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Weekender: Washington Wine Country

In southeastern Washington State, there's a quiet region where the sun shines more than 300 days a year, the orchards produce the lion's share of America's apples, hops grow straight up into the air, and vineyards flourish on warm, rocky hillsides. Fall stays just a little bit longer in this crescent of land that produces three viticultural appellations: the Columbia, Yakima, and Walla Walla valleys. And even though Washington's wines are receiving accolades from the world's leading oenophiles, this agricultural Eden gets far fewer visitors than California's Napa or Sonoma valleys. It may well be the best-kept secret in the Pacific Northwest.

Where to Stay

Accommodations aren't exactly plentiful in the region, which may explain why so many visitors tour the countryside in RV's. For those without mobile homes, there are a couple of outstanding inns, a handful of small B&B's, and several basic yet serviceable chain hotels.

Green Gables Inn 922 Bonsella St., Walla Walla; 888/525-5501 or 509/525-5501, fax 509/529-5500; doubles from $105, including breakfast. Across the street from Whitman College's North Hall, Green Gables is an antiques-laden B&B with an appropriately literary bent. Guests are greeted in the book-lined lobby by an Emerson quote inscribed on the fireplace mantel: the ornaments of a house are the friends that fre¾uent it. Each of the five bedrooms in the 1909 Craftsman-style house is named for a passage in the L. M. Montgomery novel Anne of Green Gables. Dryad's Bubble is decorated with bird's-eye maple furniture, deep-blue tapestry wall coverings, and Maxfield Parrish prints. To keep cozy on a chilly fall night, request the Idlewild Suite ($135), which has a wood-burning fireplace, and grab a mug of cocoa in the dining room before heading up to bed.

Birchfield Manor Country Inn 2018 Birchfield Rd., Yakima; 800/375-3420 or 509/452-1960, fax 509/452-2334; doubles from $99, including breakfast. Attention to detail makes all the difference, as one night at the Birchfield will prove. The excellent restaurant serves the best food in town (try the pecan-encrusted pork loin with roasted garlic and goat cheese), and overnight guests are treated to handmade dark-chocolate almond squares at turndown. The 11 airy, clean guest rooms, five in the 1910 manor house and six in a new bungalow-style cottage, are a comfortable mix of vintage and modern. Cherrywood side tables, Laura Ashley bed linens, whirlpool tubs, and VCR's and televisions (hidden in pine cupboards) outfit many suites; some rooms have gas fireplaces.

Doubletree Yakima Valley 1507 N. First St., Yakima; 800/222-8733 or 509/248-7850, fax 509/575-1694; doubles from $69. The staff is exceptionally helpful; any of the 208 rooms is a bargain. After a day on the fairway, soothe your achy muscles in the hot tub. Freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies are always available at the check-in desk.

Red Lion Hanford House 802 George Washington Way, Richland; 800/733-5466 or 509/946-7611, fax 509/943-8564; doubles from $69. With its own dock right on the Columbia River, Hanford House is the first choice of lodging for visiting sailors. The 149 modern guest rooms are equipped with data ports, which also makes it popular with business travelers. The hotel is often booked for large conferences, but don't let that put you off. Ask for a room with a balcony or patio so you can watch the water traffic.

Best Value

Palmer Farm B&B 42901 N. River Rd., Benton City; 509/588-4011; doubles with shared bath from $70. The four antiques-filled bedrooms in this turn-of-the-century farmhouse on 10 acres are simple and loaded with country flavor. Admire the extensive gardens from a bench on the wraparound porch or from a wicker chaise longue in the sunroom. Guests can work off their pancake-and-egg breakfast by hiking down the path to the Yakima River. The owners, however, plan to shut the Palmer's doors for good in December, so it's now or never for an overnight stay.

Where to Eat

Restaurants, ranging from good to exceptional, nearly outnumber the vineyards in this part of the state.

Birchfield Manor 2018 Birchfield Rd., Yakima; 509/452-1960; dinner for two $70. Even though no one's in a hurry, a four-course, two-hour meal seems to go by in a flash. For more than 20 years, Birchfield has been the best dining room in the region. The classic menu makes use of local ingredients--steak Diane with brandy cream, apple-glazed rack of lamb, salmon in puff pastry covered in Chardonnay sauce--and the 3,000-bottle wine cellar has won praise from across the country. Guests who are taken with the 19th-century chairs in the Craftsman-style dining room should peek into the library, where many of the antiques are for sale.

