The Fruited Plains
Story and photos by John Blanchette
rains, fruits and vegetables thrive in Eastern Washington's Columbia
Valley. It is the home to the apple industry, Rainier cherries, sweet
Walla Walla onions (the official vegetable of the state) and 75 percent
of the hops used in U.S. beer making. At one time it's biggest crop
was wheat, but no longer. It is now the second largest producer of wine
grapes in the United States, with more than 800 separate vineyards.
View from La Teraza Vineyard on Red Mountain
Nature has been kind to this vast, warm, dry and fertile
plain. Catastrophic geological activity has provided a rich agricultural
Typical farm scene in Eastern Washington
About 15 million years ago the area was volcanically
active, covered in lava, which eventually cooled into basaltic bedrock.
There are still active volcanoes that occasionally go off, including
Mount St. Helens, Mt. Hood, Shasta and Rainier, adding new ash to the
About 15,000 years ago, Ice Age glaciers moved rich
soils and mineral rocks down through Canada and Montana, creating a
huge ice dam near Missoula, on the eastern edge of Idaho.
Several times over 3,000 years the dam broke and 600
feet of water poured into Eastern Washington, carrying the Canadian
and Western states contributions to the soils with them.
In just eight hours, they splashed against the Cascade
Mountains guarding Seattle and spread back, creating the soft Palouse
hills and fertile fields formed from released sand, silt, and minerals
that layered in 6 feet of highly enriched topsoil. The flooding also
created the Columbia River and a vast water system. In fact, the Indian
word "Walla Walla" means land of many waters.
Sitting at latitude 46 degrees, the same as Bordeaux
and Burgundy in France, the area averages more than 300 sunny days and
just 8 inches of rain a year, a seven-month growing season, and warm
days and cool desert evenings. About 30 grape varietals are planted,
most famously syrah and cabernet sauvignon, and the whites of chardonnay,
sauvignon blanc, viognier, and, my favorite for the region, riesling.
The soils are free of rot-producing diseases, so vines
sit on their own stock without grafting.
The grapes might be thriving, but unfortunately, there
is not enough help available for farmers to hand pick all their crops.
More and more they are turning to machine harvesting. Last year the
cherries dried on the trees and $3 million worth of asparagus was left
in the ground as workers turned to the more lucrative jobs picking fruit.
Even so, in the orchards you see unclaimed pears, apples,
peaches, walnuts, cherries and nectarines rotting under the trees, left
on the ground as fertilizer.
Fruit trees and grapevines proliferate in the rich
soils of Eastern Washington
There are "u-pick" farms all across the agricultural
belts of the Columbia River Valley, relying on the honesty of visitors
and amateur hands to harvest the crop and drop money into unattended
We started our journey in Seattle
dining at Lola, inside the elegant Hotel Andra in the trendy Belltown
neighborhood. Chef Tom Douglas won on the Food Network's "Iron
Chef" show and his mastery of food was evident in the multi-course
meal he prepared for us.
The wild boar and goat dishes were the best I've ever
eaten. It was also here that I found my favorite Washington cabernet
sauvignon, Dunham Cellars. Unfortunately, they know it and charge $75
This is also the winery that produces actor Kyle MacLachlan's
label, Pursued by Bear.
Traveling southeast of Seattle the next day we passed
through the Cascade
Mountain range and in about three hours entered the Columbia Valley
wine growing areas of Eastern Washington.
There are nine wine appellations (American Viticulture
Areas) in Washington, six of which are found here, producing 90 percent
of Washington's wine, and most of its hops, fruits and vegetables. The
areas spread south near the Oregon border, actually spilling across
into the neighboring state.
IF YOU GO
There are hundreds of vineyards open to the public throughout the Columbia
Valley. Following are some that I particularly enjoyed over a week of
The first AVAs you encounter along Route 82 are Yakima
Valley and Rattlesnake Hills. Most are small, family-run operations,
with very little pretension, such as Agate Field, Cultura, Paradisos
del Sol, Severino, Tefft, Bonair and Steppe.
The town of Prosser has some exceptional wineries including
Mercer Estates, Snoqualmie Vineyards, Desert Wind, which features food
prepared by the area's top chef, Frank Magana, Olsen Estates, Milbrandt
(my favorite Riesling) and Thurston Wolfe.
For a change of pace, try the local beer, Snoqualmie
Pale Ale, which has an outlet in town. Nice and hoppy.
Don't miss Chukar Cherries gourmet shop and the world's
best chocolate-covered cherries. This is a dangerous stop for any chocoholic.
We stayed at Cherrywood Bed, Breakfast and Barn, a
working farm where accommodations included upscale teepees, retro "canned
ham" trailers and traditional country inn rooms in the main house.
The owner is a great chef and uses farm-fresh ingredients
in her cooking. Be sure to rent a horse and ride the trails leading
through the vineyards and orchards to local tasting rooms.
Riding horseback through the vineyards
Gasperetti's Gourmet Restaurant is a local Italian
fixture in Yakima and has "the best onion rings in the world."
Walla Walla's of course.
Washington's tiniest AVA, Red Mountain, consists of
a mineral rich hill of soils dropped at the tail end of the Yakima Valley
during the ice age floods. It is here where Quilceda Creek purchases
the grapes from Klipsun Vineyards for its wine. It is the only winery
in the world to earn 100 points three years in a row from Robert Parker's
Wine Advocate ($80 a bottle). I tasted the grapes three days before
harvest. My guess was another 100.
Grapes from Red Mountain awarded 100 points by Robert
three years in a row.
The Tri-Cities wine producing areas of Kennewick, Pasco
and Richland lie beside the Columbia River and offer serene views to
accompany the fine restaurants and great vineyards resting on its banks.
Recommended stops are the Red Lion Hotel, Taverna Tagaris for Greek
dinning and wine pairing, Bookwalter Wine Bistro features live music
and some big reds, Terra Blanca, Hedges Family Estate (try the Port)
and Col Solare provide long views and spectacular wines from the top
of Red Mountain.
Canadian Geese enjoy the Columbia River Valley
Walla Walla is a University town with beautiful Victorian
homes. We stayed at the 1898 Queen Anne-style A. K. Dice Guest House.
The city relishes its cultured sensibility and educated palate. There
are a number of fine restaurants, including 26 Brix, Luscious by Nature,
Whitehouse and the Fat Duck Inn, and don't miss Salumiere Cesario for
some free tastes of the greatest sausages and cheeses in the world.
The City College is also home to an Enology and Viticulture program.
Some of the best white wines are produced in Walla Walla
by Chad Johnson's Dusted Valley Vintners and by Sapolil Cellars. The
finest red at Dunham Cellars at the airport.
For travel brochures, housing and restaurant information
and lists of events and festivals, contact Washington
State Tourism or 800-544-1800.
Own Private Seattle; Glacier
Peak, North Cascades; Lost
in the North Cascades; Yountville,