Wine Tourism in Washington State

By John ~ August 13th, 2012.

Washington State is second only to California in U.S. wine production; so if you like wine, you’ll want to visit Washington wine country. As people taste Washington wine, they also discover that the quality of Washington wine is second to none, and often at great prices, too.

Where you go in Washington wine country will depend on your answers to the following questions:

  1. Are you a tourist who likes wine or are you a wine tourist?
  2. How much time do you have to visit Washington wine country?

If you are just a tourist who likes wine, your best bet is probably Woodinville, Washington. Woodinville is only 30 minutes from downtown Seattle, the largest city and main tourist hub in the state. There is easy access to Woodinville year-round, because there are no mountain passes to cross in the winter. It is an exploding tourist area with excellent infrastructure and almost 100 wineries, including a number of tasting rooms for Walla Walla wineries, the most famous wine town in Washington. Woodinville is also home of the state’s oldest, largest, and most well known wineries, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery. You can taste a good cross-section of Washington wine in one day in Woodinville. For a tourist who likes wine and is just passing through Seattle for a day or two on the way to another ultimate destination or to board an Alaskan cruise, spending a day in Woodinville is a great choice. In fact, I am not aware of another place in the United States, including California, where there are as many fine wineries and tasting rooms so close to a major city. The only knock on Woodinville is that it’s not where the vineyards are located.

For a tourist who likes wine and is planning to spend more time in the state’s other tourist areas, such as Leavenworth or Lake Chelan, you will find good wine tasting there as well. With Leavenworth and/or Lake Chelan, you are looking at a 2.5-3 hour drive from Seattle, and a trip that can get iffy in the winter. However, both cities offer many activities for tourists in addition to a growing wine community, including beautiful vineyards on the shores of Lake Chelan.

For a tourist who likes wine and is flying into Portland rather than Seattle, the Columbia Gorge and Horse Heaven Hills wine areas are worth exploring. There is great scenery and many outdoor activities available along the Columbia River, but this area does not have as big of a tourist infrastructure as some of the other areas I’ve mentioned. It is about a 1.5-hour drive from Portland, but 4 hours from Seattle. However, some of the best vineyards in the state are located there, including Celilo Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge and Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.

For a true wine tourist, for whom distance from a major metropolitan area is no problem, the Yakima Valley and the Walla Walla Valley offer a plethora of enological stimulation.

The Yakima Valley, which includes Red Mountain and areas around the cities of Yakima and Prosser, is from 2.5-3.5 hours by car from Seattle, depending on which end of the valley you visit. While a visit to the Yakima Valley can be iffy in the winter and the tourist infrastructure is somewhat limited, grapes grown in the Yakima Valley are the key ingredients to more than half of all the wine produced in Washington State. Great vineyards in the Yakima Valley include Boushey, Ciel du Cheval, DuBrul, Klipsun, and Red Willow. Most wineries in the Yakima Valley are small family operations, so it’s a good idea to call in advance to schedule your visits.

The Walla Walla Valley is a 4.5-hour drive from Seattle. For years, the words Walla Walla have been synonymous with Washington wine. That fact is a tribute to the pioneering winemaking families in the Walla Walla Valley, names like Figgins, Small, and Ferguson. In the early days, there were actually less than 100 acres in the Walla Walla Valley planted in grapes. It has often been said that the reputation of Walla Walla was built on Columbia Valley grapes. Today, there are a number of great vineyards in the area, including Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills, and the exploding area of The Rocks, although most of them are actually located on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA.

The biggest drawback to Walla Walla is that it’s so far from a major population center or tourist hub. Realistically, there is no way to make a day trip to Walla Walla from Seattle. Once you get to Walla Walla, it’s a nice town with an excellent wine tourism infrastructure and a large concentration [over 100] of very good wineries and great people. To really do the area justice, you need to spend three or four days there, preferably around a weekend since not very many wineries in Walla Walla are open daily. And for at least six months of the year, driving over the mountain passes to Walla Walla makes the trip iffy at best.

In addition to out-of-state tourists, the many thousands of wine lovers among the 3.5 million people in the Seattle metropolitan area are prospects to tour Washington wine country and/or join a winery wine club. While local wine lovers like myself enjoy the experience of visiting wine country and walking through the vineyards, regular trips for Seattleites are more likely to be to Woodinville. That’s probably one reason why so many Walla Walla wineries, for example, have opened satellite tasting rooms there. When you join your favorite winery’s wine club, you not only get a first taste of their latest vintages that they send you automatically three or four times a year, but you typically also receive discounts on additional purchases, free winery tours, invitations to special events, and in some cases you can even go and hang out at a special winery club room after work. Of course, you will only be able to take advantage of some of those perks if you live relatively close to the winery or a satellite tasting room. More folks live close to Woodinville than any other winery cluster in the state, giving Woodinville another advantage in the wine dollar race.

