If you traveled back 40 years to what is now known as Washington Wine Country, you would be able to count all its wineries on your fingers and toes. From humble beginnings, with only 20 wineries, Washington has become the second-largest wine-producing state, surpassing the 1,000 wineries mark in October 2019. The Tri-Cities, comprising Richland, Kennewick and Pasco in the south-central part of the state, is the region’s heart.
From humble beginnings, with only 20 wineries, Washington has become the second-largest wine-producing state, surpassing the 1,000 wineries mark in October 2019.
It’s likely you’ve heard about the Burgundy and Bordeaux wine regions in France. I was amazed to discover that the Tri-Cities’ Columbia Valley, which contains 99% of wine grapes grown in the state, lies on the same latitude (45°-47°) as these famous wine regions. It covers a third of Washington’s landmass, contains rich volcanic soil, and averages perfect temperatures for growing the best wine grapes.
On a recent trip, I spent several days learning about the winemaking process and what makes this area with its desert climate one of the fastest growing wine regions in the country. The Tri-Cities make an exccellent home base. Within an hour’s drive, there are over 200 wineries; we visited eight. Of these, several were pioneers in the Washington wine industry; others were relative newcomers.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, the fact that the area receives only 6-8 inches of rain a year (western Washington receives fives times more) contributes to its success in growing grapes. Ever heard of a rain shadow? The Cascade Mountains create this phenomenon, defined as a dry area on the leeward side of a mountainous area away from the wind. The mountains block weather systems that produce rain and cast a “shadow“ of dryness behind them.
So how are the grapes in Washington Wine Country able to grow so well? The vineyards use drip irrigation systems, using water from nearby rivers (the Columbia, the Yakima and the Snake) to control how much H2O the vines receive and when they receive it. That is key!
Also a factor: 300 days of sunshine each year, providing 16 hours of sunlight during summer months.
Start your Washington Wine Country exploration here
The Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser is a good place to start exploring Washington Wine Country. You’ll learn about Dr. Walter Clore, who was officially designated the Father of Washington Wine by the state legislature in 2003 for his significant contributions to the study of grape cultivation, otherwise known as viticulture. Clore served as a mentor to many pioneers of the Washington wine industry. Stay for a tasting of wines from each of the state’s wine-growing regions.
The Clore Center offers a variety of classes and wine-related experiences throughout the year, so check the calendar to see if your visit may coincide with one of them. Our group explored Washington’s Big 5 through a tasting of its most produced wine grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and Syrah. Over 80% of grapes harvested annually are made up of these five, but I learned there are about 65 more varieties planted in smaller quantities.
The Red Mountain AVA is widely known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, but rosé is my personal favorite varietal and, as you can see, I found plenty to sample throughout my stay in the Tri-Cities area.
Let’s visit some wineries
Although I’ve been an avid wine drinker for decades, I had never been a part of such an immersive, wine-focused trip. Upon the invitation of Visit Tri-Cities, I joined several other writers for an introduction to the area, concentrating on its wineries.
Our four-day experience began with an evening event at Terra Blanca Winery and Estate Vineyard that showcased the wineries located within the Red Mountain AVA.
Until my visit, I wasn’t sure of the definition of an AVA but I found out it stands for American Viticultural Area, a “designated wine grape growing region in the United States that is distinguishable by its geography.” The Red Mountain AVA is the smallest of nine that are a part of the larger Columbia Valley AVA.
Our first winery visit was to Frichette Winery, one of the Red Mountain AVA’s newest. The winery offered its first vintage in 2011 and opened its tasting room in 2013. Greg and Shae Frichette welcomed us with a taste of the 2018 Sashay Rosé, before inviting us to enjoy a picnic lunch overlooking the vines. A full tasting of its current releases and a quick tour of the barrel room followed, before it was time to move on to our next stop.
