It all began spontaneously, when a friend inspired me to book a trip to the uncharted-by-me land of Washington and Oregon wine country. The early morning flight whisked me from the Midwest to Seattle, and a rental car served as my personal ferry to 11 wineries over three short days.
The main purpose of my trip was a short vacation doing something I love – exploring and learning, as well as drinking wine. I also wanted to get a feel for wineries in the Northwest U.S. and compare them to wineries in other parts of the world.
This was my first trip to a major wine region since I’d starting working in the industry, and touring wineries is completely different when you work for one. First, you notice more things about the way they do business. In addition, inquisitive staff members are as interested in learning about your region’s wine as you are of theirs. Best of all, the wineries offer fantastic discounts to industry professionals.
The AVA Journey
While in Washington and Oregon, I visited as many different American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) as possible – eight altogether:
- Yakima Valley AVA, Washington
- Walla Walla AVA, Washington – my favorite of the trip!
- Horse Heaven Hills AVA, Washington
- Columbia Valley AVA, Washington
- Columbia Gorge AVA, Oregon
- Chehalem Mountains AVA, Oregon
- Willamette Valley AVA, Oregon
- Puget Sound AVA, Washington
AVAs are regions known for being a great place to produce wine grapes. Some AVAs are large and others very small, and several even overlap with each other, but each offers a unique experience in your glass.
Below I briefly describe each winery visited, and rate their tasting room, wine, and staff on a scale of one to five (one being “bleh” and five being “omg, this must be heaven”). I also indicate the four I suggest you visit by including a photo and a “I highly recommend a stop at this location!” note at the end of the description.
Outside view of 14 Hands Winery’s tasting room. The horse on the orange door shows, in part, where they get their name – a horse that is literally 14 hands high.
14 Hands Winery – Prosser, WA (Yakima Valley AVA of Columbia Valley AVA)
In 2014 they remodeled their tasting room, and it shows. There’s a very “modern, but rustic” vibe, thanks to the reclaimed barn wood used throughout the décor. During my visit, they were sampling their unique reserve wines not available in stores, and I ended up taking home a 2013 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The location is amazing and their wine is quite good. | Tasting Room: 5, Wine: 4, Staff: 3+ | I highly recommend a stop at this location!
Inside The Hogue Cellars tasting room, looking at their tasteful retail display.
The Hogue Cellars – Prosser, WA (Yakima Valley AVA of Columbia Valley AVA)
The outside looked more like a warehouse than an inviting tasting room. The inside, however, was quite attractive with a country chic look. The staff was charming and personable, spending lots of one-on-one time with me and sharing knowledge about their wines. I thought it was neat that they adopted Stevin closures (screwcaps) for their bottles, embracing more efficient and reliable technology. I bought a 2014 GSM red blend (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) and a Syrah, plus a jar of maple bacon relish. Yum! | Tasting Room: 4, Wine: 4, Staff: 4 | I highly recommend a stop at this location!
Chinook Wines – Prosser, WA (Yakima Valley AVA of Columbia Valley AVA)
The winery is just down the road from The Hogue. Unlike the others I’d visited in this area, this is a small boutique winery where I chatted directly with one of the owner/winemakers. He spent about 30 minutes answering questions and telling me about his winery. I bought a bottle of their Cabernet Franc, which supports Long Live the Kings, an environmental nonprofit that restores wild salmon and more. | Tasting Room: 2, Wine: 2, Staff: 3
A view of the five wines tasted at Sinclair Estate Vineyards. Of all the wines tasted during my trip, I personally enjoyed these wines the most.
Sinclair Estate Vineyards – Walla Walla, WA (Walla Walla AVA of Columbia Valley AVA)
Their tasting room, like so many in Walla Walla, is in the downtown area. I tried their five wines, which had been opened the night before, and the extra time spent exposed to oxygen made them extra smooth and delicious. I had the tasting room to myself when they opened, and the young man conducting the tasting was charming, chatty, and very knowledgeable. The wines were all excellent, and I had a hard time deciding which to take, but ultimately chose the 2013 Vixen red blend with its peppery awesomeness. | Tasting Room: 3, Wine: 5, Staff: 5 | I highly recommend a stop at this location!
