Yakima Valley Grown Goodness

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Exploring Yakima, one bottle at a time

BY HEIDI BROADHEAD

 

The Yakima Valley has a long history of growing food. Wine grapes were first planted there in 1869, hops in 1872, and fruit orchards in 1887. With nearly constant sunshine (around 300 days per year), rich volcanic soils, and steady water from the Yakima River, the valley currently produces 75 percent of the country’s hops, more than 30 types of wine (from 100 percent varietals to blends), and multiple varieties of more than 50 fruit and vegetable crops.

But the food landscape of Yakima Valley is changing on a large scale. Most visibly: an 80 percent increase in wineries over the last four years. Less obviously, and highly impressive: the most organic farms in the state as of 2008. Yakima County boasts 108 certified producers and 6 in transition. That’s almost twice the number of organic producers as second-ranked Grant County (which is right next door).

Downtown Yakima has also undergone a serious transition. What use to be the struggling Yakima Mall is now a Hilton Garden Inn on one end, and condos on the other. (You can still see the bare wires of the “Yakima Mall” sign.) Tasting rooms have replaced ailing jewelry stores and dress shops in the historic part of downtown—Kana and Plaza Socievole in the Larsen Building, are just a block away from Gilbert Cellars, as well as several restaurants and pubs across from the old train depot on Front Street.

With all the change afoot, and all the sunshine, visiting Yakima right now is like visiting a closer, more casual version of Sonoma wine country, before it was world famous. The passion for quality food and wine has brought the region new life—and new reasons to go and see what they’re up to in the “Fruit Bowl of Washington.”

 

Farmer-Chef Connection in the New Downtown

Jean Scheid and bread-master Ryan Low, who run Essencia Artisan Bakery on North Third Street in downtown Yakima, became friends with organic farmer Katsumi Taki through the Yakima Farmer’s Market.

“Katsumi brings us gooseberries and Japanese plums for pastries,” says Scheid. “We make a Danish with his fresh Asian pears and a soup with his kabocha.”

“Kabocha is a Japanese squash,” says Taki, who operates Mair Farm-Taki, 36-acre organic farm on the Yakima River in the Lower Valley. “It’s like butternut squash, but softer and sweeter.”

Taki’s fruits and vegetables are key ingredients in Essencia’s daily specials, which include fresh sandwiches (like pear with prosciutto on dark rye) and salads with Japanese cucumbers and greens. He also provides them with eggs, and they give him bread for the chickens.

“I was using organic chicken food,” says Taki, “but the price doubled and I was only netting $100 a month on my eggs at the market for 50 hens, which is really bad.”

They worked out a trade for eggs and bread, and the chickens got to feast on the leftovers from Low’s popular ryes.

“His chickens even started producing more eggs,” says Scheid. Taki laughs, “It’s true.”

Essencia is open daily until 4 pm. If you miss their amazing morning pastries (like their perfect-consistency triple-berry scones), you can try their desserts at the Gilbert Cellars tasting room. www.essenciaartisanbakery.com

You can also try Katsumi Taki’s Japanese fruits and vegetables at the University District Farmer’s Market. www.mairtaki.com

 

A Family Tradition: Barrett Orchards

Cheryl and Mark Barrett, fourth-generation fruit growers with 60 acres of fruit trees in the residential west side of Yakima, specialize in tree-ripened fruit, picked fresh every day.

“In the supermarket, the fruit ripens in the bin,” says Cheryl Barrett, who sells their fruit out of a little red barn and country store on the property. “But the sweetness comes in while the fruit is still on the tree. You get the best tasting fruit directly from the tree.”

The Barretts sell 11 varieties of cherries in July, peaches and nectarines in August (when they also have fresh peach smoothies!), and pears and apples through October.

Cheryl Barrett is particularly proud of their onsite education center, where visitors can walk through a corner of the orchard, reading about the fruit-growing process from pollination to irrigation to natural pest management.

“We try to teach people what we can about the tree fruit industry,” says Barrett. “You never know when you’re talking to a future farmer.” www.treeripened.com

 

An Afternoon in Rattlesnake Hills

Rattlesnake Hills is the still the best place to go in the valley if you want a drive through working vineyards and lush farmland. Many of the tasting rooms are next to the winemakers’ homes, so you could be greeted by a few chickens, a sleeping dog on the lawn, or an enterprising seven-year-old selling lemonade. Here are just a few of the small-scale, family-owned operations there—all within easy driving distance.

Christopher Cellars and Cultura, two of the newest wineries in the region, are worth seeking out for their 1,000-case/year, handcrafted boutique wines, which they serve out of a comfy, barnlike tasting room on Highland Drive. Christopher Cellars’ 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, a highly drinkable, food-friendly wine with a smooth finish, makes a nice tasting companion next to Cultura’s peppery 2006 Cab Franc and other reds. Winemakers Sarah Fewel and Christopher Hoon got their start at another nearby winery, Sheridan, where Hoon is still the wine master, pouring their best-known estate wines like the 2006 D’Orage (smoky with a nice fruit), and their Kamiakan line, which has solidly yummy wines for a decent price.

