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"The Yakima Valley:
"Next Big Thing" in Wine Touring?"

by Jean Yates, Avalon Wine

The Yakima Valley, east of Seattle, north of the Columbia River Valley, and northwest of Walla Walla, is becoming the next "must see" wine region in Washington State. It ranges from the rolling wheat fields on its east side to the startlingly, starkly craggy hills above the Snake and Columbia Rivers, to the expanses of rolling hills broken by occasional huge vineyard out in the middle of nowhere (there is even a bar South of East Wennachee that announces proudly with large signs that you have arrived at "THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE!").

It's an intriguing and unspoiled area, where you can drive past miles and miles of apple orchards divided with windbreaks of tall narrow trees, exactly like something from an Impressionist painting of Southern France. At the right time, there are farm workers harvesting, boxes of apples piled ten stories in the air, huge silver carboys waiting for wine, stunning green swatches of lush fields right next to arid desert sagebrush and rock. Wide rivers wind through green plateaus with steep fields dropping right down to the water, full of fruit trees and vineyards.

The Yakima Valley appellation was approved for use on wine labels in 1983 and became Washington's first official federal AVA, or American Viticultural Area. The appellation has more than 23,000 acres planted to wine grapes and is home to over 100 wineries and growing. Tens of thousands of tons of Yakima wine grapes are used in the state's most prominent wines. In addition, grapes are sold to other states and countries for wine.

Wines produced with Yakima grapes are widely recognized. In a recent Food & Wine Magazine article, McCrea Cellars' Yakima Valley Boushey Grande Cote Syrah won its annual American Wine Awards for "Best Wine Over $15."

"Yakima Valley grapes give the winemaker a phenomenal palette with which to create exceptional wines every year," said Kay Simon, winemaker for Chinook Winery. Simon has used Yakima grapes in her wines since 1977.

"It's all about balance-the natural juxtaposition of sugar, acidity and flavor are there year after year in Yakima Valley grapes."

at right above, Sheridan Vineyard view towards the Yakima Valley

Western Yakima Valley

The western part of the Yakima Valley is a two to three hour drive from the Seattle area, up over several passes with mountainous views, and through the huge, flat, green valleys that characterize this part of Washington. After passing the city of Yakima, on I-82, the freeway that passes through the entire appellation from east to west, try to get off onto smaller roads.

The Yakima Valley Highway parallels the freeway, just north of the freeway, and is a slower but much more scenic route. Mercifully, there are relatively few huge motor homes blocking the view and clogging the road. Perhap that is because the back roads are very narrow and twisty, and in some places barely allow a car or truck to get through. Watch out for farm vehicles- this is still an area unused to tourists and you'll often go around a bend and find yourself behind a harvester or a tractor going 5 miles and hour. Relax and enjoy the scenery!

North of the town of Zillah is a maze of roads, mostly at right angles to each other, that crisscross the hills above the freeway and are filled with wineries and orchards. By following the signs to wineries such as Hyatt, Portteus, Silver lake, and Wineglass Cellars, you gain entrance to a beautiful mix of farms, flower bedecked yards of rural homes, orchards, wheat fields, and vineyards. Every few blocks, you see a winery or a winery under construction, or a sign saying that a winery is coming soon.

An outstanding, and not to be missed winery in Western Yakima is Sheridan Vineyard. Sheridan Vineyard is a family owned vineyard and winery in the heart of the Yakima Valley, outside Zillah. The vineyard provides grapes to wineries such as Quilceda Creek and Andrew Will, and has now started to produce a small amount of Estate wine.

The Sheridan Vineyards property was purchased in 1997 and the family planted the first four acres in April of that same year with Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines received some of Wine Advocate's highest scores ever in 2011 and made the winery famous. Above, Sheridan winemaker and owner Scott Greer.

Out of the seventy-six total acres, Sheridan Vineyard currently has fifty-five acres bearing fruit. Over the next four years, the entire vineyard will come into full production, planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Syrah. With the combination of Sheridan’s climate, 1,200-foot elevation, and shallow rocky soils, it makes for one of Washington’s premiere vineyard sites.

Eastern Yakima Valley Appellation

About four to five hours from Seattle, further down I-82, the towns of Sunnyside, Prosser, and Benton City host dozens of wineries, from the huge Snoqualamie, whose new plant and tasting room opened in the summer of 2003, to tiny Hinzerling, specializing in dessert wines. Many of these wineries are not open to the public without an appointment. Kestrel, Kiona, Terra Blanca, and Pontin del Rosa are small wineries that are interesting to visit with an appointment.

 


Snoqualamie Vineyards new Tasting Patio with huge wine vats waiting to be installed

Where to Stay and Eat

I usually stay at the Best Western Pepperbridge in Yakima, and have been very very happy with the experience. There are not a lot of lodging options in this area, and I have been disappointed in the past. The quality of chain motels is very dependent on the management, and the manager at the Pepperbridge in Yakima, Dorothy Seipp, is excellent. I revelled in the high speed internet connection in the room, and found the quality of the experience way above what I expected for the price. They are most knowledgable and guided me to the most distant wineries with good maps and lots of helpful suggestions. Rates range from $70-100 a night, but check their website for special coupons.

The Santillanes family owns four motels in the area, and as a small business, they seem to take a lot of care to make sure their customers have an enjoyable experience. I get so ticked off at places where I feel unacknowledged and not valued, it's nice to stay somewhere I feel appreciated for the money I am spending with them.

The Yakima Pepperbridge Inn is is a good location, in the middle of the valley, for day tours across the center of Washington. While I was there, an annual Harley Davidson rally was in progress- Harleys lined up from one end of the parking lot to the other- most impressive. And the Harley owners were a pleasant and polite group.

Other options for dining and housing include:

BIRCHFIELD MANOR COUNTRY INN
2018 Birchfield Rd., Yakima
509-452-1960 or 800-375-3420
A Bed and Breakfast with a respected restaurant

DYKSTRA HOUSE
Restaurant and Antiques
114 Birch Ave., Grandview
509-882-2082
1914 building is a historic site, features local food and wine.

GASPARETTI'S RESTAURANT
1013 N. First St., Yakima
509-248-0628
Wine Spectator award winner.

GREYSTONE RESTAURANT
Yakima
509-248-9801
Located in historic 102 year old building, features
NW cuisine and extensive regional wine list.

Resources

Wine Yakima Valley - regional winery association,tours and info

Red Willow Vineyard - a bit about the vineyard and its history

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