Wine Country The Old-Fashioned Way
A visit to Washington State offers eno-travelers tastings, vineyard views and charming lodgings without crowds, buses or bustle.
By Paul Gregutt
Wine enthusiasts love the thrill of discovery. Whether it's a new wine, a new winery or a whole new wine region, they like to get there first. So heads up, you enological Lewis and Clarks: Washington State is on the brink of becoming the next big thing in wine tourism.
Washington, second only to California in American wine production, has fought long and hard to establish its claim to quality over quantity. It has won a well-deserved place among the world's finest wine-producing regions. But that recognition had been limited largely to knowledgeable collectors and those in the wine trade. Actually visiting Washington wine country is something few outside of the business have done.
Bluntly stated, the Napa type of wine-touring experience has never been available here. Wineries in Washington were scattered across hundreds of miles; vineyards were surrounded by scrubby desert wasteland; and charming restaurants and cozy inns were few and far between.
This is all changing, and virtually overnight. Walla Walla, which was home to fewer than a dozen wineries just seven years ago, now has more than 60, many with expansive tasting rooms, live concerts and special events. Two excellent white-tablecloth restaurants have opened in town; the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel has undergone a spectacular renovation, and there are enough tasting rooms on, or just off, Main Street to keep you occupied an entire weekend without getting in the car.
Closer to Seattle is an emerging region informally named Columbia Cascade, where two dozen wineries have opened in the past three years. The wineries are surrounded by spectacular natural mountain, lake and river gorge landscapes.
Also convenient to the city is the once-sleepy farming community of Woodinville, an easy half-hour drive from downtown Seattle. The burgeoning Woodinville wine scene is anchored by Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery, pioneering ventures that welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. But Woodinville is also home to some of Washington's most sought-after boutique producers, such as Betz Family, DeLille Cellars, Januik, Mark Ryan and Matthews Cellars.
Jane Baxter Lynn, recently installed as executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, has made wine tourism her top priority. Drawing on her own discoveries while visiting wineries around the state, this transplanted East Coaster admits that, prior to moving west, her familiarity with Washington State was limited to some vague notions about soggy Seattle and the romantic San Juan islands.
"I knew nothing about this place when I came here," she beams. "This is a fabulous state. It's a secret waiting to be uncovered."
The uncovering is proceeding full speed ahead. Phase one was the launching of the state's first-ever national marketing campaign, sporting a colorful logo of a sun and grapevine, and the motto, "Washington State—The Perfect Climate For Wine." The graphic cheerfully makes the point that Washington does grow wine grapes, and yes, the sun does shine—a lot.
Phase two is the introduction of a completely redesigned Web site (www.washingtonwine.org), which offers consumers detailed guidance on wine touring throughout the state, and useful links to winery Web sites and regional associations. The Commission has also produced a free, 96-page guidebook, with touring maps, lists of recommended lodging and restaurants, and thumbnail sketches of most of the state's 320 wineries.
Despite all the enthusiasm, there are still major obstacles to the development of wine tourism. Baxter Lynn maintains that the state's main problem is that its wine production is still unknown to many. "We've done a great job promoting wine," she says, "but awareness and consumption, even here in Washington, is low." She notes that only 85 percent of the state's residents are aware that wine is made here.
For out-of-state visitors, there is the ongoing confusion between Washington State and Washington D.C. "Which side of the Potomac are the grapes grown on?" is a question still voiced by too many potential visitors. Worse yet, the Columbia Valley, Washington's all-encompassing appellation, has no real core or focus, and there is no significant town or city named Columbia.
Still more confusion accrues because so many of the best wineries, such as Quilceda Creek, Andrew Will, Cadence and the Woodinville crowd, reside in western Washington (the Seattle side of the Cascade mountains), while almost all the vineyards are located in the hot, sunny eastern half of the state. But determined wine tourists will find that, using Seattle as headquarters, there are easy day trips, overnighters and weekend sojourns for those who wish to explore Washington wine country in its full breadth and splendor.
From Seattle Daytripping to Woodinville
General information Woodinville Wine Country
14580 NE 145th Street
14582 NE 145th Street
14590 NE 145th Street
Reserve well in advance!
