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Wine Tasting in Prosser, WA 2016

Wine tasting in Prosser, WA: Visiting a tiny historic town in the Horse Heaven Hills, with lots of wineries and a fabulous dinner

 

For our anniversary this year, we wanted a quick getaway out of the city, but we didn’t have a lot of time or money. Since we both love wine tasting and have so much of Washington’s extensive wine country left to explore, we decided to check out Prosser.

Prosser is in the Yakima Valley and Horse Heaven Hills region of southern Washington State. It is about a 45 minute drive south east of Yakima, and an hour and a half west of Walla Walla. It was roughly a 3.5 hour trek from Seattle. We chose Prosser as it appeared from looking at the map that there were quite a few tasting rooms and a nice restaurant in walking distance from the Best Western, which meant that we didn’t have to worry about drinking and transportation.

We left Seattle at 8:00 AM on Saturday, timing our arrival in Prosser for right around when the winery tasting rooms open. Once we began our drive south on I-84 just after Ellensburg, the landscape changed dramatically. The mountain forests and valley farmland gave way to dry, rolling hills and desert sagebrush.

We arrived in Prosser just after 11:00, and ventured into the historic downtown area. It was late morning on a Saturday, but downtown had barely a soul in site. There were some antique shops open, but not a whole lot going on. The buildings were old, reminiscent of the wild west. Prosser felt like a ghost town that a group of people had recently decided to inhabit again.

Historic downtown Prosser, WA
Historic downtown Prosser, WA
Downtown Prosser, WA
Downtown Prosser, WA

We had brought some picnic items with us, but wanted to find a grocery store where we could get a baguette to go with our meats, cheese, and pickles. The only grocery store in town appeared to be the Prosser Food Depot in the downtown area. We were able to find a baguette, and the store looked like it had most of the essentials.

Armed with snacks, we were ready to taste some wine. Our first stop was 14 Hands Winery just on the outskirts of downtown. We were familiar with their commonly found grocery store wines, and wanted to know what else they had to offer.

14 Hands Winery, Prosser, WA
14 Hands Winery, Prosser, WA
14 Hands Winery, Prosser, WA
14 Hands Winery, Prosser, WA

14 Hands Winery is themed after the Horse Heaven Hills and the wild horses that once inhabited this region of Eastern Washington. Our host was very friendly and greeted us immediately when we walked in, and had no problem with us bringing in a few snacks while we were tasting the wine. There was a country band playing that was covering old Johnny Cash songs and other old-style country songs.

The wines we tasted were their reserves, only available at the winery. The reserve Syrah was our favorite of the wines we tried, which included a Savignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, a Rose of Malbec, a Cabernet, and a Merlot. They were all nice, but not wonderful enough to make us cough up the $30 a bottle price. The tasting fee was $7.00 per person, waived if you buy a bottle. They sell their regularly distributed wines there as well for $10-$12 a bottle, so it made sense to buy two of those for a few extra dollars than to pay the tasting fee.

Next, we moved on outside of town to one of the oldest wineries in the region, Pontin Del Roza. Pontin Del Roza Winery has been making wine since the 1980’s, but the Pontin family has been farming the land for the majority of the 20th century. The tasting room was air conditioned and quiet, giving us a chance to talk to owner for a bit.

Pontin Del Roza Winery, Prosser, WA
Pontin Del Roza Winery, Prosser, WA
Pontin Del Roza Winery, Prosser, WA
Pontin Del Roza Winery, Prosser, WA

Pontin Del Roza Winery had a very nice sweet (but not too sweet) Chenin Blanc, a couple reds that I hadn’t heard of (but wasn’t a huge fan of), and some other very tasty wines including a Merlot, a Cabernet, and a nice Rose.

The outdoor patio was very relaxing and there was a bocce ball court. We were welcome to sit and eat the rest of our picnic out on the patio. There were carafes of water with mint and cucumber, and sodas for sale as well. I ordered a glass of the Chenin Blanc to go with our picnic and got an extremely generous pour.

Pontin Del Roza Winery patio prosser
Pontin Del Roza Winery patio
Picnic at Pontin Del Roza Winery, Prosser
Picnic at Pontin Del Roza Winery, Prosser

After lunch at Pontin Del Roza, we were ready to check into the hotel and ditch the car. You can only do a little bit of wine tasting if you are driving.

We checked into the Best Western at Horse Heaven Hills, which was about what you can expect a Best Western to be. It was nice to have AC and a fridge in the room, and the bed was comfortable.

Our room at the Best Western in Prosser
Our room at the Best Western in Prosser

We had chosen this Best Western because it was in walking distance to Prosser’s Vintner’s Village. Vintner’s Village is essentially the mini Disneyland of wine tasting, with 10 winery tasting rooms in one 32-acre area, along with one nice restaurant. There is also an RV park near the village with a RV sites, a couple of tent sites, and an outdoor pool as well if you want to camp.

Vintner’s Village is pretty much set up for wine tourism. The Village and the Best Western are fairly new, attempting to bring a collection of the regional wineries together in one spot, working together to make it convenient for tourists.

Vintner's Village, Prosser WA
Vintner’s Village, Prosser WA
Vintner's Village, Prosser WA
Vintner’s Village, Prosser WA

You’re not going to find picturesque vineyards and gorgeous grapes growing in the sun here. It’s pretty much just a collection of very large tasting rooms with a few nice courtyards. However, it was nice to taste at our leisure and not have to worry about driving or transportation.

We only made it to two of the tasting rooms, as it was late in the afternoon. The tasting rooms are generally open from 11:00 or 12:00 to 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon. The 91 degree desert sun was extremely hot. We approached a large complex called “Winemaker’s Loft” in the style of a Tuscan villa. Inside were a couple different wineries, and we started with Coyote Canyon.

"Winemaker's Loft" in Vintner's Village, Prosser WA
“Winemaker’s Loft” in Vintner’s Village, Prosser WA

We tasted a lot of wine at Coyote Canyon, and the wine server and her little dog were very accommodating. We didn’t taste any that “wowed” us enough to buy a bottle, so we thanked them and headed next door to Martinez & Martinez. We were a bit tipsy at this point, so this was going to have to be our last stop. It was also just about closing time for the tasting rooms.

Martinez & Martinez has a little tasting room with a lot of Mexican-inspired art. The hosts were friendly. The best part about their tasting room however, was the frozen wine slushie machine. It was the perfect ending to our day of wine tasting on a hot Eastern Washington day. It was made with the Martinez & Martinez Rose, and tasted a lot like sangria with added fruit juice.

Wine slushie at Martinez & Martinez winery in Vintner's Village, Prosser
Wine slushie at Martinez & Martinez winery in Vintner’s Village, Prosser
Wine slushie at Martinez & Martinez winery in Vintner's Village, Prosser
Wine slushie at Martinez & Martinez winery in Vintner’s Village, Prosser

After we finished our slushie, we headed back to the room to cool off and rest for a bit.

Our dinner reservation was at 7:00 at the one restaurant in Vintner’s Village, Wine O Clock Wine Bar. I had read that reservations were strongly recommended, so I filled out their online contact form and requested a reservation the week prior.

Wine O Clock in Prosser Vintner's Village
Wine O Clock in Prosser Vintner’s Village

The restaurant is part of the Bunnell Family wine cellar. The dining room is set up like you are eating in someone’s house, with a very homey open kitchen, tables with Kitchen Aid mixers and cook books in the corners, and a TV with muted vintage Julia Childs cooking shows running on a continuous loop.

Wine O Clock Restaurant and Wine Bar in Vintners Village, Prosser
Wine O Clock Restaurant and Wine Bar in Vintners Village, Prosser

The menu changes weekly with the seasonal whims of the chef and her garden. You can pair your entree with a suggested wine flight instead of committing to a single glass so that you can get a sampling of the Bunnell wines while you dine.

The water served had cucumbers in it, which was a nice refreshing touch on such a hot day.

Wine flights at Wine O Clock wine bar in Prosser
Wine flights at Wine O Clock wine bar in Prosser
Wine flights at Wine O Clock wine bar in Prosser
Wine flights at Wine O Clock wine bar in Prosser

We started with the burrata, which came with a fruit jam, fresh figs, and toasted baguette slices. Everything was top quality, although we did think the burrata cheese could have used just a pinch of sea salt or something to zest it up a bit. Just a personal preference.

