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.
“I predict it will be instantly popular,” avers Hawkins. “People who work downtown can grab some stuff to take home.” Many chefs don't attend the Sunday market because their restaurants aren't open Sundays, but Hawkins expects some to scout the Tuesday market for local foodstuffs. He also notes that the area's substantial Mormon population can't go to the market on Sundays, but could on Tuesdays.
Additional momentum should come from WAY's next member, Oregon's Owen Roe, which has quietly farmed an estate vineyard just south of Union Gap for over ten years. It's establishing a production facility, tasting room and lodging there.
It's too early to declare Yakima's transformation into a wine destination as successful as, say, Walla Walla's. But it will always have one key advantage: It's a lot closer.
WAY's motto is “Great wine starts here.” Perhaps one day a sign on the highway at the northern edge of the area will proclaim that. For now, don't let its absence stop you from discovering that on your own.