Puget Sound to Walla Walla: A Journey Through Washington Wine Country

From mysterious rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula to urban enclaves of the Puget Sound and hundreds of wineries tucked into lush fertile valleys of eastern Washington, I knew that I could sip, swirl and sleep in Washington Wine Country for months on end. Wine journeys in the state are as diverse as its vast ecosystems cradling more than 900 wineries and at least 55,000 acres of vineyards spreading verdant vines and crooked branches across the second-largest wine-producing region in America.

“He who knows how to taste does not drink wine but savors secrets”
– Salvador Dalì.

In the end, it was the striking contrast between east and west that narrowed my wine-trail options, pulling me into the magnetic yin-yang of cosmopolitan Seattle and its’ eastern agricultural counterpart. Just over the snowcapped Cascade Mountains, some of the state’s best wine routes twist and turn through gentle slopes, mountain shadows, rock-cut gorges and rushing riverbanks of Washington’s flourishing wine appellations.

Nature’s Domain

“Wine is sunlight, held together by water” – Galileo Galilei

Cruising over Seattle’s I-90 floating bridge toward the mountains, I passed a lakeshore of mansions housing the likes of Bill Gates and other techie million-and-billionaires. But I had my sights set on earthier things.

Less than an hour from the thriving city scene, emerald evergreens line the highway like sentinels of nature, framing white-capped rivers and cloud-encased mountain peaks. This is where I would begin my journey through Washington Wine Country. It’s also where I would sleep in some of the most storied and wine-soaked hotels, country inns and grand lodges of the Pacific Northwest.

The Yakima, Columbia and Walla Walla Valley wine appellations beckoned as I began the astonishing drive into nature’s domain ­– but first, the mountains held their own enchantments along the way.

Salish Lodge, a Place to Rest

Just 30 minutes from Seattle along I-90, nature thunders in a big way – literally. Snoqualmie Falls crashes over the edge of the earth for 270 feet, roaring with mystery, history and legends of native Snoqualmie peoples who still consider the area a spiritual place. It’s the perfect side-stop on a wine journey, just before crossing the mountain pass.

The magnificent Salish Lodge perches on a plain overlooking the falls, coming to life in 1916 as a quaint eight-room “place to rest” for coal miners, railway workers and other travelers heading east over the mountains. The fact that it overlooks the spectacular falls isn’t lost on modern-day sojourners like myself who come to wrap themselves in both nature and nurture at the same time. It now harbors 86 luxury guest rooms with fireplaces and soaking tubs as well as an award-winning restaurant and serenity spa with herb- and honey-infused treatments.

Honey oozes through all the amenities at Salish Lodge, featuring in the famous four-course Country Breakfast with its ‘Honey from Heaven’ service straight from the lodge’s own apiary. Hundreds of thousands of busy buzzers thrive in a protected sustainable habitat with rolling hillsides of wildflowers, lush gardens, blueberries and huckleberries. They produce 2,400 pounds of artisan honey every year, and it’s certainly not wasted.

Salish Honey shows up on dinner menus as well as in their own honey ale, honey-flavored vodka, honey truffles and even the Dale Cooper cocktail with gin, clove and cardamom-infused honey. If that name sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. Dale Cooper is the well-loved main character from the Twin Peaks cult-classic mystery drama series by David Lynch – which was filmed at Salish Lodge. Known in the series as the Great Northern Hotel, the lodge still gives a nod to its notorious fictional characters with late-night “cherry pie and damn good coffee.”

Mine Number Nine

Heading out early the next morning, I couldn’t resist veering off-road after about an hour to explore mining history at Cle Elum and Roslyn. It just so happens that one of the more obscure wineries of the region is tucked into the heart of mining lore and actually perches on top of the notorious Roslyn No. 9 Coal Mine.

Opened in 1930 to provide coal for steam engines of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the mine employed immigrants from across Europe – Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Croatia, Poland, Serbia, Lithuania, Wales and England – each bringing their own customs from distant homelands. At the height of the coal-industry days, more than 40 percent of the residents were born in foreign lands and two-thirds of males over the age of 14 worked in the mines.

Swiftwater Cellars now keeps Mine No. 9 stories alive, with a tasting room and restaurant filled with reminders of the deep history that lies quite literally beneath them. The entrance to this important chunk of the region’s history is just off the forecourt of the winery, while the gentle mound of fertile native grasses next to the golf course is actually Tipple Hill, a pile of coal slag and cinder that has aged gracefully despite the sometimes turbulent past that it represents.

Mining relics and aging photographs are the backdrop for stories that came rolling out as my day unfolded. Sampling the latest Mine No. 9 wine releases or knocking back power-packed “Rope Rider” cocktails, travelers get an earful about No. 9 miners who dangled from coal-car rope cables as they descended for half a mile into the deep shafts.

Before hitting the highway again, I strolled the Coal Mine Trails, walking along pathways created by families who built their lives around the men working beneath the surface. Historical landmarks along the way brought the past to life … the company store, the Roslyn Depot, the powder house, coal washer, mining offices and early settlements.

