a loan to a restaurant during his career. "They're too high-risk."

If the wine industry needed a high-end restaurant, it also needed a first-rate hotel. Some $25 million went into transforming the 1928 Marcus Whitman Hotel, named for a missionary killed here during a Cayuse Indian uprising in 1847, from a sad-sack flophouse with a bad-news bar into a richly appointed destination with such fussed-over delicacies as a Blue Mountain cordon bleu stuffed with prosciutto and herbed goat cheese and -- pinkies up! -- elegant afternoon tea.

Rich Soil, Richer Wines Nouveau Walla Walla's upscale menus, million-dollar makeovers, art galleries, wine bars and shops full of imported beers, Bordeauxs and bries are heady stuff for a little old city stuck out in the wide-open lonesome, far from any major metropolitan center.

For decades, Walla Walla -- the name is translated by Nez Perce Indians as "running water" -- was recognized primarily as 1) a producer of fat-sweet, melt-in-your-mouth onions; 2) as home to the well-regarded, private Whitman College; and 3) as the site of the Washington State Penitentiary.

In its early boom years, Walla Walla was a bustling banking center for gold rushes in Idaho and Montana, as dozens of historic buildings on the National Register of Historic Places attest. Those glory days quickly faded, and the valley settled into an agricultural future of wheat, hay, potatoes, apples, alfalfa, mustard and the famed Walla Walla sweet onions.

Only in the past few years has the little city of approximately 29,700 -- the population total includes prison inmates -- become known for its dense, layered red wines and its dedicated winemakers, many of them hands-on vignerons who not only press the grapes but also work the land.

Winemakers hail the silty soils of the Walla Walla Valley, which lies within the larger Columbia Valley Appellation, at the same latitude as the famed Bordeaux and Burgundy regions of France. The valley was created from repeated flooding during the Ice Age. Surrounding mountains held the floodwaters, and the pooled slack waters deposited sedimentary layers of well-drained, mineral-rich soils -- soils that build character in vines and complexity in their fruit.

That fruit bears up well under a friendly climate that averages almost a quarter of the rainfall of soggy Seattle, about a five-hour drive west, on the wet, storm-hugging side of the Cascade Mountains. Out here, the sun shines more than 250 days a year and nights are cool. While cold winters mean a long slumber for dormant vines, summers can be among the hottest in the nation, with July days topping 100 degrees. That ripens grapes nicely. And drip irrigation ensures vintners can control what will happen to their Vitus vinifera.

Control, for these dirt-kickers, means experimentation. And experimentation means raising the bar with each new release. "Traditions here get thrown out," says Christophe Baron, a French transplant who grows vines for his Cayuse label in an improbable old riverbed with lumpy gray rocks the size of baked potatoes.

Baron, who grew up in the prestigious Baron Albert Champagne house of France and graduated from viticulture schools in Champagne and Burgundy, came to the New World to escape the vine-strangle strictures of the old. "France is a wonderful country -- for vacationing. For working, it's just hell on Earth, because of the regulations. The bureaucracy is overwhelming," says the bold young vigneron, whose celebrated syrahs sell out faster than he can produce them.

He is one of several French winemakers who have recently arrived in this valley of heaving hills, attracted by the distinctive terroir of its soils -- the idea that a specific soil and climate create a distinctive character in a wine, character that cannot be duplicated -- and the liberty to work them as they choose. The French, he says, don't go to lousy places, wine-wise. "Where there are the French, there is the great wine made."

Sampling one of his spicy, soulful syrahs, I find it hard to argue. I've never gone so many places in one sip. It's downright exciting, a taste of a wild new frontier that's still busily creating itself, still putting itself on the international map.

M.L. Lyke last wrote for Travel about a West Coast road trip with her teenage daughter.

Walla Walla, in southeast Washington state, is attracting attention for its top-notch vineyards. But not enough to create traffic snarls along its rustic roads -- or at the tasting counters of local wineries. L'Ecole No. 41 Winery in Walla Walla, Wash., is noted for its merlots.A worker fills fermenting vats at Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla, Wash.