As long as grapes are grown in Washington state, the Yakima Valley will be viewed as the gateway to wine country.
“Once you get over the mountains, you are in wine country,” said John Caudill, a longtime Yakima Valley winery chef. “You go into the tasting room and there’s a guy in Carhartts and dirty boots, and nine out of 10 times this is the guy making the wine. I love that about this valley.”
And 30 years ago, the federal government officially designated the Yakima Valley as wine country, making it the first American Viticultural Area in the state.
“We’ve been distributing 30th anniversary buttons to wineries, hotels and restaurant staff, and we’ve created a wine-and-dine program,” said Barbara Glover, executive director for Wine Yakima Valley, a membership organization of wineries and vineyards. “There are 30th anniversary window clings, and businesses to put them in their windows. We’re trying to build a consistent look and feel so that visitors can say, ‘Oh wow! It’s the 30th anniversary of the Yakima Valley AVA.’ ”
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The pride begins with the vines, which allow winemakers from all corners of the state to produce some of the world’s most acclaimed wines. One of those vintners is Becky Yeaman’s husband, Wade Wolfe of Thurston Wolfe in Prosser.
“Much more sophisticated people are getting into the business,” said Yeaman, who began operating tasting rooms in the Yakima Valley in 1985.
“These are not people who think just because they’ve made some homemade wine that people will give them money for it.”
Proximity of the vineyard to the winery makes for an experience akin to going to the county fair.
“During harvest and Catch the Crush, the winemakers will bring the fruit into the tasting room,” Glover said. “They’ll have people taste the wine and look through the refractometer at fruit picked just outside the door. It’s a great experience and provides a great education to the visitor. I think that’s one of our greatest assets. It is romantic, and it is beautiful.”
And yet, the availability of land in the 75-mile long Yakima Valley also works against it from a tourism standpoint because many of the more than 80 wineries are spread out.
“I’m seeing more people planning trips rather than just showing up,” Yeaman said. “We’ve got wineries in Yakima and wineries all the way down to the Tri-Cities. That’s a huge area, and you can’t do it all in one day, so people are going online to see what’s available, and our Wine Yakima Valley website is a good one to look at.
“So if your kid has a sporting event and you don’t want to watch volleyball for five hours, then you can drop them off and come see us,” Yeaman continued. “This valley has become more of a destination, which is what we all want. We want heads in beds and people staying a second night because they can’t see it in a day.”
Glover said hospital executives and restaurateurs frequently ask her about occupancy rates and visitation numbers, looking for opportunities to build in the valley.
“We’re still behind on amenities, but I truly believe that will eventually come,” said Caudill who in 1999 moved from Seattle to buy a home next to a winery in Outlook. “We’ll never become a Napa or Sonoma because we are too far away from a large metropolitan area, but we are a wine country with the emphasis on ’country.’ “
Tourists also will discover a strong sense of family at many of the wineries. A prime example is Kiona Vineyards Winery on Red Mountain near Benton City. John Williams planted the vineyards in 1975, and his son Scott later took over the winemaking. A grandson, JJ, who calls himself “The One-Eye Wine Guy,” works in sales.
“So many of these families are grounded in agriculture, and the next generations are coming, spreading their wings and diversifying,” Glover said. “That’s the beauty of the Yakima Valley. It’s authentic and down to earth.”
There’s a more urban feel in Prosser along Interstate 82 where the Port of Benton created the Vintners Village, a development with nine wineries and a wine country restaurant.
“There’s not anything really like this in the state,” Yeaman said. “When Wade knew he was leaving Hogue, we began looking to expand our company. There were people who wanted us to move to Walla Walla, but we probably would have been shot off the face of the Earth if we did.”
A mile to the east, the Fries family built the upscale Desert Wind Winery and Inn. Next door, the long-anticipated Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center is scheduled to open this summer — a project funded by industry donations and government contributions.
“So many downtowns are struggling to maintain their livelihood, and it’s hard for small business owners because people do their shopping at Walmart or Shopko or online,” Yeaman said. “I don’t know how small businesses are going to survive. We’re fortunate that a few of the right people have come to the area.”
The Clore Center will showcase wines from all corners of the state and serve as an interpretive center. It has been in the works for more than a decade, but research indicates it will draw more than 25,000 visitors during its first full year of operation.
“People have been curious about it, but now that something big and exciting is happening, hopefully people will come to check it out,” Yeaman said.
It also will create a wine country visitor center at each end of the Yakima Valley.
“The smartest move I’ve ever made was marrying my wife,” Caudill said. “The smartest move we ever made as a couple was to move out here. You have the serenity of the country, it’s only a few hours drive to the big city and allows me to continue my quest to prove to the world how good Washington wine is. And I’m always thinking, ‘What are we going to eat with this?’ ”
Officially, the Yakima Valley American Viticultural Area begins just south of Union Gap, so the appellation excludes wineries in downtown Yakima, Selah and the recently designated Naches Heights AVA.
Interestingly, nearly all wineries in the AVA are north of the river and most are north of Interstate 82.
Many of the wineries in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA created their own association, and the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail group takes in the northwestern part of the Yakima Valley and represents the towns of Granger, Outlook, Wapato and Zillah. The trail includes Agate Field, Bonair, Hyatt, Knight Hill, Masset, Paradisos del Sol, Piety Flats, Portteus, Severino, Silver Lake, Steppe, Tanjuli and Two Mountain. Horizon’s Edge/Maison de Padgett’s grounds almost immediately turned into one of wine country’s most popular settings for nuptials.