Though it was tempting to stay overnight in the spectacular Suncadia Lodge next to the winery, I had a date with some horses and teepees further down the road.

A Crowd of Stars

Descending into the Yakima Valley, waving fields of golden wheat beckon for miles on end, framing lush vineyards that cradle fruity little treasures with names like madeleine angevine, souzao, pinot, sangiovese, mourvedre and syrah. At least 70 known grape varieties greet sojourners like myself who tromp the vineyards in search of oenophile adventures. It’s certainly not hard to find them.

After exiting onto the decidedly rural I-82 toward Yakima, I passed a tongue-in-cheek sign welcoming me to “the Palm Springs of Washington.”

It was a harbinger of things to come, including the startling juxtaposition of towering white teepees against deep azure camelbacks of the rolling Blue Mountains. This was my destination for the day.

About 20 minutes from Yakima, the tiny town of Zillah tucks into cherry and apple orchards just off Exit 52, laced with endless rows of draping grapevines. It’s the heart of the Rattlesnake Hills American Viticultural Area wine appellation and home to at least 18 creative artisan wineries, most family-owned and almost all with views of Mount Adams and Mount Ranier. The eclectic community of winemakers, goat-hugging cheese fromagers and generational earth-tillers spin their magic throughout the valley, sharing their earth offerings with vino-adventurers like me.

II curved inland toward the 20-feet-high teepees (no GPS needed, just follow the winding road and head to the hills). The handmade “posh teepees” are part of the Cherry Wood Bed, Breakfast and Barn estate run by the generational Fewel family. Matriarch Pepper Fewel and her horse-whispering daughter Tiffany manage the homestead, while winemaking son Tad and his wife Sarah operate the nearby Cultura Winery. Cowboy boots and campfires aren’t just part of a tourist attraction here at Cherry Wood – these folks are as authentic as it gets.

The heart of this estate is easy to surmise, with dozens of spectacular horses stomping and tromping the meadows and pastures of the Cherry Wood homestead. Pepper admits to being a softie when it comes to rescuing horses bound for the slaughterhouse – but she’s certainly no pushover when it comes to rehabilitating them.

“They earn their keep,” Pepper explained, before mounting a favorite mare and rounding up guests for the day’s horseback winery tour. Straddling the saddles and weaving gently through fields and vineyards, wine adventurers gladly trade four wheels for four-hoofed designated drivers.

Antique gasoline fuel pumps mark the entrance to Cultura Winery, playing on the

“Fewel” family name. Tad and Sarah rustle up some lunch and lead us on a tour of the sleek micro-boutique winery facilities, followed by wine sampling in the earthy wood-clad tasting room.

Each local winery has its own personality, from the elegant French-style chateau of Bonaire Winery to the holistic slow-food experience of Paradiso del Sol. Wine-tasting in “paradise” includes food pairing from their garden-in-the-sun, which the owners simply call “yummy.” There are no pretensions there, just “slow wines for slow food, friends, family and fun.” (Along with a passel of pigs, turkeys, geese, fish and frogs as well as estate cherries and melons.)

Back at Cherry Wood, Tiffany Fewel works with the newest rescued horses. A Feldenkrais-trained horse-whispering cowgirl with a spunky spirit, Tiffany runs “Natural Connections” weekends and cowgirl getaways with rope wrangling, horse riding, wine tasting, and storytelling around roaring campfires.

The alternative-lodging teepees rival well-endowed hotels, decked out with hand-carved wood beds, natural stone floors and genuine western artifacts. Guests slip into open-air twilight soaking tubs while the Blue Mountains shimmer with indigo-tinted oil-bearing eucalyptus trees reflecting sunset hues. A crowd of stars march through increasing darkness as stories unfold in the crackling firelight.

“Bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars”

-W.B. Yeats-

Storied Murals and Schoolhouse Wine

Roaming quaint towns with grain-trains chugging along remote tracks, it’s easy to forget that Washington is the third-largest agriculture exporter in America. Although it’s big business, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Roadside stands overflow with cherries, apples and sweet Walla Walla onions, while hand painted signs recruit seasonal fruit pickers: “necesito piscadores.” A few minutes’ drive past Zillah, on my way to the wine mecca of Walla Walla, I pull off for an impromptu driving tour of roadside art at Toppenish.

Seventy spellbinding outdoor murals coat every imaginable surface downtown, telling the stories of Westward expansion and historical moments such as the Yakima Nation Treaty Signing of 1855. The past has a steady heartbeat in this otherwise nondescript valley town. Painted scenes such as Blanket Traders, Stagecoach Races and The Prairie Chicken Dance bring to life everyday dealings as well as nation-changing moments.

Over the next two hours, I’m vaguely aware that I’m passing through an intricate web of highly professional wine-industry alliances comprising viticulturists, enologists, soil scientists, sommeliers, cellar masters and more. Hundreds of wineries hold designations ranging from sustainable to handcrafted, boutique, biodynamic, urban, micro and organic, producing vintages sold in at least 40 countries across the globe.

