I GREW UP in the shadow of Hanford’s B Reactor in a small town, which at the time might have been considered a suburb except for the fact that there was no urb. Just beyond the irrigated green lawns, sandy-colored hills and fields of sagebrush and tumbleweed spread into the horizon. Today those rock-pocked hills made of sand, silt, and loam from ancient glacial deposits, well… Turns out they’ve got the best dirt around for growing wine grapes.
When Seattle Met produced its first wine survey in July 2006, I went home for a visit to check out wineries that had sprung up around town and to see for myself the recently designated growing region Red Mountain, which had already earned a reputation for its extraordinary terroir and climate. In Benton City, the landscape was every bit as arid as I had remembered. But oh my.
With an elevation of just over 1,400 feet, Red Mountain is no Rainier. But it holds a softer beauty, distinctly at odds with my memories of childhood in the desert. Perched at the crest of the hill is the Hedges Family Estate, a Frenchified chateau approached through a sweep of formal gardens and vines clinging to the undulating contours of the hillside. After touring the grand entry hall and tasting through the wines, I sat outside next to a stately circular fountain in the purpling dusk, gazing down over the vineyards into the shadowy deep greens of the Yakima River. Squinting just a little, I swear it felt like Tuscany.
Well, I guess I was late to that party. Turns out Washington State’s venerable Chateau Ste. Michelle winery had already teamed up with folks from Antinori, Tuscany’s ancient winemaking family, to plant 30 acres of grapes right there on Red Mountain. Less than a year later, in April 2007, their Col Solare winery opened its doors for private tours and tastings.
It’s not as if it’s easy to keep track of new wineries. By latest count Washington has more than 650 of them, 200 more than there were three years ago. One of the newest is Mercer Estates, a pairing of two longstanding Prosser farm families, the Hogues (formerly of Hogue Cellars) and the Mercers. As a city person, my idea of hell on earth would be to move to a town of 5,500 people in farm country. But when I stopped in at the sleek modern tasting room just off Wine Country Road last summer, the young woman pouring had recently relocated from the Napa Valley and professed to be happily ensconced in a community of sophisticated, well-traveled winemakers. In Prosser, of all places.
Most importantly, that sophistication extends to our wine, and in the following pages you’ll discover the absolute best of current releases, all of them fine enough to hold their own among wines from all over the planet. Get ready to sniff, swirl, and sip.