Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to Audra Adelberger and John Zilavy some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

Yakima's push to become Washington's wine capital

A new ecosystem of Yakima wineries - and their impressive lists of wines - are driving the small town's efforts to put themselves on the map for wine-lovers.
Wine tasting at Yakima's Milbrant Cellars

Wine tasting at Yakima's Milbrant Cellars Photo: Flickr user doniree

The other side of the sign that welcomes you to Washington Wine Country thanks you for visiting.

The other side of the sign that welcomes you to Washington Wine Country thanks you for visiting. Tuck Russell

Enophiles touring south on I-82 encounter a tall sign on the outskirts Yakima: “Welcome to Washington Wine Country.”  Many drive nonstop through the Union Gap to Lower Yakima Valley, and perhaps beyond. A decade ago, this was unquestionably the right strategy, as there was only one winery of marginal quality in the Upper Valley.

Since then, the wine scene in the Upper Valley has begun to ripen. As elsewhere, wineries have come and gone, but the Upper Yakima Valley now hosts nearly a dozen wineries, with markedly improved quality. These days, the “Quality/Price Ratio” compares quite favorably with the rest of the state.

Wine critic Paul Gregutt recently lionized Southard and Lookout Point for this very virtue. AntoLin Cellars also hit a couple of high notes with Gregutt. Other critics have noted good efforts from Wilridge, while Naches Heights Vineyard took Double Gold at a judging a few years back. Treveri Cellars' bubbly was even poured at U.S. State Department holiday parties. Wine tourists though, remained ignorant of this renaissance, continuing to drive by. 

Local winery principals realized that to survive — especially during a recession — cooperation was needed to alter that lack of perception and attract more customers. Four years ago, four wineries united to form the Winery Association of Yakima (WAY). Lacking independent funding, WAY was initially an informal agreement to refer customers to one anothers' wineries. But the members began holding monthly meetings to discuss what else they could do.

They recruited other wineries — WAY now numbers eight members. Then, since available touring maps did a poor job of rendering the region, they produced a map and brochure of their own, distributed from their wineries. It can also be seen, fuzzily, on the Facebook page they launched two years ago. “We organized Service Industry Nights and organize them to pour for our local hotels, chamber, visitor information center staff, restaurants and other local referral points, so they know and understand our product,” says Treveri Cellars' Julie Grieb. “This has been tremendously helpful to our group.” WAY also advertises in a couple of magazines. WAY volunteers execute the projects and members share costs.

A little help is coming from the city too. Yakima's new Economic Development Manager, Sean Hawkins, attended a recent WAY meeting, and is offering some organizational support, devoting some of his time to building synergy between local lodging, wineries and restaurants.

Hawkins is helping to organize the first annual “Wine and Dine” event during the Spring Barrel Tasting weekend, which local restaurateurs complained was a slow one for them. “Which is a little baffling, knowing that people are out and about, entertaining friends, coming in from outside ... I think it should be a really great weekend for us downtown,” he says. It's targeted at restaurants throughout the region, but most are in the city. 

Another potential help is the possibility of a 38-room boutique hotel in downtown Yakima within a year. “It will provide a different style of property,” says Hawkins. “We have a number of service hotels, but we really don't have one that fits that vacation style of place, that has different amenities, larger rooms, and a bit more character.  We're taking a hundred year old building and turning it into a unique hotel, and I think that is really going to stand out to the wine traveler.” 

It's not a done deal, and the owner's development efforts in the city have a checkered history, so the proposal has both cheerleaders and detractors, but Hawkins seems sanguine. “I'd say it's most likely going to happen.”

Plans are also afoot for a series of outdoor concerts downtown this summer on Thursday evenings, with wine and food at each. A Tuesday evening farmers market will be sited in the same location — on the shady 4th Street —  to complement the Sunday morning market.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Thu, Mar 28, 10:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Just remember the not so visible costs next time you hoist a glass of Yakima wine: If it is from an irrigated vineyard, and most are, a thousand acres of splendid ancient forest at Bumping Lake is scheduled to be destroyed for an enlarged reservoir so that Yakima valley irrigators can (maybe) get a little more water. This, when they waste much of what they already get through aerial spraying and other wasteful practices. After all, the water is free for them, or nearly so. It's the taxpayers who'll be picking up the $5 billion check to give them yet more.

