Are you and friends planning a trip to the Napa Valley? Be prepared to spend a small fortune and battle hoards of tourists. Your money might be better spent by taking a trip to the Northwest, to the Yakima Valley wine country in Washington State. Yakima is off the radar for most wine country travelers, but it has so much to offer to the wine enthusiast. We spent five days in Yakima, and we are now deeply enamored by this wine region. Napa Valley is historic, but the Yakima Valley also has some great wine adventures in store for visitors.
Yakima Valley Wine country
Yakima Valley Terroir
The wines in Yakima Valley wine country are extraordinary and match up with Napa Valley wines. It is not just Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot in Yakima; its diverse soil and weather give it the ability to produce several varieties at quality levels.
Did you know that Yakima Valley is a desert? The Cascade Mountains to the west bring rain and snow to the coastal side, but only a mere 5 to 6 inches to the Yakima Valley. The dry climate means no mold or mildew, and very few insects. That is why sustainable farming is attainable in the Yakima Valley.
The soil varies from vineyard to vineyard with silt, loam, loess, and cobblestone. The diverse soils side-by-side are due to volcanoes and the ancient Missoula Flood waters. Our visit to Owen Roe’s vineyards displayed each of these soil types in separate plots of the vineyards.
Rivers run east to west providing south-facing hillsides. Red grapes love the sun and get plenty of it facing south. Also, because of the latitude, there are more daylight hours for the red grapes. The evenings cool down, and there you have the ideal climate for red grapes. The Yakima Valley is at the same latitude as Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Yakima Valley Wineries
In our most recent trip to Yakima Valley, we visited several wineries and sampled a large number of Yakima Valley wines and other Washington wines. The quality is there and, for the most part, not at the huge price tag of Napa Valley wines.
There are 60 wineries in the Yakima Valley and nearly 19,000 acres of vineyards. The wineries are small and family owned. The tasting room fees are low, usually between $5 and $10, and waived with a purchase of wine. It is not uncommon to find the winemaker and/or owner pouring in the tasting room.
The Yakima Valley extends 85 miles in length and is wide enough to fit the length of the entire Napa Valley within its width. Besides vineyards and wineries, the Yakima Valley is an agricultural bonanza. Napa Valley has only vineyards, and rightly so. Yakima is diverse, with vineyards and many other crops growing side-by-side. These crops include cherry trees, apple trees, hops, and pears.
Two red wines that I found extraordinary are the Merlot and Syrah varieties. I found these two wines to be much more exciting than any I have tasted in Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, or elsewhere in California. The layers of flavors and structure of the wines offer an exciting taste profile. The Merlots are soft, balanced, and particularly food friendly. The Syrah comes in a few styles, but I love the meaty Syrahs. By meaty, I mean smoky and bacony. One of my fellow tasters described the aroma of one Syrah wine perfectly, “It smells like tires burning rubber on a peel out.” It sounds awful, but no, it is quite enjoyable. You must taste to appreciate. White wines are also abundant, especially Chardonnay, but reds receive most of the attention. See the list of wines of Yakima Valley.
Yakima Valley Apples
Most of the vineyards are on hillsides. Down below on the valley floor are apple orchards and hop orchards. Ninety percent of the world’s organically-grown apples are from the Yakima Valley. The apple growers are continually tinkering with apples to make them more crisp, firm, juicy, and tasty. Just try a Honey Crisp or Ambrosia apple from Yakima!
There are also small, somewhat ugly looking apples that may not look appealing in the grocery store. It turns out; these apples are just perfect for hard cider folks. Yakima Valley is big on hard apple cider.
Hops and more hops
Hop orchards abound and grow up to 18 feet in height. Brewers flock to the farms just before harvest to sample the different hop varieties. They crush and smell the hops in their hands and choose their hops for purchase. In Seattle and Portland, countless small brewpubs benefit from Yakima Valley hops. Yakima Valley produces 75% of the nation’s hops. More on Hops.
How to get to the Yakima Valley
The easiest way to travel from California is by air. Tri-Cities Airport in Yakama is the best option for flying into the wine region. Some airports offer direct flights to Tri-Cities, but the usual way is to connect in Seattle or Portland. Many wine country tourists drive from Seattle or Portland. Another adventurous trip for Californians is to head up to Walla Walla via Highway 395 and then west to Tri-Cities. Homeward bound, head west to Portland and take Highway 5 to California.
There are many excellent places to stay in Richland. The Columbia River in Richland is very inviting. For touring, rent a car, hire a wine tasting service, or hire Uber.
The Yakima Valley wine scene is still in its infancy. Much more can be accomplished by growers and winemakers. The best is yet to come with Yakima Valley wines. Get to Yakima Valley and experience a different lifestyle of slow and relaxed. The word “snobbery” is unknown in the Yakima Valley wine country.