Burrata appetizer at Wine O Clock in Prosser
Burrata appetizer at Wine O Clock in Prosser Vintner’s Village

For our entrees, Paddy had the pork loin with sweet potato cakes, and I had the nicoise salad with a bearnaise sauce, golden beets, and seared ahi tuna. Both were delicious.

Paddy’s entree had fresh garlic greens that were delicious. We couldn’t believe we’d never had them before. They kind of tasted like a garlicky asparagus stalk. Everything was delicious.

Wine O Clock in Prosser Vintner's Village
Wine O Clock in Prosser Vintner’s Village
Nicoise salad with seared ahi tuna at Wine O Clock in Prosser Vintner's Village
Nicoise salad with seared ahi tuna at Wine O Clock in Prosser Vintner’s Village

For dessert we shared the chocolate mousse cake, which came with a dessert wine of sorts that the server told us to taste before she would tell us what it was. It was sweet and robust and very complimentary to the rich chocolate. It was a cherry cordial, with no grapes at all. The chef makes it to serve in the restaurant but doesn’t have a license to bottle and sell it at the moment.

Chocolate mousse cake at Wine O Clock in Prosser Vintner's Village
Chocolate mousse cake at Wine O Clock in Prosser Vintner’s Village

After dinner we walked outside into the warm twilight. It was such a nice evening, finally a comfortable temperature to walk around in. There was a party going on over at Winemaker’s Loft with a BBQ and a Mexican band. It looked fun but we didn’t feel like shelling out the $10 cover.

 

We wished we had the time and money to stay another night and check out more of the region and Vintner’s Village, but we’ll have to come back another time. The warm evening and the RV park across the street made us wish we had a trailer to camp in instead of the hotel.

Overall, Prosser was a great quick anniversary getaway and we’d love to come back. If you want to do some wine tasting in the Yakima to Walla Walla area of Washington, this is a great stop with easy access to a lot of wine and accommodations in one place.

Walla Walla, WA 2016: Sweet Onions and Wine

Walla Walla, Washington 2016: A quick girls’ weekend trip to Walla Walla during their annual Sweet Onion festival. Onions, great food, and wine, wine, and more wine…

 

I’d never been to Walla Walla, WA, or knew much about Walla Walla other than that it was in Eastern Washington, contained the state penitentiary, and was the home of the infamous Walla Walla sweet yellow onion.

My friend and I read that there was an annual Sweet Onion Festival every year in June, and we decided this year we’d check it out. In addition to onions, we assumed we’d be guaranteed sunshine on the east side of the Cascade Mountains (sunshine is not as frequent in Seattle in June), and we’d heard there was lots of great wine in the area and were hoping to do some wine tasting. Onions, sunshine, and wine–(three great tastes that go great together?) A girls’ trip seemed in order.

Day 1:

We left cold, rainy, Seattle at 6:30 AM to get a head start on the long drive. We were all wearing sundresses and tank tops, expecting gorgeous rays of 75 degree summer sun to blind us at any moment as we went over Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascades.

To our disappointment, the rain and 56 degree temperatures continued to follow us from Seattle. Confident that the 75 degree sunshine that the weather report promised us would appear any moment, we cranked up some disco on the stereo and sallied forth to wine and onion country.

We ran into a little snag in our route with an accident fully blocking both lanes of a highway, and had to detour which turned our 4.5 hour drive into a 5 hour drive, but it wasn’t too bad. We had snacks. We arrived in Walla Walla at 11:30 AM, and checked into the Motel 6.

Motel 6 Walla Walla
Motel 6 Walla Walla

The Motel 6 was clean, basic, and the beds were comfy. A fridge was included, which we utilized. There was a laughably small pool off of the parking lot, and a convenience store next door. The best thing about the Motel 6 however, was the location. It was right in downtown Walla Walla and in walking distance to everywhere.

**Note: Hotel reservations recommended in advance for the Onion Festival weekend.

Unfortunately, it was still rainy and not any warmer than when we left Seattle. Gretchen (who is always prepared) had brought a couple umbrellas which helped tremendously as we walked around town. We were hungry, so we scouted out somewhere for lunch.

We didn’t scout very long. Despite the umbrellas, we were unprepared in our cardigan sweaters and sundresses for rain and the light wind that seemed to be picking up. We settled on the first place that looked good, which was Wingman Birdz & Brewz.

Wingman Birdz & Brewz, Walla Walla
Wingman Birdz & Brewz, Walla Walla

The food was good and the service was friendly. I had the “Second Runner-Up Grilled Cheese” which was grilled cheese on brioche with three kinds of cheese, tomato, bacon, and avocado. It was delicious, albiet a little pricey at $12.00 for grilled cheese.

Second Runner-Up Grilled Cheese at Wingman Birdz & Brew Walla Walla
Second Runner-Up Grilled Cheese at Wingman Birdz & Brew Walla Walla

The rain and wind still weren’t letting up after lunch, so we ducked into the little Macy’s on Main Street in hopes of finding raincoats on sale. We were in luck, and found a raincoat and a hooded sweatshirt for $15 -$20 each in the deep discount section. Macy’s is a pricey store, but when they have a sale, they have a SALE.

The locals kept remarking on how unusual the weather was, and lamenting about the poor Onion Festival that was getting rained out. We passed the small corridor of vendor tents comprising the festival on our walk, but just didn’t feel like being in the rain. It didn’t look like we were the only ones, there weren’t a lot of people milling around at the festival.

We explored a couple antique shops, and a great little soap and body care shop on Main Street called Midnight Oil Soap and Apothecary. The very creative and fun soaps and personal care products are all made by the owner Kim on her farm outside of town, many made from goat milk from her own goats. I was enticed by some glittery cucumber melon body butter, which I regretted not purchasing then as we discovered the next day that she was closed on Sundays. Fortunately, she sells her products online as well. If you’re looking for a gift for someone, this is a great place to shop.

midnight oil wine soap walla walla
Image from http://midnight-oil-soap-apothecaary.myshopify.com/
The Hot Poop record store, Walla Walla
The Hot Poop record store, Walla Walla

The rain still wasn’t letting up, (despite the weather reports on our phones still proclaiming 73 and sunny weather for the afternoon) so we decided it was time to start wine tasting. We ducked into the first tasting room we encountered, which was the Mark Ryan Winery.

Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla
Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla

We tasted several wines, some with names that led me to believe that Mr. Ryan is an avid Pearl Jam fan (“Crazy Mary” and “The Dissident” for example). The tasting room had nice atmosphere and a very friendly host who came around to pour the wines for us while we sat by the window. We did find the $10 tasting fee to be a little steep here, but it is waived if you buy a bottle.

Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla
Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla
Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla
Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla

The Dissident was our favorite wine that we tasted, a hearty red blend of cabernet, cabernet franc, merlot, and petit verdot.

Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla
Mark Ryan winery tasting room, Walla Walla

Walla Walla has 25+ tasting rooms in the downtown area, which is actually a little overwhelming. We decided to ask our friendly host where she recommended we head to next, and she recommended the Rotie Cellars tasting room across the street.

The Rotie Cellars tasting room felt like a law office waiting room, pretty bland with not much character. The wines were quite the opposite, however. We loved them all, but the Southern White was my favorite. A very summery, fruity and refreshing wine for a hot summer day. The name and flavor made me want to go sit on a big porch in Georgia, eating peaches and drinking this wine on a hot, sticky, southern summer night.

There weren’t a lot of wines to taste (I think we tasted 4?) but they were all very nice. Tasting fee was $5.00.

Rotie Winery tasting room Walla Walla
Rotie Winery tasting room Walla Walla

We asked our friendly wine server at Rotie where he recommended going next, and he directed us over to 2nd Avenue just off of Main Street where there were a few of his favorites.

We found Spring Valley Vineyard, which our Rotie server highly recommended. This tasting room proved to be our favorite one hands down.

Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room, Walla Walla
Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room, Walla Walla

In addition to fabulous wines, Spring Valley is a family run vineyard with a lot of family history going back to the 1890’s. The service was excellent, with a dose of the family history to go along with it. I don’t know what the tasting fee was because we all bought wine here (it was waived with purchase, whatever it was), but if it is $10.00 it is worth it. They invite you to try all six of their wines, each one proudly named after a member of their family. You can taste the love in each sip.

In addition to delicious wine and excellent hospitality, we were served a chocolate truffle with our last wine–a Syrah named Nina Lee. The truffle was infused with the Nina Lee Syrah as well. That is the wine I went home with, along with a little two pack of the truffles to share with Paddy later.

Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room, Walla Walla
Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room, Walla Walla
Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room, Walla Walla
Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room, Walla Walla
Wine tasting at Spring Valley tasting room, Walla Walla
Wine tasting at Spring Valley tasting room, Walla Walla

When we left Spring Valley, we were significantly buzzed but couldn’t resist one more tasting room next door at Maison Bleue, another family-run winery with extensive vineyards in the Walla Walla area and two in the Columbia Valley.

Maison Bleue Winery Walla Walla
Maison Bleue Winery Walla Walla
Maison Bleue tasting room Walla Walla
Maison Bleue tasting room Walla Walla
Maison Bleue tasting room Walla Walla
Maison Bleue tasting room Walla Walla

At Maison Bleue we tasted four reds and two whites, including two different Chardonnays. The first Chardonnay was aged in stainless steel, the second was aged in a traditional oak barrel. I’m not a fan of oakey Chardonnay, but the stainless steel aged chardonnay was very nice. The Syrah was my favorite red, but I’m a little partial to Syrah.

When we left Maison Bleue– low and behold–the sun was finally out. A little drunk, we walked back to the hotel to lay in the sun near the tiny parking lot swimming pool. One of us may or may not have fallen into the pool fully clothed. The sun was nice. Eventually we were joined by children doing cannonballs, so we retired to the room to take naps before dinner.

Lounging by the Motel 6 pool, Walla Walla
Lounging by the Motel 6 pool, Walla Walla
Lounging by the Motel 6 pool, Walla Walla
Lounging by the Motel 6 pool, Walla Walla

 

For dinner we had made an 8:00 PM reservation at The Ox & Cart at the recommendation of the wonderful people at Spring Valley Winery. We’d had visions of enjoying more lovely Walla Walla wine with a nice dinner, but we were a bit wined out. The waitress gave me a funny look when I ordered a bloody mary, and asked if I had an evening hangover. Yes, something like that. The bloody mary was excellent–it came with house pickled pearl onions.

Ox & Cart, Walla Walla
Ox & Cart, Walla Walla
Ox & Cart, Walla Walla
Ox & Cart, Walla Walla

We were hoping that there might be a special dish for the onion festival highlighting the Walla Walla sweet onion, but it didn’t seem that many restaurants were on board with that. Nonetheless, The Ox & Cart was a great choice for dinner. It is part of the new farm-to-table style of cuisine focusing on regional organically grown food.

Gretchen and Kari shared the Amberjack Crudo appetizer, which they said was outstanding. I felt like I needed some fresh veggies in my life, so I ordered the Spring’s Bounty Salad as a starter, a fresh mix of asparagus tips, fava beans, cucumbers, and other veggies with green garlic and a champagne vinaigrette. It was just what I needed.

Spring's Bounty Salad, Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla
Spring’s Bounty Salad, Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla
Amberjack Crudo,Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla
Amberjack Crudo,Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla

For an entree I had the Oregon Sole  with crispy potato cake and sauteed spinach, which I didn’t expect to be battered and fried but it was great regardless. I found it a tiny bit under-seasoned and could have used a bit of salt to jazz it up, but salt wasn’t provided on the table.

Gretchen had the Buttermilk Fried Chicken with waffles, which she said was amazing. Kari had the Study in Foraged Mushrooms with charbroiled morels and porcini mushrooms, asparagus and wheat berries.

Oregon Sole, Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla
Oregon Sole, Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla
Buttermilk Fried Chicken & Waffles, Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla
Buttermilk Fried Chicken & Waffles, Ox & Cart restaurant, Walla Walla

All the food tasted extremely fresh and a lot of care was put into each dish. If I go back I may be tempted to bring some sea salt along in my purse though.

After dinner it was about 10:00, and we were tired but curious to see what kind of Walla Walla nightlife was going down. We did not find much. We found two bars that had some action–one was very crowded and the other had some kind of punk band all ages show going on. We weren’t feeling it for either of those scenes.

There was also a country/classic rock band playing the remnants of the little Onion Festival on Main Street, to a crowd of about 20. It was cute.

We were hoping to find a bar to have a quiet drink in, but there wasn’t much of any place that we saw to have a quiet drink in open at 11:00 PM. We were tired from an early morning and all that day drinking, so we decided to turn in for the night.

Walla Walla Onion Festival nightlife
Walla Walla Onion Festival nightlife

 

Day 2:

We woke up to the Eastern Washington summer sun shining full force outside. We checked out of the hotel and walked into town in search of sustenance.

We walked by Bacon and Eggs, which must be awesome because it was packed with a line out the door. We weren’t in the mood for a long wait, and decided on the Olive Marketplace on Main Street. There was no wait, and had shady tables outside on the sidewalk. Their menu was amazing. I wanted everything, it was hard to decide. Breakfast flatbread pizza with pork belly and farm fresh egg? Chevre asparagus strata? Maple braised pork belly with sweet potato hash? It was all too much. And that doesn’t even cover their baked goods, which were completely out of control.

Kari had a fig danish and the vegetable benedict with roasted veggies, Gretchen had the baked brioche french toast with pink lady apples and fresh berries, and I had the smoked salmon benedict with lox and poached eggs on a home baked biscuit with spinach. It was all outstanding.

Smoked Salmon Benedict, Olive Marketplace, Walla
Smoked Salmon Benedict, Olive Marketplace, Walla Walla
Vegetable Benedict, Olive Marketplace, Walla Walla
Vegetable Benedict, Olive Marketplace, Walla Walla
Baked Brioche French Toast, Olive Marketplace, Walla
Baked Brioche French Toast, Olive Marketplace, Walla

I got a peek into the kitchen from the expansive dining area and there were several huge, delicious looking layer cakes standing on the kitchen island that were waiting for something.

You order at the counter, and food and coffee are brought out to you when they are ready. The prices were very reasonable. They also had a large display case of deli items such as olives and fancy cheeses ready for someone’s picnic. Their lunch menu looked amazing as well. I will definitely be coming back here next time I make it to Walla Walla.

Olive Marketplace, Walla
Olive Marketplace, Walla
Olive Marketplace, Walla
Olive Marketplace, Walla

After breakfast, we decided to check out the Sweet Onion Festival on Main Street. It was mostly two blocks of vendors lining the street, all selling arts, handicrafts, and local gourmet foods. I bought some organic garlic and some Walla Walla sweet onion mustard.

Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival
Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival

There were also some good photo opportunities:

Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival
Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival
Walla Walla Onion Festival

We walked around the main part of town a little longer, visiting another great antique store called Tra Vigne on Main Street that had all kinds of treasures. Gretchen found a pie safe that she was in love with but was too big to transport back in her car. However, we found out that the owner does trips to Seattle and will deliver for a very reasonable price.

We made one last stop at Bright’s Candies to pick up some jelly beans for Kari’s kids before we headed home. They sell all kinds of classic candy as well as ice cream and house-made chocolates.

Brights Candies, Walla Walla
Brights Candies, Walla Walla
Brights Candies, Walla Walla
Brights Candies, Walla Walla

The drive back to Seattle took about 5 hours again, due to a slight slow-down on I-90 due to a couple of accidents. The long drive was worth it though, it was a short but very fun weekend.

I liked Walla Walla more than I thought I would, and I would absolutely visit Walla Walla again. The only large drawback is the long drive from Seattle. While the Sweet Onion Festival was cute, it turned out not to be the main draw. The main draw to Walla Walla these days is wine. It was the perfect place to sample some of the great wine that Washington State has to offer, with many vineyards you can drive to outside of town and tour, and a plethora of tasting rooms in the downtown area that don’t require driving (always something we look for with wine tasting). In addition, there seemed to be a number of great restaurants to compliment all that great wine, something that Paddy and I have had trouble finding on some of our other Washington wine tasting adventures.

I am looking forward to bringing Paddy back to Walla Walla in the future, and staying a bit longer than one night to see more of the area.

Wine Tasting Tips for Beginners

Wine tasting tips for beginners: what to expect and how to have a great wine tasting adventure

 

Paddy and I love wine. We also love food, and the two go hand in hand. We are lucky to live in one of the top wine producing states in the US, Washington State. Wine tourism has boomed in Washington over the last 20 years, with new wineries and vineyards springing up all over the state. The highest concentration of Washington wineries are on the east side of the Cascade Mountains, and there are so many to choose from that it can be quite overwhelming. Wine tasting is one of our favorite tourism activities in our home state, and we’ve been on several wine tasting adventures.

We know a considerable amount about wine, but not a ton. We are by no means experts and there is A LOT to learn. We really enjoy drinking wine and pairing wine with food, but we don’t always know what we’re doing.

