Yakima Valley: Rich Rewards for All

July 9, 2015

Some rewards come easy and some take just a little work. We opted for a little work and hiked on the Cowiche Canyon Trail located in Washington State's Yakima Valley. The west end of the trail is accessed on Wiekel and begins with a nice flat 2 mile stroll on a former railroad bed. Then the work begins. But not much work – just about ¾ mile up the hill and there is your reward. Two wineries waiting to quench your thirst!   I love the instant reward, so we started at Naches Heights Vineyard (NHV), sipping wine after the “workout” and enjoying the views. This winery is part of the Naches Heights AVA (American Viticultural Area), which is the newest of the 13 Washington AVA’s. Along with all the hiking that one can do here, an even better activity is learning about this new AVA region.

It is one of the higher AVA’s in the state (2000 feet), which gives it the advantage of cool, but mostly frost free, spring mornings. Also, the breezes that embrace this area result in lower humidity thus less mildew issues for the vineyards. The growers of the area prefer organic and sustainable agricultural practices which take advantage of the volcanic soil and rich topsoil deposited by ancient glaciers. All of this combines to bring out some unique tastes which we are about to experience.

On this warm summer day their Gewürztraminer (Guinevere) really hit the spot with its nice light peachy fruit nose. Unlike a lot of Gewürztraminers, this one had a very light and crisp sweetness. Just perfect on a warm sunny afternoon. I can see why this recently won a gold medal in Seattle.

Owner and third generation farmer Phil Cline also poured some of his Cab Franc, which is a light and well balanced red. As we sipped, Phil explained his rewards program for hiking. After completing three hikes you are rewarded with a free drink!  There are several hiking options that you can choose from. One of the easiest is simply parking at the winery and taking an hour hike (about 1.5 miles) down to the Canyon trail and back.

Phil continued to reward us as we took the short walk next door to Wilridge Wine. This former farm house is a cozy spot to enjoy some food and wine. Paul Beverage, (yes – his real name!) the owner, was not available today but no problem since Phil and Paul have a great working relationship that goes back to 2004. Phil served up the Estate Syrah Mourvedre. This smooth, dark and rich red has a beautiful color and a light pepper nose. We asked Phil about which wine would pair best with barbecued salmon and Phil immediately served up the Estate Melange Blanc.  This wine was perfectly balance between sweet and tart, and would be delightful with fish.

Also of note is the joint effort of NHV and Wilridge: “Smokin ‘Wine Wednesdays”. Wine, music, views, and Kim’s Got Smoke BBQ – which we heard was the best in all of Eastern Washington. All ages are welcome to these events and they happen through the end of July.

We needed to switch gears and continue our journey east to check out the hops – and of course the beer! It didn’t take long to get past Yakima and as we drove past Union Gap I started singing: “Young girl, get out of my mind”. My wife thought I had too much to drink. This was not the case. I was singing a popular song from the 1960’s by area native Gary Puckett and The Union Gap.

So much my musical tribute to recent history. Elizabeth was happy that we were ready to focus on one of the main distinctions of the Valley Yakima, hops!   This history goes back to late 1800’s when Charles Carpenter planted the first hop rootstock in Ahtanum, a small community just southwest of Yakima.

Soon Mortimer Thorp and several French Canadians settled in Moxee, just southeast of Yakima and 14 miles east of Ahtanum. One might say this was the perfect storm!! These hop farmers had it all: rich volcanic top soil, long warm summers, and long daytime hours being so far north (46 degrees latitude).

Because Washington State (mainly Greater Yakima Valley) grows over 75% of US hops, Moxee claims the title of the Hop Capital of the World.

To learn more about hops we went a little further east to Toppenish to visit the American Hop Museum. The museum features intriguing displays that highlight the history of hop cultivation, along with hosting several popular beer related events throughout the year.

The history of hops goes back a little further than the late 1800’s. The very first hop crop was planted in 736 CE, in the general area of Bavaria Germany. Currently Germany produces slightly more hops than are produced in the entire United States.   

Another interesting fact about hops is their medicinal uses. A hop filled pillowcase is said to be a great remedy for insomnia. Hops are also used for treating coughs and stomach ailments. Of course, we all know the pleasures of having a cold beer on a warm day and how well it pairs with a burger or pizza.