14459 Woodinville-Redmond Road
Chateau Ste. Michelle
14111 NE 145th Street
14030 NE 145th Street
15029 Woodinville-Redmond Road NE; tel: 800.318.9463
Most notable event
4th Annual Passport
April 2-3, 2005
General information Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance
Marcus Whitman Hotel
6 W. Rose Street
Centrally located, with conference center and restaurant Inn at Abeja
2014 Mill Creek Road
A country farmhouse, barn and winery. Charming and quiet.
207 W. Main Street
55 W. Cherry Street
Both of the above restaurants are white-tablecloth, destination restaurants, with extensive wine lists and historically interesting décor.
4 E. Main Street
230 E. Main Street
Friendly pubs that offer bistro food and beer as well as local wines.
Most notable event
Vintage Walla Walla
June 4, 2005
More low-key and local than the big events in May, with better weather and a chance to obtain rare, aged and big bottle wines at auction. Only 300 tickets are sold.
General information Columbia Cascade Winery Association
Lake Chelan Wineries
Eagle Creek Cottage
10037 Eagle Creek Road,
104 W. Woodin Avenue, Chelan
Inn at Cave B
Opening Spring 2005
636 Front Street, Leavenworth
104 W. Woodin Avenue, Chelan
tel: 800.553.8225 Exceptional wine list with a focus on Chelan/Columbia Cascade wineries.
The Idle Hour Café & Steakhouse
18 "B" Street SE, Quincy
Funky, friendly steakhouse w
ith a great list of Washington wines.
Most notable event
Spring Barrel Tasting
May 13-15, 2005
What it lacks in vines, Woodinville makes up for in accessibility, lack of congestion and diversity. The town itself is a bit like pre-COPIA Napa: it's a working-class farm community, now rapidly being suburbanized. Surrounding it is the lush Sammamish River Valley, home to several large wineries well equipped to handle tourists. The two largest, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia, each have inviting, well-stocked tasting rooms, with many old vintages on sale at quite reasonable prices.
Both are open daily, offer free tours and frequently host weddings and large groups. The Chateau also holds concerts in the summer months, where stars such as Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall perform on the outdoor stage while guests sip wine and dine on picnic foods. It's not unusual for the performers to be upstaged, if only briefly, by the rising full moon, brightly colored hot air balloons and whistles from passing trains.
Silver Lake also hosts visitors seven days a week, and on weekends offers samples of wines from newly acquired sister winery Glen Fiona, in Walla Walla.
Some of the smaller Woodinville wineries, such as Austin Robaire, DiStefano, Facelli, Mark Ryan and Woodhouse Family Cellars, maintain regular tasting room hours on weekends. Others are open only by appointment, or during special events such as Passport to Woodinville Weekend. Held twice each year (the next dates are April 2-3), a $40 passport allows guests to visit and taste at almost every winery in the area, including the most exclusive boutiques.
Savvy visitors also know that phoning in advance will often open doors that are officially closed to the public. Signing up for a small winery's mailing list, or one of the private wine clubs that the larger wineries operate, will guarantee admission to special events, bottling weekends, and celebrations when the new vintages are released (generally in the late fall and spring).
The Willows Lodge, a luxurious log-and-stone inn located in the heart of wine country, features daily wine tastings and special wine packages. Their Barking Frog restaurant was given the "Most Innovative Wine List" award by the Washington Wine Commission in 2004. Just across the courtyard is the Herbfarm restaurant, a foodie favorite offering seasonal menus of fixed-price, multi-course meals and a 2,900-bottle wine list featuring multiple vintages of rare Washington wines. Also recommended for its extensive selection of Washington vintages is The Purple Café & Wine Bar, which entertains wine lovers (and local winemakers) with events such as Brown Bag Night, when you can win a $25 gift certificate by correctly guessing four different wine varieties. About to break ground this spring and summer are new wineries for Betz, DiStefano, Januik and Novelty Hill. Silver Lake will be breaking ground on a multi-use project for their winery (and their newly acquired Glen Fiona label). And the Woodinville city council recently gave zoning approval to a proposed $50 million, European-style wine village, with boutique wineries, specialty food shops, restaurants and condos. The pedestrian-friendly and mixed-use development would be a first for the region.