Jacobi's Train Car Café 416 N. Second Ave., Walla Walla; 509/525-2677; dinner for two $25. Patrons can eat at a table in the restored Northern Pacific Railway car, or do as the college students do and find room on a bench at a communal table in the coffee bar to feast on char-grilled steaks, fried Walla Walla onions, and yards of Alaskan Amber. Whichever you choose, try not to fill up on the addictive cheese-and-herb focaccia; Jacobi's smoky, plank-cooked salmon is worth the wait.

Merchants Ltd. Delicatessen & French Bakery 21 E. Main St., Walla Walla; 509/525-0900; brunch for two $12. An institution since 1976, Merchants is the perfect spot for brunch on a lazy day; have the Eggs Merchants, scrambled eggs piled high on an English muffin and topped with provolone and cheddar. The deli and gourmet bakery also stocks all the fixings for a proper wine-country picnic. The restaurant books the occasional musical act in the evenings; check the Walla Walla Blues Society's newsletter, on a rack by the door, for upcoming events.

Grant's Brewery Pub 32 N. Front St., Yakima; 509/575-2922; lunch for two $20. Grant's, established in 1982, stakes its claim as the country's first microbrewery. The historic brick-and-wood building is in a former train depot; the crowd is a curious mix of Harley-Davidson owners, after-work carousers, and groups of women out on the town. The traditional pub menu lists bangers and mash, Scotch eggs, and burgers. If you're lucky, you'll get to try the Fresh Hop Ale, which is brewed just once a year--the same week the hops are picked--and served for three months in the fall.

Backstage Bistro 230 E. Main St.; Walla Walla; 509/526-0690; lunch for two $20. The only place in town where you'll find a fresh-fruit granita. The well-lit bistro, lined with floor-to-ceiling windows, is jumping at lunchtime with young families, businesspeople, and artsy students. The porcini-and-mozzarella panini, served with a tangy Kalamata-olive tapenade, is a winner.

Deli de Pasta 7 N. Front St., Yakima; 509/453-0571; dinner for two $50. There's a reason people line up to get in here. Despite its unassuming exterior, this small Italian restaurant has plenty of character--vintage European advertising posters, fresh flowers, votive candles. And the kitchen makes the pasta fresh daily. Salmon ravioli with basil cream sauce is the signature dish, but if you spot the ravioli with rosemary chicken, shiitakes, and hazelnuts on the menu, order that too and share both dishes with your dining partner. Desserts, such as spumoni, chocolate pots de crème, and a zingy Campari-and-grapefruit sorbet, are delectable.

Whitehouse-Crawford 55 W. Cherry St., Walla Walla; 509/525-2222; dinner for two $80. The recent restoration of this 1903 mill and door factory has everyone in town beaming with pride. The building now houses a tasting room for Seven Hills Winery and a restaurant named for the 20th-century manufacturing company Whitehouse-Crawford.

Getting There

There are three small airports in the area--Yakima, Walla Walla, and Tri-Cities (in Pasco)--but the best way to get a feel for southeastern Washington is to do some driving. From Seattle, it takes about 41/2 hours to reach Walla Walla, the easternmost edge of wine country. Begin on Interstate 90, which climbs over the lodgepole pine­covered ridges of the Cascades. Just beyond the town of Cle Elum, the scenery begins to change: the forest thins, the soil dries up, and the landscape sprouts a scrubby sagebrush pelt. As you turn south on Interstate 82, you may wonder how grapes can possibly grow in this desert. And then the answer is suddenly revealed: the bottom of the valley, carved out by the Yakima River, bursts into green. Thanks to the river and irrigation efforts, orchards and vineyards thrive, despite summer's rainless, 100-degree days.

The Lay of the Land

The Tri-Cities area (comprising Richmond, Pasco, and Kennewick), at the confluence of the Yakima, Snake, and Columbia rivers, is in the heart of the region's agricultural industry. To the west, Yakima, with eight golf courses, bills itself as the "Palm Springs of Washington," but there are few other similarities between that California resort and this hard-working city. Walla Walla, in the state's southeastern corner, is primarily a college town. Elsewhere, vineyards are planted in every pocket of land: some 16,000 acres between Yakima and Walla Walla.

This part of the state, with more than 170 wineries, makes Washington the second largest wine-producing state in the country, after California. Contact the Washington Wine Commission in Seattle (206/667-9463; http://www.washingtonwine.org) for vineyard listings and maps.

