PROSSER -- An adventurous crowd of foodies surrounded me at the Desert Wind Winery's long dining table. As we started in on the fried green tomatoes, we noticed a garnish nobody recognized: what looked like little yellow cherries topped by tiny corn-husk winglets. The little wings were swept back as if part of our salad course was ready to join the kestrels soaring over the nearby Horse Heaven Hills.
Was that husk edible or not? Should we ask?
"I already ate mine," confided Sheila, a Seattleite sitting next to me.
OK, I confess, I had too, washing it down with the suggested wine, a crisp Wahluke Slope sauvignon blanc. The husk was, uh, crunchy.
"These are what we call ground cherries," announced our host, Chef Frank Magana. "They grow on a bush like a tomatillo. I peeled back the husks to look like bird wings. The husk won't hurt you if you eat it, but normally we don't."
This was Desert Wind's monthly, anyone-is-welcome Supper Club, and it served to spotlight a big trend in wine-country tourism: helping visitors enjoy wine together with local food.
The Yakima River's fertile valley and surrounding sun-toasted hills, the birthplace of Washington's wine industry -- still producing almost half the state's wine -- is the perfect venue for uniting local wines with the abundance of fresh vegetables, tree fruits, meats and cheeses that come from just up the road.
It's tourism with an emphasis on the "mmmm."
Yakima Valley winemakers capitalized on the trend this summer, publishing a deck of recipe cards on which 34 wineries matched one of their wines with a favorite recipe, often from the family running the winery.
Wineries took turns in July and August offering tastes of their featured dish and wine to tasting-room guests. It's the kind of thing you can expect more of here.
"For us it was a good choice, because while there are lots of great winemaking areas in the state, the valley has so much bounty (of food) as well," said Barbara Glover, director of Wine Yakima Valley, an association of winemakers and grape growers. "Our fruit-forward wines have flavors that pair really well with food."
I sampled the featured recipes at Prosser's Vintner's Village, a one-stop wine lover's haven just off Interstate 82 that is home to 10 modern tasting rooms plus a wine-and-food bar called Wine O'Clock.
Milbrandt Vineyards served baba ghanoush, a smoky eggplant spread on toasted pita bread, paired with ruby-red grenache. Gamache Vintners offered a playful peach and riesling smoothie, made from peaches grown next to their vineyard.
Why spend getaway weekends pursuing the perfect food-and-wine pairing? Devotees will tell you there's a sweet spot that's worth the quest.
"For example, if you get a good pinot and have just the right glaze on duck, everything tastes better," Neuenschwander said.
Plus, when you are out driving around the Yakima Valley with the windows down, you will revel in some sweet views of Mount Adams and Mount Rainier from country roads lined by vineyards, orchards and hop vines.
Only one whispered complaint around the table among diners from the wet side of the mountains: Green tomatoes? We have more than enough of those on our own side of the state this year, thanks.
Then again, now we know what to do with them.
IF YOU GO
-- Winemaker dinner: Desert Wind Winery's monthly Supper Club, in the winery's Mojave restaurant, is usually the last Friday of each month (next is Oct. 28), typically offering a three-course dinner for $45, with wine pairings for an added $15. Cooking classes, teaching how to prepare the previous month's Supper Club menu, are the first Wednesday of each month. 509-786-7277 or www.desertwindwinery.com.
-- Recipes and resources: Some wineries still offer Wine Yakima Valley's recipe cards with wine-and-food pairing ideas ($15), or they can be ordered through the organization's website, wineyakimavalley.org (click on "Wine and Food Summer"). The site also offers a calendar of upcoming food-and-wine events.
-- Attraction: Vintner's Village is at Exit 80 on Interstate 82; 100 Merlot Drive, Prosser; 509-786-7401 or prosservintnersvillage.com.
-- More information: Yakima Valley Visitors & Convention Bureau: 800-221-0751 or www.visityakima.com.