The valley is also the nation’s leading producer of spearmint and peppermint oil; carpets of dark green leaves, destined for toothpaste and chewing gum, line the roadsides. At the Darigold dairy plant in Sunnyside, legend has it that the annual production of cheese blocks, if stacked vertically, would exceed the elevation of Rainier (14,411 feet).
Visitors to the region are in for a treat even before they get there: The drives from Seattle, over the shoulder of Rainier, and from Portland, Ore., up the mighty Columbia River Gorge, feature scenes that look like pages ripped from a grade-school geography text. From Seattle, consider a detour onto the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway. Along the route, the Roza Dam, built in 1939, diverts the irrigation water that makes it all possible. (Flights into Pasco, where the airport has just undergone a major expansion, can offer glimpses of waving wheat and black polka dots that are Angus cows.)
I first came to the valley in the early 1980s, when my sister and her husband started a small winery there. At a lawn party to mark the release of their first merlot, we ate sweet native shrimp that my brother had netted in Puget Sound; tender asparagus from a nearby farm stand (locals will not eat asparagus unless it is picked that day); and little lamb chops, grilled to perfection by a friend whose Spanish ancestors ran sheep in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s. I have been returning as often as I can ever since.
Last fall I volunteered to help out with the chardonnay crush and took a couple of afternoons off to visit five wineries of different shapes and sizes. At every stop, tasting-room workers were eager to share what they knew, without pretense; you can learn a lot about wine in these parts without being made to feel like a rube.
My first stop was Barnard Griffin, a trailblazer founded in 1983 on the outskirts of Richland, in the shadow of Badger Mountain. I piggybacked on a bus-tour tasting in full swing, and took special note of the winemaker Rob Griffin’s peachy 2014 chardonnay, which scored 94 points at the San Francisco International Wine Competition (I did a double-take at the price, just $14), and his juicy 2015 Sangiovese rosé, which won the “pink” sweepstakes award at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. I sampled six wines (the tasting fee of $10 is refunded if you buy wine). The Kitchen, next to the pergola-fronted tasting room, serves a “farm to fork” menu Tuesday to Saturday, starting at noon. I poked my head into db Studio, where Mr. Griffin’s wife, Deborah Barnard, makes exuberant art glass and teaches classes to aspiring glaziers.
Up the road in Benton City, high above the modest stucco bungalows that skirt the base of Red Mountain, is the glamorous Col Solare, a joint effort of the Italian wine giant Marchesi Antinori and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the largest producer in the state. I joined a tour that began in the vineyard out front, where our guide joked about the winery’s “lakefront property,” an allusion to the cataclysmic Missoula floods that deposited local sediments favorable to growing grapes. The wines — red and red only — are made from Bordeaux varietals (and a touch of syrah); they command big prices — and get big scores. In the svelte tasting room, a flight of three wines was $17 (the selection included the formidable 2012 and 2013 Col Solare blends, which retail for $75). Darel Allwine oversees the winemaking; his 2014 Shining Hill, at a lower price ($40), had notes of Bing cherry and licorice. For snacking, marcona almonds seasoned with white truffle salt are $9; the charcuterie plate is $24.
Moving on up to Prosser, I crossed the railroad tracks near the Tree Top fruit-processing plant to Mercer Estates. The Mercer family has farmed in the valley since the 1880s but has only lately come to winemaking; they grow every grape that goes into their proprietary wines, mostly on the pretty slopes and plateaus of the nearby Horse Heaven Hills. The winemaker Jessica Munnell, who is native to the valley, makes some beautiful reds, but I especially liked her brisk sauvignon blanc; cantaloupe-scented viognier; and super fruity Grenache rosé. Mercer has come away from the annual wine competition at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with a trove of prizes — saddles, bridles and ornate silver buckles; these add a certain dash to the handsome tasting room, where the fee to taste is $5.
The following day, I squeezed in a visit to the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center, also in Prosser. Walter Clore was a horticulturist at Washington State University who experimented with wine grapes and persuaded local growers to plant them. The nonprofit center’s mission is to educate consumers and promote each and every one of the state’s wineries (exhibits include a handy historic timeline). The tasting bar offers a rotating roster of wines, each month featuring a specific region (in February that was the Rattlesnake Hills, a sub-appellation visible from the grounds). The tasting fee is $10. The center offers a seasonal “wine bites” menu that features the local bounty.
I headed next to the top of the valley, to Treveri Cellars, known for its sparkling wines. With the stone-and-timber heft of a ski lodge, the tasting room was at capacity at noon (a glorious outdoor patio, bubbly cocktails and a “small bites” menu are draws). Jürgen Grieb, the winemaker, studied méthode champenoise in his native Germany; he makes impeccable effervescent versions of riesling, gewürztraminer and Müller-Thurgau (as well as traditional blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs and a delicious sparkling rosé of chardonnay and syrah). At $15 to $20, these are bargain bubbles. Once a month, visitors can tour the facility and disgorge their own bottle before taking it home ($50, by appointment).
Just beyond Treveri, a single-track road leads through cherry and nectarine orchards to Owen Roe. A striking barn-red metal building, set in a cup-shaped dale, houses the winery and tasting room. The surrounding slopes are studded with volcanic outcroppings and planted with roller-coaster rows of red-wine grapes. The winemaker David O’Reilly, who has a devoted following for his Oregon pinot noirs, blended his first Washington wines here in 2013. I tasted a flight of five wines for $10, which I applied to a bottle of his dense, luscious 2013 Union Gap Vineyard syrah ($55). Bottlings fall into three price tiers, and while many of the names are a hoot — the value-driven Corvidae line honors the pesky crows and magpies that raid the vineyards with wines called Mirth and WiseGuy — the pursuit of quality is serious. Picnicking is encouraged (a commercial kitchen is in the works). A tour of the winery, by reservation ($20), includes a private tasting and a ride through the estate’s organically farmed vineyard in an all-terrain Pinzgauer.
Heading back down the valley, with late light touching acre upon acre of cropland, I thought of how very Western this particular part of the West was, in its ruggedness and enterprise and prosperity. I wished I had more time to explore the many farm towns and side roads, to play tourist, so to speak. But another block of chardonnay would be picked at dawn and delivered to the winery, where we would work long hours sorting stems and leaves from ripe fruit and hosing down equipment, then eat late and fall into bed, lulled to sleep by the rumble of trucks and trains.
If You Go
Where to Stay
The Lodge at Columbia Point, in Richland, is a new luxury riverfront hotel with 82 rooms and suites. The Hotel Maison, in Yakima, was built in 1911 as a meeting place for Freemasons (the name is a pun) and renovated as a 36-room boutique hotel in 2016.
Where to Eat
Anthony’s at Columbia Point, in Richland, specializes in Northwest seafood. Wine o’Clock, in Prosser, features excellent fare from a wood-burning oven and wines from the Bunnell Family Cellar; the crisp 2014 Cottontop aligoté was standout — a little sweet, a little tart.
Other Fun Things to Do
In Zillah, the Teapot Dome Service Station is a charming piece of vernacular architecture built in 1922 to draw attention to the famous scandal of the Warren Harding administration; it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The American Hop Museum, in a former creamery in Toppenish, is devoted to the history of the hop industry in the valley.