Vineyards and Tastings

There's no possible way to visit all the tasting rooms in a weekend, but here are a few to get you started.

Cayuse Vineyards 17 E. Main St., Walla Walla; 509/526-0686. Visitors gather around the blue tasting bar in this cheerful sunflower-yellow storefront to sample French proprietor Christophe Baron's rich reds. Cayuse's 1998 Syrah is the standout.

Waterbrook 31 E. Main St., Walla Walla; 509/522-1918. Fifty percent of Waterbrook's production is Chardonnay, but don't overlook the other varietals. The Red Mountain Meritage, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, is an excellent dinner wine; its spicy, peppery bite goes well with grilled meat. Waterbrook also sells flavored grape-seed oil for cooking and exhibits the work of local artists on its walls.

L'Ecole No. 41 41 Lowden School Rd., Lowden; 509/525-0940. This new tasting room, 12 miles west of Walla Walla, is set in a restored 1915 schoolhouse; its bookcases, library ladder, and slate-topped tasting bar carry out the schoolhouse theme. The day's samplings of reds and whites are listed on a chalkboard.

Woodward Canyon 11920 Hwy. 12 W., Lowden; 509/525-4129. Next door to L'Ecole, Woodward Canyon has a tiny tasting room in a small farmhouse. Here the wines outshine the unassuming setting. The table red, made from a blend of Cabernet grapes, is a bargain at $15, but all of Woodward's reds are terrific. Try the Riesling, too, if it's available.

Hogue Cellars Wine Country Rd., Prosser; 509/786-4557. Hogue's large-scale winery operation is just part of a family-operated farming business. In addition to the grapes for some 425,000 cases of wine a year, the farm grows apples, hops, and asparagus. The 1998 Genesis Sangiovese was released last year to high praise, and the company's Chardonnay has a clean, oaky finish. You can also pick up some jars of freshly pickled asparagus, peppers, or carrots at the cellar's shop.

Chinook Wines Wine Country Rd., Prosser; 509/786-2725. Down the road from Hogue but a world away in feeling, Chinook is a small establishment run by the husband-and-wife team of wine maker Kay Simon and manager Clay Mackey. In a restored farmhouse surrounded by gardens with rose-covered trellises, visitors can taste Chinook's respected Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and new Cabernet Franc rosé.

Portteus Vineyards 5201 Highland Dr., Zillah; 509/829-6970. Don't let the steel fermentation tanks and damp concrete floor discourage you from trying the juicy Syrah and buttery Chardonnay, made with Montrachet yeast, at Portteus. Port lovers, too, are always glad they made the trip, once they try the house blend.

Columbia Crest Hwy. 221, Paterson; 509/875-2061. No doubt the most recognizable name from Washington State, Columbia Crest bottles more than a million cases a year. Tastings of its Cabernets, Chardonnays, Semillon-Chardonnay blends, and Merlots are held in a large country-French, château-style building overlooking the Columbia River. Despite the grand surroundings, even wine novices should feel at ease here--the winery's unofficial motto is "Latitude without attitude."

What to Do There's plenty to do here besides sip wine: there are still a few acres in the valley that aren't devoted to agriculture.

Apple Tree Golf Course 8804 Occidental Ave., Yakima; 509/966-5877. When was the last time you played an apple-shaped green surrounded by water?The clubhouse has a pro shop and a good prime-rib restaurant with, of course, an excellent wine list. But if Apple Tree's tee times are booked up the day you want to play, don't worry: you can always try one of the seven othercourses in town.

Blue Skies 210 S. 16th Ave., Yakima; 509/469-2541. The Yakima River is chockablock with rainbow trout, and you can be sure that Randal Sumner and Dave Thornock, who have cast their lines here almost every day for the past 20 years, know where they lurk. Their guide service, Blue Skies, guarantees a great day of catch-and-release fly-fishing.

Yakima Greenway 509/453-8280. This stretch of protected land winds along the river from the town of Selah to Union Gap. The paved, 10-mile Yakima Greenway Patch is open to in-line skaters, joggers, walkers, and bicyclists. There's even a playground for kids, a mile north of Sarg Hubbard Park. Weekenders can rent bikes from Sagebrush Cycles(509/972-1330). Kayaks and rafts, plus a drop-off to and pickup from the shoreline, can be obtained from Rill Adventures Raft & Gear (509/964-2520).

