Yakima Valley, Washington, offers beautiful scenery, farms and food finds, and more than 75 vineyards. Just a two and half hour drive from Seattle and a little more than three hours from Portland, with 300 days of annual sunshine, this is a premier getaway for wine tasting, great food, adventures and beautiful scenery.
In 1983, Yakima Valley became Washington State’s first officially designated wine region, or American Viticultural Area (AVA). Situated in South Central Washington, it was the first federal AVA north of California.
While there are now eight AVAs in Washington State, Yakima Valley produces 40% of the state’s grapes for wine production, and is home to excellent Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Gris, and many more varietals.
On a recent wine tasting trip, Kestral Vinters and Milbrandt Vineyards were just two of my favorites.
Even if Kestrel Vinters were the only winery in the area, I’d recommend a trip to visit them. (There are also KV tasting rooms in Leavenworth and Woodinville, Washington.) Their 126 acre vineyard is lovely and the wines are truly excellent.
John and Helen Walker bought the vineyard in 1995. The Walkers had lived most of their lives in Florida, but appreciated Washington wines and set about making wines. After John passed away, Helen and daughter added to their team and expanded the winery to what it is today.
Kestrel hosts numerous events throughout the year and has their own staff chef, Jessica Smith. Assistant Winemaker Caroline Warwick good heartedly boasts, “I can walk into the kitchen and Jessica will say, ‘Here, try this,’ and she’ll give me something absolutely delicious to eat and I know how lucky I am.”
Jessica creates the menu and pairings for many events held throughout the year at the vineyard, including Spring Barrel, one of Yakima Valley’s largest festivals, at the end of April and October’s Catch the Crush festival.
Don’t miss a trip to Kestrel’s cheese and charcuterie counter. During the busy season, they’ll carry as many as 40-60 cheeses. They also offer a line of sea salts. (The truffle sea salt is delicious!)
Like other wineries, Kestrel offers multiple lines of wine, each with their own emphasis and price points. Their Artists Series wines are good everyday wines. The wines in their Falcon Series are wonderful value wines, among the best I tasted at the price, and also have good aging potential. Their Winemaker’s Select Wines are delicious, crafted with individuality and taste goals that show off the winemaker’s knowledge and expertise. I suggest enjoying wines in both the Falcon and Winemaker’s Select series now, but earmark some to put away for a few years as well.
Finally, their Signature Edition Wines are truly special occasion wines These are specially crafted originals that include Old Vine Merlot, and Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon, a Viognier Ice Wine, and a delicious, rich Port.
Kestrel’s 2013 Falcon Series Rosé found its way into the trunk of my car; it’s a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Mourvedre and has “punch.” They handcraft their Rosé with a process called Saigne, which means, “to bleed”. Twenty-four hours after crushing, some of the juice is bled off, increasing the skin-to-juice ratio. The flavor is full, and yet great for sipping on a warm day.
Their 2010 Sangiovese Falcon Series is my favorite value wine. Deep, deep red colors and lots of dark cherry and blackberry notes. The grapes are grown using a fan training system, which maximizes sun exposure. The grape clusters are pruned extensively which greatly reduces the, but the flavors develop to their full intensity. Twenty-four hours after the grapes are harvested, 20 to 25% of the juice is drained off. This gives intense flavors the winemakers are after because the skin-to-juice ratio is increased. The result really is a rich, muscular red.
Kestrel’s Old Vine Merlot is well worth the higher-than-everyday wine price. (The wines for these “old vines” wines were planted in 1972.) With a dark, rich color, the 2009 I brought home was rich in berry flavors, peppery, with elegant tannins.
The 2010 Winemaker’ Select Cabernet Franc, another huge favorite that came home with me, was the most complex wine. Each sip brought different flavors and aromas. The color was a beautiful garnet-to-black; a very bold wine, but wonderfully balanced.
Winemaker Flint Nelson, says, “We make wine for birthdays, anniversaries, and Mondays.” I like that.
In addition to quality wines, Milbrandt Vineyards’ take on wine tasting is a treat and valuable lesson in paring wines with foods. Allow time to relax and let their knowledgeable staff lead your tasting. The wines here are very good, and I assure you, you will take some home.
