Three hours from Portland and two and a half from Seattle, lie the small towns and agricultural lands of the Yakima Valley. It’s the source of much that is good and makes for a marvelous sunny getaway. The Yakima Valley is actually the birthplace of Washington’s wine industry. And, they supply 75% of American hops. In the Yakima Valley you can find history, rural beauty and, of course, good food and wine. And, we discovered some Yakima Valley surprises along the way.
On the Way to the Yakima Valley
It was spring and the entire Pacific Northwest was coming to life with green trees, flowering orchards and bud break in the vineyards. The short drive from Portland to Central Washington ended up taking a day and a half with stops to enjoy the Columbia River views, tasting and sipping along the Hood River Valley Fruit Loop and an overnight stay in historic The Dalles, Oregon.
I left The Dalles in the cool of the morning, passed the dam and took the bridge over to the Washington side of the river. As the road climbed into the wildflower-laden hills, I had to stop to take in the view of the huge wind turbines and the river down below.
The sun started to warm the earth as the road took me through Yakima Nation land into the Yakima Valley. The area is known for 300 days of sun a year. It’s good for growing crops and good for escaping the drippy coastal lands of Oregon and Washington.
Wine and Surprising Southwest Luxury in the Yakima Valley
After joining in with a wine and food writer's tour group, our first stop was the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center. The statue out front is of Dr. Walter Clore, considered “The Father of Washington Wine.” He took a position with Washington State University in the 1930s and worked with other agricultural researchers there to explore the challenges of growing European wine grapes in the area. His work played an indispensable role in the expansion of Washington viniculture.
It’s a great place to begin a tour of the Yakima Valley AVA because this event and education center provides visitors with a place to taste and purchase wines from each of Washington's unique wine growing regions. Offerings are changed monthly. The local art decorating the walls changes as well.
I mentioned surprises and right next door was a special place. We walked across the parking lot to our first winery, Desert Wind Winery. I was surprised to see a building with adobe walls and huge vigas (beams) like in New Mexico.
The huge tasting room was richly decorated in a Southwest theme. The tasting area flowed into a large event area and restaurant anchored by an open kitchen.
In the corner was a chocolate shop—Jade’s British Girl Treats—filled with marvelous decorated truffles.
Winery owners Doug and Jo Ann Fries and their family have farmed and grown grapes in the Pacific Northwest since moving from California’s Central Valley in the early 1980s. They purchased land in the area ideal for producing hot climate varietals. Desert Wind Winery is known for its structured, full-bodied red wines reflective of the unique terroir of Eastern Washington.
But the real surprise was what was upstairs—the Inn at Desert Wind. Four luxurious, Southwest-inspired guest rooms beckon you to travel, taste and then stay the night with a beautiful view of the Yakima Valley.
The small inn is Travel + Leisure’s pick for lodging in the Yakima Valley. The rooms are large, with huge king sized beds or two queens. Each room has a gas kiva fireplace and French doors leading to a balcony overlooking the Yakima River, a sitting area, and a large tiled bathroom with jetted tub and rain shower (Sacagawea Room only) or tiled walk-in shower. The rooms are elegant and the views will remind you that you are in an agricultural community.
Spa services are available too! I didn’t have the opportunity to review the inn but what I saw made me put it high on my list for a return trip.
Wining, Dining and a Bit of Bawdy History in Prosser
It was our day to explore the wineries of the Prosser area and we soon discovered there is a place you can park and walk from tasting room to tasting room—the Vintner’s Village off Merlot Drive. This new area, just north of Prosser, makes for an excellent wine walking tour. The Vintners Winery Village is home to more than 12 wineries and the Winemaker's Loft, which is a winery incubator that houses a half-dozen wineries and tasting rooms. There is an RV park located conveniently right next door.
