Winery dogs

Now before you think I'm talking about bad wine, let me explain. One common theme at many wineries is that they have a resident dog. A real dog, the four-legged variety. They come in all colors, shapes, sizes, and breeds. There's even a book about winery dogs, which you'll see displayed at many of the wineries throughout the Yakima Valley. Some of the more famous winery dogs appear on wine labels, like Murray, a yellow Lab at Hightower Cellars. Murray is sadly no longer with us, but his brother, Riley, is taking over dog duties with enthusiasm and flair. I expect to see his face on a label in the future.

The prize for largest winery dog goes to Coyote Canyon, one of the boutique wineries in Prosser's wine village. Their huge shaggy dog would make two (or three) normal-sized dogs. He's reluctant to move, thus easy to trip over. He reminds me of a Bernese Mountain dog, without the brown markings. The owner said he's about 160 lbs, and has recently lost weight.

We also like the three dogs at Two Mountain, and this pair of pooches is on duty at Cultura Wines. Both wineries are in Zillah.


Eating in wine country

A wine-tasting weekend would not be complete without good food, and we found some great restaurants this weekend. It always surprised me that in the entire Yakima Valley, you only had a choice of fast food, Mexican, or Chinese. In all the years we lived in the Tri-Cities and traveled to and from Seattle, we never stopped to eat in the valley. We'd eat in Yakima, or wait until we got home. But just like the winery scene is changing, so is the restaurant scene.

Last year we discovered Picazo, a restaurant in old-town Prosser, with a chef who cooks with a Spanish flair. Pasta, steaks, seafood…  excellent food, excellent wine list to go along with it. This was our choice for dinner on Friday night.

On Saturday, we tried a new place called Tuscany, which is in the same block as Picazo, in an old corner building with gorgeous arched windows. It's tiny, only 10 tables. But the food was amazing. We'd decided on steaks tonight, after all the great reds we tasted today. So with a glass of Mercer Cab Sauv in hand, we chose New York strip steaks, which came with salad, grilled veggies, and roasted potatoes…  and lots of garlic. The steaks were brushed with garlic butter, and they were fork tender and mouth-watering. We both agreed that this is one of the best steaks we've ever had.

We speculated that this was once the local bank, as it has the rather elaborate interior molding and lamps you'd expect to find in a bank (gives the image of prosperity, very comforting to the clientele). I loved the bathroom—tiny, tiled, great sink, and you step up into the toilet stalls. Reminded me of the  Roxy theater in Renton from my childhood.

And thanks to a Central Washington magazine we picked up at Barnard Griffin, we discovered a new restaurant in Sunnyside. We were looking for someplace other than the hotel for breakfast, and since there were a couple of caches in town that we planned to find before we started wine tasting, we decided to give it a try. Bon Vino doesn't sound like a restaurant that would serve breakfast, but it was packed. The curb appeal isn't great, but inside it's all Tuscan with earth colors, polished stained concrete floors, pendant lamps, lots of wine-related art on the walls, and a fireplace in one corner. Behind the L-shaped bakery counter they've painted an entire wall with chalkboard paint, and that's where the menu was. Nice touch! My  kielbasa and eggs were flavorful, and my English muffin was homemade (as were the lemon bars we bought for an after-dinner snack). This restaurant is definitely on our list for next year's wine tasting weekend.


Hightower... home of the perfect winery dog?

Hightower is another new winery for us. It's at the end of the road, closest to the river, with a unique tasting room. It's made of blocks of concrete that was mixed with wood chips, which lightens the look and warms the color. And both inside and out, the west-facing wall is lined with barrel staves, laid horizontally with a basketweave look. Really cool.

Riley, the current winery dog, met us at the glass door (all wineries should have dogs, don't you think?). I love yellow Labs. They're friendly, beautiful, fun-loving, soak up all the attention you can give them, but are happy to wander and entertain themselves.

