Wineries in Eastern Washington and Spokane: The Northwest’s Best Kept Secret

Eastern Washington and Spokane Wineries

For this travelogue, we’d like to take you out northwest, to one of the most prominent wine states in the country: Washington state.

In our estimation, many Washington wines are becoming as well known as California’s. It’s not surprising, as Washington is the second largest wine-producing state in the country. To illustrate the importance of Washington’s wine industry, more than 500 Washington wineries add almost $3 billion to the state’s economy, and employ more than 29,000.

If you’re a wine travel lover, Washington is an especially rewarding destination. Practically everywhere you turn, there’s an interesting winery to discover, not to mention vibrant cities, natural wonders galore, and a pleasing four-season climate.

This was an introductory journey for us. There’s so much to discover about Washington wine, far too much for one issue. We actually concentrated this trip on Washington’s eastern area, known as the Inland Empire. And since we wanted to fit in some outdoor activity, blended with the city pulse we love so much, this wine journey focused on the strikingly beautiful city of Spokane.

Introducing Spokane

We settled in for a four day, three-night stay at downtown Spokane’s Montvale Hotel, a historic and completely renovated hotel in the city’s heart. The city itself is wonderfully walkable, interspersed with historic architectural gems that have been restored and reinvented. Our first evening’s discovery was the Davenport Arts District, a lively arts and entertainment area.

The Davenport Arts District is really where you’ll feel Spokane’s pulse. Historic buildings house galleries, restaurants and unique shops. This is ideal for a late afternoon and early evening stroll, with extra time the next day to fully appreciate all the district has to offer.

Just a few of the shops we discovered were Simply Northwest, which features specialty foods, wines, regional gifts, and the whimsically named Spokandy, a local candymaking institution since 1913. Next, it was time for dinner at the Steam Plant Grill, housed in an historic handsome landmark former steam plant.

Steam Plant Grill focuses on local ingredients, hearty portions and reasonable prices. Try the planked salmon, beer cheese soup and the basil cream ravioli. Don’t miss dessert … the vanilla bourbon stout float is made with the onsite brewhouse’s oh-so-delicious dark stout beer and creamy premium vanilla ice cream.

After all that good food, we set our sights on a long bike ride the next morning on Centennial Trail. This scenic trail follows the Spokane River all the way to beautiful Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. Then, we set off on an extended exploration of Spokane’s 12 local wineries.

Spokane Wineries

Twelve wineries in three full days requires careful planning, so with the help of some advance leg work and Pam Scott at the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, we fit them in. Spokane itself is compact enough, so driving distances aren’t burdening. Many of the wineries are clustered fairly near downtown, with others just slightly farther afield. Conveniently, 12 of the 14 are quite near the Spokane River, which bisects the Spokane area as it meanders east and west.

Here’s a snapshot of each one. Visit one or all! No matter where you go here in Spokane, you’re sure to find friendly vintners and really great under the radar wine.

Wineries East of Downtown

Arbor Crest Wine Cellars

Wine Spectator named Arbor Crest one of “50 Great Producers Every Wine Lover Should Know.” It’s located in the Cliff House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Located high on a bluff overlooking the Spokane River, the view is almost better than the wine here. Look for award-winning Cabernets in particular.

Knipprath Cellars

Located in a handsome, old red brick schoolhouse, Knipprath Cellars boasts an impressive selection of Port wines, a favorite of ours. Have you ever tried a Vanilla Port or a Chocolate Port? You can here! We also loved the Moonstruck Merlot, with its notes of brown spice and plum.

Latah Creek Wine Cellars

If you like Rieslings, you’ll enjoy Latah Creek Wine Cellars. The extensive — and gorgeous — gift shop here is one of the nicest we visited on this trip. Established in 1982, owners Mike and Ellena Conway are warm and hospitable hosts — rightfully proud of their bright, fresh Riesling, a real bargain at $8. Also, be sure to try a Washington specialty, the Huckleberry d’Latah. This wine is a blend of huckleberries, a small blueberry-like fruit, with Riesling. The result is a refreshing wine with a delightful fruity finish.

Nodland Cellars

What a wonderful small boutique winery this is. Just like many European estate wineries, Nodland Cellars produces only one read and one white wine. These wines are aged in French Oak barrels, adding to the smooth complexity of the finished product. Our top recommendation here is the Bebop — a dry, complex Riesling that matches well with seafood or lighter cheeses.

Wineries North of Downtown

Mountain Dome Winery

Located in the foothills of Mt. Spokane, Mountain Dome Winery is something of a change of pace, as they are Washington’s premier sparkling winery! We learned a lot about sparkling wines here, particularly the unique process for making these wines. One of the key differences between production of sparkling wines vs. regular wines is the lengthy bottle aging, thereby producing a secondary fermentation. These wines are fun to drink, and add a new dimension to a wine lovers palate.

