The Yakima Valley wine region is thriving with more to see and do
The Yakima Valley, Washington state's first designated American Viticultural Area, is thriving with more growers, more wineries, and much more to do and see.
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EVERYBODY LOVES a milestone birthday, and last spring the Yakima Valley wine region celebrated 25 years since receiving its designation as Washington state's very first American Viticultural Area (AVA).
Much has changed over the past quarter century, according to longtime Yakima Valley winemaker Kay Simon, co-owner of Chinook Wines with her viticulturist husband, Clay Mackey.
Back then, the wine industry was just a few passionate individuals who were exchanging ideas, advice and equipment, Simon says. "The pioneering spirit that drew many of us to the Yakima Valley over 25 years ago is now being re-energized by the number of new winemakers (and business owners) drawn to the area by the valley's growing reputation."
Today, 50 percent of Washington's wine is grown or produced in the Yakima Valley, and the region boasts more than one-third of the state's 30,000 vineyard acres. Its 60-plus wineries range from heartfelt, mom-and-pop operations such as Chinook, to corporate giants such as The Hogue Cellars and Coventry Vale, a custom crushing and winemaking facility.
Visiting the valley is easier than ever, thanks to more and better places to eat and sleep, easy access by car and several daily flights from Seattle to the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco. Wine tourists can cram a lot into a single day or plan on a more leisurely two- or three-day visit.
Head for Highway 82, which bisects the valley's dramatic desert landscape, diverse microclimates and rugged hillsides. It's peppered with wineries, many gathered in clusters, which makes sampling the region's outstanding riesling, chardonnay, merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon all the more convenient.
One such cluster has sprung up in downtown Yakima, where you can visit Kana Winery, Gilbert Cellars, Donitelia Winery, Plaza Socievole Winery and (soon to open) Upland Estates Winery.
The Rattlesnake Hills AVA, established as a sub-appellation of the AVA in 2006, has 15 wineries on the north side of the valley above Zillah, Granger and Outlook. They include such highly regarded producers as Portteus Vineyards, Hyatt Vineyards, Tefft Cellars and Claar Cellars. In Zillah, you can even sleep in a posh teepee or retro trailer and ride horseback through the vineyards at Cherry Wood Bed Breakfast and Barn.
On the far eastern side of the valley sits Red Mountain, another sub-appellation and winery cluster. It's one of the most desirable addresses for Washington winemakers such as Col Solare Winery, Terra Blanca Winery & Estate Vineyards, Kiona Vineyards and Winery, and Hedges Family Estate, and definitely worth an extended visit.
But the current hotbed of activity in the Yakima Valley centers on the town of Prosser, home to more than two dozen wineries. On its west edge, you'll discover Vintner's Village, formerly known as the North Prosser Business Park. In the past five years, the Port of Benton has transformed the nondescript, 32-acre business park into a veritable playground for wine lovers with 13 tasting rooms, meandering trails and greenbelts and an upscale plant nursery.
A few among many notable tasting rooms within the village are Olsen Estates (the Olsen family celebrated 100 years of farming in the valley in 2008), Thurston Wolfe (where longtime winemaker Wade Wolfe specializes in unique varietals, such as lemberger and petite syrah) and Airfield Estates (with its playful aviation theme).
The Winemaker's Loft is also part of Vintner's Village. This "winery incubator" houses half a dozen wineries ranging from startups such as Maison Bleue and Tasawik Vineyards to the venerable Apex Cellars. It's the brainchild of Michael Haddox, who makes his own Michael Florentino Cellars and Winemaker's Loft wines there.
In downtown Prosser, at Picazo 7Seventeen, chef/owner Frank Magaña has raised the bar for valley dining by offering well-crafted dishes with a Latin vibe and a wine list that features the valley's best bottles.
On the east side of town, a half-dozen wineries reside in the 90-acre Prosser Wine and Food Park, another port project. These include The Hogue Cellars, Kestrel Vintners (which recently expanded and remodeled its tasting room) and Alexandria Nicole Cellars (whose Tapas Cafe offers light bites and wine pairings). Mercer Estates (a collaboration of the Hogue and Mercer families) is also soon to open.
Also on the east edge of town, Desert Wind Vineyards, a $3.5 million "mega winery" done in dramatic Southwestern architectural style, features a mammoth tasting room and gift shop; outstanding Desert Wind wines such as ruah, a full-bodied, Bordeaux-inspired blend; and four beautifully appointed guest suites with top-shelf amenities and cozy balconies overlooking the Yakima River.
"When my dad and I set up shop here in Prosser way back in the olden days (1976) we were the only tasting room in the Yakima Valley," says Mike Wallace, winemaker and owner of Hinzerling Winery and The Vintners Inn in downtown Prosser. "One by one, more wineries started up, and one day a local asked me if I wasn't upset about all the competition.
" 'Au contraire,' I replied. 'With more wineries, we're seeing more and more folks wanting to learn (and even buy) wine. Even the locals are beginning to think there may be something to this wine business.' "
Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of "Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining." Visit her blog at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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