The tasting room is located in the Prosser Vinter’s Village, a 32 acre site in Prosser where 10 winemakers have their tasting rooms. The “village-concept,” which is cropping up more and more in wine tasting regions, is less a “strip mall” as they’ve been dubbed by critics, and more like the best of a suburban housing development. Each winery is housed in a separate building, and winding streets end in cul de sacs. Yes, it sounds a bit sterile and the buildings are a little too cookie-cutter in hue and landscaping. And there’s less opportunity to tromp through rows of vines and enjoy pastoral photo ops. However each winery puts their personal touch to the neighborhood, and I really enjoyed the chance to park my car and stroll from winery to winery. On busy weekends, it can feel like a friendly block party; the best of the suburbs, if you will.
The owners of Milbrandt, brothers Butch and Jerry Milbrandt, operate the family farm where they’ve lived since they were young. They farm more than 2,000 acres of vines, the first planted in 1997. Their grapes were soon highly sought after by other winemakers, and they’ve been producing their own wines since 2007.
The tasting room resembles a cozy living area, with a big fireplace and leather sofas and bistro seating and tables. Or, you can sit outdoors on the patio. Instead of lining up at a bar, the seating allows you to gather with others a little more intimately. Select a white or red wine flight and you’ll receive four wines per flight. Each is helpfully labelled. With each wine, you’ll receive a small plate with a food paring. The foods change, but care goes into each paring and each was spot on.
The white flight includes their Rosé, Viognier, and two different Rieslings. On the day of our tastings, these were paired, respectively, with a rich cream cheese with herbs and garlic; salty sheep and goat milk cheese on dried apricot; salami with a ginger glaze; and milk chocolate with coconut and spice and a dribble of orange-infused olive oil.
The red flight includes their Mourvèdre (a grape I’ve since started exploring more fully!), Tempranillo, Primitivo, and Petite Sirah. These were paired with prosciutto and balsamic glaze; a semi-hard smoked cheese with tamarind glaze; a sweet and creamy Dubliner with dried fig; and a rich, dark chocolate with dried raspberry and a dribble of olive oil.
Seasonally, you can order additional food from their excellent menu. We enjoyed a dish of peas, green onion and grilled asparagus, dressed with sea salt, lemon and Oregon Olive Mill olive oil, and a flavorful dish of lentils with red onions, orange juice, balsamic vinegar and figs.
Milbrandt labels their wines under four series. Sentinal Series wines are exclusive and limited edition specialty wines. Vineyard Series wines are all estate grown fruit and focus on specialty varietals. (The wines I enjoyed and took home were all Vineyard Series wines.) Estates Series wines are rich and complex and excellent value wines. Traditions Series wines are for drinking right away and offer good quality for the price.
I’ve already mentioned the Mourvèdre. I really enjoyed the fragrances, the mouth feel and blackberry flavors in this wine from their Vineyard Series. At home, I enjoyed this with a pork roast and it was lovely.
The Tempranillo is big, extremely fragrant, and really opened up with a bit of time in the glass, and had an especially good front taste. Tempranillos are a premier grape in the Yakima area, and Milbrandt’s is balanced and soft, something not always achieved in what can be too “big” a wine.
Primitivo is a grape that was formerly used primarily in blends to lend body and color. But we’re increasingly seeing it on its own, and Milbrandt can be proud of their Primitivo offering. Initially, the scent was a little metallic but the aromas opened up quickly and the taste was light and fruity, with a velvety finish. I liked the slight peppery taste as well.
More Reds To Try
While I’m confident recommending my favorites, there are many other notable and award winning Yakima Valley wineries producing truly stellar wines. Do visit Thurston Wolfe, Gilbert Cellars, 14 Hands Vineyards, and others, as time allows. With more than 75 Yakima Valley wineries, you’ll enjoy finding your own favorites! — Nancy Zaffaro, RFT Wine, Brews, & Spirits Editor Northwest
IF YOU GO…VISIT
• Kestrel Vinters, www.kestrelwines.com
• Milbrandt Vineyards, www.milbrandtvineyards.com
• YakimaValley Tourism information, www.visityakima.com
There are a wide variety of lodging choices in Yakima Valley, at all comfort and price levels. Visit the Yakima Valley Tourism website for more. www.visityakima.com/newSite/yakima-valley-accommodations.asp