No matter where you go in the Northwest, it is becoming increasingly difficult to not be in wine country.
This is because so many wineries have popped up in recent years -- going from 300 wineries just a decade and a half ago to 1,400 today.
To really embrace wine country, we suggest you look for an opportunity to find an experience, especially now, as wineries are in the midst of grape harvest and are busy putting on special events.
For example, Kestrel Vintners -- a Washington winery with tasting rooms in Prosser and Woodinville -- recently put on what it called "The Big Night," a harvest feast at its vineyard in the heart of the Yakima Valley, the cuisine for which was inspired by the 1996 film starring Tony Shalhoub and Minnie Driver.
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We've been to a lot of winemaker dinners, tastings and the like, and nothing matched The Big Night for a pure wine country experience. It included a vineyard tour with Kestrel's winemakers, opera singers, a hot-air balloon and amazing cuisine prepared by a bevy of chefs, including Armandino Batali, father of famed TV chef and author Mario Batali. A 100-foot table in the midst of ripening grapes set the tone, and the flowing food, superb wines, great conversation and perfect weather made it a memorable evening for those in attendance.
While not every wine-related event is quite so extravagant as what Kestrel managed to put on, you can find plenty to enjoy with relative ease.
Here are a few ideas for finding a wine-country experience that will leave you with a smile and warm heart:
-- Attend a winemakers dinner. These often are put on by either a winery or a restaurant (and occasionally a wine shop). If they are at a winery, they'll either be staged in a barrel room or, if weather allows, on a terrace or in a vineyard. These tend to be intimate affairs with fewer than 50 people attending, and you'll often get the opportunity to chat with the winemaker or owner, as well as taste samples from barrel. If they are at a restaurant, expect an emphasis on how the chef pairs each dish with a wine.
Earlier this month, Butch Milbrandt and Milbrandt Vineyards opened up their Prosser barrel room for a remarkable dinner by Seattle celebrity chef Robin Leventhal, who featured produce from Buggirl's Garden in Prosser.
-- Join a wine club. In addition to getting regular shipments from your favorite wineries, you also get invites to member-only events. For example, Fidelitas Wines on Washington's Red Mountain puts on a party that is the envy of others. Its tasting room opens up to the vineyard, and owner Charlie Hoppes brings in some amazing Mexican food to enjoy with his plush reds and steely whites. It is not to be missed and is open only to club members. Many wineries love staging events for their best customers, especially during harvest.
-- Visit a winery with a restaurant. There are more and more of these in the Northwest, thankfully. A handful of wineries in Chelan have on-site restaurants, and three wineries in the Tri-Cities are leading the charge in the heart of Washington wine country. Bookwalter in Richland, for example, has a tapas-style menu, and owner John Bookwalter often brings in live music, a great way to enjoy a glass of wine and a cheese plate.
-- Look for smaller weekend events. Big event weekends can be a bit overwhelming, but watch for smaller events that will be less crowded. For example, Olympic Peninsula wineries put on a fun Red Wine & Chocolate weekend in February.
Many wineries understand that consumers want adventures as well as great wine, so keep your eye out for an event that will elevate your wine country experiences.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.