Here are some wine tasting tips for beginners based on our experiences:

1. You don’t have to know anything about wine

If you don’t know anything about wine, except that you kind of like it and are curious to know more, wine tasting is the best way to learn. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t feel like a failure if you can’t taste all the “notes of fig and honeysuckle” like the wine description says you should. It can take a while to develop your palate. Concentrate on finding out what you like and don’t like in a wine–reds or whites, sweet or dry, fruity or spicy, light or robust and smoky. Remember the types of the wines that you liked, and remember that not all types of wines are created equal. Some wineries might make a chardonnay that you love, while others may have ones that you aren’t so into. Just taste and learn. Don’t be afraid to ask the winery questions.

2. Wine tasting is a daytime activity

Wine tasting rooms are typically open between noon and 5:00 PM, with some opening as early as 10:00 AM and some closing as early as 4:00 PM. It’s generally not an activity to do after dinner, and will monopolize your whole afternoon, so don’t have any other plans that day unless they are in the morning. Also, you may end up needing a nap before dinner after all that wine…

3. You will most likely get a little drunk, so have a safe transportation plan

One of the downsides about wine tasting is that a lot of areas have wineries that you have to drive to. Since drinking and driving is not a good idea, you have several options to address this common conundrum:

  1. Have a designated driver–your DD can spit the wine out into the receptacle at the wine counter after tasting, or opt out of tasting altogether.
  2. Join a wine tasting tour or hire a driver. Many of these can be expensive or book out far in advance, so plan accordingly. It is nice to have a driver.
  3. Stay in a town with wine tasting rooms in walking distance from your hotel
  4. Drive to only one or two wineries, and/or have a picnic at one of them after tasting while you sober up. Many wineries are happy to let you sit out and eat some snacks while you sip. A lot of them don’t have food licenses so they have no problem with you bringing your own.

Our plan of attack is usually a combo of suggestions 4 and 5. We like to find a hotel in walking distance from tasting rooms, but drive to a couple in the beginning before we get buzzed to see some of the pretty vineyards and grapes. Some good Washington towns with ample tasting rooms in walking distance from downtown lodging are Leavenworth, Wenatchee, Prosser, and Walla Walla.

wine tasting tips
Getting out of town and seeing the grapes growing in the vineyards is a great part of the experience. Just be sure to be safe if you are driving.

4. Tasting rooms generally have fees

Wine tasting generally isn’t free. Some wineries don’t charge fees, but most of the time you should expect to pay about $5-$10 per person at each winery to taste between 4-6 wines. Most will waive the fee if you buy a bottle, however. The winery wants to sell you wine, and if you plan on investing in a nice bottle, it’s great to sample beforehand. Most places take cards, but having cash is easier if you don’t plan on buying many bottles.

Wine tasting tips

5. Take your time and experience each wine

Don’t just gulp it down. Take some time to sniff each wine, and swirl the wine around in the glass to oxidize the wine and release the flavor. Think about what you smell and then how the wine tastes at first, while you swirl it around in your mouth, and how it finishes when you swallow it. Think about what kind of food would pair well with it (steak? chocolate? fish?) It might take some time to develop your palate and really be able to differentiate all the complex flavors each wine has, but taking your time is the way to learn.

wine tasting tips

6. You are really only going to make it to four or five wineries in a day

When we first started wine tasting, we thought we’d be able to go to a ton of tasting rooms in one day but each time we find that we only end up getting to four or five. Wine tasting takes more time than you think it does. You might have to wait your turn at the pour counter, you may get into a lively conversation with your server (extra tip–your time with your wine server is a great opportunity to find out where the best place for dinner is that evening or any other local tips about the area), and tasting each wine takes time and shouldn’t be rushed if possible. Also, there is a strong possibility that you may be drunk after five wineries, and ready for a nap. We once went to a winery that had us taste all 12 of their wines. We were a little loopy at the end of that day.

Research the ones you think you might want to visit, or just ask a local which ones they like best and narrow it down from there.

wine tasting tips
Vineyard in Rattlesnake Hills, WA

7. If venturing out to vineyards out of town, pack a picnic

When Paddy and I first went on our first wine tasting adventure around Wenatchee and Leavenworth, we got hungry. I think I may have said something like, “I could eat the shit out of some brie right now” on the drive back to Leavenworth. But wineries generally don’t have food licenses and there was no great cheese and snacks around to go with all that good wine.

Many wineries that don’t sell food are perfectly fine if you bring a little picnic. Pack some fruit, cheese, salami, crackers, chocolate, or whatever you want. You may want to purchase a glass of wine as a courtesy to go with your picnic if the winery allows you to sit and enjoy their vineyard.

wine tasting tips
Wine tasting in Chelan, WA

 

Wine tasting does not have to be as pretentious as some people make it out to be. Everyone who likes wine had to start learning about it somewhere. You also might find out that wine just isn’t your thing. Either way, it’s fun to learn and try new things, and a great way to spend a day with friends or a partner.

Chelan Crush Wine Harvest Festival, WA 2014

Our weekend at the Chelan Crush wine harvest festival in Chelan, WA: Apples, cider, wine, wine, and more wine.

We have been to Lake Chelan, WA twice. Both visits were during summer, which is the peak tourist season due to all the activities on the lake in the hot, dry, sunny part of Washington State.

Within the last decade, wineries have been popping up all over the Lake Chelan area alongside the many apple and fruit orchards in the region. Lake Chelan now has 27 wineries and growing, and is becoming quite a wine tasting destination all year round.

I was looking for a fun fall getaway when I stumbled across the Chelan Crush Festival online. I couldn’t find much info about it, but it sounded fun and I heard rumors of possible grape-stomping opportunities. Paddy and I are always up for wine tasting, so we decided to visit during the second weekend of the Chelan Crush, which happens annually during the first two weekends in October.

 

Day 1:

We left Seattle around 2:00, and traffic wasn’t bad at all. The fall leaves made the drive over a beautiful scenic drive up through Highway 97, finally giving way to the rolling desert hills and sagebrush near Wenatchee and Chelan.

Farms on Highway 97
Farms on Highway 97
Gorgeous fall leaves on Highway 97
Gorgeous fall leaves on Highway 97
Approaching Lake Chelan
Approaching Lake Chelan

The last two summer trips to Chelan, we’d wanted to stay on the Lake so we had stayed in a one bedroom condo with friends at The Grandview. Lake accommodations are expensive, and we had brought groceries and cooked all our own meals to make up for the cost of the condo.

This time, the lake wasn’t the main attraction, and we wanted to go out to eat. I did some research and decided on The Midtowner Motel on Woodin Ave about a half mile from the lake in town. It was a great deal–nothing fancy, but for $69.00 a night, we got a room with a fridge, microwave, and flat screen TV within walking distance from town. It was very clean and the property was well maintained. They are pretty old-school there–I had to call and make my reservation by phone and they mailed me a confirmation letter via snail mail.

The Midtowner Motel Chelan WA
The Midtowner Motel
The Midtowner Motel Chelan WA
The Midtowner Motel
The Midtowner Motel Chelan WA
The Midtowner Motel
The Midtowner Motel Chelan WA
The Midtowner Motel

The bathroom was tiny, with a tiny shower stall in lieu of a bathtub, and no hair dryer. Suspecting that this might be the case, we brought our own hair dryer and were glad we did. Other than that, the beds were decent and the room was clean, comfortable, and had everything we needed. There was also a small indoor pool and hot tub on site that we didn’t use. Free coffee is available in the office lobby.

We were starving, so we walked into town for food and drinks. Normally we avoid the biggest tourist spots like the plague, but since it was the off season and the menu looked good, we decided to try Campbell’s Resort Pub and Veranda. We were glad we did, the food and drinks were surprisingly good.

Campbell’s had an extensive seasonal cocktail menu that I couldn’t resist. It was a tough choice, but I decided on the Jalisco Pear, which had lemon, cinnamon tequila, pear puree, hard cider, all-spice, and a  cinnamon-sugar rim. It was delicious.

Jalisco Pear cocktail at Campbell's Chelan WA
Jalisco Pear

The prices here are high, but the food quality is there to back it up. We went with the more inexpensive burgers–Paddy had the Valhalla Burger, which had a house made beef patty, garlic aioli, arugula, grilled tomato, pancetta jam, and valhalla stilton. I went with the Blackened Chicken Burger, which consisted of a blackened chicken breast, spicy ranch, pepperjack cheese, bacon, and chipotle slaw on a brioche bun. It came with a lentil salad which I would normally have been super stoked about, but I subbed out fries because I’d been craving them all day for some reason.

