Magazine article Sunset

The Next Big Wine Country: Pack Your Sense of Adventure and a Real Love for Wine as You Explore Eastern Washington. Once the Wild, Wild West of Regions, It's Tamed Now with Cult Syrahs. Euro Winemakers, and Even Killer Southern Food

Magazine article Sunset

The Next Big Wine Country: Pack Your Sense of Adventure and a Real Love for Wine as You Explore Eastern Washington. Once the Wild, Wild West of Regions, It's Tamed Now with Cult Syrahs. Euro Winemakers, and Even Killer Southern Food

Article excerpt

Whenever I take a trip to Eastern Washington from my hometown of Seattle, I swing into Waitsburg.

The historic brick main street of this town might be a precious few blocks long, but the businesses here are uncannily cool. The Negroni I'm drinking at Jimgermanbar is exquisite, and the air is scented with the bay leaf that seasons the bar's killer wine-poached chorizo.

This will be a progressive evening: Soon I'll be digging into warm crawfish flathread and house-smoked duck at the new-Southern gem Whoopemup Hollow Cafe across the street. And next door to it, the blues-slinging road-house that is the Anchor Bar promises a long draught of beer. The brassy black-and-white American flag mural painted across its facade speaks of a major cultural shift here.

I've been savoring spectacular wines from this side of the state for more than a few years. And I've heard talk of top winemakers from Furope staking claim to some of this land, young talent rushing in after the pioneers, cooking matching tip with the wine, maybe even a comfy hotel or two.

I've made the trek now, through the heart of Washington wine country to nearby Walla Walla, to see if we have Washington's version of Napa Valley in the making. To taste the wines, yes, but to see what wine towns are like before all the winemakers exit the tasting rooms and crowds edge me away from the bars.

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Follow the vines

Think Washington wine, and you might imagine Woodinville, just outside Seattle. After all, more than 80 wineries and tasting rooms call it home. But the vines aren't there: Most of the grapes coming to those wineries have taken a very long truck ride, from the arid eastern side of the state. And I follow this route in reverse, through the dusty landscape wrought by ancient floods and even more ancient volcanic eruptions.

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The winemakers tell me that the summer days on these hillsides are long and dry, the nights quite cool. And they control the growth of the vines through careful irrigation--all keys to the intense fruit and bright acidity I love in the wines from this place.

Prosser: a snapshot of the Yakima Valley

From Seattle, three hours gets me to the orchard-fruit town of Prosser, at the eastern tip of the Yakima Valley (a sub-region of the Columbia Valley). New wineries have joined the early corners here, and a handful of good bites and hotel rooms makes this a restful stopover for exploring area wines.

I start with the historic--in Washington wine terms, that is: Kay Simon and Clay Mackey have been making their Chinook wines here since the -198os, when they pulled out (most of) a cherry orchard to put in vines. At their winery, I watch the couple watch the stainless bottling line with eagle eyes as it processes their new white blend. This is intensely personal oversight, and it's helped earn Chinook's reputation, as has the welcome in their farmhouse-cum-tasting room. "Take some cherries on your way out!" yells Kay as I walk to my car, and she points to a nearby survivor from the orchard, loaded with red fruit.

Just off the highway on the edge of town, flatbreads are emerging from the wood-fired oven at Wine o'Clock. Part cafe and part wine bar, this is tasting headquarters for the Bunnell Family Cellar. I gobble a pie topped with sweet onions (another famous Eastern Washington crop), apricots, and lemon thyme with a flight of Bunnell's single-vineyard Syrahs before tasting my way around the Vintner's Village that houses Bunnell and nine others.

The stuccoed walls and curving asphalt driveways might have all the character of a late-model California housing development, but the wines inside are impressive. I catch Jon Martinez, a former Kansas City dentist, pouring his electrifying Rhone-style wines in the spare Maison Bleue winery. When he devoted himself to winemaking five years ago, Jon tells me, Prosser's proximity to some of Washington's best vineyards clinched his choice to settle here. …

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