Kiona Vineyards and Winery
In contrast to Frichette, Kiona Vineyards and Winery is one of Washington state’s oldest, producing its first vintage in 1980. The Williams family, a co-founder along with Jim Holmes, is still at the helm. While at Kiona, we participated in a blind tasting of wines from the Red Mountain AVA comparing them to wines from other parts of the world.
Hedges Family Estate
As we approached Hedges Family Estate, I felt as if we’d been transported to the French countryside. The Hedges Chateau, home to its tasting room, is surrounded by flower gardens and overlooks vineyards as far as the eye can see. Since producing its first vintage in 1987, the Hedges family has concentrated its efforts on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The winery’s slogan, “Where Soil Meets Soul,” defines the family’s pride in practicing sustainable, biodynamic farming.
We left the Red Mountain AVA to fit in one more winery, located in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. Double Canyon, established in 2007, concentrates its efforts on Cabernet Sauvignon.
Our first full day in the Tri-Cities continued with a special evening at J. Bookwalter Winery, one of the oldest in the state. It traces its beginnings back to 1982 and produced its first vintage the following year. Its founder is Jerry Bookwalter; his son, John, is the current president of the company.
We sampled several wines while dining on the patio at its highly acclaimed, winery-based restaurant, Fiction.
The names of J. Bookwalter wines creatively continue the “book” theme. They include Suspense, Protagonist, Conflict, Double Plot, and 1st Edition.
Barnard Griffin Winery
Do fused glass and award-winning wines go together? They do at the family-owned Barnard Griffin winery, which was started in 1983 and is now one of Washington’s largest. Its co-founder, Deborah Barnard, opened db Studio, a fused glass studio located at Barnard Griffin winery, in 2007. Several of us spent time designing and creating our own fused glass plate. We received the finished product in the mail about a week later.
We stayed to taste a selection of Barnard Griffin’s wines and then sampled dishes from its full-service restaurant, The Kitchen, which serves fresh, locally sourced cuisine at lunch and dinner.
Goose Ridge Estate Vineyard and Winery
A stop at Goose Ridge Estate Vineyard and Winery’s tasting room in Richland was on our afternoon agenda. Family-owned and operated by the Monson family since 1998, it is one of the largest in Washington State, with over 2,200 acres of estate vineyards.
Before our tasting, we took in the views of their vineyard, located on a gentle slope outside Benton City. Since the family has been apple growers since the 1950s, they also began producing hard cider, which is available for tasting along with wines from Goose Ridge’s five labels.
The same day we spent time at the Walter Clore Wine Center in Prosser, we fit in visits to the tasting rooms of two wineries whose vineyards are located outside the Red Mountain AVA.
Butch Milbrandt, founder of Milbrandt Vineyards in 1997, is yet another pioneer of the Columbia Valley wine region. Formerly a potato and apple farmer, he began planting grapes on the land and helped establish two AVAs for his vineyards: Ancient Lakes and Wahluke Slope. Tasting rooms are also located in Leavenworth and Woodinville.
Alexandria Nicole Cellars
Alexandria Nicole Cellars traces its beginnings to 1998 when the ground was broken on Destiny Ridge Vineyard, located in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. Tasting rooms are also located in Woodinville and Paterson. For a unique experience, you may choose to stay in one of its Tiny Houses, located in the heart of its estate vineyard at Destiny Ridge.
Getting around Washington Wine Country
Unless you arrive by car, you will most likely arrange for a car rental at the airport. However, there are other innovative ways of exploring the area.
You can ride in a horse-drawn wagon through the vineyards with Red Mountain Trails, as my travel companions and I did on our first full day in the Red Mountain AVA. It was a glorious morning and the ideal way to be introduced to the area. Red Mountain Trails offers trail rides (with or without wine tasting), sunset dinner rides, as well as guided wine tours by bicycle or on horseback.
Another option? Charter a luxury limo ride through Washington wine country with Elegant Wine Country Limo.
