By Duane Pemberton
It happens every year, the Yakima Valley teams with extra visitors hoping to check out some delicious red wine and chocolate pairings at wineries of the valley. One simply pays a $35 fee for a "passport" and it enables you to waive all the tasting fee's at participating wineries - which includes a plethora of them along the Interstate-82 corridor, starting in Yakima - all the way down to the Tri-Cities.
This time around, my "base-camp" was in Richland WA at the Hampton Inn which resides right next to the Columbia River, providing easy access to the local-favorite, Columbia Trail. I like the Tri-City area for this weekend because it has the best hotels and food in the greater 50-mile area of its location, not to mention some really good wineries as well. It's a quick drive from there to Red Mountain and Prosser as well - sure there are a few wineries out in the Zillah/Sunnyside area but I'd recommend you hit them up on the way.
Any journey like this is always better with a ride that offers a good ride, power and plenty of creature-comforts. For this trip, I used a 2013 ATS from the fine folks at Cadillac. This is their competition to the BMW 3-series and proved to be quite a formidable foe. Powered by a 272hp turbo 4-cylinder and a 6-speed automatic transmission, this car scoots very well. The price for our test-model came in at $45k but the ATS does start in the mid-30's for the non-turbo version.
I really enjoyed the cars overall balance - the same way I enjoy wine. It corners as if its on rails, has a slick "sport-mode" which has a "smart transmission" that figures out your driving pattern and will adjust the shift patterns accordingly - additionally, there's a manual for the shifting as well if that's what you prefer. Cadillac rates this car at 31 MPG on the Freeway, however, I found it to be hovering closer to 26 with the cruise control set to 75.
This journey started off at Naches Heights Winery, located on the Naches Heights hill above Yakima. Owner, Phil Cline has put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into building a destination venue that offers up good vino from its Estate Vineyards and sources good fruit from the entire Yakima Valley as well. They frequently feature live music, eats and Phil's engaging personality, along with his entire staff.
From there, it's a quick trek across town to visit the new location of Treveri Cellars - Washington's only dedicated producer of bubbles - all done using methode champenoise. This winery has been making national headlines since it started - having its bubbles served at the White House State Department as well as the James Beard Foundation. They are one of my favorite producers in the Northwest right now as they are simply doing a stellar job of offering consumers some of the best values in bubbly you can get.
Their recently-acquired facility means they have the room and the ability now to offer-up small appetizer flat-bread dishes that pair well with their sparkling wine. It has a great view, is literally right-off of I-82 and is definitely worth the stop.
What about chocolate, you ask? No problem, they produce a Sparkling Shiraz and a Sparkling Petit Verdot which go very well with theobroma cacao.
In the greater Prosser area, there were certainly a large number of participating wineries but the one that really stood-out the most was a relative newcomer to the wine scene and that is Barrel Springs. Established in 2006, this winery is about a 10-minute drive north of the freeway - this family winery offers a combination of Estate wines as well as ones produced from local vineyards.
Along with having some of the better tasting wine I had in this area, Barrel Springs also offers other items such as its homemade Chardonnay Dijon Mustard and other goodies.
From Prosser, it's a quick drove up to the famous Red Mountain - this AVA rocks it with some of the better-known wineries in Washington such as Hedges, Kiona, Terra Blanca, Fidelitas and Col Solare. A couple of the lesser-known wineries, such as Hightower Cellars and Goedhart Winery are absolutely making waves in the Seattle wine scene and for good reason.
Tim and Kelly Hightower are among some of the nicest people you'll ever meet and their wines are very reflective of the vineyards they work with. They are "Seattle-area" refugees who moved out to Red Mountain nearly 8 years ago to pursue their dream and passion of producing world-class wines that do Red Mountain proud - I'd say they succeeded. While there, Kelly whipped out a 1998 Cab they made and I'm happy to report that not only has it held up incredibly well but still had some "legs" under it - I bet it could go another 10-years. They are a no-brainer stop for a sense of feeling welcomed by nice people, great views from their tasting room and some kick-ass vino.