Walla Walla and Schoolhouse Wine

“A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world”
– Louis Pasteur-

I finally pass the Tri-Cities (home to the WSU Wine Sciences program in enology and viticulture) and reached the end of I-82, turning left toward the Walla Walla Valley. Centered around the small hipster-academia town, at least 120 wineries spread throughout the valley, along with a plethora of tasting rooms, wine bars, and restaurants hosting winemaker dinners.

L’Ecole No. 41 winery is a natural first-stop on the way into town, if you can get past the idea that you’re going to school on your day off. The winery lives inside a former 1915 schoolhouse, shirking the confines of tutelage in favor of teaching a thing or two about wine.

Namely, how to make it taste really good. Former classroom chalkboards display wine-tasting notes, and the tasting bar itself is crafted from chalk-grade slate. I’m told there’s no pop quiz waiting, but just in case, I thought I’d brush up on the merits of L’Ecole Apogee and Estate Luminesce. Both passed with flying colors.

Marcus Whitman and Downtown

The charming Walla Walla downtown is everything you imagine in a winery destination, sans the pretense that comes with slickly marketed conglomerates. The most exclusive and/or eclectic wines hide in plain sight on Main Street, including the tasting rooms of Cayuse Vineyards, Cadaretta and Dama. Dozens of vino-topias are within a stumble of one another downtown, which is fortunately where the storied Marcus Whitman Hotel reigns in all its heritage-laden glory. The Whitman rises majestically just one block from Main Street, an easy stroll past heritage homes and structures dating back to the 1800s.

Walla Walla is so bucolic that it’s been dubbed “the town so nice they named it twice.” But it hasn’t always been that way. The Marcus Whitman Hotel is named after a frontier physician and missionary who in 1836 founded the first settlement near a fur trading post known as Fort Walla Walla.

Marcus and his wife Narcissa came to work with the local native Cayuse tribe, providing medical, farming and spiritual advice. But unfortunately, the relationship soured with continued concerns over American expansion and a bout of measles that decimated the Cayuse communities. The Whitmans were brutally murdered on November 29, 1847.

The Whitman name and legacy remains to this day, and the hotel has hosted dignitaries and celebrities ranging from Shirley Temple and Louis Armstrong to Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lynden B. Johnson. Thirty-five oil paintings in the second-floor tower tell the stories of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and their influence throughout the valley.

Marcus Whitman Hotel is now the premier wine host for anything-and-everything related to vino in Walla Walla. In addition to the Vineyard Lounge, five boutique vintners have their tasting rooms in the hotel. Chefs at the Marc Restaurant create elaborate farm-to-table food and wine pairings featuring the wines from Locati, Mansion Creek Cellars, Lodmell Cellars, Tero Estates and Alexander the Grape.

Tasting menus offer creations such as Coffee & Cocoa Crusted Upper Dry Creek Lamb paired with the Lodmell Cellars NV3, bringing out the complexity of its dried cherry, cassis and subtle oak flavors. For the most ultra-exclusive multi-course food and wine collision, up to 10 guests can join Executive Chef Grant Hinderliter and Chief Sommelier Dan McCaffrey in the kitchen for their Chef’s Table Experience.

Airplane Hangars, Heritage Farms and Chihuly

Though downtown Walla Walla feels like the epicenter of Washington wine, the truth is that there’s no actual vino vortex here. From Leonetti Cellars on the edge of town to dusty roads rambling into the fields toward Pepper Bridge, run by Wine King Norm McKibben, each winery is a microcosm in its own little universe. There are even 20 wildly creative wineries housed inside hangars at Walla Walla Airport just north of downtown.

Some winery destinations are as much about their tentacles as their vintages. At Long Shadows, it’s all about the stunning Chihuly glass sculptures. From owner Allan Shoup’s longtime connection to world-famous glass artist Dale Chihuly, Long Shadows cradles a personal collection of his brilliant creations. In a blaze of color and clarity, wine tasting has never been so artsy, especially when sipping pours from a bottle of Poet’s Leap.

No wine journey east of the Cascades is complete without a slumber party at Abeja Winery.

Tucked into 35 acres of heritage farmland outside Walla Walla, Abeja Inn welcomes wine travelers to sip, savor and dream in repurposed agrarian buildings. From a chicken coop to a dairy barn, carriage house and bunkhouse, there’s nothing on this wine estate that hasn’t been rebirthed and nurtured. Fellow oenophile adventurers bond over gourmet eggs benedict in the morning and are fast friends by the time wine-tasting in the barn sends them into pastoral bliss.

It’s easy to be intimidated by wine culture in places like Napa Valley or the French Bordeaux region – but not in the Yakima and Walla Walla Valleys of Washington State. As Gordon Taylor, owner and winemaker at DavenLore Winery told me after preparing a gorgeous gourmet meal in the kitchen above his wine-tasting cellar in Horse Heaven Hills, “I’m just a farmer. Nothing fancy here ­– just me, some dirt, grapes and a love for great wine.”

As usual in this earthy multifaceted version of a wine country, Gordon doesn’t even mention that he’s actually an agricultural research specialist and engineer in disciplines such as genetics, soil and entomology. But sure, this winemaker is “just a farmer.”

“Wine…because no great story ever started with someone eating a salad”

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