Yakima Strikes Back

Winewise, the Yakima Valley gets no respect. That's in good part because when you're in wine country, you expect to see grapes, and though a third of Washington wine grapes are produced between Union Gap and Red Mountain, drive-by wine tourists don't see them, clustered thick and lush along the thousand-foot contour north of I-82.

Another reason is that most of the valley's wine grapes are grown by farmers who also farm other crops: Concord grapes, apples, soft fruit, whatever turns a dime. So most of the publicity and acclaim about Washington wine has gone to the investment bankers and retired engineers who didn't know a clone from a clawhammer when they planted their vines, but knew how to talk the romance of winemaking. But the fact is that a good deal of the wine issued under labels based in hoity-toity Walla Walla and metagricultural Woodinville, not to mention Oregon, is made from grapes grown in the Yakima appellation.

Over the years, Yakima grape growers have begun to try their hand at making wine as well, though there are still some holdouts like Dave Boushey and the Wyckoff family, who think just producing good fruit is challenge enough. Put the newcomers together with the natives now producing wine under their own labels for an impressive total of 70 operating wineries in the valley. They've gotten more aggressive, too, about getting tourists headed for Walla Walla to turn off the freeway, opening convenient tasting rooms and, in some cases, even overnight accommodation for those who want a more than bibulous immersion in the life of wine.

Next week the trade group Wine Yakima Valley takes its image problem by the throat with a trade and public tasting at the Palace Ballroom. Only wineries based in the valley and using valley fruit will be in attendance, with two dozen producers pouring their wares to the accompaniment of palate-cleansing snacks catered by Tom Douglas.

The Yakimanians are making their move at a crucial time in Washington wine history. The 2001 secession of the growers on Red Mountain (which formed the extreme east boundary of the Yakima appellation) proved so successful as a marketing move that other regions abutting the valley are considering putting their own label on the wine made within their borders. A group of growers on the Rattlesnake Hills just east of Union Gap has already persuaded the federal authorities to give it vinous autonomy, chewing off a tidy-sized piece of the Yakima appellation while doing so. Before Sheridan Mountain or the Roza Hills get the same idea, Yakima is asserting its integrity and claim to your respect.


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