The burgers were fantastic– sloppy, wet, and delicious. They were worth the $12-$15 tag. We shared a side order of the bacon brussels sprouts, which were also fantastic. They were sauteed with bacon, garlic, and shallots and were cooked to perfection. The fries were okay, probably the only slight disappointment to the meal. They were the pre-fab seasoned battered fries, and next to all the house-made unique flavors of the dishes, left a lot to be desired. Overall, it was a great meal and we’d definitely go back.

We considered stopping in for a drink at the Tin Lilly on the way back to the room, but they were packed. We were pretty beat, so we picked up some wine and headed back to the room to relax.

 

Day 2:

Another perk to the Midtowner Motel is that there is a diner with breakfast right across the street called The Apple Cup Cafe. It has classic diner fare, everything you would expect for breakfast at a diner. The food was pretty good. Paddy had a chicken fried steak, and I had a house-made biscuit with sausage gravy and two scrambled eggs. They serve local Blue Star Coffee, which was watery in the classic diner fashion but good.
Chicken fried steak at The Apple Cup Cafe Chelan
Chicken fried steak at The Apple Cup Cafe

After breakfast, we headed out to Orondo to check out their “Cider Fest” happening that day. Orondo is a small town about a 15 minute drive along the Columbia River from Chelan. There isn’t a lot going on in the town, but the drive is beautiful and Orondo Cider Works is worth a stop.

Orondo Cider Works Chelan WA

Apples are grown and picked from the orchards on the large property, and pressed on site. There is a viewing window into the pressing room allowing you to watch how it is made while enjoying a cup of cider and a fresh house-made doughnut.
Apple conveyor belt Orondo Cider Works Chelan WA
Apple conveyor belt
Getting ground apples ready to press Orondo Cider Works Chelan WA
Getting ground apples ready to press

Apples are inspected and bad parts removed, and then loaded onto a conveyor belt tube into a sort of “wood chipper” type machine. They are ground up and dropped onto a cloth on a plastic square, spread out and wrapped up with another square put on top for the next batch. The process is repeated until a stack of squares is achieved, and then they are moved underneath the press, which comes down and presses down on the stack until all the juice has poured out of the apples and down into a vat.

Inside the store, pumpkin doughnuts and cider doughnuts are fried and then sold up at the front counter.

Freshly made doughnuts Orondo Cider Works
Freshly made doughnuts
Doughnuts at Orondo Cider Works
Doughnuts!

We got a cup of hot spiced cider and a cider doughnut each and sat out at the picnic table watching the festival set up. There wasn’t much up yet, but families with kids kept pouring in. It looked like later there would be BBQ and live music.

Fall donuts at Orondo Cider Works WA

Chelan Crush Orondo Cider Works

Chelan Crush Orondo Cider Works apple orchards

Chelan Crush Orondo Cider Works apple orchards

Chelan Crush Orondo Cider Works cider festival

Orondo Cider Works cider festival
Can’t resist a cheesy photo op

We were hoping to taste the hard cider made on site, but they weren’t quite set up yet at the time the program said they would. As more screaming children poured onto the property, we decided just to head on to wine tasting with grown-ups.

Another 15  minute drive north on the 97 past Chelan, is Rio Vista Winery on the Columbia River. The signage isn’t great for Rio Vista, and we missed it at first and had to turn around. It is in between mile post 243 and 244, which is the easiest way to look for it.

Highway 97 Chelan WA
Highway 97

We showed up about 15 minutes before the tasting room opened, so I walked up near the road and took some photos while we waited. I’m always in awe of the stark contrast between Eastern and Western Washington. So green on one side and dry, arid desert on the other.

Chelan Crush Eastern Washington train tracks

Chelan Crush wine harvest festival

Chelan Crush wine harvest festival

Rio Vista Winery Chelan Crush wine harvest festival
Rio Vista Winery

The winery has two very friendly dogs, who were excitedly bringing a ball to all arriving guests in hopes they would play. Paddy indulged them for a few minutes.

Chelan Crush 107

Chelan Crush Rio Vista Winery Chelan

The tasting room offered three tastes complimentary, or 6 for $5.00. We tasted three–the Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and the Loony Red.  Our favorite was the 2011 Pinot Noir, a very full bodied red that we would have bought a bottle of if it hadn’t been for the $42.00 price tag. It was possibly the best one we tasted all weekend, and now we’re kind of wondering if we should have just splurged on a bottle. Chelan Crush goers began pouring into the tiny tasting room and it was quickly very crowded. We moved on, thanking the winemaker for the complimentary tastes.

View of the Columbia River Rio Vista Winery Chelan
View of the Columbia River from the tasting deck
Tasting deck Rio Vista Winery Chelan
Tasting deck
View of vineyards Rio Vista Winery Chelan
View of vineyards from tasting deck

We headed back to the lake, through Chelan and up to Manson, WA on the north side of Lake Chelan. Our next stop on our Chelan Crush tour was Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards.

Chelan Crush wine harvest festival Hard Row to Hoe

Chelan Crush wine harvest festival Hard Row to Hoe
Grape processing/crushing

Chelan Crush wine harvest festival Hard Row to Hoe

When we arrived, they were in the midst of crushing grapes (no stomping in wooden barrels these days, think stainless vats and machines). The tasting room was busy, and pretty eccentric. They had an 1800’s French brothel decor theme going on, which I thoroughly enjoyed. They had a collection of wines called “Shameless Hussy” that weren’t available for tasting that day, but were prominently displayed for purchase. When we mentioned that we liked their style, the lady pouring our tastings made sure that we didn’t miss the wallpaper, which is quite scandalous up close. She said the owners imported it all the way from Belgium. I would have done the same thing. She told me that there was something more scandalous in the ladies’ room, but unfortunately I acquired a wine tasting buzz and forgot to check it out.

Chelan Crush wine harvest festival Hard Row to Hoe

Wine medals won by Hard Row to Hoe
Wine medals won by Hard Row to Hoe

Chelan Crush wine harvest festival Hard Row to Hoe

Shameless Hussy wine collection
Shameless Hussy wine collection

Chelan Crush wine harvest festival Hard Row to Hoe

Naughty wall paper Hard Row to Hoe
Very scandalous wall paper

Chelan Crush wine harvest festival Hard Row to Hoe

The tasting fee at Hard Row to Hoe is $10.00 per person, which is kind of ridiculous. All the wineries we’ve been to have had a tasting fee of $5.00 per person, often waived if at least one bottle of wine is purchased. The fee is waived here if a bottle is purchased, but it has to be one bottle per taster. We enjoyed their Cabernet Franc and their Sangiovese.  We also enjoyed their Gewurztraminer, which was a bit sweet but had a nice fruity finish. The lady helping us mentioned that the Gewurztraminer goes well with Thanksgiving dinner, and I can definitely see it pairing well with turkey and cranberry sauce. We purchased a bottle of the 2012 Sangiovese and paid one tasting fee, as their bottle prices were also a little steep. This winery is worth visiting for the high fun factor and good wines, but bring your wallet and be prepared to put a dent in it.

We moved onto Cairdeas Winery at the recommendation of our friendly wine server at Hard Row. Cairdeas (pronounced Car-Dess) is Gaelic for friendship or alliance. They have several very unique wine blends and a small, rustic tasting room with very friendly servers.

Cairdeas Winery Chelan Crush wine harvest
Cairdeas Winery
Cairdeas Winery Chelan Crush wine harvest
Cairdeas Winery

We enjoyed the MV Tri-3 and the Counoise the most, and Paddy purchased a bottle of the 2012 Counoise, which was our favorite.

The winds picked up outside considerably, and the sun went away for a little bit. It was pretty blustery. We walked next door to Lake Chelan Winery, which we had visited on our last trip to Chelan. They advertised Chelan Crush festivities including grape stomping and BBQ. We were hungry, and decided that eating something would be best before continuing any wine tasting as we were driving.

The BBQ menu at Lake Chelan Winery looked good, but at $16-$23 a plate, it was more than we wanted to spend. Near the BBQ area were two wooden grape stomping barrels being cleaned out by a young girl, after a couple of women had recently done the grape stomp and were washing their feet in a nearby bucket. Stomping grapes was one of my priorities on this trip, but as we watched the poor girl clean out grape guts for the next person, with no celebratory flair to the event in the gray, windy weather, it just felt kind of pointless. They don’t use the juice from stomping, it’s more symbolic than anything else. Perhaps it was more festive earlier in the day. We opted to skip it and save the girl the trouble of cleaning up another mess for now.

