As the sign going into town once declared, this is "A Pleasant Place With Pleasant People." Now, it's the center of the wine industry in the Yakima Valley - and it's poised for greatness.
For decades, the Washington wine industry has swirled around this farming community with the lovely century-old homes. Not long after Prohibition was repealed, Walter Clore came to what is now the Washington State University agriculture research station. He saw potential in the valley and began to plant grapes here and there.
Through the decades, wineries came and went in the Yakima Valley. But in the early '70s, Mike Wallace planted vineyards and later opened Hinzerling Winery, which still is in operation. More followed, including Hogue Cellars, now one of the state's largest operations, and Chinook Wines, a small winery with a rabid following.
By 1995, there were seven wineries in Prosser, and now it's enjoying a veritable wine boom. Kestrel Vintners built a beautiful facility just down the street from Hogue. Ray Sandidge launched C.R. Sandidge, which he recently moved next to Kestrel, where he was the winemaker until February. Last summer, Snoqualmie Vineyards, a large, high-quality, cost-conscious winery that is part of Stimson Lane, made Prosser its home just around the corner from Hogue and Chinook.
Desert Wind Vineyards, a new winery owned by the folks at Duck Pond Cellars in Dundee, Ore., is wrapping up construction on its beautiful new building just up the street. And Joel Tefft, owner/winemaker of Tefft Cellars in nearby Outlook, has bought land in Prosser and plans to build a villa-style winery this year.
That makes nearly 15 wineries in Prosser - with more on the way.
Additionally, the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center is being built in Prosser. The project is being described as the wine industry's crown jewel and honors Dr. Clore, who passed away a year ago. It will include an information center, gift shop, exhibition galleries, tasting room, demonstration vineyard and an upscale restaurant.
Clearly, Prosser is on the verge of something special. It's a town with charm, style and history. The wineries are the foundation. Now, it just needs a little something extra to turn it into a true wine country destination.
When I think about great wine-touring regions, Sonoma and Napa come to mind, as do Italy and France. While Europe's classic regions have centuries-old allure that cannot be replicated in the New World, California's two greatest wine destinations actually have little over the Northwest. We are filled with romantic notions when we hear about Calistoga, St. Helena, Napa, Geyserville and Healdsburg, yet most of these are dusty little towns surrounded by beautiful vineyards and well-known wineries. Oakville, home to Robert Mondavi Winery, has a gas station and general store for its 400-plus residents. Geyserville doesn't even have a gas station.
What they do have that Prosser doesn't are amenities for visitors: classy restaurants, B&Bs and shops.
Prosser could have all of this if someone has the fortitude to go for it, to open a European-style bistro amid the wineries, then wait for the area to become a destination, a wine village.
Healdsburg was a dusty town in the center of Sonoma County just a couple of decades ago. Now, it's the most visitor-friendly city in California wine country. A four-block area surrounding a park-like square is filled with great restaurants, microbreweries, galleries, boutique shops and winery tasting rooms. All of this happened rather suddenly.
Even more quickly, Walla Walla has changed from a wheat farming community with a state penitentiary to a wine destination. Nearly 60 wineries dot the landscape, and restaurants, galleries, hotels and B&Bs have followed. Most visitors don't even realize the prison is there.
In Oregon's Yamhill County, we see similar developments in the town of Dundee. The always pioneering Ponzi family opened a tasting bar on Highway 99W a few years back, then followed up with the Dundee Bistro, a fabulous wine country escape. This is a natural for Yamhill County, which now has more than 70 wineries. The tree-covered hills and proximity to Portland parallel the advantages that Sonoma and Napa have with nearby San Francisco.
But Prosser is a true get-away. It is blessed with wide-open spaces, a traffic-free highway system and natural beauty thanks to the Horse Heaven and Rattlesnake Hills lining both sides of the valley.
Prosser is poised to have it all. It just needs a few folks with savvy, energy, money and talent to make it happen.