Located at the confluence of three rivers, the Tri-Cities area is teeming with agricultural bounty and scientific heavyweights. Talk with a local long enough and you’ll probably hear them brag about having the highest density of PhDs in the world. While that statement could not be confirmed, it is safe to say there are a lot of smart people in this region of Washington, thanks to the Hanford B Reactor, the national Research District and a permanent Washington State University extension campus dedicated to various scientific studies. And many of these scientists are applying their brains toward growing outstanding wine grapes.
When the Missoula floods tore through the basalt wasteland of eastern Washington at the end of the last ice age, they left behind huge boulders, minerals and soil deposits. That soil lay dormant for thousands of years, sustaining just a bit of cheatgrass and sagebrush—plants that require little in the way of moisture. With the addition of water, thanks to the New Deal construction of the Grand Coulee Dam (and other Columbia River dam projects), the Tri-Cities area blossomed from desert to breadbasket.
Get tasting in town with Kyle Welch’s wines at Longship Cellars along the River Walk. The 2014 Ginger Man Syrah yields violets, strawberry, raspberry and deeper black fruit. A splash of Grenache counteracts the natural funk of Syrah grown in the Rocks District. Barnard Griffin and J. Bookwalter make for conveniently delicious neighbors. The wines at Barnard Griffin are so reasonably priced, you’re bound to go home with a case—deciding which one to buy will be the hardest part. J. Bookwalter Winery offers three tiers of wines: Writer, Editor and Publisher. The award-winning 2013 Volume 3 is a 100 percent cabernet sauvignon redolent with raspberry, plum, cola and cherry, delicately balanced with slightly dusty tannins and so much finesse.
On the outskirts of town, stop at Kitzke Cellars and bask in the joy of lovingly grown fruit. The Kitzkes have 45 years of agricultural know-how under their belts starting with orchard fruit and transitioning to wine grapes. They employed the expertise of renowned winemaker Charlie Hoppes until their son, Seth, took the reins in 2015. They love growing a variety of grapes—the Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are a lovely break from the region’s cabs and Syrahs.
Red Mountain AVA produces many of the state’s most prestigious wines. Many people thought the Williams family of Kiona Vineyards was crazy for buying a seemingly worthless piece of dusty property back in 1972 with the intent of growing wine grapes. That foresight paid off in a big way. Stop at the Kiona Vineyards tasting room for a sip of Washington wine history. Visiting small producers such as Frichette Winery and Hightower Cellars is a great way to meet the actual winemakers who are often on-site. Check out the photo collage at Frichette. They took a photo from the vineyard every day at sunset for a year. Stick around for one of those amazing sunsets while swirling a glass of their flagship Punctual Red Blend (2014) with aromas of cherry, clove, raspberry and bramble with sweet tobacco and velvety tannins on the finish.
What’s more relaxing than wine tasting? A Saturday morning yoga class in the Purple Star barrel room—followed by a wine tasting, of course. Plus, this family-owned winery donates 15 percent of Purple Star Wines’ proceeds to Seattle Children’s Hospital. It’s easy to feel good after a visit here.
Winemaker Charlie Hoppes has had his hand in so many wines around here, it’s easy to lose count. However, for his own label, stop at Fidélitas and taste just how big and bold Red Mountain can be, especially when it comes to Bordeaux varietals. Up the hill stands an unmistakable Tuscan-inspired villa with vineyards fanning out in a radial pattern—Col Solare presides over Red Mountain both with its physical presence and its award-winning wines rated 94 points by both Wine Enthusiast and the Wine Advocate.
Taste almost everything the Tri-Cities has to offer at Tap & Barrel in Richland. This 21-and-over beer and wine bar is hip, urban and on the cutting edge of modern wine consumption with the state’s first self-serve Wineemotion tap system. Preload your card, insert it into one of the argon-based tap coolers and dispense your wine of choice in one-, three-, or five-ounce pours. Tap & Barrel also serves small plate snacks, pizzas and salads, plus hard-to-find beers and ciders. Tap & Barrel offers the perfect service for adventurous wine drinkers—a quarterly shipment of three wines featuring a Northwest winemaker plus any two bottles that he or she chooses from any winery of their choice (always under $150 per shipment).
On Red Mountain, the dining options are scarce, but thankfully the only choice is a good one. At Terra Blanca Winery & Estate Vineyard, the views from the dining room patio are stunning. Open Friday to Sunday (April 1 through October 15; Saturdays only October 16 through March 31), the Vineyard Grill serves meat and cheese platters, brick oven pizzas (prosciutto and fig), salads and “handhelds” like the top-notch Winery Burger made with Wagyu beef, goat cheese, caramelized onions and red wine jam.
Head to Richland for the best dining options in the Tri-Cities. Fiction at J. Bookwalter is a must for the discerning eater. Blistered shishito peppers, bacon-wrapped dates, avocado fries—and that’s just for starters. The house specialty list will make it very hard to decide on just one entrée—try the Snake River Zabuton with balsamic-glazed grilled vegetables, the pork and pancetta pappardelle with mushrooms and root vegetables, or if they have the steelhead on special, do not pass it up. Relax outside near the fire pit for a more casual experience. The best sunset view is at Columbia Point—patios at Anthony’s and LU LU Craft Bar & Kitchen are great places to enjoy nature’s colors and a good meal. LU LU is an extension of the Easterday family’s farm roots. They raise the meat served in the restaurant as well as grow the onions and potatoes. They source most of the other produce, like cherries and asparagus, from local farmers. A wall of mason jars filled with pickled vegetables serves as a visual nod to LU LU’s homemade roots.
All of the major hotel companies operate in the Tri-Cities area. For comfort or an extended stay, the Homewood Suites by Hilton offers spacious suites with fully stocked kitchens. The complimentary breakfast spread was a cut above and exceeded my expectations. The hotel boasts views of the river and easy access to the riverfront trail. Opening July 2017, The Lodge at Columbia Point is raising the bar on luxury accommodations in the Tri-Cities. Each of the 82 guest rooms is named for a different winery in the region. Amenities include in-room soaking tubs, fireplaces and French sliders with screens. For a truly immersive experience, the Vineyard House on Red Mountain (located at Corvus Vineyard) gives guests a chance to stay in the heart of wine country.