One of our first stops was Thurston Wolfe Winery setting the tone for our explorations of Prosser area wineries. Thurston Wolfe is a small family winery owned by Wade Wolfe and Becky Yeaman. They specialize in unique table and dessert wines. The personable owners led us through a laid-back tasting in the barrel and production room. I especially enjoyed Dr. Wolfe’s Family Red, a blend of Zinfandel (53%), Petite Sirah (28%), and Lemberger (19%). At only $18 a bottle, I thought this was a bargain. In fact, I noticed that many area wineries offered reasonable pricing.
We walked and tasted at several wineries. One winery with a unique story and great wines that made a memorable stop was family-owned Airfield Estates Winery. Its vintage aviation theme is a great backstory and turned out to be one of our Yakima Valley surprises.
When World War II broke out, pilots were needed. In 1941 a civilian pilot training program required land for a flight school. H. Lloyd Miller, the founder of the family estate and a successful realtor and landowner, knew that it would be several years before the arrival of irrigation water on his farmland so he signed a lease agreement for a portion of his property.
The airfield, with dirt runways, was built on this land. There were buildings for barracks, storage and a mess hall on the site. Initially, the pilots were trained in bi-planes but in the middle of 1943, the school changed to the War Training Service Program and over 500 Army Air Corps pilots trained at the airbase on the family property until the flight school closed in 1944. As the story goes, the government did not pay on the lease during the war but the family did get the land and buildings back. The field, with buildings, was auctioned off and, with a bid of $1, Miller regained the property. You see, he was the only bidder!
These unique buildings became the headquarters of their family’s farming operations, which today is known as Airport Ranch.
It was a mild spring day and we sat around a table made from a WWII schematic of the airfield, sipped wine and enjoyed the open air tasting room. People with dogs came by and enjoyed the outdoor patio open from the room where we sat enjoying the stories of WWII history. Many area wineries have intriguing family and business stories to tell. When you tour, you’ll appreciate the unpretentious, relaxed settings at the wineries.
By this time we were getting hungry and headed for yet another tale of area history, this one in the center of old town Prosser. Prosser’s historic downtown is one of those places undergoing a revival. New shops and hip restaurants have opened amidst the brick buildings and historical murals.
In season, a Saturday farmer’s market sets up in the City Park. In July you can experience the Art Walk and Wine Gala on historic Sixth Street. Our destination was a hearty meal at the Horse Heaven Saloon owned by Prosser natives, Gary and Carol Vegar and the last of our Yakima Valley surprises for the day. We entered through crafted wooden doors with authentic six-shooters as handles.
The place was full—locals enjoyed a Horse Heaven brew at the old-fashioned long bar, and we sat in a corner table surrounded by huge horse murals (it’s Horse Heaven Hills, after all). Upstairs, we were told, was the Parlor Room, once home to the ladies of ill repute. Now they have a parlor for meetings and parties and, yes, there are still bedrooms on that floor. In fact, you can stay overnight in one of the rooms with king-sized beds, TV, and private baths. The brewery is behind the saloon.
Since the saloon is known for its hearty American comfort food, I ordered meatloaf. I’ve found that a restaurant with good meatloaf usually does well with the other entrees on the menu. And, this meatloaf was moist, lightly seasoned and accompanied by fresh veggies. Add a local red wine, and the dinner was perfect after a day of wine tasting and noshing on cheeses, olives, and the like.
When You Go to the Yakima Valley
We’ve covered the events, and the surprises, experienced in just one day of touring the sunny Yakima Valley. There is much to see, sip and taste during all four seasons and so I want to return to experience more of the natural beauty and agricultural bounty this area offers.
The Yakima Valley Travel Guide is a must-have before you head out to explore the area. There are seasonal itineraries and lists of small towns to visit. Outdoor adventures will entice you to come during warmer months and the wineries and breweries are available year ‘round for tastings. Excellent information is found on the Visit Yakima website as well. The Yakima Valley Wine website has lists of wineries, a printable tour map, schedule of wine events and information on the AVA.
Find out more about visiting Washington State from our Wander writers.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was hosted by Yakima Valley Tourism and was provided with accommodations, meals, tours, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.