Are you a tourist who likes wine, or would you consider yourself a wine tourist? What’s most important to you in visiting wine country? Which wine regions in Washington State have you visited, and/or where do you plan to visit? I’d love to hear your thoughts on wine tourism in Washington.


Filed under: American Wine, Washington State Wine, Wine Travel

Reader's Comments

  1. Josh Wade | August 13th, 2012 at 7:42 am

    Great article guys. Don’t forget about Spokane, WA. We now have 25 wineries that call us home or have a satellite location here. Our urban wine scene is strong with 19 wineries in 12 tasting rooms downtown.


  2. John | August 13th, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Good point, Josh. As you know we have been to Spokane several times and had some great winery visits. In this post, I was looking from the point of view of a tourist coming into Washington through Seattle, or a Seattle are resident.

  3. Mary Brelsford | August 13th, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Hold your horses! What about the Olympic Peninsula?? We’ve got some great wines over here that are part of the Olympic Culinary Loop. Great food, good wine AND some fabulous ciders, brews and local cheese! Happy to do a review for you. Research is included!

  4. John | August 13th, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    Thanks for your comment, and for bringing the Olympic Peninsula to our readers attention. Cheers!

  5. Jan Lutz | August 13th, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Just wanted to remind you and your readers that the wineries in Wenatchee Wine Country are producing great wines, too. We have wineries in Quincy, East Wenatchee, Wenatchee, Malaga, Cashmere and Leavenworth for wine centric guests to visit! Cheers!

  6. John | August 13th, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Thanks for the info.

  7. trey busch | August 14th, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    I think you exagerated a bit about travel to Walla Walla. Winter is 3 months, not 6, and in 12 years i have never NOT been able to make it over the pass. Also, many wineries are open 7 days a week, and almost all are open by appointment! We are 3.5 hours from Portland and 4 hours from Seattle and Boise. Alaska Airlines also flies into WW 3 times a day, very convenient for Seattleites…plus checking a case of wine is FREE!

  8. John | August 15th, 2012 at 6:21 am

    Thanks for your comments and the additional information.

  9. wwwinegeek | August 19th, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    I agree with Trey that the inaccuracies about the number of tasting rooms that are open daily, currently more than 30 and many more available for an appointment with just a phone call plus the short period when the I-90 pass has actually been closed, gives the wrong impression to your readers.

    You might have also mentioned that one Woodinville winery, Mark Ryan, has opened a tasting room in downtown, historic Walla Walla in order to be part of the vibrant wine culture and camaraderie that exists here.

    Woodinville may be key to introducing wine tourists to Washington wine by way of tasting rooms, you should also be urging them to explore further for a true wine country experience.

  10. John | August 19th, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    As a Walla Walla wine geek, I would expect you to want me to tout Walla Walla even more than I did, but I was trying to be very honest from my own experiences over the past 15 years traveling regularly to Washington wine country from Seattle. And I was trying to be very careful to distinguish between my recommendations to “a tourist who likes wine” and a “wine tourist”.
    Walla Walla is great, and I do recommend Walla Walla to every true wine tourist if they have the time to make the trip. However, in my own experience I do believe you need at least a long weekend to do WW justice; and I say weekend because some of the wineries I would recommend that they visit are only open on the weekend. And while you say they can always call for an appointment, I have to tell you from my own experience that does not always work as easily as you indicate it should, because of schedules, time constraints, etc.
    Maybe I could and should have mentioned that one Woodinville winery has opened a tasting room in WW, but I didn’t see the point in this article, when so many more have gone the other way.
    Finally, again from my own personal experience, I have seen delays and/or closures on the pass as early as November and as late as April, so I felt compelled to mention that possibility to any wine tourist considering a drive to WW from Seattle. And even in the summer, on the drive back from WW on a Sunday afternoon, I’ve been caught in slowdowns and even complete stops for extended periods on I-90. That’s why I suggest long weekends if you are going to drive.
    Certainly the new Alaska Air promotion on no bag fees on a case of wine and no drop-off fees on Enterprise Car Rental where a tourist picks up a car at, say WW, and drops off in the Tri-Cities helps and is a step in the right direction, but the limited number of flights and their times still makes for an extended trip and considerable expense. I know because I’ve checked it out for myself as a driving alternative.
    I hope this has contributed to a better understanding of why I said what I said in my post.