Photos by Richard Duval, Richard Duval Images
A recent tour of the Yakima Valley arranged by Yakima Valley Tourism was an eye opener for me. While I’ve traveled to the area many times during my ten years at the Washington Wine Commission and since, I have kept abreast of the burgeoning wine scene there. The Wine Yakima Valley group has created a strong recognizable brand that has changed the perception of this unsung region over the past few years though I was unaware of everything else sprouting up. Reputed to be shy on the pizzazz and diversity of other Washington tour regions; the Yakima Valley is now full of hidden gems. Visionaries and innovators are now rolling out the proverbial red carpet and saying, come see us!
We all know that the Yakima Valley first planted commercial-scale vinifera vineyards and started producing wine in the 1960’s, there are now 80 wineries in the Yakima Valley appellation, including the cult wineries and grape growers of Red Mountain. At the Gilbert Cellars Tasting Room, on Historic Front Street in the heart of Yakima, the bright, modern, art-filled space had me doing a double take: am I in Sonoma or Napa? Most of the places I visited were all known to me though I was mostly on-site for the first time. In for a real treat, I met the people who make the wine, beer and cider and heard their fascinating stories while watching production and tasting prize-winning beverages.
The hops growers, beer brewers and distillers of the Yakima Valley are less in numbers, but have a longer history considering fruit and hops have been cultivated in the Yakima Valley since the 1860’s. Downtown Yakima is recognized as home to one of the very first West Coast brew pubs, a real innovation at the time, Grant’s Pub. Opened in 1982 near the rail road station in the old Opera House on Front Street (across from Gilbert Cellars), it had a 30+ year run. Since its closure, not much happened on the brewing front, even though the Valley is one of the biggest and most quality driven hop producers in the world. Recently, a Yakima Valley Tourism Spirits & Hop Trail Map guides visitors to newcomers, like Bale Breaker Brewery in Moxee, near Yakima where I visited. Like Grant’s, their trailblazing predecessor, they broke new ground in the US; by being a brew pub operating in the middle of hop fields. This related hop business, in the epicenter of Yakima Valley hop production, was founded in 1920 by their family’s great grand-parents.
Where there is drink, there is hopefully also food to pair with those beverages and the new Yakima Valley is no exception. In years past, the products from fields, orchards and ranges were challenging to find near their place of origin. Today, there are restaurants, chefs, cafes and bakeries utilizing the riches of the land sourced from up and down the valley. I had lunch at award winning champagne style producer Treveri Cellars (select wineries now serve food to guests or have food service during peak times of the year) and a delectable dinner at 5 North in Yakima which opened in 2012, next to Gilbert Cellars. Chef/Owner Brad Masset also owns the Birchfield Manor Hotel & Restaurant, founded 35 years ago by his parents Sandy & Wil.
Nothing short of revolutionary change has hit the Yakima Valley. Come along with me, as I explore the beverage producers and food scene of the Yakima Valley in more detail (two additional installments to be posted later this month). Be re-introduced to the charms of a place you thought you knew or come along for a first-time ride; you’ll be as pleasantly surprised by the people and places that have re-defined the Yakima Valley visitor experience, as I was!