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The Ultimate Wine Tour of Washington State

By Julie H. Case

09.25.19

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Washington's jewel-like, glacial Lake Chelan comes fringed by vineyard-dotted hillsides that turn out lauded whites.

Photo by Jacquelynn Brynn/Shutterstock

Washington's jewel-like, glacial Lake Chelan comes fringed by vineyard-dotted hillsides that turn out lauded whites.

With its dark-as-steel Puget Sound and snowcapped mountains, Washington may not look much like wine country at first. But stay in one of the state’s quintessential wine towns and you’ll quickly discover that some of the country’s best syrahs, merlots, and chardonnays are being produced here.

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Tucked into the nation’s far northwest corner, Washington wine country is special—and its grape-growing regions unique—because of an exceptional range of growing conditions. The Cascade Mountains bisect the state, a concrete curtain between the maritime climate of the Puget Sound area (where little more than 100 acres are planted with wine grapes) and the semi-arid, blue-skied continental climate well-suited to large-scale grape growing, to the east. Cross eastward from Seattle over those mountains and you’ll find some 300 days of annual sunshine, miles of fruit orchards, and near-desert landscapes that roll down from mountain plateaus, until they drop into cliffs above the massive Columbia River.

There, in Washington’s east, are hilltop wineries overlooking glacial lakes, vineyards abutting dormant volcanoes, and acres of vines covering rock-strewn soils shaped by the Ice Age. Plus, plenty of charming small towns. While the state’s wines have gained renown, its wine country remains bucolic—with lakeside hamlets, college towns turned wine hubs, and Old West outposts—where you’re more than likely to rub elbows with the local winemaker while admiring local art. Here are four essential wine towns to uncover the essence of Washington wine country.

Near Seattle, the town of Woodinville features more than 150 wineries and tasting rooms representing producers from across Washington State (including DeLille Cellars).

Woodinville Pours All of Washington’s Wines

With its proximity to Seattle, 30 minutes away, Woodinville is the closest place to get a taste of Washington wine while staying west of the Cascades. While most of the state’s grapes are grown east of the mountains, numerous wineries import them to produce their wines in Woodinville, nestled in the Sammamish River Valley. More than 150 wineries and tasting rooms, representing the state’s wine scene as a whole, make the town well worth a visit. There’s the Chateau St. Michelle winery, where peacocks stroll the property and music acts such as Josh Groban and the Steve Miller Band perform in the summer—plus multiple tasting rooms. Just down the road, in the Hollywood District, more than 50 tasting rooms cluster, including DeLille and Sparkman cellars and Gorman and Guardian wineries. For those more interested in spirits or hops (Washington is the nation’s largest hops producer), there are more than a dozen breweries, distilleries, and cideries to visit, too.

Where to Stay: A short walk from the Hollywood District is the Pacific Northwest–styled, rustic-chic, 84-room Willows Lodge—with stone-trimmed fireplaces and soaring ceilings, a spa, and complimentary loaner bicycles, set on five acres along the Sammamish River.

Set within the “American Alps,” Bavarian-inspired Leavenworth puts forth an atmospheric setting for sampling the greater wine region’s bounty.

American Alps Abut Wine Country in Leavenworth

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Cross that Cascades corridor, and the wine regions begin to appear: The Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) extends from the Columbia Gorge on the state’s southern border all the way north, nearly to Canada. It’s home to an area referred to as the American Alps, where a craggy, soaring alpine backdrop meets the Wenatchee River running with snowmelt. Here—100 miles east of Woodinville—is small-town Leavenworth, a hamlet that embraced the Alpine feel by adopting a Bavarian theme: Today, every gallery and tasting room sits behind a Bavarian facade.

Sure, Leavenworth is at the very western edge of wine country (it’s on the northwestern fringes of the Columbia Valley AVA and between the Lake Chelan and Ancient Lakes AVAs to the north and south, respectively)—and bier and brats proliferate. But it’s home to nearly a dozen tasting rooms for Washington wineries growing grapes in adjacent wine regions, including Boudreaux Cellars, with its cabernets using some of state’s oldest vines. It’s a great base for nearby white-water rafting trips, as well as the arts: The Icicle Creek Center for the Arts hosts Shakespeare performances and a chamber music institute during the summer, and it streams the Metropolitan Opera’s performances all season long.