Lake Chelan Winery vineyards Chelan Crush
Lake Chelan Winery vineyards
Lake Chelan Winery vineyards Chelan Crush
Lake Chelan Winery vineyards
Lake Chelan Winery vineyards Chelan Crush
Lake Chelan Winery vineyards

Food was our main priority, so we headed back to town for lunch. Since the Tin Lilly had been so busy the night before, we decided to pop in and see what the fuss was about. The decor was unique, and they had a very nice back patio which I’m sure is great in the summer. I had the Roadrunner chicken burger with avocado, chicken breast, cheese, tomato, lettuce, and bacon. Paddy had the Buffalo Bleu Bill chicken burger with buffalo sauce and blue cheese. They were reasonably priced and came with hand cut fries, which were delicious.

Neither of us felt like we could continue wine tasting and safely operate a vehicle, so we headed back to the room to relax for awhile. I think if we were do do this again, we would try to arrange a winery tour shuttle. We saw a couple of them at the wineries–Kokopelli’s Run and Chelan Tours. I’m not sure if you can jump on a shuttle with another group or if you have to rent the whole thing as a group, but they are worth checking out if you don’t have a designated driver who hates wine. Also an option for a larger group is Chelan Limo.

For dinner we had made a reservation at Vin Du Lac Winery, which was a short drive away. We arranged a taxi with the surly woman at Chelan Cab, which was $10.00 each way. We wanted to be able to have more wine with dinner and not have to worry about driving. Chelan Cab can be reached at (509) 682-8294.  Our driver said that during the summer and on busy weekends they bring in Yellow Cab from Wenatchee, but this weekend and in the off season it is just her. She had been pretty busy that evening. She told us she could offer a private winery tour for $40.00 an hour. Too expensive for us that weekend, but it is another transportation option.

We had been to Vin Du Lac Winery for wine tasting on our last trip to Chelan. They had Chelan Crush festivities that day as well, we saw the remains of a pumpkin painting table for children and two grape stomping barrels on their patio. Their patio is really nice in the summer, surrounded by the vineyard with bistro string lights and a lovely view of the lake from their hillside location.

Vin Du Lac Winery summer night Chelan Crush wine harvest
Empty Vin Du Lac Winery patio at night–very nice in the summer with live music.

It was too windy and chilly to eat on the patio that night, so we ate indoors. The indoor dining area is cozy and they had a man playing guitar. The lighting was kind of bad–overhead lighting that was way too bright. There was a nice little mason jar candle at our table which was a nice touch, but it was burnt out.

Our waitress was very young and inexperienced, but very nice. She brought us some tasting pours of a few wines for us to try before we ordered a bottle. A nice advantage to eating at a winery. You can also order a wine flight of three different wines in small pours, but larger than tasting pours for the price of a single glass of wine. This is a nice way to get to know the wines.
We tried the Syrah, the Cabernet, and the Pinot Noir. The 2009 Barrel Select Syrah won us over hands down. It was very nice and Paddy said that it went perfectly with the steak that he ordered.
Chelan Crush Vin Du Lac Winery
As an appetizer, we shared the duck and pheasant pate with foie gras mousse and cranberry sauce. It was very tasty and came with toast, greens coated in a vinaigrette dressing, sweet gherkins, and grapes. The chef came out into the dining room to check on the diners, and gave us some pointers on how he likes to eat the pate appetizer–on toast with a little smear of cranberry and a pickle on top. We tried it, and can vouch for his recommendation.
For dinner I had the scallops with risotto in a creamy vermouth sauce, and Paddy had the rib eye seasoned with their house rub, vegetables, and mashed potatoes. He said his steak was cooked perfectly as ordered, and was very tasty. My scallops were also cooked perfectly, although the risotto tasted more cheesy than creamy and I didn’t get much vermouth flavor from the scallop sauce or the risotto. The flavor was great though and I’m not a huge vermouth fan so this was fine with me.
Vin Du Lac Winery Chelan Duck and pheasant pate
Duck and pheasant pate
Vin Du Lac Winery Chelan Scallops and risotto
Scallops and risotto
Vin Du Lac Winery Chelan Rib Eye steak
Rib Eye steak

Dessert was an apple cobbler but we were too full to try it. The owner stopped by and came around to check on the diners as well. He was pleased that we like the 2009 Syrah, it is also one of his favorites. He said that the 2008 one was even better.

 Overall the food prices here were pretty reasonable for what you get. We would recommend it. I think it might be best in the summer on the patio though if you are looking for atmosphere.
Day 3:
The next morning we got an early start, checked out and decided to try the Riverwalk Cafe for breakfast before heading out of town. Service is order at the counter, and they bring the food out to you when it’s ready. Their menu consisted of organic, locally sourced ingredients and healthy options such as fruit cups and nitrate-free bacon.
I had the So-Em Scramble, which had eggs, chicken sausage, bell pepper, rosemary red potatoes, sharp cheddar cheese, and fresh tomatoes. Paddy had the Stormy Scramble, which had chicken sausage, onion, mushroom, spinach, parmesan cheese and sour cream on top. Both came with toast, homemade jam, and a fruit cup.
The local Blue Star Coffee was excellent and there was complimentary lemon-cucumber water in addition to regular water on a self-serve counter. Paddy’s orange juice was fresh squeezed.
So-Em Scramble Riverwalk Cafe Lake Chelan WA
So-Em Scramble
Stormy Scramble Riverwalk Cafe Lake Chelan WA
Stormy Scramble
Riverwalk Cafe Lake Chelan WA
Riverwalk Cafe

After breakfast we bid goodbye to Chelan and headed home. We decided to take Highway 2 back instead of the 97 and I-90, and we were glad we did. The fall color was gorgeous on Highway 2.

Highway 97 Chelan WA
Highway 97
Highway 2 Washington
Highway 2
Highway 2 Washington
Highway 2
Highway 2 Washington
Highway 2
Highway 2 Washington fall leaves
Highway 2
Highway 2 Washington fall leaves
Highway 2

 

So far we’ve been to 6 out of 27 wineries in Chelan, and would love to come back and do the Chelan Crush again, possibly arranging a shuttle so that we can visit more than just a couple wineries at a time. The restaurant options in Chelan are a lot better than in Leavenworth and the Zillah/Toppenish areas in Washington where we have been wine tasting in before. If wine is your thing, head to Chelan in the off-season when the prices are low and the crowds are gone. There is plenty of wine and good food to try.

Wine Tasting in Yakima Valley, WA 2014: Rattlesnake Hills

Our weekend adventure wine tasting in Yakima Valley, WA: Rattlesnake Hills region

We like wine. A lot. For my birthday, I decided I wanted to go wine tasting in Yakima Valley, WA for the weekend.

The Yakima Valley is on the Eastern side of the Cascade Mountain Range, which means it is on the sunny, desert side of the state. Many people don’t know that half of Washington and Oregon is actually desert. With snow runoff from the mountains into rivers and streams, Eastern Washington receives plenty of irrigation plus two extra hours of sunlight a day than the Napa region of California. All this amounts to a great place to grow grapes.

Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 884

I looked at accommodations and a map of the wineries in the area, and found the highest concentration of wineries to be in Rattlesnake Hills, near the town of Zillah, WA. Accommodations in the immediate area left much to be desired. Neighboring town of Toppenish has a Quality Inn, but that was about it. There was a lovely expensive B&B in the area, but the price was out of our budget.

I consulted VRBO.com and found a small cottage for rent for $100.00 a night with a $100.00 cleaning fee. You can find the listing here: http://www.vrbo.com/560781.

 Day 1:

We left Seattle early on a Friday afternoon, taking the I-90 East and then connecting with the I-82 Southeast just past Yakima to Zillah, WA. We passed this sign as we entered Yakima:

Welcome to Yakima the Palm Springs of Washington

Now, I haven’t been to Palm Springs, but I’m pretty sure that Yakima is not comparable.

We made pretty good time and arrived at the cottage around 3:30. The drive was pretty, and only about two and a half hours.

Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 800

Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 803

Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 801

The cottage was perfect for two people and was in walking distance to five wineries, with all the rest just a short drive away. The owner Susan was very friendly in her emails and the kitchen had everything we needed to cook with. She even had quite a few spices and teas for guest use in the cupboards.