Don’t miss touring the B Reactor site!
Even though the majority of my time in the Tri-Cities area was spent visiting wineries and participating in educational wine tastings, I was excited to have the opportunity to tour the historic B Reactor site in Hanford, built during World War II as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. The B Reactor produced the plutonium used in the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945.
Tours begin and end at B Reactor Tour Headquarters in Richland. Following a short video introduction to the Hanford B Reactor, we boarded a bus for a 45-minute ride to the site.
Upon our arrival, we spent the next two hours on a guided tour, learning about the structural design, science and use of the different areas, as well as why Hanford, Washington, was selected as a location. Over 51,000 people were involved and, amazingly, construction of B Reactor was completed in only 11 months!
Where we stayed in Washington Wine Country
I can’t imagine a better place to stay for exploring Washington Wine Country than The Lodge at Columbia Point, which opened in April 2017. Each of its 82 rooms, with spectacular views overlooking the Columbia River, is dedicated to a winery or vineyard within Washington State. (Mine was McKinley Springs in Prosser.) The theme continues throughout, with its wine-centric decor in the lobby and in Vine, its bar and tasting room. Begin or end your day by walking or biking the seven-mile Riverfront Trail.
Where to wine and dine
After a day of sightseeing, dine at Drumheller’s in the Lodge at Columbia Point, which offers 82 regional wines by the glass. Just steps away from the hotel, several other excellent dining choices await, including Anthony’s at Columbia Point, Budd’s Broiler, and LuLu Craft Bar & Kitchen.
The Water2Wine Cruises yacht was often visible from my hotel room. Visitors can sign up for a lunch cruise, seasonal dinner cruise, champagne brunch cruise, or sightseeing-only cruise if they prefer to skip the meal and enjoy the boat ride aboard the 96-foot, 120 passenger vessel.
The Bradley, Richland, WA – This restaurant and craft bar features small plates, handcrafted cocktails, microbrews and more than 30 wines from around the world.
Fat Olives, Richland, WA – Family-owned and operated, this is the only restaurant in the Tri-Cities to receive a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its outstanding wine list, featuring over 170 wines, including wines from the Red Mountain AVA.
Fiction at J. Bookwalter Winery – Food & Wine magazine recently named this restaurant one of the 17 best in the U.S. and travel editors from USA Today put it in their Top 10.
Although I’m still not an expert, I have a greater appreciation of all that goes into the grape growing and winemaking process.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- The Tri-Cities area, the heart of Washington Wine Country, is an ideal place to come to increase your knowledge of wine or just to have a relaxing getaway in a beautiful part of the Pacific Northwest.
- Wine enthusiasts who travel on Alaska Airlines have even more reason to celebrate due to the ability to ship their first case of wine without any baggage fees, thanks to Tri-Cities Taste and Tote program.
- Wineries in Washington Wine Country generally charge a tasting fee running between $10-15; with a bottle purchase, tastings are complimentary.
- Even though my trip was very wine-centric, beer, ale and spirits lovers are not left out. The Tri-Cities is also home to several microbreweries and two distilleries.
IF YOU GO
Additional information for planning a trip to the heart of Washington Wine Country
The Tri-Cities Airport (PSC) in Pasco offers dozens of flights daily. Commercial airlines offer direct flights from Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, San Francisco, Phoenix/Mesa Arizona, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Those fortunate enough to live in the Pacific Northwest can easily plan weekend outings to the Tri-Cities. It is a three-and-a-half hour drive from Seattle and can be reached in about that same time from Portland, Oregon. Add another hour from Boise, Idaho.
Disclosure: The author’s visit was sponsored by Tri-Cities Washington and Port of Seattle.
Photo credits: All images © Debbra Dunning Brouillette, unless otherwise noted.
Read more on GettingOnTravel.com:
For wine-lovers visiting Seattle, Washington (about 220 miles away, by car): Hotel Vintage Seattle
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