Like attacking armies, relentless waves of winter storms slam into the Pacific Northwest’s sleeping volcanoes that form the towering Cascade Range. As the roiling storm clouds rise to climb over this formidable weather wall, they cool and release their moisture onto the peaks, dashing any hopes of delivering precious rain to the sun-baked eastern valleys.
But there are those who thrive on this rain shield, where a mere eight inches of annual rainfall creates a desert-like climate—grape growers, winemakers, oenophiles, and those that hold the 15,000 or so jobs connected to Washington’s wine industry.
As desert dwellers know, water is the thread of life, and when the first eastern Washington farmers rubbed the magic lamp of irrigation, an agricultural cornucopia gushed from the parched earth. Fruit growers recognized the ideal agricultural conditions of 300 long, hot, dry days of sunshine a year, and began planting hops, cherries, peaches, apples—and grapes.
With two hours more sunlight each summer day than the prime grape-growing regions of California, the results for grapes were extremely favorable, and Washington now ranks second only to California in the nation’s premium wine production.
The number of wineries has increased 400 percent to over 650 in the last decade, attracting 2 million visitors a year to Washington wine country. The state now boasts eleven AVAs—American Viticultural Areas, or appellations—the federal government’s recognition of a unique wine-grape growing area (like France’s Bordeaux and Burgundy and California’s Napa Valley). The appellations can be printed on the bottle label.
Don’t for a minute think that these are anything but top-quality wines. The awards collected by the state’s wine producers in prestigious competitions and tastings will attest to the quality of both Washington grapes and the talent of the winemakers. Wine Spectator’s prestigious Top 100, a list of the best wines of the year from around the world, awarded a Washington State wine, the 2005 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Reserve, the number one spot, beating out 17,000 wines to become “Wine of the Year” for 2009.
RV-Friendly Winery Tour
Join me now on an RVer’s Winery Tour, focusing on wineries that have tasting rooms open seven days a week, are easy to find, and have adequate parking and turn-around space for large RVs. This in no way means that the wineries not listed are unsuitable, but rather that you will have to do your own investigative work.
I headed west through the Columbia Gorge, crossing the Bridge of the Gods from Cascade Locks to Stevenson, then east on Washington’s scenic State Route 14 into the Columbia Gorge Appellation.
My first stop, Cascade Cliffs Winery, perches on a sloping south face overlooking the Columbia River. Owner, general manager, winemaker, sales person, and chief bottle washer Bob Lorkowski recalled his early winemaking days as a garage hobbyist while he attended Penn State. Later he moved to Washington where he started buying grapes from local growers, making wine, and selling it to restaurants.
Several years ago he bought the small Cascades Cliffs Winery and vineyards, and now produces 3,000 cases a year, much of it going to Seattle restaurants. The winery is located at State Route 14 mile marker 88.6 in Wishram, five miles east of The Dalles bridge. The website is cascadecliffs.com.
A few miles down the road and as different as red wine is from white is Maryhill Winery. Its hilltop tasting room includes a deli-restaurant and tasting bar adjoining an outdoor patio overlooking the Columbia River and a large grassy amphitheater that is the site of a summer concert series that has featured big-time entertainers such as Bob Dylan and B.B. King. Maryhill’s zinfandels have won several Gold, Double Gold, and Best of Show awards. The winery is in Goldendale, west of the intersection of U.S. 97 and State Route14, before reaching the Maryhill Museum. The website is maryhillwinery.com.
Sixty-six miles further along SR 14 I turned left on SR 221 at Paterson to the state’s second largest winery, Columbia Crest, which produces 2.5 million cases a year and won the top spot on the Wine Spectator list for 2009. The tasting room manager told me that Columbia Crest’s Reserve wines are made from handpicked grapes, with longer barrel aging, and limited production. The winery is 26 miles south of Prosser between mileposts 1 and 2 on SR 221. The website is Columbia-crest.com.
I returned to SR 14 and continued east to Interstate 82 and then north into the Columbia Valley, which has the largest number of vineyards, appellations and wineries. My first stop was in the Columbia Valley Appellation at Barnard Griffin Winery, whose handcrafted syrah won the Double Gold (awarded when the judges are unanimous) at the 2005 Los Angeles International Wine Competition.
The tasting room manager told me the secret of the winery’s success was the long hours spent around a table sipping varietals and blends and deciding on the best possible blends to produce. Barnard Griffin Winery is at 878 Tulip Lane, Richland. The website is barnardgriffin.com. Take Richland Exit 3A—Queensgate South—from Interstate 182 and follow the signs. Park in the large park-and-ride lot across the street from the winery.
You can also visit J. Bookwalter Winery at 894 Tulip Lane and Tagaris Winery across the street at 844. Bookwalter specializes in high-quality, low-production, handcrafted wines. Annual production is 12,000 cases. You can purchase wines by the glass in the wine bar, as well as appetizer plates, such as an assortment of artisan cheeses or antipasti (and check your e-mail with their free Wi-Fi access). The website is bookwalterwines.com.
The Red Mountain Appellation, a premier grape-growing microclimate within the Columbia Valley Appellation, has a “very warm” heat index—warmest of all Washington wine-growing regions, and excels in Bordeaux and Rhone grapes. Here is where you will find Hedges Cellars, the state’s largest family-owned winery.
Jeff Hosler, Hedges tasting room manager, said, “The shallow sandy soils, hot days, and a 30- to 40-degree day-to-night temperature change produce grapes with concentrated fruit, balance and structure.”
Hedges Cellars began making wine in 1985 and produces 72,000 cases annually. Its CMS Red, “is the best selling red wine in most Costco stores in the state,” according to Jeff.
You can reach the winery off exit 96 from Interstate 182 in Benton City. Turn right past the gas station, follow the fork to the left (SR 224), then turn left on Sunset to 53511 N. Sunset Rd. The website is hedgesfamilyestate.com.
Return to SR 224, turn right, then turn right again on Demoss and you will find Terra Blanca, whose new 40,000-square-foot Tuscan-style facility features a tasting room, catering and banquet facilities, barrel storage caves, demonstration kitchen and an amphitheater. “We are very strong believers that wines are made in the vineyard,” says Owner/Winemaker Keith Pilgrim, “and simply polished in the winery.”
Terra Blanca is at 34715 N. Demoss Road in Benton City. The website is terrablanca.com.
The first AVA in the state was awarded to Yakima Valley in 1983, and the area is known for its northern European type of wines. Hogue Cellars, the third largest winery in the state with 600,000 cases produced yearly, won the Double Gold at the 2005 Washington State Wine Competition for its 2004 Late Harvest Riesling. To reach Hogue Cellars, take Prosser exit 82 from Interstate 182 and follow the signs (right on Wine Country Road, then left on Benitz and right on Lee) to 2800 Lee Road). The website is hoguecellars.com.
From the large parking lot across the street from the tasting room you can also visit Thurston Wolfe, which is owned by Wade Wolfe, who is also vice president of production and winegrowing for Hogue, and Kestrel Vintners. Their websites are thurstonwolfe.com and kestrelwines.com.
Having pleasantly sipped my way through Yakima Valley, I decided to move on to the North Columbia Valley. I found the Wagoner family’s Icicle Ridge Winery between Wenatchee and the Bavarian town of Leavenworth.
“Five generations of the Wagoner family have farmed here in the valley,” says Wine Master Don Wood, who is married to Louis Wagoner’s oldest daughter (the fourth generation, their son is the fifth). The family bottles 1,500 cases a year and their 2004 Riesling was given Wine Press magazine’s “outstanding” award—their highest honor. To reach the winery, while heading west on U.S. 2, turn right (north) into Peshastin at the traffic light. Go under the railroad and turn left onto North Road about a mile to 8977 North Road. The website is icicleridgewinery.com.
The much cooler Puget Sound AVA, the only appellation west of the Cascade Range, produces only 1 percent of the state’s wine grapes, but is home to Chateau St. Michele, the state’s largest winery. It purchases its grapes from the state’s eastern vineyards. The winery is in Woodinville at 14111 NE 145th, 15 miles northeast of downtown Seattle.
For more information on Washington wines, sees the Washington Wine Commission website at washingtonwine.org.
Bob Difley was a full-time RVer for 17 years and a regional general manager for a national RV rental and sales company. His articles and photos have appeared in numerous RV publications.