Washington wine country aims to prove it's a destination
True wine enthusiasts know Washington wine country for the smattering of tiny wineries scattered across the state. Some boutique operations offer tastings by invitation only. Others are friendly, family-owned enterprises with doors open to everyone.
Tourists simply drop in -- sip a chardonnay, perhaps a merlot -- then drive down the road to the next stop on the wine trail.
Yet, for all the premium vintages produced in the state, no winery has taken the leap toward labeling itself a destination. That is, until now.
Nestled between sagebrush and vineyards on a remote cliff overlooking the Columbia River, Cave B Inn at SageCliffe -- an offshoot of Cave B Estate Winery -- opened its doors to tourists and locals alike last year. So far, business is going strong for the Pacific Northwest's first luxury wine resort, and industry leaders are taking note to ensure Washington wine country evolves into a destination itself.
"With wine in particular, it's not just the wine, it's the whole experience when you're drinking the wine," says Vince Bryan, son of the founder and property manager. "What we have now is just the beginning project at SageCliffe."
Washington state's wine industry has exploded in the past two decades, from fewer than 20 wineries in 1981 to more than 360 today. Washington is home to more than 30,000 acres of wine grapes, and the industry is worth close to $3 billion to the state's economy.
Distinct pockets of the state have capitalized on that growth. Some wineries have a summer concert series or festivals to draw music lovers to their region.
<I>Associated Press 2006</I>
In far southeastern Washington, fine restaurants -- like one called 26 brix -- and inns have opened in the quaint city of Walla Walla, whose brick-lined streets are home to dozens of wineries.
Much like the community of Woodinville west of the Cascades on the outskirts of Seattle, where the Willows Lodge offers a spa and restaurants like The Barking Frog and The Herbfarm offer fine dining, Walla Walla has made a name for itself as a tourist destination through the wine industry.
Between Woodinville and Walla Walla lie the rich terrain and vineyards that produce many of the grapes used in the state's diverse wines. The trick, so far, has been in luring tourists to the grapes themselves -- and in turn, the countless wineries sprouting up in the countryside.
Bookwalter Winery in Richland opened a bistro in its winery about two years ago, offering artisanal cheeses, bread, fruit and meat plates and fancy chocolate desserts. Visitors can sample Bookwalter wines at indoor tables or on the patio, and jazz and blues musicians perform four nights a week.
Also in Richland, Tagaris Winery opened The Taverna at Tagaris, a small Greek restaurant with a wine bar, lounge area and garden veranda.
Vintners and grape growers on Red Mountain, the 700-acre viticultural area renowned for its red wines, are in the process of creating a development plan to determine what resources -- such as inns and restaurants -- are needed to lure tourists and how many the area can support.
Wine industry leaders also broke ground last week on the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in the Yakima Valley. Slated to open in 2007 on a bluff overlooking the Yakima River, the Prosser center will offer wine tasting from all of the state's wineries, as well as culinary and educational classes and space for special events.
Business leaders from Yakima to Walla Walla have discussed plans for creating a wine trail through the Yakima and Columbia River valleys. Still lacking is anything resembling a destination resort.
Cave B, though off the beaten path north of the Yakima Valley, aims to fill that void.
Music fans already know the remote spot on the banks of the Columbia River where rock bands and country crooners stop to play at The Gorge amphitheater. Vince Bryan Sr., a neurosurgeon, and his wife Carol bought the wind-swept property years ago, and immediately began growing wine grapes.
They opened a winery next to the amphitheater they built to draw tourists east for concerts. In 1993, the family sold The Gorge and the original winery, but retained roughly 500 acres in hopes of building a wine, arts and recreation resort around the vineyards.
Cave B Estate Winery released its first wines in 2000. The inn celebrated its grand opening last year.
"For a long time in Washington, wineries were on the west side of the state and the vineyards were over here. You couldn't recreate the vineyard experience," Bryan says. "We recognized that if you're really enveloping the whole wine thing, you're engaging all the senses."
Individual "cliffehouses" and cavern rooms built into the basalt offer spectacular sunset views over the Columbia River. Each room has elegant furnishings, floor-to-ceiling windows and a terrace.
A restaurant and two conference rooms comprise the main hall. A short walk takes guests to the spa or the tasting room, where they may sample more than a dozen estate wines. A driving range, hiking trails and swimming pond also are on the grounds.
Expansion plans include an 18-hole golf course, equestrian center, culinary center, event hall and a larger tasting room. The entire resort is built around acres of orchards, gardens and vineyards that supply the 14 varieties of grapes for the estate's wines.
"If you create a great destination -- bring in a great chef, a great winemaker -- people will come," Bryan says. "I hope that's what we're proving here."
The area is remote, no question. Aside from the amphitheater and Gingko Petrified Forest State Park across the river, few recreational amenities can be found nearby.
"The setting and the gorge and the river are just wonderful," says Diane McCormick, 67, visiting from Vancouver, Wash. "Once you leave the property, your options are limited. People need to realize this is a destination."
To the Bryans, that is exactly the point. Eventually, Cave B plans to offer arts and science programs through a private foundation, paid for with profits from the winery and inn.
"What we're trying to create here is a place you can be inspired by your surroundings," Bryan says, "and be creative in whatever it is you're pursuing."