Yakama Nation Cultural Heritage Center & Museum Hwy 97, Buster Rd., Toppenish; 509/865-2800. The Yakama Nation, made up of the descendants of 14tribes that once inhabited the Cascade Range region, now makes its home on the 1.4 million­acre Yakama Indian Reservation just outside the historic town of Toppenish. At the cultural center, dioramas, artifacts, videos, and temporary photographic exhibitions tell the story of these diverse tribes and the founding of the present-day reservation government. Visitors can step into a reconstructed earth lodge, a tepee, and a tule winter lodge. The center's theater, gallery, and restaurant are open to the public as well. (Don't leave without sampling some piping hot Indian fry bread.)

Ferguson's Saddlery 218 W. First Ave., Toppenish; 509/865-3654. All the essentials for rodeo-going are here: handmade saddles and bridles, snazzy Stetsons, sturdy boots, Indian beadwork, jeans, silver jewelry, and horse blankets. Ferguson's has been outfitting cowboys since 1905--this is the real McCoy.

Chukar Cherries 320 Wine Country Rd., Prosser; 509/786-2055. Indulge in a different kind of tasting. Almost everything Chukar churns out, from cranberry-cherry relish to milk-chocolate honey pecans and berry truffles, is free for the sampling in its small shop. The baking mixes and tins of dried fruit make interesting Christmas gifts.

Tucker's Fruit & Produce 70 Ray Rd., Sunnyside; 509/837-8701. It's a winery, it's a farm stand. In addition to selling its award-winning Indian Summer rosé, Tucker's also peddles popcorn, fresh-picked apples, pears, and pumpkins.

Track 29 Mall 1­15 W. Yakima Ave., Yakima. A jumble of some old Pacific Northwest railroad cars and large brick warehouse buildings has been converted into a quirky shopping area. Yesterday's Village (509/457-4981), a cooperative of antiques dealers, sells a wide range of merchandise: 1934 editions of Better Homes and Gardens and Hardy Boys lunch boxes share space with elaborately embroidered table linens and early 1900's cast-iron toy banks. Children will want to poke around in the Little Red Caboose (509/457-3141) for new Hot Wheels and Corgi Cars. Adults can pick up a cappucchino or Chai at the Coffee Depot (509/469-3363).

Book & Game Co. 38 E. Main St., Walla Walla; 509/529-9963. An independent bookstore whose shelves are stocked with wine-related manuals and magazines. There's also a wonderful selection of children's picture books, puppets, puzzles, and games.

Where to Shop

For Kids Small and Large

Some kids just aren't good at trailing after their parents from vineyard to vineyard. Here are some fun spots for youngsters.

Dr. R. F. Hisey Memorial Park Intersection of Rte. 223 and Main St., Granger. It's hard to miss this one--two green dinosaur sentinels guard the entrance gate. Fifteen other statues, including a huge blue plesiosaur in the pond, are scattered around the park grounds. These brightly painted cement creatures, some small enough to climb on, make for priceless photo ops.

Granger Berry Patch 1731 Beam Rd., Granger; 509/854-1413. Pumpkins are everywhere at the Berry Patch this time of year. There are also pick-your-own golden raspberries--available until all the bushes are plucked clean.

Bright's 5 S. First Ave., Walla Walla; 509/525-5533. Bright's has been making fudge, toffee, and caramel popcorn since 1934. There are enough Gummi Bears and penny candy here to satisfy any sugar craving; the chocolate animals, town buildings, checker sets, and cars in the glass case are works of art.

Toppenish Mural Tours 1550 Gibson Rd., Selah; 509/697-8995. Toppenish, "the city where the West still lives," commissions a new mural every year on some aspect of its history. The 2000 one depicts the arrival of electricity in the Yakima Valley; others are titled Indians' Winter Encampment, Rodeo, and Legends of the Yakima. Perhaps the best way to take in all 61 of the murals is the horse-drawn covered wagon tour. Call the Toppenish Mural Society (509/865-6516) for more information.

Designated Drivers

Those who want to attend several tastings in one day should consider hiring a limo or booking into one of the region's escorted wine tours. Moonlit Ride Limousine (509/575-6846), based in Yakima, will pick up tasters and take them to as many as six wineries in a day-long outing. Washington Wine Tours (877/689-8687) offers half- or full-day excursions throughout Yakima Valley. For a private car and driver, contact Road Runner Limousines service in Walla Walla (509/525-8585).

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