That is not all we learned about during our visit to Toppenish. The history lesson is presented by 73 beautiful murals that cover much of downtown.

These brightly colored, stunning murals tell a great story from the rugged Wild West, hop growing history, and rich Native American history. The first mural was painted twenty five years ago and a new one is added every summer during the very popular Mural in a Day event. Our favorite series was about Ruth Parton (1896 – 1978), known as the “Mother of Thoroughbred Racing.” She began her career racing on the Yakima Reservation when she was just 13 years old. Because her outstanding career she is in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Texas.

After this tour we were ready for a quick 15 minute ride to the south into Sunnyside where we went to Snipes Mountain Brewery & Restaurant for refreshments.

The hostess knew we were ready for some hop medication. Thus, we were greeted with a flight of beer. The first was The Summer Cooler which was my favorite since I’m partial to wheat beer. This one had some nice light cranberry notes. Elizabeth had a hard time deciding which one she liked better, the Dos Borrachos, which has a cream head and is done in the lager style or the Coyote Moon, which had some light chocolate flavors.  Elizabeth was still undecided about her favorite but we knew were we not “Dos Borrachos.” That means “two drunks.” Although that beer did have a kick.

We sampled more beer which my wife enjoyed with the Bratwurst Platter, sauerkraut and stone-ground mustard. Although I certainly enjoyed the turkey baguette with the carrot-ginger soup, next time those brats and beer will be my choice.

A great reason for a return trip to Sunnyside is the brand new Summer Ale Fest which is held the last weekend of June – which we had just missed. We will definitely check that out next year.

We drove less than 20 minutes to our next stop, Moxee (aka The Hop Capital) to Bale Breaker Brewing Company. They are one the many new craft brewers in the Yakima Valley, however if you dig into their history you will see their roots go deep. Meghann Quinn, one of the owners and head of marketing, told us that her great grandparents planted the first hops in the field adjacent to their brewery. They were owners of B.T. Loftus Ranches and planted the hops in 1932, the year before the end of prohibition. Talk about great timing!

My favorite right off the bat was the Field 41 Pale Ale. Field 41 is the name of the field in which the first hops grew – which is still marked by an age-worn and faded sign. This award winning ale opens with an aromatic nose with a light smooth taste. Happily, I discovered that this beer is sold at Safeco Field in Seattle. I was very pleased to enjoy this beer with a brat, which took the edge off a Mariner loss.

Meghann drew another one of the hop forward beers - Raging Ditch Dry-Hopped Blonde. Named after the maze of irrigation ditches in the Valley, this light tasting beer with graceful fruit notes was another winner. Their flagship beer is the Bottomcutter IPA. This doubled hopped beer packs a punch, but the citrus and light pines help it go down nice and smooth.

We had many more stops left. It was time for our last leg of the today’s journey to downtown Yakima. We parked and quickly checked in at the Hilton Garden Inn-Yakima. This was a perfect location for us to finish our craft beer tour.

Just a ten minute walk from the hotel is the brand new brewery, Hop Nation Brewery. The brew pub is located in an historic (100 year old) packing house. The owner, Ben Grossman, has remodeled the cozy pub to pay homage to the hop industry.

Ben started in the brewing business in 1993 in Colorado and has been in beer or wine making since. I guess his biology degree was a good choice. Continuing our chat, Ben served us the Daily Weiss: German Hefeweizen, which was definitely my favorite. I liked the clover notes and the light taste. Next Ben gave us the Cream On, an oat infused cream pale ale; also a beer that goes down very smoothly. As far as my favorite name for a beer – the winner has to be Bock In the Goat Rocks, which is a German Maibock named after the Goat Rocks, an hour drive west in the Cascades, which also happens to be one of my favorite hiking places in Washington. If you want great views of Mt. Rainier and Mt Adams and lots of wildflowers, hiking in the Goat Rocks is a great choice.

Ben needed to get back to some brewing and as we were leaving he reminded us to check out the many beer festivals that are held in Yakima, such as the Hop Ale Fest which is held in the fall.

You can check out other Yakima events here:  http://visityakima.com/yakima-valley-events.asp

The last stop before dinner was Kana Winery. The decision was hard as there are several other tasting rooms in downtown Yakima along with almost 100 wineries and tasting rooms throughout the Yakima Valley. This is not a surprise since there are four AVA’s in the Valley. 