Something to be aware of: This house is small. It’s cute, but the ceilings are only about 6.5 ft, and the stand up shower stall is pretty cramped. The bed is a full size, not a queen. We had no problem, but if you are very tall or larger people, it might not be super comfortable.

Rattlesnake Hills cabin WA

I had just flown in from a business trip in Detroit that morning, and was really tired. After a nap, we deliberated about what to do for dinner. We had planned on driving 30 minutes to Yakima for a nice dinner, but our energy level and bank account balance was lacking. We went on Yelp to find restaurants in the area– there was a plethora of Mexican restaurants, and not much else. We decided to drive into neighboring Toppenish to find a grocery store and see what restaurants we could find nearby.

We found a Safeway in Toppenish, and stocked up on groceries for the next day and evening. We then drove down the main drag a bit and found The Branding Iron. It was a diner with a lounge in the back, with all the classic diner food you would expect. We ordered a fishwich and a burger dip with side salads. It was about a step up from a high school cafeteria, with a square fish patty, crinkle fries, and iceberg lettuce salad. It was cheap though, and we were feeling a little poor at the moment. I think this is more of a 3:00 AM drunk breakfast spot, not so much on the sober dining.

Branding Iron Restaurant Zillah WA

Branding Iron Restaurant Zillah WA

We came back to the little blue house and opened a bottle of wine, enjoying the late evening sun on the deck. We had a little celebratory toast for my birthday.

Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 820

Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 821

Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 819
BUNNY!!

Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 823

The house didn’t have a TV, so we brought our new Roku projector and DVD player and hooked it up to project on the bedroom wall. It worked out nicely.

Watching movies with a Roku projector

I was dog tired, so we only made it through one and a half episodes of True Blood season 6 before I passed out.

Day 2:

We got a great night’s sleep (the bed is a memory foam mattress with a fluffy comforter–very comfortable). Paddy cooked a tasty breakfast– potatoes and a sausage scramble. We forgot olive oil, but found some truffle oil in the cupboard and we had butter, so we made do and it worked out.

**Note: The house has salt and pepper and spices, but make sure you bring everything else you need to cook with.

Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 828

Mount Adams was out in full view from the back deck. It was a beautiful morning.

Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley Mt Adams

After a solid breakfast foundation and a leisurely morning, we were ready to do what we came here for: wine tasting in Yakima Valley.

There were so many wineries to choose from in Rattlesnake Hills, that we didn’t really know where to start. Susan had left a few tourist magazines on wine tasting in the region for guests, which came in handy.

We decided to start with J. Bell Cellars, which advertised wine tasting and lavender fields.

J Bell Cellars Rattlesnake Hills Zillah

We were the first people to arrive at just after 11:00 AM and were welcomed by the owner, Wes and their little dog Toby. There was a lovely little courtyard with a wine tasting bar in the corner, and Wes said he would waive the tasting fee today.

J Bell Cellars Rattlesnake Hills Zillah

J Bell Cellars Rattlesnake Hills Zillah

We tried a few of the reds, the cabernet was our favorite. Wes encouraged us to walk around the property and lavender fields while we sipped our tasting pours.

The property is definitely a work in progress, and the plans have great potential. The lavender fields will continue to grow, and they are starting to manufacture lavender products for sale as well as wine.

J Bell Cellars Rattlesnake Hills Zillah

J Bell Cellars Rattlesnake Hills Zillah

J Bell Cellars Rattlesnake Hills Zillah

Lavender at J Bell Cellars Rattlesnake Hills Zillah

Lavender at J Bell Cellars Rattlesnake Hills Zillah

The wine tasting hours are from 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM, but the courtyard is clearly being set up for future evening events and entertaining. There was a very nice fire pit, and lights wound around the trees in the courtyard area. A large corner koi pond is beginning construction, and I think it will be very nice when it is finished.

J Bell Cellars Rattlesnake Hills Zillah

Koi pond under construction J Bell Cellars Rattlesnake Hills Zillah
Koi pond under construction

We asked Wes what their plans were, and he told us they were trying to get a restaurant permit for evening dinners. He said it is very difficult in the area to get a food service permit at a winery, as the zoning is agricultural. They are determined though, and I am excited to see what they will have going next summer. This is a place to keep an eye on.

We sat down and Wes brought us a few more tastings. We thought the pinot noir rose was pretty interesting–it was sweet and buttery. Different than a lot of rose wines we’ve tried before.

Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 837

The bottle prices at J. Bell were probably the highest of all the five wineries we visited, and while they were all very good we felt that they were a little out of our budget range.

We thanked Wes for his hospitality and moved on up the road to Knight Hill Winery. Knight Hill Winery is in fact on the top of a hill, and the vineyard views from the parking area were very nice.

Rattlesnake Hills WA Knight Hill Winery

Rattlesnake Hills WA Knight Hill Winery

Rattlesnake Hills WA Knight Hill Winery

We were escorted in by another winery dog named Dixie past a little picnic area with more great views to the tasting room, where we met Anne.

Rattlesnake Hills WA Knight Hill Winery

Rattlesnake Hills WA Knight Hill Winery

Rattlesnake Hills WA Knight Hill Winery

It turned out Anne was a good friend of Susan, the owner of our little blue rental house. She told us a bit about the area and we tasted all 12 of her wines (six whites, six reds). Our favorite was the 2012 Verdelho, which was a nice fruity yet slightly dry white perfect for a hot summer day.

We also met Grigio, the winery cat. He was extremely friendly.

Wine kitty Rattlesnake Hills WA Knight Hill Winery

Winery kitty Rattlesnake Hills WA Knight Hill Winery

After tasting 12 wines (Knights Hill has so many!) on top of the ones we tasted at J. Bell, we were feeling like we might want to consider parking the car soon and continuing on foot.

We decided to take a short break from wine tasting and drive into Downtown Zillah to see what was there.

There wasn’t much.

However, we did find the place that we should have gone for dinner the night before– The Old Warehouse. It is a fairly new restaurant and bar with a deck, and…a furniture auction house. Kind of random, but it looked pretty good. There was a good lunch crowd on the deck and a band playing Led Zepplin covers. We were bummed we didn’t find it the night before. I have no idea how their food is, but it has to be better than the Branding Iron.

The Old Warehouse Zillah, WA

We headed back to the house to drop off the car and pack up a picnic so that we could continue our wine tasting in Yakima Valley.

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We ditched the car at the house, packed up our picnic, and set off walking down the road towards Bonair Winery.

Everywhere in the area were cherry orchards growing bing cherries. They seemed to be growing on every road.

Yakima Valley Wine Tasting

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Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 857

We crossed the street to a sign for Bonair Winery on the corner, and passed many fields of grapes before we reached the tasting room. The tasting room is a bit further than we thought, but it was a nice walk.

Bonair Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

Bonair Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

Bonair Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

Bonair Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

Bonair Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

Bonair Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

Bonair Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

We finally reached the tasting room at the end of the road. The winery itself was very nice, with a duck pond, picnic tables, and it looked like they were setting up for a wedding later that evening.

Bonair Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

Bonair Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

Bonair Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

We were given an option of five wines each to taste for $5.00 per person. We tasted several, including the oddly-named “Bung Dog Red,” which was a very nice blend of Pinot Noir and Malbec. Paddy was raving about the 2010 Malbec that he tried, so we bought a bottle to drink with our picnic. It ended up being my favorite as well.

We paid for the wine and the tasting fees, and found a table in the courtyard for our picnic.

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We soon realized where the name Bung Dog Red came from when Bung Dog himself decided to take a seat at our table in hopes of partaking in our picnic.

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He was very polite but was a bit disappointed that we did not allow him to imbibe in our al fresco lunch. He soon moved on to the next table and took a seat, patiently hoping for service.

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After our picnic, we realized we should get going as the wineries close at 5:00 PM, and it was already 3:00. We packed up, said goodbye to Bung Dog, and headed back down the dusty road.

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Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 876

Our next stop was Tanjuli Winery. There weren’t any outdoor picnic areas, but the tasting room has tables and chairs for guest use. We tasted several of their wines, the most memorable being the dessert wines. I tried the Orange Muscat Sherry which had a unique fruity flavor, and Paddy tried the Black Muscat Port. The Port was very strong, and sweet without being too sweet. It had a full bodied complex flavor that we really enjoyed (Paddy let me taste some of his). Tasting fees were $5.00 per person.