Townshend Cellar

Townshend Cellar is a small winery north of Spokane. It offers small lots of quality wines, many of which have been praised by the wine press. The reds are the star here, especially the rich, dark fruit taste of their Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Dinner Break

Dinner time gave us more opportunity to explore another riverfront dining destination, Northern Lights Brewing Company. We were tipped off to this place by a fellow beer lover who raved about their rich dark Chocolate Dunkel, which is basically a dark wheat beer. Jackpot! There’s a nice view of the river here, along with a roomy, open-air feel.

Northern Lights is quite near Gonzaga University. Actually, it’s right across from Gonzaga’s baseball stadium. The crowd is fun and lively, but the place isn’t loud or noisy by any means. The menu has something for everyone, the outdoor patio is fantastic, and did I mention that Chocolate Dunkel?

Wineries In and Near Downtown

For the last two days of our visit, we combined various outdoor sightseeing pursuits with visits to downtown area wineries. Here’s the lowdown on the six wineries in and around downtown Spokane.

Barrister Winery

We literally walked right into this winery, housed in a early 20th century brick building in the heart of the Davenport District. It’s red wine heaven here! Barrister Winery produces limited quantities of Bordeaux-style reds and Syrahs. These wines are hard to find outside of the winery, as total production for 2008 was expected to be 2,500 cases. The wine is exceptional here, and if you can, visit during the first Friday of the month. That’s when Barrister’s “Art In The Alley” takes place, where an artist’s works are featured along with acoustic music.

Grande Ronde Cellars

Wine Spectator lovesGrande Ronde Cellars! They’ve recently raved about their Cabernet and Merlot, both of which we tried and enjoyed a great deal. The real star for us, though, was the creamy Chardonnay. The bouquet of apricot and peach truly was the forebearer of great things to come. If you’re ever in Spokane, be sure to stop here!

Lone Canary Winery

This was our personal winner of “best winery name” in the Spokane area. But Lone Canary Winery is more than just a name — although the logo is eye-catching and the winery is named after Washington’s state bird, the wild canary. The wines here have great depth and complexity, from the deliciously fruity Cabernet Sauvignon to Bird House Red, a red blend. The highly respected Wine Press Northwest has bestowed numerous accolades upon Lone Canary, with undoubtedly more to come.

Robert Karl Cellars

Located in the heart of Spokane’s historic warehouse district, Robert Karl Cellars specializes in premium Cabernets. These wines are ideal to cellar for a time to bring out their true, mature flavor. In particular, we recommend the rich red Syrah and the Claret.

Vintage Hill Cellars

Vintage Hill Cellars, located in downtown Spokane, is right around the corner from Saunders Cheese Market — and a very comfortable and pleasant place to stop and taste. We bought a few bottles of Vintage Hill’s Sauvignon Blanc and the Riesling, another real bargain at $11.

Washington Wine Overview

Washington is one of the heavy hitters in the American wine industry. It ranks second to only California in wine production. With more than 600 wineries in the state, Washington’s wines are well known not only on the West Coast, but worldwide.

Most of the grape-growing in Washington is located in the drier, more sunny eastern half of the state. Growing conditions here are arguably better than even California, with more sunlight per day and more consistent temperatures. There are 12 recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the state, 11 of which are located in eastern Washington. Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are just a few of the most popular Washington wine styles.

Washington is a river state, and the four prominent rivers here are vital to grape growers. The Snake River, Walla Walla River, Yakima River and Columbia River have carved out valleys that moderate cold, northern temperatures. They also serve as a source of water to irrigate vineyards in the arid conditions of eastern Washington.

Washington Wine Trails

Much like Oregon and California, Washington’s primary wine promotional organization divides the state into primary wine-producing regions. There are eight of them: Seattle and Puget Sound, Woodinville, Tri Cities, Yakima Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Spokane, Vancouver and Columbia Gorge and Cascade Valley and North Central. We recommend the official Washington State Wine Tour Guide, available at Washington State Wine.

One wine trail we identified is the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail in the Yakima River Valley. Other so-called wine trails identified on some Internet sites are compilations and agendas of wine touring, which are quite useful — but not a definitive wine trail, per se. We consider it a wine trail if a group of wineries in one area organize their promotional efforts together and form an organization of some sort, usually made official by their own organizational website. We don’t consider it a wine trail if it’s merely someone’s travel agenda, which can easily be changed by anyone visiting the area. When in doubt, we always go with a state’s official wine site, as we’ve done in Washington’s case.

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