We really enjoyed the first wine served which was the 2013 Chardonnay, a unoaked wine which was light and not overly crisp. We liked it so much that we purchased several bottles to take home. We discovered the very next day in our own backyard how well it went with some grilled salmon. Luckily we also purchased a bottle of the next wine we tasted. The medal award winning, 2010 Old Vines Reserve is from the grape known in Austria as Blaufrankisch and in the US as Limberger. It has a cherry nose, rich dark red color and a long finish. So on the second day home, the grill featured a great steak to go with this great wine.

Now it was time to walk across the street to Cowiche Canyon Kitchen & Icehouse. While we waited briefly for our table, the server walked by with a tray of Prime Rib and NY Steak. The aroma helped make our dinner decision an easy one. We all know Yakima Valley is the leader in hops, apples, peaches, and cherries and of course award winning wines. Beef is one of the 39 commodities grown here, making the Yakima Valley the state’s leader in beef and dairy production. In fact, during our first visit to the Valley thirty years ago the highlight of the trip was the steak we had in a small nearby community, Selah. (Yes – it was that memorable!).

There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the juicy and succulent steak, grilled in herbs and butter, was cooked to perfection. Elizabeth had the Roasted Prime Rib, which she loved. What really topped off this wonderful dinner was the Sheridan Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, grown just east of here in Zillah. This rich tasting red was not over-powering and really brought out the taste of my steak. I can’t testify as to how it paired with the prime rib since that was not shared with me. We sat back, finished the wine and admired this new restaurant. Its sleek industrial design is contrasted and complemented by the warm historically authentic building materials selected. The building had previously been used as a cold storage for apples. This was back in the day before refrigeration and the designer was careful to maintain the essence, including suspended blocks of “ice” hanging on giant hooks. Sadly, after a full day of beer and wine tasting, we decided to forgo the chance to sample any of their specialty cocktails, such as the Hot Witch (bourdon, Applejack, agave, bitters and hot tea) or the Mermaid (vodka, Kahlua, and espresso). It just seemed the best choice right now was to walk across the street to the Hilton and hit the bed.

By the way, we had made a quick stop in Zillah earlier, not for wine tasting but to see the famous Tea Dome Service Station. This National Historic Site was built in 1922 – at the height of a national scandal during the Harding administration. The scandal actually had nothing to do with Washington State, but apparently Jack Ainsworth, the gas station owner who built it by hand, was inspired by the Senate hearings, Supreme Court decision and general outrage over the handling of some oil fields in Wyoming and California. The tiny teapot shaped building is no longer used as a gas station, but you can still see the antique pumps outside. Inside is a small gift shop. 

The next day we were refreshed and ready to head home but first we talked about burning off some of the calories we had indulged in. The hiking opportunities are unlimited. For summer and early fall hikes one can drive an hour and a half to Chinook Pass and be at Mt. Rainier. Check out some of the hikes here. White Pass, also about an hour and a half, will get you to three different volcanoes that you can visit in the summer and early fall: Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt Adams.

There are also plenty of hikes in and near town.  The Cowiche Canyon Conservatory has 30 miles of trails including the one which takes you up to the winery mentioned above. Since we were headed back to Seattle via I-90 we decided on Umtanum Creek, which was on the way and just north of Yakima. It is a fascinating 3 mile journey over a bouncy suspension bridge and into a narrow canyon, the walls of which are often populated by bighorn sheep and deer. Other critters you might encounter are beavers, many different types of birds (it is a favorite for area birders) and marmots. Unfortunately – it is also a favorite of rattlesnakes so it is really best in the late fall or winter. If you decide you do not want to hike, it is still a lovely drive that takes you along the Yakima River Canyon.

There is an old saying: so much hiking, wine, and beer and so little time.

About our guest contributor:

Michael Fagin is a freelance travel writer who has traveled across Canada and visited all the major Canadian wine regions. Mr. Fagin is currently touring the Pacific Northwest enjoying the wine country, dining, and hiking the region. While he is not writing Mr. Fagin is a weather forecaster for West Coast Weather, LLC forecasting weather for the West Coast of the US as well as on an international basis.