Published: May 11th 2009October 10th 2008
Vines on Red Mountain
It looks bright and sunny, but it's really cold and windy. These are growing in the sandy soil of Red Mountain AVA.
There is something so inherently classy and romantic about the great wine regions of the world. The quaint reserve of Riems, the misty mornings in Napa Valley, the feed store in Prosser with the heavy-set lady pushing an equally hefty child in a stroller out front....okay that last one doesn't exactly fit the idyllic image you get when you think of wine country, but then again this area is young. Up and coming. It hasn't yet traded it's rustic, agricultural charm for formulaic tourist facade, although that transformation is on the horizon.
It's that very principle that makes the Yakima Valley area both refreshing and challenging to visit. On one hand, many wine makers are still so involved in the development of their product that you can speak with them personally in a tasting room instead of dealing with an hourly employee paid to splash some vino in your glass. On the other hand, it also means there aren't the usual amenities one expects to find when traveling - many of the wineries aren't open to the public except by reservation, there are few lodging opportunities and your dining options are often limited to the gas station mini-mart or the
Zinfindel on the Vine
We passed a wonderful "U-Pick" grape vineyard on the way back to Seattle, but sadly couldn't find anyone working the operation, so we left.
taco truck parked on the shoulder near the interstate off-ramp (and according to the gal attending the wine bar in Red Mountain, whom we asked for suggestions, the best place to eat in the area was, indeed, the taco truck).
Andras recently got a new job with a major wine distributor, and being that he simply loves everything to do with wine, that was all the excuse we needed to spend a weekend on the eastern side of the mountains. Yakima is the major center for wine related activities in this region, but we enjoy seeing the vineyards just as much, if not more, than we enjoy tasting wine so we had to continue a bit further out of town to find the setting we were looking for.
Enter Prosser, a small little town that boasts more sunshine that I'd know what to do with. During various parts of the year there are hot-air balloon races and harvest festivals and the town becomes inundated with visitors, but it's a fairly safe bet that we were two of the four out-of-towners there one random weekend in October as evidenced by all the strange looks we got from folks while
Old Fashioned Wine Press
On display at Columbia Crest winery. It's definitely not done this way anymore!
inquiring about where to eat and where to buy food. Everyone kept rambling off some name I couldn't understand, and turn to find out it's the name of the only grocery store in town, and then we had to ask for directions. You could practically hear their eyes roll back into their heads as they muttered "Darn city slickers" under their breath. Ha, but very friendly otherwise!
We booked a room at the Sunset House Wine Country Inn, which was situated on a hill-top overlooking the river and town and, most importantly, it had an outdoor hot-tub where we could relax and take in the views of the night sky while sipping on a glass of Washington Cabernet. It was only after we checked in and started exploring the town and started asking for suggestions at the visitors center where to go that we found out the owner of the B&B was also the mayor of the town! So as an unexpected treat, not only were we given special treatment at all the wineries thanks to Andras' industry connections we were also served breakfast and given an overview of the Prosser area by the head government official - that's
Eastern Washington Scenery
We're definitely not in western Washington anymore. Fields of grass, farmland and agriculture on this side of the mountains.
Most of the tasting rooms in Prosser are located in these rather strip-mall esque properties clustered along the main roadways and removed from the actual wineries themselves, so for the first part of the day we stayed rather close to the city center walking from one door to the next. While there are lots of smaller boutique wineries cropping up in the region, the majority of the tasting rooms are owned by major distributors. We spent quite a while at Hogue Cellars (whose wines I absolutely love even if they are about $6 at the supermarket) and a few others before giving up on the office park feel of the place and driving out towards the Columbia River to try to visit Columbia Crest before they closed.
Columbia Crest is definitely more along the lines of a visitor-oriented winery. Built in the style of a European chateau, although obviously pretty new, the entire establishment was gorgeous inside and out, even if it felt a bit forced. After starting in the tasting room, we explored the cellars and barrel rooms on a self-guided tour. The smell of wine-stained oak permeated the cavernous underbelly of the visitors center
Inside at Columbia Crest Winery.
as the juice fermented and aged in their casks. They were closing up when we got there, so it was a short visit, but I doubt we needed more time.
The next morning, bright and sunny although rather cold and windy, we drove out to the wine growing regions for some sightseeing. Horse Heaven Hills is another up-and-coming wine growing region that currently is covered with little more than dirt and sage-brush, although with water rights, the land for sale would be very profitable. Supposedly the gusty winds blowing up from the Columbia Gorge toughen the grapes outer skin, concentrating the flavor of chardonnays. I've tasted some pretty good chardonnays this weekend.
Afterward we drove east towards Red Mountain, the smallest AVA in Washington State although quite the award winner. There's definitely something in the soil here - the mineral content differs from the other areas and the wines produced here are very distinct. Hard to pin-point exactly what it is (my palate isn't very sophisticated when it comes to wine) but it's something anyway. We couldn't drive more than 5ft without Andras exclaiming how much he wanted to own land out here to have a winery of
Part of the "old world charm" on the winery grounds.
his own. I don't know - the scenery is lovely but I think I'd require a little bit more in terms of entertainment than whatever lively conversation was happening on the porch of the grain mill.
Driving back we stopped outside Zillah to visit some local farms - one even offered u-pick wine and table grapes which I thought would make a good snack for the trip ahead. The vineyards were picture perfect with the snow-capped peak of Mount Rainier in the background, but other than a few dogs eyeing us warily, we didn't see anyone around to do business with and we left (which also meant I didn't take any picture-perfect photos). Also nearby was a "historic landmark" called the Teapot Gas Station. Being the curious sort, we thought we'd investigate (we do so love historic sites!) but it turned out to be literally no more than a gas station shaped like a tea pot, and one that didn't actually have any gasoline to sell at that. Not sure what's so noteworthy about this that it deserved a highway road marker, but we didn't feel the need to waste any time figuring it out.
I guess after
Prosser Feed Store
You didn't think I merely made up all that nonsense about the feed store being the central attraction, did you? Here it is, in all it's glory. The folks on the porch went inside when I started taking photos.
our teapot road-side attraction excursion we were still feeling a little touristy because for lunch Andras somehow convinced me we should stop to eat at Miner's Drive-In in Yakima. The place prides itself on having incredibly giant hamburgers (just what you need when you're, say, going to be sitting in the car for the next few hours) and to be honest, I never quite understood what international visitors meant when they spoke of "American Food" until now. Fast food on steroids. Seven inches of...well just look at the photo. I don't think I could describe it accurately. Taste-wise it was completely forgettable, but size-wise it was something of a monstrosity. Not sure to be proud or sickened that between the two of us we managed to eat the whole thing (and I saw people around us eating one entirely on their own. With fries! And a soda!)
Eventually we'll have to make it further to the Tri-Cities area and Walla-Walla valley, which have numerous opportunities for wine tasting and viticulture education. But this trip was really a small prelude, just a taste of what Washington is doing these days. Short, sweet and satisfying. Another great getaway in the Northwest.
There are more photos below