Two hundred miles east of Seattle, my husband and I met Kay and Clay. We were on a mission to secure a case of Chinook Wines' 2000 Yakima Valley Sauvignon Blanc and also to explore the eastern Washington wine scene. But even though we had heard how approachable Washington's wine country was, we still thought the Chinook winery would be, well . . . bigger. "I can't believe it's just this little house",said my husband, Jeff, turning off the two-lane Wine Country Road and parking next to a modest cottage surrounded by fields. In the Northwest, the Chinook label is synonymous with highly acclaimed wines.
Inside were Kay Simon, one of the region's most respected winemakers, and her husband, Clay Mackey, a pioneer viticulturist in the valley. There were no other employees, no other visitors. Surprised to find them manning the tasting room, we introduced ourselves, then spent a good half hour working our way through their exceptional list.
Mackey, we learned, had studied enology at the University of California–Davis and managed vineyards in Napa Valley before moving to Washington in the late 1970s, into what looked like a great opportunity. (It was.) When it was time to pack up our bottles of sauvignon blanc, Simon said, "Hope you don't mind waiting a few minutes while I glue on the labels."
This spontaneous encounter pretty much epitomized the spirit of our wine country weekend. Unlike some places, where wineries now charge tasting fees or require you to make appointments, Washington's wine country still feels somewhat shy, off the map, and as down-to-earth as the region's onion and asparagus fields. Not that the wines coming out of the area are still a secret. Washington is now the second largest wine-producing state in the nation behind California. But it's also the fastest growing: Twenty years ago the state had just 19 wineries; today (at last count), there are 170.
Chinook was one of a dozen vintners we visited on a recent trip from Seattle to Walla Walla and back. Of Washington's five officially designated appellations—Yakima Valley, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Red Mountain, and Puget Sound—four are located in the eastern part of the state. Our plan was to explore the wineries and stay in the city of Walla Walla, in the most distant corner of Washington wine country but also the part that's been generating the most buzz lately.
The Cascade Mountains slice Washington into two distinct climate zones: to the west, the hilly evergreen clad region embracing Puget Sound and, to the east, the warm dry slopes forming the Columbia Valley. Cross over the Cascades (about a two hour drive from Seattle) and the land abruptly changes from green to khaki, the air from chill mist to arid warmth. "There's almost an exact point past Ellensburg where you come over a rise and the sky suddenly clears," says Georgia Spencer of Bookwalter Winery. The sunny desert clime (the air was a balmy 78 degrees during our May visit) bodes well for grapes. Summer temperatures that hover between the mid-80s and 90s, along with the northern latitude's long hours of daylight and cool nights, produce near-perfect growing conditions.
Since we'd never visited this corner of the Northwest, we picked up a copy of Touring the Washington Wine Country, a handy guide put out by the Washington Wine Commission, and plotted our course. We left the freeway southeast of Yakima and followed Highway 12, which becomes Wine Country Road. The lumberyards and RV parks bordering the freeway outside Yakima soon gave way to pyramids of stacked apple crates, vast orchards crowded with apricot, peach, and cherry trees, and—eureka!—lush vineyards with row after row of grapes growing on south- and west-facing slopes. After Chinook, we stopped in at four wineries clustered at the heart of the Columbia Valley: Bookwalter, Barnard Griffin, Gordon Brothers, and Powers.
Originally known for its white wines, Washington is now making bigger news with its reds. At Barnard Griffin, we tried a sémillon as crisp as summer stone fruit before moving on to the 1999 cabernet, a big, velvety wine layered with blackberry and mint. At nearby Bookwalter, we were wowed even by its Red Table Wine #12, a well-priced multiple vintage bordeaux blend with a spicy finish that seemed perfect for summer barbecues, but we ended up splurging on several bottles of smooth merlot.
Our final stops before pulling into Walla Walla were the two I'd been most looking forward to: L'Ecole No. 41 and Woodward Canyon. L'Ecole No. 41 produces handcrafted varietals in a restored 1915 schoolhouse in the tiny town of Lowden. The tasting list is chalked on a blackboard and the book-lined tasting room (once a classroom) jumps with visitors on the Walla Walla wine circuit. From there, it's just a step down the road to Woodward Canyon. At first glance, you might not expect to be wooed by the wines here, but those who know Rick Small's giant cabs, rich merlots, and buttery chardonnays are in on the secret. Step across the threshold of a weathered farmhouse, complete with porch swing, and you're inside the front parlor of the tasting room, where you'll sample truly coveted wines.
We had no idea what to expect in Walla Walla. I wasn't sure we'd find any place of interest to stay, and little more than a year ago, word was that there were few restaurants worthy of the area's fine wines. But we needn't have worried. There is clearly something to Walla Walla—the revitalized but thankfully not cutefied downtown, the leafy campus of Whitman College, and the wide Main Street with its several tasting rooms, all within walking distance. We stayed at the city's top-notch historic hotel, the Marcus Whitman, which had just undergone a telling $35 million renovation. Our room, with its traditional wine country feel (burgundy spread, dark wood, framed pastoral prints), was a steal at $125.
From there, you might stroll downtown or walk next door to the region's most notable new restaurant. Opened two years ago, Whitehouse Crawford showcases the considerable talents of chef Jamie Guerin, formerly of Seattle's Campagne. Housed in an airy restored planing mill, the restaurant is sophisticated but suitably relaxed. We had fun perusing page after page of the wine list before settling on a Canoe Ridge Reserve Merlot ($75 per bottle)—an extravagance for us, but it seemed the right thing to do in a place where the local reds are clearly something worth celebrating. Whitehouse Crawford has been voted best new restaurant in Washington outside Seattle by Seattle magazine, and it's easy to see why. From the homemade boudin blanc sausage with peppery grilled radicchio to Jeff's grilled Oregon country rib eye steak, it was, simply, a meal perfectly matched to its surroundings.
Perhaps, in a place like Walla Walla, the real fun is in seeking out the small stars of tomorrow. After a morning jog around the Whitman College campus, we drove out to Mill Creek Road, a heart-stoppingly beautiful country lane edged by acres of fields, and beyond them the shadow of the Blue Mountains. At the Mill Creek Inn (where we vowed we'll stay next time), innkeeper Tiffany Wishart walked us through, pointing out the slate floors, handsome kitchen, and stone patio. I would gladly have moved in for good. She then filled us in on the half-dozen "garage" wineries recently opened on Mill Creek Road, and phoned ahead to see if Walla Walla Vintners' Myles Anderson, whose 2,500 cases of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc are highly sought after, was in. He wasn't.
"You should come back in late fall for the crush," Tiffany suggested.
And guess what: We booked a room on the spot. It isn't often, we figured, that you can't wait to get back to a place before you've even left.
Photography by Glenn Oakley
This article was first published in September 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA's Oregon / Washington TourBook and map. For a free copy of Touring the Washington Wine Country, with descriptions and locations of most wineries, contact the Washington Wine Commission, (206) 667-9463, www.washingtonwine.org.