For years, wine tourists from Seattle and Portland wondered why they had no four-star dining or lodging choices as they tasted their way through the winery-rich Yakima Valley. After all, it is one of the country'ês prime areas for growing fruits and vegetables, not counting its bounty of wine grapes.
That picture is changing, though too slowly for some. Off an uninviting I-82 exit at Prosser, tucked in the middle of the thriving new Vintners Village cluster of wineries, is a new bistro called Wine O'êClock, with an herb garden out front.
Opened last year by Ron and Susan Bunnell of The Bunnell Family Cellar, Wine O'êClock is a dining breakthrough for the Yakima Valley, the kind of gem you expect to find in Napa, Sonoma, or the Willamette Valley. It features a limited menu of fresh seasonal ingredients and daily specials created by Susan and chef Laurie Kennedy. The food is complemented by Ron'ês excellent Rhone-varietal wines, which are available in flights.
Susan, a seven-year veteran of Domaine Chandon's Napa Valley restaurant, said it's challenging to run a fine dining venue in the Yakima Valley given the cold winter season, the distance from Seattle and Portland, and the modest support from local residents. Still, Wine O'Clock is often full during its limited Friday through Sunday hours. 'êWe have people come here three or four times a year from Seattle and Portland, and sometimes they'll return three times on a weekend," she boasted. "We call them regulars, but from farther out."
The Valley'ês finest lodging spot is just off the next I-82 exit going east. Flush on the Yakima River is the four-room lodge at the Desert Wind Winery, a 3-year-old adobe-style building housing the winery'ês spacious tasting room and private dining facility. Upstairs, the luxury is unexpected for the Valley — four individually decorated rooms, each with its own balcony overlooking the river, original art, gas fireplace, flat screen TV and sound system, and plush bedcoverings and furnishings.
Guests find a complimentary bottle of Desert Wind wine and a glass of port in their rooms. A continental breakfast is delivered in the morning. All this comes with a price tag that'ês more Seattle than Prosser: $250-$300 a night during spring, summer, and fall, and $175-$195 during the off season. A VIP wine tour and barrel tasting, spa treatment, and cooking classes are extra.
'êWe'êre already fully booked on weekends into September, and we'êre typically at 75 percent to 100 percent capacity Wednesdays through Fridays,'ê said Amber Fries, whose family owns the winery and who handles media relations. 'êMore people are coming over from the West side because word is spreading that there'ês more to do here now.'ê
Still, Desert Wind closed its sleek fine-dining restaurant last September and converted it into a facility for private wine and dining events. Fries said there just wasn'êt enough demand for high-end restaurant dining.
Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the state'ês largest producer, expresses impatience. The Columbia Valley needs an 'êexplosion'ê of new fine dining and lodging to catch up with the other great U.S. and European viticulture regions as a wine tourism destination, he said in an interview and a recent speech to Yakima business leaders.
'êNo doubt we'êre moving in a positive direction,'ê Baseler added, citing the Desert Wind lodge, where he stayed during his visit. 'êBut after 25 years you'êd like to see a faster pace of development.'ê
Ideally, he hopes to see a destination resort or golf-oriented business center built somewhere between Yakima and Walla Walla, like the new Allison Inn & Spa in the Willamette Valley. That might draw more traffic to Ste. Michelle'ês Columbia Crest winery, located along the Columbia River about 30 minutes south of Prosser.
In addition, Baseler said, the Yakima Valley needs to develop agricultural tourism to draw visitors interested in the farm-to-table, or so-called slow food, movement. 'êSlow food hasn'êt been adequately tapped at all. That will distinguish Washington.'ê
The Willamette Valley already boasts several farm-to-table-type establishments, such the Abbey Road Farm in Carlton, a B&B on a working farm which serves meals made from its own products, and Thistle, a McMinnville restaurant that uses only ingredients coming from nearby small farms.
One Yakima businessman is eyeing something like that. United Builders CEO Pat Strosahl is planning a B&B and cafÃ© in Zillah, just east of Yakima, that would marry fine local wines with locally produced organic produce, meats, and dairy products. 'êMany farmers around here are growing organic fruits and vegetables and raising grass-fed beef,'ê he said. 'êThere'ês a real chance of putting together a really exquisite menu using very locally oriented products. Pairing the best produce and best wine could give us something very distinctive, beyond Napa Valley.'ê He hopes to find an experienced B&B operator with a passion for the concept.
Baseler and others think more fine dining and lodging would draw more wine tourists, which in turn would boost sales of Washington wines. 'êFrom a profitability standpoint, it'ês probably one of the single most important things that could happen, especially for small wineries,'ê said John Bookwalter of Bookwalter Winery. In 2003, he opened a wine bar at his Richland facility, featuring light food and live music.There are only a few wine-oriented venues like that in the Yakima Valley. One is Gilbert Cellars wine bar in downtown Yakima. Open every afternoon and evening, the 2-year-old bar features Gilbert Cellars'ê well-made wines, a light, tapas-style menu, and live music in the cave-like basement every Friday night.
Closer to Seattle, Sazon, a comfortable bistro in downtown Ellensburg, opened in 2008 and has built a strong following with its fresh, seasonal menu, daily specials, and well-chosen Washington wine list. Chef Paul Cotta presents an eclectic mix of world flavors, with Mediterranean, southwest, and even New Orleans touches. Among his signature dishes are the smoked pork chop, coconut mango risotto, and house made gnocci. Bunnell Family Cellars, Benson Vineyards, and Vin du Lac are some of the good vintners on the wine list.
Deb Heintz, executive director of the Prosser Economic Development Association, said the Yakima Valley has begun offering more and better wine tourism attractions. But two high-end lodging projects in Prosser, in the middle of the Valley, are on hold until the economy improves, she added.
Vintners Village, the cluster of 14 wineries in Prosser, has been a success, and an adjacent 17-acre Vintners II is now being built, Heintz said. Producers such as Mercer Estates, launched by Hogue Cellars founder Mike Hogue, have opened upscale tasting rooms in and near the village. The Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center is being built next door to showcase the history of Yakima Valley wine and food production.
'êThere are a lot of things going on that weren'êt here five years ago,'ê Hogue said. 'êAnd when the economy recovers, I think you'êll see a resort-style lodging locate in the Valley.'ê
Baseler and others hope famed Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas, who recently built a home for his in-laws in Prosser, will open a venue there that would be a tourist magnet. But Douglas, who grows produce in his Prosser garden for his six Seattle restaurants and plans to raise Moscato grapes for a house dessert wine, said such a project is probably five years off. That'ês at least partly because he believes people would resist paying Seattle prices in Prosser. Last summer the Prosser garden supplied Douglas'ê restaurants with basil, chiles, eggplant, potatoes, green beans and tomatoes. This year he and his wife, Jackie Cross, are expanding the Prosser garden from a half acre to almost two acres, and they are hiring a couple of helpers.
Meanwhile, Douglas wants wine tourists to come and enjoy the Columbia Valley'ês beauty and recreational opportunities such as fishing, hunting, and wind surfing. It'ês not Napa or Sonoma yet, he admits, but the country is gorgeous.
'êWe'êd all love to drive down Highway 29 in the Yakima Valley and see wineries and restaurants all over, like in Napa,'ê he said. 'êBut we should enjoy its quirkiness now, before it gets too gentrified. It doesn'êt need to be all about wine.'ê