Wine Heaven in Eastern Washington

When most people think of Washington state, they immediately think of Seattle. So if I asked you to describe the climate and terrain of Washington, you’d probably answer something along the lines of “rainy, grey, misty,” etc… And you’d be right — if we’re talking about western Washington. IF, however, you head east and cross over the Cascade mountain range, something magical happens. The other side of the state is drenched in sunshine! And we all know what sunshine means… wine! (Okay, sunshine means a lot of things, but to my one-track mind, it means a great climate for vineyards.)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a Northwest wines tour, and our first stop was Paterson, a tiny town located on the banks of the Columbia River in southeast Washington. Why Paterson? It’s home to Columbia Crest Estates Vineyard, one of the Northwest’s largest wineries and possibly one of the most well-known wineries in the nation.

Similar to the line of thinking that “Washington = Seattle = rain,” many people look at a widely distributed, large label wine like Columbia Crest and think “Large label = cheap = bad wine.” I am here to tell everyone that it is just not true. Sure, it’s an affordable label, but the idea that a budget-friendly wine must be low quality is a fallacy.

My wine-loving group toured the entire Columbia Crest facilities along with their vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills (in my opinion, the prettiest name for an AVA!). We were guided by Columbia Crest’s head winemaker, the charismatic Juan Muñoz Oca, whose passion for the craft of winemaking is apparent. Juan gained viticulture experience at wineries in Argentina and Spain before moving all the way to Washington to work at Columbia Crest. He’s a long way from home, but who can blame him? The vineyards are gorgeous and have a very special characteristic: they are approximately the same latitude as France’s famed Bordeaux and Burgundy regions. This similarity grants many winemaking opportunities other AVAs don’t have; Columbia Valley vineyards are able to produce wines that have the structure of famed European wines. This opens many doors for winemakers in this region.

Also, not to start something, California winemakers, but…Washington grapes are treated to long, warm days and cold nights, balancing out the acids and sugars within the grapes during their ripening process. Meaning Washington’s wines are generally more balanced than a bottle you’d produce in the famous Napa Valley. What now?

Though working at Columbia Crest hardly resembles helping out in his grandfather’s cellars, Juan still employs the same respect for his grapes and the winemaking process that he started out with. All barrels are hand stirred and carefully tended to every day by his employees, giving small batch attention to a large batch winery. This process and care is evident in the final product. How do I know this? The proof is in the pudding. I tasted an extreme amount of wine. Sometimes, I just dream of tables and tables of wine glasses, full of delicious wine for me to drink. That day in Paterson, my dreams came true.

My personal recommendations? Honestly, anything in Columbia Crest’s H3 tier is going to be a fantastic value. I have never had a bottle I didn’t like. Especially the Cabernet Sauvignon. If you are feeling a bit more luxurious, the Walter Clore red blend from their Reserve is excellent.

See for yourself! Pack a picnic and visit the beautiful estate for a tour and tasting (for maximum sunshine, I recommend any time during the lovely spring or summer). Weekday self-guided tours are available from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and on weekends guided tours occur at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Paterson is a bit of a haul, but you can easily make a Washington roadtrip weekend out of it and visit many of the other wineries in the Tri-Cities area. Coming from afar? The SeaTac airport offers daily flights to Pasco on Horizon Air, a good jumping-off point for a weekend of wine and relaxation.

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