Tim Hightower, the owner/co-winemaker, was on duty, and again, we were the only ones there. So we got to try the wines, talk with him about how he made them, and get to know Riley. His brother, Murray, is featured on two of the wines. We can only hope that Riley is so honored in the future.

Both Tim & Kelly Hightower came into the business via Columbia Winery. Kelly is the vinologist; Tim was the legal counsel for Columbia, but when they discovered what a great palate he had, they put him to work blending wines. We liked him a lot; another unassuming winemaker/owner who let his wines speak for themselves.

From Hightower we headed into Benton City and grabbed a cache, then drove the Old Inland Empire Highway toward Prosser, caching along the way. I really liked the Landslide cache, 'cause it explained the far hillside (above I-82) that is always so beautiful and full of shadows. And the Ghost Rails cache was fun, and shared a driveway with a small new building that would make a great tasting room. No signs; we'll have to wait and see what it becomes.

Letting wines speak for themselves

I was thinking about our visit to Fidelitas yesterday, and how impressed I was with the woman who served our wine tastings. She didn't make any mention of whether these wines won any awards, but rather let the wines speak for themselves. This way our palate wasn't influenced by what other people thought of the wines. There was no tasting fee for any of the eight or so wines we sampled, and we loved each of these amazing reds. It was tough to decide which to walk away with, but finally settled on the Optu Red, and a Columbia Valley Merlot. It didn't escape our notice that each of these was from the 2006 vintage. It's a year to watch.


Heading for wine country

This is our favorite wine country weekend of the year: pre-spring barrel tasting in the Yakima Valley. Next weekend is the official weekend, with wineries open longer hours, live music, food, and barrel samples of wines. It's fun, and hectic, and mobbed with people. Buses of wine tasters crowd the narrow lanes of the valley and choke the small parking areas.

For me, barrel tasting weekend is all about the wine, so the crowds and bustle just get in the way of the reason we love to come here. So we choose to go the weekend before the festival, when it's more relaxed. We can talk with the owners & winemakers, sample unreleased wines, and really enjoy the whole tasting room experience as we try new wines, and see how older wines are maturing.

We also love to add two more of our passions to a wine-tasting weekend: driving our MX-5 Miata through the vineyards and up to the door of each winery, and finding as many geocaches as possible along the way. These three ingredients, plus spending the weekend together, are the mix that makes it a perfect getaway.

How to Taste Wine in an MX-5

Driving top-down through the vineyards of Washington's wine country is an experience not to be missed. You enjoy the complete experience much more when you can involve all the senses. Turning your face up to the eastern Washington sunshine. Hearing the impact sprinklers in nearby fields. Listening to birds chirping in the tall grass in the ditches. Smelling the flowers, and this weekend, the lingering scent of fertilizers and chemicals that were sprayed overnight. Well, maybe that part of it I could do without…

The alternative is driving the SUV. It's the better choice if rain turns to snow on Snoqualmie Pass, which has happened 3 of the last 5 years on this same weekend. Tire chains just aren't an option in a sports car. The Explorer also carries more wine, something to consider since we always find bottles we just have to add to the wine cellar. And in said snow and cold, it's definitely warmer. But the great benefits of exploring with the roadster more than outweigh the few negative things. We always figure out a way to make it work.
So in the end, it all comes down to the packing challenge. Packing light, very light, as the only place to store your gear (and your wine) is in a very small trunk. You learn to do without that extra pair of shoes, and the just-in-case bulky coat. Layers is the clothing catchword you live by. You only bring the critical things, like underwear… and detailing spray and microfiber cloths, so you can keep up with the bugs that splatter (and eat through) your car's paint. There's no room for a cooler; you learn to like warm iced tea and diet Coke.

But the biggest challenge is how to fit in the wine you buy. This trip, we broke our previous record. With two soft-sided bags, a tiny detailing kit, and warm coats in the trunk, we still managed to squeeze in 2 cases of wine, plus another 5 bottles, and never had to use the last resort: a box of wine under my feet in the passenger seat.

And just look at the photo ops a bright red MX-5 provides!