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The following post was written by Carrie Simon. Simon is the founder of Washington Wine 9, a custom trip planning service for travelers to Washington State wine country.
In 2009 I returned to the Pacific Northwest after nearly 20 years away. Hearing so much about the wine region in Washington State that had emerged during this time, I felt compelled to start planning my maiden voyage. What I discovered is that Washington’s wine country is unlike any other area I had visited – in both good ways and bad.
Understand first that, while I love wine, I am far from an oenophile. While I have been to other notable wine producing regions, including Tuscany, Burgundy, Stellenbosch, Napa, and California’s Central Coast, I did not crisscross the globe in pursuit of wine. I went because I love to travel and these destinations offered the types of experiences I enjoy: wine (of course) along with good food, beautiful scenery, and days of leisure. This is what I looked forward to discovering in Washington.
So I began to plan my trip. I focused on the heart of wine country – the stretch from Yakima Valley southeast to the Walla Walla Valley where more than 99% of the state’s grapes are grown and well over half its wineries are located. I wasn’t going to drive to Walla Walla and miss everything along the way!
To my surprise, I found that planning a simple 3-day getaway to eastern Washington was almost as challenging as planning a trip abroad and took nearly as long! While I found plenty of useful information on visiting the wineries (for example, the Washington Wine Commission’s website and Steve Roberts’ book, WineTrails of Washington), when it came to learning about other things I like to do when I travel, I found very little compelling information. Unfortunately, in this way I found Washington to be much more challenging than the other regions I had visited.
Most of what was (and is) available were comprehensive lists of services provided by the tourism bureaus. But I didn’t want to know all the places to eat, sleep and explore! I yearned for a critical, trustworthy eye(s) to make recommendations: Stay here! Eat there! and, Don’t Miss These Off-the-Beaten-Path Treasures! I found the relatively large region surprisingly hard to navigate as a whole.
Still, I did the best I could with the information I had and set out: over the mountains and through the woods, and wound up… in a desert! Really? Many people outside the area don’t know that, while Seattle is steeped in rain, eastern Washington is a desert with more than 300 days of sunshine per year (but don’t think cacti!). When I arrived in eastern Washington, I discovered that Washington wine country shares one quality that all top wine regions do – world class wines. But I also found other things that were unique.
An article in Food & Wine recently observed “not many winemakers would put down their hoses and pipettes” to have lunch with their customers in Napa. Not so in Washington. Because there are so many small wineries in eastern Washington, winemakers themselves are likely to pour your tasting, and even invite you in for lunch. You frequently have the occasion to get to know the personalities and stories behind the wines, and also to increase your knowledge of the craft from the practitioners themselves. This experience leaves you connected to the wines and the region in untold ways. In all my travels to other wine regions, only once did I happen upon a winemaker in a tasting room (in Paso Robles).
Another draw is that there are indeed plentiful opportunities to broaden your travel experience in wine country beyond wine alone. There are numerous outdoor and culinary experiences awaiting, including golfing, fishing, biking, fruit picking, cheese making, bread baking, and chocolate tasting to name just a few. The most desirable activities I discovered only once I was in wine country (and back again); I had given up on sorting through lists and lists on website after website.
Suffice to say, my first trip inspired me. I wanted to know this authentic and rich destination more fully, and I found myself returning to the area over and over and learning as much as I could about it – in part, because I fell in love with the area but also because I was determined that planning a trip to Washington’s wine country should not be so difficult for me or anyone else.
This is why I decided to launch Washington Wine 9 last year (the heart of wine country encompasses 9 of Washington’s 11 AVAs), making it my business to help travelers, from oenophiles to those who simply enjoy food and wine travel, get the most out of their wine country experience. My goal is to provide the type of discerning information I seek when I travel to help people get the most out of their wine country experience.
Sean has asked me to contribute to the Washington Wine Report periodically to share some of what I have found during my travels. In the meantime, I invite you to follow me on my next trip over the mountains beginning April 2 at travelnotes.washingtonwine9.com.
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