Wine is changing Northwest culture

Wine Press NorthwestJune 15, 2012 

I have a lifelong love affair with the Pacific Northwest, and for the past 15 years, I have tried to reflect that in the pages of Wine Press Northwest.

Most certainly, my interest in different areas of the Northwest has been heightened by the wine industry -- and that is part of the power that wine can provide.

In this issue, we explore Northwest wine country via three-day getaways. This theme was inspired by the past 15 years of visiting most corners of the Pacific Northwest. And during my travels, I have seen wondrous changes, thanks in large part to the wine industry.

Back in 1998, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho combined for perhaps 250 wineries. Fifteen years later, the wine scene has exploded to something approaching 1,500 producers -- well beyond anyone's most optimistic prognostications.

With the proliferation of wineries, a culture has begun to develop, a style that gathers in some of the best of European and California wine regions, though with a Northwest twist.

I have lived my entire life in the Northwest, having grown up in Western Washington, living a year in the Snake River Valley, getting married near Portland and spending the past quarter-century in the heart of Washington wine country.

Having grown up in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains and going to college near the Canadian border, I will admit it took me some time to get used to the stark, arid, wide-open spaces of Eastern Washington. But thanks to the symmetry of grapevines and a growing appreciation for sagebrush-covered hills that pass as mountains in these parts, I have come to enjoy the endless blue skies and relative solitude of endless highways and side roads.

Thanks to wineries, life is only getting better in the Pacific Northwest. B&Bs and boutique hotels are regular parts of the landscape. The restaurant scene in the big cities of Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and Boise is robust -- and becoming so in the less-populated areas. Other artisan endeavors, including cheese producers, farmers, bakers, brewers and distillers, are growing alongside the tasting rooms.

As I travel around the Northwest, I am struck by just how far-reaching the wine industry is. Three months ago, I wrote about Westport Winery on the Washington coast. It's not getting quite so lonely there because I see another producer already has popped up in Grays Harbor County.

I never visited Lake Chelan before the wine industry arrived a decade ago. Now, I recommend it to anyone looking for a great experience, thanks to its natural beauty, restaurants and wine-related experiences.

Our family has spent a fair bit of time driving through the Columbia Gorge to see my in-laws in the Willamette Valley, and I have watched with joy as the Gorge has gone from having fewer than five wineries to dozens upon dozens of producers. The vibrant restaurant scene that is blossoming in Hood River is magnificent, the scenery in the Gorge is unprecedented, and the wines are now matching the natural beauty.

The Willamette Valley is the cradle of the Oregon wine industry, and I love nothing more than traversing the back roads of Yamhill County and coming upon sublime Pinot Noirs. With about 20 B&Bs, this region might have the highest concentration of inns anywhere in our region. And they offer such wonderful experiences. I've loved staying at Abbey Road Farm near Carlton, Black Walnut Inn above Dundee and A-Tuscan Estate in McMinnville. Each property is as charming as its proprietors.

The town of Carlton, Ore., which we profiled last fall, is the epitome of how revitalizing the wine industry can be. It has been transformed from a backwater that time was slowly eroding to an exciting mecca with dozens of wineries, great little restaurants and quaint shops -- all while retaining its small-town Americana feel.

North of the border, the Fraser Valley and Vancouver and Gulf islands put the "beautiful" in British Columbia, but the serious action is going on in the province's Interior. The Okanagan Valley is as warm as Napa, though with a shorter, more intense growing season. Its whites are among the best on the West Coast, while the reds are a well-kept secret. What makes the valley a great destination are the restaurants, lodging and natural beauty. In particular, about 20 wineries now have on-site restaurants that often feature the region's bounty in the key ingredients.

While still in the shadows of the Willamette Valley, Southern Oregon is carving out a reputation for warm-climate varieties and a relaxed friendliness that is inviting to visitors.

Idaho is the up-and-comer in the Northwest. The region around Boise is where most of the Gem State's grapes are grown, there are enough wineries to fill three days of touring, and the wine is pretty darned good, especially the Rieslings but also the red Rhone varieties.

It's difficult to find an area of the Northwest that isn't touched by the wine industry (parts of Eastern Oregon spring to mind, but that's about it), and to me, that makes long weekends and short vacations that much more enjoyable.

For much of my life, I've explored the Northwest. For the first 30 years, it meant family or solo trips to the coast or hanging out with friends on the Olympic Peninsula. For the past 17, more of that has focused on wine.

Thanks to the Northwest wine industry, all of our lives are a bit richer.

ANDY PERDUE is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest.

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