A number of award-winning wineries either are south of the Rattlesnake Hills AVA or chose not to join the group. They include Claar, Côte Bonneville, Cultura, Dineen, Parejas, Ramseyer, Sheridan, Tucker, Windy Point and Wineglass Cellars.
There’s just one winery in this sub AVA near the town of Sunnyside, and the Newhouse family uses historic plantings for some of the state’s best wines, including their own Upland Estates brand.
Some of the state’s top wineries and winemakers took the chance to move into the Vintners Village. Tourists easily followed them.
The group includes Airfield, Apex, Coyote Canyon, Gamache, Milbrandt, Martinez & Martinez, Thurston Wolfe and Willow Crest.
There’s plenty of room to grow at the Port of Benton’s successful Vintners Village in Prosser, where Phase II offers 19 lots. The town is ringed by other award-winning wineries. On exit 82 of I-82 there’s Alexandria Nicole, Chinook, Cowan, Heaven’s Cave, Hogue, Kestrel and Mercer, while Snoqualmie is being replaced by another Ste. Michelle brand — 14 Hands. Close to downtown is one of the state’s most historic wineries, Hinzerling, Just south of town, on the slopes to the Horse Heaven Hills, there’s DavenLore. On the outskirts are Barrel Springs and two longtime producers — Pontin Del Roza and Yakima River.
Overlooking the Yakima River from opposite sites downstream is Chandler Reach, an Italian-themed winery, and Sleeping Dog, which is unique for its work with the Tuscan variety Montepulciano.
This famed region offers some of the best wine touring in the Pacific Northwest and an almost Napa Valley feel both in terms of the proximity of the wineries and the quality of the wines.
A couple — Col Solare and Terra Blanca — rank among the finest wine touring destinations on the West Coast, but the neighborhood is filled with other top wines, too, including Cooper, Corvus, Fidelitas, Hedges, Hightower, Kiona, Portrait and Tapteil.
Officially, Oakwood Cellars is across DeMoss Road from the AVA boundaries, but it’s one of the oldest wineries in the area.
Wineries in the Tri-Cities, southeast of Red Mountain, do not fall within the Yakima Valley AVA.
Any wine country would embrace a restaurant such as Wine O’Clock in Prosser, and it’s customary to see at least one winemaker — aside from co-owner Ron Bunnell — in the dining room or on the patio. Mojave at Desert Wind is building a following with chef Kristin Martilla Johnson. Kestrel recently began full-menu service with chef Jessica Smith, and groups that order a day in advance can receive a marvelous meal from Alexandria Nicole executive chef Frank Magaña.
In Sunnyside, chef Roger Hazzard embraces local wines and routinely serves espresso and fresh pastry to winemakers at Bon Vino’s Bistro and Bakery. And when craft beer sounds best, there are several brewpubs in the valley, including Snipes Mountain in Sunnyside and a pair in Prosser — Horse Heaven Hills and Whitstran.
Accommodation options are on the rise in the Yakima Valley, yet the landscape remains dominated by motels.
On Red Mountain, however, a handful of vineyards and wineries have created the option of vacation rental by owner. This spring, the Gelles family, proprietors of famed Klipsun Vineyard, launched Klipsun Cottage.
“Red Mountain is still very much a young wine region, and it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere,” said winemaker/innkeeper Alexander Gelles, whose parents began planting the 120-acre vineyard in 1984. “It’s 15 to 20 minutes to West Richland and 15 to 20 minutes to Prosser. The best way to experience Red Mountain is to stay at Red Mountain.”
The cottage, about 100 yards from the vineyard, looks up the valley while offering a view of Rattlesnake Mountain and sometimes Mount Adams.
This summer, guests at Klipsun Cottage can experience the first estate wines produced under the Alexander the Grape brand. A complete list can be found at VRBO.com under a search for “Benton City.”
In Prosser, a number of excellent alternatives recently have emerged in anticipation of the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center. Desert Wind Winery, a stone’s throw from the Clore Center, offers four tiny suites with a dinner and bed option because of the Mojave restaurant downstairs. Seven Gables Pensione, a charming Victorian-style B&B in a remodeled 1907 farmhouse, sprang up near Vintners Village. And the Vintner’s Inn at Hinzerling Winery is among the state’s original wine country lodging options. When it comes to motels, the most convenient is the Best Western Inn at Horse Heaven in Prosser, just a short walk from the Vintners Village.
For a unique overnight experience in the valley, ride through vineyards on horseback, go wine tasting and glamping at Cherry Wood Bed Breakfast and Barn in Zillah.
The Sunnyside Inn at the historic Fordyce House has earned a listing in “Northwest Best Places.” Grandview’s Cozy Rose Inn B&B offers five suites.
Those driving from the west should consider pulling off I-84 in Yakima at Exit 33A for the Yakima Valley Visitor Information Center. Touring information and Yakima Valley wines are available.
Wine Yakima Valley’s website, wineyakimavalley.org, serves as the primary portal to the Yakima Valley. The Rattlesnake Hills wineries operate their site at rattlesnakehills.org.
ERIC DEGERMAN is co-owner of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information website. For more information, go to www.greatnorthwestwine.com.
JACKIE JOHNSTON, a freelance photojournalist, is a regular contributor and the page designer for Wine Press Northwest. Her website is at: JackieJohnston.com