Tanjuli Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

Tanjuli Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

Tanjuli Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

Tanjuli Winery wine tasting in Yakima Valley

We left Tanjuli and walked across the road to our last stop, Wineglass Cellars. The name may be a bit dull, but the wine makes up for it. Our favorite here was the Syrah Les Vignes de Marcoux, which just won a gold medal at the 2014 Seattle Wine Awards. Paddy is always a sucker for Syrah.

Wineglass Cellars wine tasting in Yakima Valley

Wineglass Cellars wine tasting in Yakima Valley

The owner David was very friendly and we enjoyed talking to him. It turns out his wife is also a former AFS high school exchange student as well. The two of them have been making wine for 20 years, longer than the rest of the wineries we visited.

We purchased a bottle of Syrah and weren’t charged any tasting fees. The wines are also very reasonably priced. No picnic facilities, but this one is worth a stop.

 

For dinner that evening, we cooked salmon, corn, and garlic bread and made a large batch of guacamole with chips. We relaxed and enjoyed the sunset, Mt. Adams continuing to look lovely from the deck.

Mt Adams sunset Yakima Valley WA

 

The next day, we drove home. We made a quick stop a little ways outside of Yakima at a highway viewpoint.  A couple last photos of the sunny Eastern Washington Valley before returning to the other side of the Cascades.

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Rattlesnake Hills Yakima Valley wine tasting weekend 891

We had a really great weekend and we’ll be back wine tasting in Yakima Valley for sure. There are so many wineries that we didn’t get to and Susan’s little blue house is a great spot for a relaxing summer weekend. I think on our next trip, we’ll check out The Old Warehouse restaurant, and if we have some money to splurge, we’d love to check out the Cherry Wood Bed and Breakfast with fancy “glamping” Teepees. They’re expensive, but the reviews are good and gourmet breakfast is included. If you stay there, let us know how it was!

 

Winter Wine Tasting in Leavenworth, WA 2013

Our weekend getaway of winter wine tasting in Leavenworth, WA in February 2013

 

This trip to Leavenworth, WA, a Bavarian-style village in the Cascade Mountains, changed it’s purpose twice. Originally, we had planned to go to Leavenworth over New Years and play in the snow at Leavenworth’s own winter recreation park and tubing hill, but Paddy couldn’t get New Year’s Eve off work. We rescheduled for President’s Day Weekend, but when we got there, Leavenworth had only slushy remnants of snow and the only snow options were up at Stevens Pass. So, we ended up spending the weekend wine tasting in Leavenworth.

Day 1:

We stayed at the Best Western Icicle Inn on the west side of town, about a 10-15 minute walk from all the main town activity. It was a large hotel, and full of families ready to go skiing on the mountain all weekend. The room was comfortable and clean, and the hotel has an outdoor hot tub and pool and a complimentary breakfast. The pool was covered with a tent for the winter to keep the heat in, but you still have to make a mad dash outside to get in it. I poked my head in the door to find a chlorinated steam room that didn’t seem super inviting. Summer is probably a better bet with the pool.

Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth
Stevens Pass
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth
Stevens Pass
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth
Stevens Pass
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth
Stevens Pass

We arrived Saturday afternoon, after a nice drive through the pass with no snow on the roads. We checked in to the hotel and then walked into town, doing the usual touristy poking about in the little shops and reading restaurant menus and trying to decide where to eat that evening. We had a late lunch at Cafe Verona, which was just getting ready to close as they only serve breakfast and lunch until 3:00. They accommodated us cheerfully, and we found their burger prices to be very reasonable.

For once in my life, I completely failed at taking photos on this trip (too much wine, maybe?), so you’ll have to use your imagination or visit the winery and restaurant websites for more details.

Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth
Leavenworth mountain view

We went back and relaxed in the room for a bit, reading brochures from the hotel on activities and trying to decide what to do the next day. Neither of us downhill ski, but we considered going up to the Stevens Pass Nordic Center to try cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. There were also a lot of winery maps and information, and quite a few tasting rooms in Leavenworth itself.

That evening we ended up having dinner and a few beers at Ducks and Drakes bar and restaurant, where we successfully evaded all the large families staying at the Best Western. The food was decent, and it seemed to be a local watering hole. Quite a few locals were in playing video trivia or having a Saturday night beer at the bar.

 

Day 2:

The next morning, we woke up and headed down to the complimentary breakfast, which consisted of your usual continental fare, along with biscuits and sausage gravy, bacon, scrambled eggs, and a make-your-own-waffle bar. It was full of families shoveling food in their kids’ faces so that they could hurry and get up to the mountain for skiing. We realized that we would have crowds to contend with if we wanted to play in the snow, so we opted out.

Instead, we spent the entire day wine tasting. We completely avoided the crowds, and the sun came out to shine on our lazy, leisurely, boozy day. It was great.

We decided that the best plan of action was to start off driving to wineries, then come back to Leavenworth and park the car before we got too buzzed, and then continue our tasting on foot at the tasting rooms in town.

Our first stop was the Silvara Winery, which was a beautiful winery on a hill with a very nice tasting room. The tasting room is open from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily and the tasting fee is $5.00 per person, waived if you purchase a bottle of wine. They had cheeses and sausage for sale a la carte if you wanted to make your own picnic. The sun filtering through the windows and the view made us yearn for summer wine drinking on the patio.

Next, we attempted to visit the Icicle Ridge Winery, but they were having a wine club party for members only and we weren’t allowed. We drove a bit further down the road to the Cascadia Winery tasting room where we were able to try several wines with no tasting fee, including their unique and award-winning apple wine made from Washington Gala and Golden Delicious apples. It was good, and we bought a bottle of the apple wine to take home to add to our “wine cellar,” (aka a shelf in the tupperware cabinet of our kitchen).

We continued on to Cashmere, WA and found a little shopping center with a few tasting rooms and a shop called Wine Design owned by a man who makes furniture out of wine barrels. We sat and talked to a lady in a tasting room who told us that she and her husband got into wine making as a hobby. She had a very nice pinot noir that we purchased, and unfortunately I can’t remember the name of her winery and we’ve long since drank that bottle of wine.

We turned back towards Leavenworth and made one last stop at Wedge Mountain Winery. The tasting room is in the winery itself, amongst apple and pear orchards. It is owned by Mary Ann and Charlie McKee, who got into wine making as a way to supplement their struggling sales of apples and pears. Their wine is fantastic and has won several awards. We bought a bottle of the very unique “Roses and Rubies” raspberry dessert wine, which is delicious with chocolate. We served it with homemade chocolate pot de creme for a New Years Eve dinner party we had that year, and it was the perfect compliment.

Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth–Wedge Mountain Winery
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth--Wedge Mountain Winery
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth–Wedge Mountain Winery
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth--Wedge Mountain Winery
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth–Wedge Mountain Winery
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth--Wedge Mountain Winery
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth–Wedge Mountain Winery

We figured we should probably park the car at ths point, so we headed back to continue wine tasting in Leavenworth. We were also getting hungry, and all this great wine was really making us crave some good food.

Back in Leavenworth, we visited Kestrel Vinters tasting room. Their Lady in Red wine makes a great gift with it’s 1940’s pin-up style bottle design. We moved on to Swakane Winery tasting room which also had a bistro. We were really in the mood for some tapas or brie. I ordered their snack plate which included cheeses, crackers, marinated olives, and almonds. It was a little disappointing. The cheese selection seemed like the party-platter variety that you would buy at Safeway. No brie or other gourmet cheeses, mostly grocery store cheddar and gouda, etc.

We made one final stop at D’Vinery Eagle Creek Winery tasting room on our way back to the hotel. The woman behind the counter was very friendly and talkative and made a nice end to our wine touring.

For dinner that evening we looked at more menus online and reviewed our options. We really wanted some fine dining after all that good wine, but the menus all looked a little boring for the price. All the wine also made us a bit lazy, so we ended up just having dinner downstairs at the J.J. Hills Grill in the hotel. They were slammed when we came down, but we were able to go back to our room and have them call us when our table was ready. The food wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t super impressive either.

 

Overall, there is a lot of great wine in the area, and we had a great time wine tasting in Leavenworth. There is also a lot of snow sport activities, river tubing, hiking, and recreation in the summer, and the popular Oktoberfest in the fall. However, there just isn’t a lot of really good upscale or creative food in Leavenworth. We haven’t tried all the restaurants, of course, but the menus at all the fine dining places we looked at all seem a little generic.

If you’re looking for food to go with beer though, you are in luck. There is a lot of German schnitzels, sausages, and other pub grup that goes great with beer.