Leading wine industry figures in Washington state are pushing for more fine dining and lodging options in the Columbia Valley, hoping to attract more visitors to the heart of Washington's wine country.
It's been a dilemma for Washington for years. Napa and Sonoma lie not far north of San Francisco, Oregon's Willamette Valley runs south of Portland. But Washington's leading wine regions lie on the far side of the Cascade mountains from Seattle. Richland, in the Columbia Valley, is about a three-hour drive from Seattle across the sometimes-snowy Snoqualmie Pass, while Walla Walla is about four hours away. To counter the lack of tourist traffic, many vintners have opened up satellite tasting rooms in Woodinville and other areas around Seattle.
The head of the state's largest producer recently argued that Washington needs an "explosion" of new fine dining and lodging to catch up with Napa, Sonoma, Willamette and the great European viticulture regions as a wine tourism destination. Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, also believes Yakima Valley, a produce-growing powerhouse, needs to develop agricultural tourism to draw visitors interested in the farm-to-table movement. "No doubt we're moving in a positive direction," said Baseler, citing facilities such as the four-room lodge at Desert Wind Winery in Prosser. "But after 25 years you'd like to see a faster pace of development."
Ideally, Baseler hopes to see a destination resort or golf-oriented business center built somewhere between Yakima and Walla Walla, like the Silverado Resort in the Napa Valley or the new Allison Inn & Spa in the Willamette Valley. That might draw more traffic to Ste. Michelle's Columbia Crest winery, located along the Columbia River about 30 minutes south of Prosser.
Plenty of others think more wine tourism would boost sales of Washington wines. "From a profitability standpoint, it's probably one of the single most important things that could happen, especially for small wineries," said John Bookwalter of Bookwalter Winery. In 2003, he opened a wine bar at his Richland facility, featuring light food and live music. There are only a few wine-oriented venues like that in the Yakima Valley; Walla Walla has richer offerings.
Deb Heintz, executive director of the Prosser Economic Development Association, says that Prosser, in the middle of the Yakima Valley, has begun offering more wine tourism attractions. Two high-end lodging projects, however, are on hold until the economy improves.
Vintner's Village, a cluster of 14 wineries in Prosser, has been a success, and an adjacent 17-acre Vintners II is now being built, Heintz said. Producers such as Mercer Estates, launched by Hogue Cellars founder Mike Hogue, have opened upscale tasting rooms in and near the village. The Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center is being built next door to showcase the history of Yakima Valley wine and food production.
A dining breakthrough was the opening last year of Bunnell Family Cellar's Wine O'Clock bistro at Vintner's Village, featuring fresh seasonal ingredients and herbs grown in the front garden. Co-owner Susan Bunnell, a seven-year veteran of Domaine Chandon's Napa Valley restaurant, said it's challenging to run a fine-dining venue in the Yakima Valley given the cold winter season, the distance from Seattle and Portland, and the limited support from local residents. Still, Wine O'Clock is often full on weekends.
"We have people come here three or four times a year from Seattle and Portland, and sometimes they'll return three times on a weekend," Bunnell boasted. "We call them regulars, but from farther out."
"There are a lot of things going on that weren't here five years ago," Hogue said. "And when the economy recovers, I think you'll see a resort-style lodging locate in the Valley."