Salud!

Posted Thu, Mar 28, 4:04 p.m. Inappropriate

We've had this conversation before, and I get your point about subsidizing irrigators. Most vineyards in this state are now drip irrigated. The relative usage of water for grapes versus other area crops such as apples and other tree fruit grown is so small that eliminating all vineyards would probably make no discernible difference in the outcome of the Basin Plan.
Here's a rough approximation: There's about 32,000 acres of wine grapes planted in the state versus 175,000 in apples, which are about 50% more water intensive (per kilogram). And that's just apples. So their impact on area water supplies is about 8 - 9 times larger than grapes. Throw in tree fruit, hops, and a few other crops, and I'm willing to bet wine grape growing accounts for maybe 5% of the areas irrigation usage.
So don't waste your timing defaming wine on these grounds.
Crosscut has done a few stories regarding Washington apples -- which like Washington grapes, are mostly sourced from the dry part of the state -- during your tenure here, and during the era of the Yakima River Basin Plan. I don't see you commenting on those stories.
Why not?

Tuck

Posted Thu, Mar 28, 8:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Because I'm waiting for a story about cider...

But, seriously, you should perhaps think about using words like "defaming" so casually. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that to "defame" someone or something is to spread harmful and false information about it or them. I don't think there is anything false in what I wrote. Would it be defamatory to point out that burning coal releases pollution? No. Nor is it defamatory to point out that Yakima grapes rely on irrigation water that has a very big hidden pricetag. It is a true statement.

But, semantics aside, the broader point here is that Yakima irrigators, along with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the state of Washington, are trying very hard right now to increase that hidden price. They are not satisfied with the water from five large existing reservoirs, they want more water. They are not interested in conservation, they want more water. And they want the taxpayers to pay for it.

I don't doubt you are correct that grape growers use a relatively small part of the irrigation water in the Yakima Basin. But they are still very much part of the drive to get more water, as far as I know. And we are not talking about damage done in the past here, we're talking about a brand new dam at Bumping Lake and the destruction of a thousand acres of really splendid ancient forest, happening now, in the year 2013. There is no way to mitigate that, not when there are hardly a handful of forests like that left anywhere.

And for what? So Yakima irrigators, or most of them, can continue to waste water like it's free, which it practically is. That's not defamation, it's just fact.

Posted Thu, Mar 28, 11:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Your poor English grammar is showing again.

"A new ecosystem of Yakima wineries - and their impressive lists of wines - are driving the small town's efforts to put themselves on the map for wine-lovers."

A new ecosystem are?

Sad when journalists murder the language.

Posted Thu, Mar 28, 1:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Deleted

Tuck

Posted Thu, Mar 28, 1:18 p.m. Inappropriate

you are so right. I was NOT paying attention. Which is why we make such errors. Thank you.

Posted Thu, Mar 28, 3:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, you're right, which is why I tried to delete my above comment. "of Yakima wineries" is closer to the verb, but it's a prepositional phrase with "wineries" as the object. The subject is singular, so the verb "are" is indeed incorrect.

Tuck

Posted Thu, Mar 28, 4:05 p.m. Inappropriate

We've had this conversation before, and I get your point about subsidizing irrigators. Most vineyards in this state are now drip irrigated. The relative usage of water for grapes versus other area crops such as apples and other tree fruit grown is so small that eliminating all vineyards would probably make no discernible difference in the outcome of the Basin Plan.
Here's a rough approximation: There's about 32,000 acres of wine grapes planted in the state versus 175,000 in apples, which are about 50% more water intensive (per kilogram). And that's just apples. So their impact on area water supplies is about 8 - 9 times larger than grapes. Throw in tree fruit, hops, and a few other crops, and I'm willing to bet wine grape growing accounts for maybe 5% of the areas irrigation usage.
So don't waste your timing defaming wine on these grounds.
Crosscut has done a few stories regarding Washington apples -- which like Washington grapes, are mostly sourced from the dry part of the state -- during your tenure here, and during the era of the Yakima River Basin Plan. I don't see you commenting on those stories.
Why not?