Fort Walla Walla Cellars – Walla Walla, WA (Walla Walla AVA of Columbia Valley AVA)
From the outside, they don’t look special, and the inside is a bit old-fashioned. However, they have a huge demand for their wines, which are delicious. At the time of my visit, they were almost sold out of their current vintages, and their wine club had a waiting list. I bought their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. | Tasting Room: 2, Wine: 4, Staff: 3+
Charles Smith Wines – Walla Walla, WA (Walla Walla AVA of Columbia Valley AVA)
Their tasting room has a modern, industrial vibe and is built in an old mechanic shop, which I found to be especially neat. Unfortunately, the wines didn’t stand up to the surroundings. Then again, CSW seem to be better known for their Syrahs, which I didn’t sample. Also disappointing, the staff member wasn’t attentive during my visit, even though I was the only customer. This company has several product lines of wine, and has been very successful in the wholesale world, so more analysis is needed before “writing it off.” | Tasting Room: 5, Wine: 3, Staff: 2
Columbia Crest Winery – Paterson, WA (Horse Heaven Hills AVA of Columbia Valley AVA)
This is a large winery – the previously mentioned 14 Hands is actually a sister company to them, both owned by Chateau Ste Michelle Wine Estates. The grounds were lovely and impressive. The staff seemed bored, but friendly. I bought their Crowdsource Cabernet as a gift. As the name suggests, people can log onto a website and vote for specific steps the winemakers should take in making the wine, from harvest to bottle. | Tasting Room: 5, Wine: 3, Staff: 2+
Waving Tree Winery – Goldendale, WA (Columbia Valley AVA)
They are a small winery that grows their own grapes and produces over 20 different wines, including a few Italian varietals such a Sangiovese and Barbera. I was overwhelmed by the number of wines and, unfortunately, underwhelmed by the quality. The owner/winemaker didn’t go into detail about each wine, but was very friendly. The tasting room was uninviting (and swarming with fruit flies). | Tasting Room: 1, Wine: 1, Staff: 2
The Pines 1852 – Hood River, OR (Columbia Gorge AVA)
They grow their own grapes in different vineyards across the area and have several interesting wines. Their downtown tasting room is set up like a bar, and a local group of older musicians were having a jam session in the corner. I bought their Big Red blend, a best-seller. I didn’t get much interaction with the staff, but the woman serving me was very pleasant. Hood River, where the tasting room is located, was a neat and trendy-looking town with many breweries and wineries – I would visit again for a weekend. | Tasting Room: 4, Wine: 3, Staff: 3
A view of the REX HILL Essence Table inside their tasting room. In each glass is a different flavor or aroma that you might pick up in their wines, for example apple, cocoa beans, or spices.
REX HILL – Newberg, OR (Chehalem Mountains AVA of Willamette Valley AVA)
Just 45 minutes southwest from Portland, this big, beautiful, and shmancy winery is quite a sight. They clearly care about educating their customers: the staff member was very knowledgeable and their tasting room is part-museum. I tried their Chardonnay and three Pinot Noir wines. I’m not a Pinot lover, but their 2014 Reserve was grown in a warm area and as a result was fruitier than usual Pinot, so I bought a bottle. One of the best parts is they open an hour earlier than most wineries in the area, and as the saying goes, “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning!” | Tasting Room: 5, Wine: 4, Staff: 4 | I highly recommend a stop at this location!
Bainbridge Vineyards – Bainbridge Island, WA (Puget Sound AVA)
This unique winery is located on Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound AVA. Unlike most wineries located in this particular AVA, they grow their own grapes (and are darn proud of it). They specialize in German grape varieties, such as Dornfelder and Regent. I visited outside their usual tasting hours, and had the opportunity to talk for over an hour with the original owner, as well as the new owner/vineyard manager/winemaker and new marketing manager. I bought a Late Harvest wine as a gift. | Tasting Room: 3, Wine: 2, Staff: 4
And a Brewery, Too
While driving through the Cascade Mountain Range during the first day of my trip, I stopped at a brewery because… why not?
The customizable beer sampler and tasting card that I tried at DRU BRU. All the beverage containers had the ounces and mL labeled in a similar fashion.
DRU BRU – Snoqualmie Pass, WA
Tasty, tasty beer with beautiful mountain views. I especially like the Wit and Schwarzbier.
They are just two years old, and already getting ready to bottle AND team up with a Seattle chef to produce a beer exclusively for his restaurants. Whoa. | Taproom: 5, Beer: 4, Staff: 3 | I highly recommend a stop at this location!
When Planning Your Trip
For me, the trip was awesome, but there was a lot of driving, and many places to see in a short period. If you are planning a similar trip, give yourself more time – two full days per area, instead of the half a day or less I allotted. Depending on how you like to drive – road trip style (stopping frequently to see the sights) or trucker style (getting to where you need to go as quickly as you can) – you should add extra time for travel as well. It’s a beautiful region and you may want to stop on the side of the road to take photographs.
Don’t forget to make room in your checked luggage to bring wine back, too. Then you can literally savor the experience and relive your adventure one glass at a time.