Columbia Cascade Wine, scenery and lederhosen
If you have two days and a car, a picturesque two-and-a-half hour drive over Stevens Pass drops you into the quaint town of Leavenworth, which does its best to look like a Bavarian village. There are shops stuffed with peppermills and nutcrackers aplenty, and this is also the place to stock up on lederhosen. But the town also has a fine, wine-friendly Italian restaurant, Visconti's, nine tasting rooms and delightful discoveries such as the Hi-Strung Music & Pickin' Parlor, where guitar junkies can sample vintage Martins dating back to the 1930s.
Nearby, amidst spectacular mountain scenery are at least a half-dozen boutique wineries, all less than five years old. Some, like Boudreaux Cellars, are open only by appointment, but its setting, deep in the interior of Icicle Canyon, makes it unforgettable. Eagle Creek Winery, a few miles north of town on Eagle Creek Road, has a cozy B&B attached. Icicle Ridge, set amidst pear orchards, welcomes you into the family's spacious log home.
The Leavenworth wineries are part of a newly developing Columbia Cascade winery triangle that reaches north to Lake Chelan and southeast to a Grand Canyon-like stretch of the Columbia River. Best known as the site of a world-renowned outdoor concert venue (the Gorge at George), this is also home to Cave B Cellars, an ambitious new winery that will serve as the anchor for a destination resort set to open this spring. It includes an inn, 15 detached casitas strung out along the edge of the rocky bluff, state-of-the-art meeting facilities, vineyards, wine caves and a tasting room. Their winemaker is Berle "Rusty" Figgins, brother of Leonetti's Gary Figgins.
The location alone makes Cave B a true jaw-dropper, but close behind it is the Tuscan villa-styled Tsillan Cellars, one of several ringing Lake Chelan, a popular four-season recreational spot. This showplace winery is surrounded by 30 acres of vineyards, an outdoor fountain and amphitheater for live performances, and a spacious tasting room. It's spearheading changes in a region that is rapidly switching from apple orchards to vineyards, and using the existing recreational tourist facilities to amp up visitor interest.
A driving tour of the entire Columbia Cascade circuit can be done in a weekend, but would certainly offer enough attractions for a much longer visit.
Walla Walla Where the Old Guard and boutiques coexist
Last but certainly not least on the must-see list of Washington wine touring is the historic college town of Walla Walla, the town so nice they named it twice. It's located in the southeast corner of the state, a half-day's drive from Seattle. The Walla Walla AVA, which was recognized in 1984, is bordered by the rolling wheat country called the Palouse on the north, by the Blue Mountains to the east, and crosses the Oregon border a few miles south of town.
Leonetti Cellar and Woodward Canyon began modern-day winemaking in the region about 25 years ago, joined shortly thereafter by Seven Hills, L'Ecole No. 41 and Waterbrook. But despite their high-quality wines and national reputations, the region's growth stalled until the late 1990s, when a spate of garagiste wineries took up residence in the little-used Port of Walla Walla warehouses clustered around the local airport. Today the town and its tightly knit community of 60-plus wineries hosts wine events year-round, and welcomes visitors with generous tasting rooms, charming B&Bs, and restaurants committed to using local ingredients (and expansive Walla Walla wine lists).
The first full weekend in May (May 7-8, 2005) is Spring Release weekend, when the wines of the new vintage are showcased. The following weekend is the Balloon Stampede, when the vineyards are in bud and the skies are filled with colorful hot air balloons. In early June a new, more exclusive event, called Vintage Walla Walla, features current releases as well as gems from winemakers' own private cellars.
Most of Walla Walla's newcomers are tiny boutiques whose production totals a few hundred cases. Their wines are doled out to a handful of shops, restaurants, and tasting room visitors. In the spring and fall, when new releases are most abundant, a swing through the region can be exceptionally rewarding to the treasure hunter.
Whether you do just a brief day tour of Seattle-area wineries, or take to the road and soak in the spectacular scenery east of the Cascades, time in any of Washington's eager young wine regions is sure to leave you convinced that the state has what it takes to be a world-class wine touring destination. Want to find affordable, handcrafted wines before the critics do? Now's the time to put Washington State on your dream list of undiscovered, unspoiled and unbeatable wine country.