Tuck

Posted Fri, Mar 29, 12:11 a.m. Inappropriate

I replied above to your question, but have a question for you. I haven't made any kind of systematic study of it, but most Washington vineyards appear to be utterly devoid of any kind of vegetation other than the grape vines themselves. As in bare soil below the vines, totally bare, nothing at all growing. Another article in Crosscut some months ago featured a picture of such a vineyard.

So what's going on? I can only surmise that grape growers are using some sort of chemicals tailored to kill everything but grapes, and using them liberally. I would imagine this means no competition for the grape vines, and thus more profit for the growers.

Vineyards in France that I have seen don't normally look this way, although I have seen some that do, but not many. Whereas it seems to be the rule in Washington state that the ground in vineyards is utterly barren, in a way that only herbicides can cause, not tilling or weeding. I have seen a few Washington vineyards that do not look chemically weed controlled, but very few.

Can you shed some light on this? Is it just my imagination, or is the average Washington vineyard barren because of herbicides?

Posted Thu, Mar 28, 10:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Really? All the comments are about irrigation practices and grammar? Not about the actual content of the article? I've been visiting wineries in the Yakima valley for more than 20 years, and I think there are more than a few wineries there that produce terrific wines. No, the Yakima valley (upper, middle, or lower) is not Walla Walla, but that doesn't mean their products are inherently inferior. Stop treating Gregutt as though he is the only voice one should listen to. Why not use your own tongue and your own brain? If you like it, it is good. End of story. Wine appreciation/assessment shouldn't be left solely to the critics, most of whom are too drunk by the end of a long tasting session to know what they are tasting. Even when they spit. That much alcohol just dulls the palate. And Yakima is a great place, regardless. I'm a dyed in the wool Seattleite, and I look forward to my Yakima visits with pleasure!

ilikewine

Posted Fri, Mar 29, 5:26 p.m. Inappropriate

There is very little use of herbacides in WA vineyards. Most of our vineyards follow very sustainable practices, some are even organic or Biodynamic. Take a drive up to our new AVA Naches Heights which is all organic and Biodynamic. By the way we even have a couple of vineyards that are dryfarmed. All of viticulture is moving closer to more sustainable practices because the results are so much better.

Posted Sun, Mar 31, 9:53 p.m. Inappropriate

That's encouraging to hear that some vineyards are moving toward more sustainable practices. But to say that "there is very little use of herbicides in WA vineyards," appears to me to be simply not true. Just looking at them is enough to tell one that almost all of them are heavily sprayed. What else could possibly explain the moonlike barren-ness of the soil under the vines, the utter lack of grass, weeds or plants of any kind?

Posted Fri, Apr 5, 3:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you to ilikewine for the comment bringing us back to the central point of the article, that increasingly good wine is being produced around Yakima in the Upper Valley. West side and other wine tourists really do need to stop and taste at Southard, Gilbert, Wilridge, Naches Heights, Kana, Antolin, Lookout Point, Treveri, and Windy Point, and soon at the nationally renowned Owen Roe. Paul Gregutt has done a good service for Southard and others Upper Valley producers in bringing attention to good wines here. Unfortunately, here in Yakima there currently is no publishing outlet for wine criticism, since the brain-dead Yakima Herald-Republic hasn't bothered to cover wine. Hopefully some outlet will emerge locally to write well about wines here. I would go further than Tuck Russell and say that in some cases the quality to price ratio is much better in the Upper Valley than in Walla Walla. You can get a lot for your money in the $15-30 range for both reds and whites, whereas in Walla Walla good reds really start around $35-40. Selah-based Southard, for instance, has both a Cabernet and a Syrah priced at $25 that are at least as good as any Walla Walla counterpart I've tasted at $40. Oh, and by the way, you west side wine tourists absolutely need to eat at Bunnell Family Cellars' outstanding Wine O'Clock restaurant. BTW, David O'Reilly and other top growers in the Yakima Valley are using careful vine management techniques that either eliminate or minimize the need for pesticides, which is possible given the low humidity.

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »