YAKIMA, Wash. —
The times, they were a-changin', and Phil Cline saw the light.
“The word on apples was to get big or get out, so I did," said the third-generation Yakima-area orchardist. “I didn't want to get big, so I got out in 2000 — and I discovered that I have a passion for growing grapes, as well."
Today, Cline and partner Doug McKinnon not only have a biodynamic winery in the Northwest's newest American Viticultural Area, they are developing a winery-based resort that will, in Cline's words, “make Naches Heights the fun center of the universe."
The evolution of Naches Heights Vineyard is indicative of the direction that agricultural tourism (“agritourism") has taken in recent years, especially in the greater Yakima Valley. As increased appreciation of carefully crafted meals and beverages has led to more interest in farm-to-table food sources, farming communities have branched into tourism development as a new and viable support for their economies.
“I love challenges," said the 56-year-old Cline, who made the transition to wine grapes as a tasting-room manager before establishing Naches Heights Vineyards. “This has been very challenging, but also very rewarding. It's the first time I can see people enjoying what I make!"
In 2002, Cline had planted a long-held family estate with syrah, riesling and pinot gris vines. Naysayers had told him the elevation of 1,800 feet — about 750 feet higher than the city of Yakima, a half-dozen miles to the east — would not produce quality grapes. He hired McKinnon as his vineyard manager, and as the grapes flourished, the partnership soon developed into one of joint ownership.
By late 2007, Cline and McKinnon controlled 80 acres in three sustainably farmed vineyards with 31 varieties of grapes. “Farming organically, you have to be a lot more proactive," Cline noted.
An example, he said, is in canopy management, where the use of nettles and horsetail in diatomaceous fertilizer assists in fighting off mildew.
But Cline's goals extend beyond winemaking. Having recently been granted resort designation from Yakima County, his sights are set on developing a “glamping" oasis that will welcome visitors by next summer.
“Glamping" is a coined word, a portmanteau of “glamor" and “camping."
Nine tent pads — some of them surrounded by grapevines, others beside a reed-edged pond with bubbling waterfalls — are already being prepared. The tents will have beds and other amenities; sleeping bags may be left at home. A central bathhouse will feature a sauna.
Already, visitors to the 1-year-old tasting room at Naches Heights Vineyard are greeted by a towering wind generator and state-of-the-art solar panels that supply all of its energy needs. Gourmet lunches and catered dinners complement a selection of wines by the glass or bottle.
“We've given people a place to come that is different and classy," said Cline. “We are really in the entertainment business here. I want my customers to leave a foot taller than they come in."
Homesteaded in the 1850s, sprawling Yakima County was established in 1865 after the creation of the vast Yakama Indian Reservation, just south of what is now the city of Yakima. Ample sunshine and rich volcanic soil provided the foundation for an agricultural industry, which rapidly grew after the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s and the development of irrigation canals from the Yakima River in the 1890s.
From the start, wine grapes, brewers' hops and fruit trees were leading crops. Prohibition put a temporary kibosh on grape and hop production, but apples, pears and stone fruit — peaches, plums, apricots and their kin — exploded in importance.
Today, not only has the wine business recovered, but 75 percent of all American hops are grown in the Yakima Valley. (Oregon's central Willamette Valley is a distant second.) Yakima also leads the United States in the production of apples and mint, and is near the top in asparagus. In all, more than 40 commercial crops are grown in this valley, which extends 70 miles southeast, mainly along Interstate 82, from Naches to Benton City.
With a population of more than 90,000, Yakima is the valley's urban center. Rebounding from an economic slump a decade ago, when downtown businesses were closing and boarding up their windows, it is today an increasingly vibrant community. A surprising number of young, hip, big-city refugees, many of them from Seattle, are helping to reshape the city with fine restaurants, a modern convention center and a wide range of recreational options.
Among the relative newcomers is Ed Marquand, the driving force behind “Mighty Tieton." A publisher of art books in Seattle, Marquand was on a bicycle trek in 2005 when he ran over something that punctured his tires that forced him to spend an afternoon in Tieton (pronounced “TIE-a-ton"), a struggling village 15 miles west of Yakima.
Marquand saw potential in Tieton. Before that year had ended, he had mobilized a group of investors and laid the groundwork for an artisans' community. Today the little town has gallery shows in a former apple-packing plant, a fully occupied set of artists' lofts and cabins, a dairy farm and creamery, architects' and designers' studios, Marquand's own Paper Hammer letterpress studio and bindery, the Goathead Press, and other small businesses.
Among them is the Tieton Cider Works, which was established in 2008 and produced its first alcoholic apple cider — 200 cases — in 2009. This year, said cider maker Marcus Robert, himself a fourth-generation Yakima Valley orchardist, the company will sell more than 12,000 cases of apple and pear ciders. “This is such a new industry," he said, “I understand the product from the dirt to the bottle."
A person who had any doubt about Yakima being the center of the apple-growing universe would need only to visit Tree Top, Inc., in Selah, a town of 7,200 that borders Yakima to the north. Founded in 1960, this cooperative corporation — owned by more than 1,000 apple and pear growers — is best known for its apple juice and apple sauce. It is also the world's largest producer of dried apple products.
Tours of the production facilities are not available. But anyone can drop into the spacious Tree Top Store & Visitor Center, where exhibits describing the juice-making process share floor space with all manner of fruit products, including dried-fruit snacks, as well as T-shirts and other souvenirs.
The hills and dales throughout the greater Yakima area are clustered with apple and pear orchards, as well as cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, nectarines, pluots (plum-apricot hybrids) and other fruit, including seasonal berries. On the west side of Yakima, one of the best places to look for fresh produce is Barrett Orchards, which offers autumn hay rides to younger patrons and interpretive farm walks to older, year-round visitors.
South of Yakima, especially along Lateral A Road on the Yakama reservation west of Wapato, produce stands incorporate seasonal vegetables. In visits to Dagdagan Farm and Imperial's Garden, I discovered scores of display cases of fresh corn, tomatoes, melons, eggplants, zucchini, bizarrely shaped and colored squashes, and more different kinds of chili peppers than I may have seen in my lifetime.
The roots of the Yakima Valley ag industry are evident at the Central Washington Agricultural Museum, located immediately south of Yakima in suburban Union Gap. Museum President Nick Schultz explained that the 17-acre former farm site, next to Fulbright Park, maintains as much of its historic farm equipment as possible in fully operating condition. Every year in mid-August, the threshers and binders, the old windmill and the horse-drawn wagons, are fired up and put to work in a public demonstration.
I was fascinated by the specialization of many of the machines on outdoor exhibit. There was a portable hop-picking machine, a pea picker and a corn-stalk cutter. Toothed harrows were used to prepare seed beds. An asparagus harvester was on display, one of only two ever made before they were deemed impractical. Of special note in this election season was a manure spreader, which Schultz said was also known as “the politician wagon."
A retired high-school shop teacher, Schultz said he feels right at home among the vintage machinery, but he is glad he was not a farmer a century ago: “This equipment gives me a real feel for the way the pioneer farmers worked and lived — and died at the age of 45."
The hub of the Yakama Indian Reservation is the town of Toppenish, 20 miles southeast of Yakima. At the edge of town, on the west side of U.S. Highway 97 North to Yakima, the Yakama Nation Cultural Center dominates the landscape. Combining an insightful museum with gift shop, library, restaurant and theater, the Cultural Center is the single best means by which visitors can get acquainted with this native community, along with its long and colorful history in Central Washington. The tribe also operates the nearby Legends Casino and an RV park.
Toppenish itself has equal elements of Old West, Native American and Hispanic heritage, the latter largely because of the many Spanish-speaking immigrant families who settled in the Yakima Valley to work its farms. The diverse heritage is depicted on the sides of buildings in more than 70 hand-painted murals that have earned the town of 9,000 people a nickname as the “City of Murals."
For beer lovers and agricultural tourists, an attraction of particular interest is the American Hop Museum, the only one in the country, and perhaps the world, dedicated to the vine known in Latin as Humulus lupulus.
Used for centuries as a beer preservative and flavoring, the plant's cone-like female flower clusters have an antibacterial quality that works effectively with brewer's yeast. At the same time, they balance the sweetness of malt in a beer and add extra flavor. This and more is explained in the museum's exhibits on beer making.
Additional displays describe the history of the industry in America, from the Dutch introduction of hops to New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1607, to the accession of Yakima to the forefront of American hops production toward the end of the 19th century.
Because my recent visit to the Yakima Valley coincided with the hop harvest, I was able to witness a bit of the harvest in fields only a couple of miles west of Toppenish. I watched as trucks delivered loads of freshly clipped vines to processing plants, where they were cleaned of stems and leaves before kiln-drying. After cooling, they were pressed into bale lots sold to brewers from all over the United States — including Central Oregon.
The east side
My agricultural tour of the Yakima Valley — the visitors bureau uses the label “farm fresh fun," but I think it's more than that — took in many more venues all over the region.
Besides Naches Heights, I dropped into a mere handful of the valley's five dozen other wineries: rustic Wilridge, urban Gilbert, countrified Piety Flats, elegant Desert Wind and quaint Tefft Cellars.
At the latter facility, I enjoyed a bit of barrel tasting with winemaker Jon Zimmermann, a Washington wine-industry veteran of 28 years. My critique: Tefft's 2011 syrah will be a fine wine when it is released next year, but its sweet huckleberry port dessert wine is destined to be a revelation.
At Jones Farms, I spent some time watching the apple harvest and marveled over a crop of green gooseneck squash.
At Chukar Cherries, vice president Tommy Montgomery welcomed me to a 24-year-old, family-owned business that dries 250,000 pounds of cherries each summer, turning them into chocolate-covered cherries and a variety of other confections.
At Silbury Hill, I interacted with a herd of 52 alpacas that range across 3½ acres. “We love the fiber," said owner Danise Cathel, who hand-spins the yarn that her husband, Bob, weaves. “It's stronger and lighter than sheep's wool, and doesn't have any of the lanolin that some people are allergic to."
At Cherry Wood Bed, Breakfast & Barn, I took a close look at another family business that lodges guests in tepees and provides ranch-style horseback riding.
The easternmost stop on my three-day visit was the $4 million Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser. Ten years in the making, the complex will break ground on its main education center in November, with the official opening scheduled for October 2013. Its Vineyard Pavilion, with indoor-outdoor areas for community events, was erected a year ago.
Building blueprints show exhibit space, a room for wine tasting and retail sales, a demonstration kitchen and vineyard, and a large multipurpose room designed to host industry workshops. A broad patio overlooks the adjacent Yakima River.
“Our mission is to promote Washington state wines and agriculture," said marketing coordinator Abbey Cameron.
Lodging and dining
During my Yakima visit, I hung my hat at the Oxford Inn, owned by the Bend-based Baney Corp. My comfortable, ground-level room had a patio that opened onto the Yakima River Greenway, which extends for 10 miles through the city. A serve-yourself breakfast didn't include any eggs other than hard-boiled, but waffles and biscuits-and-gravy provided hot fare to complement bagels and pastries.
My favorite restaurant was the 5 North Metropolitan Kitchen in the heart of the city. An appetizer of wild-mushroom pasta and a main course of tangy lamb curry, accented by excellent service and a glass of local Wineglass Cellars merlot, left me smiling.
For other dinners, I enjoyed a gourmet burger at the Second Street Grill and a shredded chicken pambazo — a sandwich smothered in red sauce — at Antojitos Mexicano. My lunches in the Yakima Valley included a taco-style salad at the Snipes Mountain Brewery in Sunnyside and a traditional buffalo stew at the Yakama Nation Cultural Center's Heritage Inn Restaurant.
The Yakama tribe maintains its own herd of bison. The Native Americans, too, have cashed in upon agricultural tourism.