Paradisos del Sol has a tree house, a turkey, dogs, cats, goats, and a koi pond. They also offer a Late Harvest Botrytis Riesling, as well as their trademark tips on how to taste without getting toasted.

Two Mountain Winery warrants a stop for their Hidden Horse red table wine and their down-to-earth tasting room—a large shed next to the house with a friendly, knowledgeable young staff, including owner-winemaker brothers Matthew and Patrick Rawn. Two Mountain hosts regular movie nights and also has work-in-the-field opportunities for wine lovers called “Vineyard Crew.”

 

Prosser’s Wine Village

Easy access to tasting rooms for more than 28 wineries just off I-82 (exits 80 and 82) make Prosser the place to go if you want more wine and less driving. Must-tries include Desert Wind’s signature Ruah (a red blend), Kestral’s approachable Lady in Red table wines or Old Vine Merlot, and Airfield Estates’ 2008 Thunderbolt, a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend that already winning awards. At Airfield Estates, you can also pick up Après Vin grape-seed oils and flours, made in Prosser with seeds that come from the wine pomace of local wineries. If you need a break from wine, stop at the Whitstran Brewing Company Pub (1427 Wine Country Road) for some delicious two-row battered fries and a nine-beer sampler.

There are two primary maps of wineries in the Yakima Valley, and it’s helpful to pick up both to make sure you see all the tasting room options:
www.rattlesnakehills.com | www.wineyakimavalley.org

 

Naches Heights’ Biodynamic Future

Paul Kline grew up in a tree fruit-growing family west of Yakima in Naches Heights. Several years ago, when he decided to put in a vineyard, the neighbors were skeptical, but Kline has expanded his original two acres to a seven-acre estate winery, Naches Heights Vineyards. Kline also manages the vineyards for other wineries, such as Wilridge, for which he planted 14 varietals of biodynamic viticulture on 12 acres in Naches Heights in 2007. The vines will be producing grapes for the first time this year. All the vineyards Kline manages are organic, certified or in transition.

According to Kline, the high elevation of the Naches Heights area means cooler, warmer days, which makes for better naturally-occurring acidity in the grapes, and better color. In fact, the area’s climate and the volcanic deposits in the soil are so unique, the winemakers there have decided to apply for their own AVA (American Viticultural Area).

“We’re trying to encourage new vineyards here to consider going organic,” says Kline. “There are currently no AVAs that are 100 percent organic. We’d like to be the first.”

You can walk through Wilridge’s biodynamic vineyard at The Tasting Room Yakima, where you can also hike or bike on a 3.1-mile trail through the stunning rock and sage terrain around Cowiche Canyon. www.tastingroomyakima.com

 

Where We Stay When We Talk About Food

One luxurious option for visitors who like to combine travel with food is Desert Wind, a Southwestern-style stucco villa just off exit 82 on I-82 in Prosser with guest rooms named after Northwest explorers. “We’re sort of going for a Southwest-Northwest fusion,” says Amber Fries, who opened the winery’s tasting room with her husband Greg, the winemaker, a couple of years ago. Working with chef Frank Magaña of Picazo 7Seventeen in downtown Prosser, Desert Wind hosts monthly cooking classes, private dining, and a supper club on the last Friday of every month, with a prix fixe menu for $40/person and local wine pairings for an additional $15. Food and wine-loving groups can schedule a complete culinary weekend, staying in the four rooms with tailored cooking classes or meals. www.desertwindwinery.com

A Touch of Europe, a two-room bed & breakfast situated in a tree-shaded yard west of downtown in an historic Victorian house, boasts some of the best fresh, local food in the valley, served by candlelight (even breakfast), and a chance to talk food with Erica Cenci, an East German-born, West Berlin-trained chef. A staunch proponent of seasonal and organic food, Cenci has developed hundreds of organic recipes, such as her dandelion Riesling feta cheese bread and fresh berry crunches topped with organic ginger whipped cream and huckleberry sauce. Since she first came to Yakima in 1995, Cenci has built a rapport with numerous local dairies, butchers, and farmers, who bring her their freshest fruits and vegetables whenever they come through town. Even if you don’t end up staying there, you can still book a custom dinner; you pick the meat (including wild-game options such as wild boar, one of Cenci’s specialties); the remaining courses are chef’s choice

 

Heidi Broadhead writes for Amazon’s books blog, Omnivoracious, Fantagraphics’ BEASTS! series, and is the resident Book Nerd on publicola.net.

David Broadhead and Stephanie Martz contributed crucial wine-drinking assistance to this story.

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