Sarah Goedhart is the daughter of Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges, she's been the assistant winemaker at Hedges Estate Winery for years and not too long ago she started her own label: Goedhard Wines. Set in a eclectic, old-world-style country home - just behind Hedges - she and her husband, Brent are worth the stop to meet. Sarah's warm personality and knowledge of the vineyards along with Brent's hearty handshake and way of making you feel at ease - along with a Syrah that is one of the best produced on Red Mountain, there's nothing about this experience that makes it less than great.
If you get the chance to book-ahead, then stopping at Col Solare will reward you with an incredible combination of wine, view and the chance to hear about the incredible partnership of Chateau Ste. Michelle (owner of Col Solare) and the Antinori family from Italy: partner of this winery. Even though it's not an official participant of Wine Yakima's Wine and Chocolate weekend, there are some great times to be had here.
Did I mention the view? Holy cow, one can really get a whole different perspective of how vast the lower Yakima Valley is from up here - not to mention the great views of Col Solare's Estate Vineyards as well. These "Super-Tuscan"-inspired wines have been wowing critics since their inception a few years ago - make the stop, trust me.
Terra Blanca has what is probably the best overall venue on Red Mountain - good views and a commercial-grade kitchen that churns out some very good eats. Its winemaker, Keith Pilgrim has been producing wines from Red Mountain for longer than just about anyone else up there and its wines are available on a national level. My only issue with this stop was that all their reds, with the exception of its 2007 Syrah had overtones of Brettanomyces - a flaw that can be overlooked in some old-world wines, however, it was a bit too strong here for me to really enjoy the reds. His whites were drinking fresh and seemed to be a real crowd pleaser.
Goose Ridge is one of the largest producers of wine in the greater Yakima Valley AVA and has a tasting room just outside of Richland. Charlie Hoppes was its winemaker up until the 2010 vintage so most of the wines you'll drink now were still made by him. They have a nice tasting room with good views of the surrounding vineyards - and a pleasant tasting room staff.
Barnard Griffin made some highly-welcomed additions to its winery which include an area that serves up appetizers and Deborah Barnard's glass-art studio. Now you can sip some wine from one of the State's most revered winemakers, Rob Griffin, shove an appetizer or two down and check out some nifty glass art (which is for sale, of course).
The real barn-burner winery in Richland, however, has got to be J. Bookwalter Winery - started a number of years ago by John Bookwalter, this winery has evolved into offering a full-fledged restaurant now which - in my opinion - offers up the best food I've ever had in the greater Tri-Cities area. Chef Mark Schewgel and Sous Chef Darren Dewalt do a farm-to-table approach, utilizing the freshest, most local ingredients he can get, year-round'.
His end-result is nothing short of spectacular - his blue-corn taco with pork belly may just very well be the single-best bite of food I've ever had. Yes, it is that amazing: you too will tear up at its goodness. If that's not enough, there's higher-end fare such as American Wagyu beef from Snake River Farms in Idaho - the same supplier to Iron Chef America.
They have live music going most night of the week, even offer-up beer and Prosecco, along with the highly-sought after Bookwalter wines. There are a few things that set this experience apart from anyone else in the area - the combination of great wines, great food and among the best service from any wait-staff I've had. Very attentive, will do whatever it takes to make things right.
It's a bit ironic because Tagaris Winery (just a couple doors down from Bookwalter) used to be the "go-to"place for food as its restaurant was easily the best around. Well I can tell you after my visit there on Saturday evening, the only reason to stop here would be for its nice outdoor patio. I'd skip the overpriced wine and food. I sampled a "Greek Burger" (combination of lamb and sausage) which was drier than a bowl of last-week's cereal and a pasta dish with clams - hello rubber clams - no thanks. The lobster bisque was only about 8oz and was barely above room temp - and to top things off, the wait staff here acted like they were doing everyone a favor by helping them. Not at all the same experience I had here a couple of years ago while working at Pacific Rim Winery as a harvest intern.
Overall, I'd highly recommend a trip out to the Yakima Valley and - of course - the Tri-Cities as I think you'll be surprised as to the diverse offering of wine and dining you'll find out there.
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