The State of Washington may have a reputation for coffee culture, hikers, and hippies in the west; cowboys, apples, and wheat in the east, but one thing is clear: Washington takes its wines very seriously. After all, Washington is the second largest premium wine producer in the United States, with more than 43,000 acres planted to grapes. Case in point, in just 20 years, the town of Walla Walla has surpassed its recognition as a town mentioned in a 1963 Bugs Bunny cartoon, to one of the most recognized growing regions in the world by wine aficionados and critics alike. As Washington's wine culture grows, so do its opportunities for creative and fun tasting experiences. Here are several current spots to investigate.
Recent scores of 93 and 94 from critics have tasters discovering JM Cellars, whose long tree-lined driveway winds up to Bramble Bump, a secluded Shangri La above Chateau Ste. Michelle. The property was previously owned by horticulturists and, in between tastes of some big Bordeaux-style wines, you can walk the seven lush acres of wilderness.
A memorable tasting experience in an industrial park seems like an oxymoron, but Woodinville’s Warehouse District—home to 35 wineries—has a cult following. The lively group of producers host a wine walk on the third Thursday of every month, each with a different theme. Don’t miss Gorman Winery and Sparkman Cellars.
Fireside Cellars, Willows Lodge
This cozy nook, adjacent to the lobby of Willows Lodge (selected for Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List), serves up wine flights, vintage wines, and new or yet-to-be-released wines. They are masterfully paired with tapas from the wildly popular (and renowned) Barking Frog restaurant. Fireside hosts Food & Wine Wednesdays with a visiting winemaker, and live entertainment on any given night.
J. Bookwalter Winery, Richland
Inside, you’ll find Pottery Barn-inspired decor with amber-colored concrete floors, ochre walls, and comfy leather chairs that set the mood for a relaxed tasting experience. In good weather, the real show is out on the patio where the wine is flowing and music is playing: the winery hosts entertainment four nights a week. An avid reader, Winemaker John Bookwalter plays off of literary terms for the names of his wines. Don’t miss the Protagonist and Conflict—solid red blends.
Hedges Family Estate, Benton City
Pioneer Tom Hedges, alongside his wife Anne-Marie, a native of the Champagne region of France, took a chance on a piece of barren land that once housed tumbleweeds the size of refrigerators. The site is now home to a French-style château surrounded by estate vineyards in what has become an AVA with worldwide reputation: Red Mountain—a tiny red dot on the Washington State viticulture map. In warm weather, the formidable fountain is a standout, surrounded by gardens of lavender, heather, and roses. Hedge’s was one of the first in the state to promote terroir-driven wines. The Côte Rôtie-style Syrah is a standout.
Vinter’s Village, Prosser
What was once just the exit for a forgettable rest stop off the interstate is now a wine taster’s nirvana: 14 wineries, all within walking distance, each with its own distinct architecture and wine style. Vintner’s Village is filled with some of the state’s most reputable grape-growers-turned-producers, including Mike Miller of Airfield Estates, David Minick of Willow Crest Winery, Butch and Jerry Milbrandt of Milbrandt Vineyards, and Bob and Roger Gamache of Gamache Vintners. There are also plenty of exciting upstarts, including Maison Bleue Winery, a darling itty-bitty tasting room filled with 93 plus-scoring Rhône varietals.
Gilbert Cellars, Yakima
Buzz-worthy Gilbert Cellars put an über-hip tasting room smack in the middle of downtown Yakima, and it has become a go-to for the most discriminating oenophiles. Though the tasting room is contemporary, the Gilbert family has been farming since 1897, and making wine since 2004, with the motto “strong root, great fruit.” Enjoy a pairing of their wines—especially the Syrah and Mourvèdre—with small plates.
WALLA WALLA VALLEY
L’ecole No 41, Walla Walla
Alfalfa fields, grain silos, cows, and horses dominate the land west of Walla Walla, until you reach one of the valley’s icons: L’Ecole No 41, the once Frenchtown School built in 1915. The accolades for the valley’s third oldest winery could fill a library, and tasting their Walla Walla Valley single-vineyard and single-varietal wines in particular will show you why. In addition to the wines, L’Ecole provides one of the most satisfying retail experiences in the valley and beyond. La meilleure façon to experience L’Ecole is with a private tasting of new releases, limited production, library and/or reserve wines in the cellar, with a tour of the production facility and grounds—seasonally every Friday afternoon. Reservations are required.
Charles Smith Wines, K Vintners, Walla Walla
Charles Smith is almost as famous for his mass of hair and cavalier marketing, as he is for his wines. His Tom Kundig-designed space is a Dwell Magazine-like backdrop for live music and food, including Blues & BBQ on Thursday nights. Some of the most picturesque tasting is on the south side of town, where you’ll find exceptional views of the Blue Mountains and vineyards along JB George Road—dubbed Walla Walla’s Rodeo Drive. Valley legends Northstar Winery and Pepper Bridge Winery are situated at the helm of a string of smaller producers including charming Va Piano Vineyards, whose name, loosely translated, means go slowly—a perfect way to savor these Washington wineries.