Where to Stay: Along the Wenatchee River, three miles from the heart of Leavenworth’s tiny downtown, Sleeping Lady Resort epitomizes the Pacific Northwest ethos, with six clusters of rooms (six to eight per compound) sequestered among the pines. Quietly elegant, it’s a great place to take in the stars from the rock-walled hot tub or grab hiking boots, a bike, or snowshoes and explore.

On the southern side of scenic Lake Chelan, the impressive tasting room at Tsillan Cellars is matched by sweeping lawn, vineyard, and lake views.

Chelan Pairs Whites With a Glacial Lake

In northcentral Washington, about 70 miles northwest of Leavenworth, blue-green Lake Chelan stretches for 50 miles, from the Cascade Mountains to farmland, with vineyards dotting the hills. At the lake’s east end is small-town Chelan, home to boutique shops, galleries, and bakeries. A vintage car show, Cruizin Chelan, kicks off summer, followed by weeks of music in the park and concerts in the surrounding vineyards; come January, locals build a pyre of their Christmas trees and bring in bands for Winterfest.

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The unique soil, owed to past glacial and volcanic activity, combined with mostly mild temperatures (thanks to the influence of the enormous lake), results in a wine region that delivers white wines with bright acidity and lots of stone fruit on the palate. Tasting rooms and vineyards sit on the hills that stretch out from Chelan’s north and south shores. Off the southern edge of the lake, Karma Vineyards specializes in sparkling wine made in the traditional champagne method, Nefarious Cellars serves its local whites (and reds from vineyards elsewhere in the state), and Tsillan Cellars offers pours from a palatial tasting room. Across the lake are more than a dozen other wineries and tasting rooms, including Cairdeas, where the focus is on Rhône blends, and the cheeky Hard Row to Hoe, in tiny Manson, less than eight miles up the lake from Chelan.

Where to Stay: Hovering above Lake Chelan, where an orchard once stood, is the Lookout, a modern cottage resort community with more than 60 homes for rent (ranging from one to six bedrooms), each granting access to the lakefront beach below, the pool and bocce ball courts, an outdoor kitchen, and trails stretching into the surrounding hills.

Just west of downtown Walla Walla, L’Ecole No. 41 winery was a pioneer for the region’s booming wine industry.

From Farmland to Wine Haven in Walla Walla

To Washington’s south and east, near the border with Oregon, which also has numerous great wineries, is this college town set among farmland. Once known only for its surrounding wheat and pea fields—and eponymous onion—today Walla Walla, with its celebrated terroir, has become the state’s premier wine-touring hub. Merlot struts its stuff here, often found in bordeaux blends, while the valley’s heat makes for complex syrahs and lush cabernets.

The town's a pleasant base, featuring a mix of shops and galleries with Mill Creek cutting through it. It's close to the Walla Walla Foundry, where artists cast statues, many of which reside temporarily in the tasting room at Foundry Vineyards, west of downtown. Walla Walla’s restaurant scene is also notable: There’s Andrae’s Kitchen, the fast-casual restaurant set inside a still-functioning gas station, and come evening, you may encounter local winemakers at the Italian-focused Passatempo Tavern or inspired Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen.

There are more than 100 wineries in the Walla Walla AVA and surrounds, and the tasting rooms come clustered in pockets throughout. The grapes are grown outside of town, but several wineries—including Rotie Cellars, Bergevin Lane, and Bledsoe Family—have tasting rooms downtown. To the west of downtown reside early pioneers L’Ecole No. 41 and Woodward Canyon (both established in the early ’80s), as well as Long Shadows (appointment only). East of town, you’ll find other trailblazers, including Abeja, Walla Walla Vintners, and àMaurice. In between, some 20 tasting rooms—like Buty, Dunham, and Syzygy—occupy converted military buildings at the airport. Meanwhile, roughly five miles south of Walla Walla, Northstar, Pepper Bridge (with its subterranean wine caves), and Sleight of Hand Cellars are a few of the wineries set among the rolling hills.

Where to Stay: With grapes trellising on one side and the Blue Mountains in the distance, the Inn at Abeja—a few miles east of downtown—offers vineyard-based stays on a historic farmstead. There’s the carriage house, with its luxury suites and themed rooms, and four cottages, including a former chicken house renovated with reclaimed woods and soaring open-beam ceilings. Six miles north of Walla Walla is the 2018-debuted Eritage Resort, with its 10 suites and 10 bungalows set by a man-made lake and tucked into hills covered in wheat fields and vineyards.

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