Zillah, WA: It’s a well-kept secret that wine drinkers shouldn’t ignore anymore
This little town in the heart of Washington wine country is the perfect destination for experiencing amazing sunsets, good wine, delectable cuisine and friendly, down-to-earth people.
By Jeanene Sutton
I adore small towns, and Zillah, Washington is at the top of my “must-see” list when it comes to enjoying fine Washington wines. You may have heard of Zillah, but I bet you probably don’t know the vast array of opportunities awaiting you in this sleepy little town.
Don’t get me wrong, Zillah has its fair share of ardent fans, including me, but I often hear groups of people mention that they’re stopping by on their way to another city, completely unaware that Zillah is a destination with several days-worth of activities to enjoy. This town is worthy of much more than a pass through and it’s time this “hidden treasure” is discovered.
To take full advantage of all the area has to offer, I suggest putting aside a long weekend. A short 2 ½ – 3-hour drive from Seattle, Spokane or Portland will get you out of the fast-paced buzz of the city and into the utopian relaxation of wine country for a mini vacation. You’ll unwind with magnificent views and amazing sunsets as you savor local wines and delectable cuisine. Best of all, the down-to-earth people that welcome you, and their incredible wines, will capture your heart.
EXPERIENCE THE RATTLESNAKE HILLS AVA
With 23 (mostly estate) tasting rooms, visiting Zillah (which is located in Washington State’s Rattlesnake Hills AVA) is truly an experience as you are likely to run into the owners and/or winemaker at many stops. In fact, the person pouring your tasting may be the owner or winemaker eager to tell you about the winery, their roots in growing grapes and the journey that brought them to the Rattlesnake Hills. You’ll often be tasting wines made from grapes grown on the property you’re visiting. These hard-working farmers, winemakers and vineyard owners are proud of their accomplishments.
Many offer vineyard tours and premium or private tasting opportunities. The comment I’ve heard many times, mentioned second only to the quality of wines, is how friendly and welcoming the community is. From the novice to the expert wine connoisseur, you’ll feel at home here – no judgement if the only wine term you know is “legs.” They’re happy to teach you a few things. On the other hand, they welcome the experts to come enjoy great wines and “talk shop” as well.
There are tasting experiences you won’t find in many other places, making Zillah a unique destination. Options include guided horse-back wine tasting tours by Cherry Wood Bed Breakfast and Barn, or you might want to feel like royalty for a day by booking a luxurious horse drawn carriage wine tour for 2-6 people through vineyards and orchards, stopping at tasting rooms along the way with Yakima Valley Carriage Company. If you enjoy physical fitness, joining the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Run in May or biking through the area are good options. Looking for a leisurely bike ride while visiting? Paradisos del Sol Winery and Organic Vineyard offers use of bikes they have on site at no charge. In addition, Treveri Cellars, which is located in nearby Wapato, WA., is Washington State’s only exclusive Sparkling Wine House.
With the 2017 Sip Northwest Magazine’s first and second place winners (out of over 600 entries) for their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Regular Cabernet Sauvignon, a stop at VanArnam Vineyards is a must. Kent and Allison VanArnam bought the property in 2007 as 40 acres of aging fruit trees. Allison reflects on the day they found the property: “We had a magic moment and knew it was meant to be.” Kent personally pulled 6,000 fruit trees with his tractor, and the planning and design of their winery is 100% theirs. They kept four acres of cherries that now greet visitors at the enchanting entrance to the vineyard.
The VanArnam’s planted only grapes that grow best in the area to assure the highest quality – all Bordeaux varietals. They include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and are in the process of planting Petit Verdot.
“We are creating a place where people come to take a break from their lives and be on vacation for an afternoon,” explains Allison of the couple’s efforts to personally design the space. Although wine is their top priority, the winery is about more than wine making, it’s about the experience. The tasting room patio offers stunning views of the Valley and Mt. Adams. The one-acre lawn includes a stage for concerts held on site and the courtyard includes the Tin Roof Grill, where they serve food on weekends with a varying menu of fresh local ingredients.
In addition, the fire pit and patio, complete with twinkling lights, is popular among visitors, especially on cool fall evenings. Allison and Kent are in the process of building a private 1,100 square foot cottage for romantic getaways that will be available to rent as an Airbnb, as well as available for weddings and events. Allison pointed out that “People come for the wine and stay for the view.” The sunsets at VanArnam Vineyards can’t be beat.
Bonair Winery is legendary, and Gail and Shirley Puryear’s story goes back to their college days. It’s a story Shirley enjoys remembering, and I was lucky enough to have her recount their history with me. Both Gail and Shirley shared the same major and minor, and the two of them had received scholarships to study abroad in Chile. While there, they fell in love with the wines, as well as each other – over a bottle of Malbec. From Chile, they came back to the U.S., got married, and continued to learn about wine making. They taught classes to share their knowledge with others while living in California.
In 1979, they moved back to Zillah, where Gail took a job as a school principal in a neighboring community, and Shirley as a teacher. The following year they purchased five acres of dirt and tried an experimental planting of 100 vines of Chardonnay, 100 of Riesling, and 100 of Cabernet Sauvignon. With no funds to purchase a tractor, they got to work using a post-hole digger to put the plants in the ground.
In 1985 they started Bonair Winery, and the following year added a tasting room showcasing their three wines. At the time, they were the 29th operating winery in Washington State (there are now over 970). They took their wines to Seattle where it was easy to sell to restaurants, but they found people wanted to come directly to the tasting room, so that’s where they focused their energy. For the Puryears, one of the moments in time that they remember was when the first tour bus pulled up to their tasting room. “We only had a facility to fit six people, and we realized we needed to expand,” Shirley explained.
What was once a dusty driveway to a very small tasting room is now a large, inviting picnic garden with a fantastic duck pond where they encourage people to spend as long as they’d like. Shirley told me that “Many people purchase a bottle of wine and some sausage, cheese and crackers from our winery mini mart and just sit and enjoy the ducks all afternoon.”
In 2002 the Puryears purchased neighboring property and expanded their vineyard. The same summer, an additional seven acres of Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon were offered to them for purchase – a vineyard that had been planted in 1968 by Dr. Walter Clore, known as the “Father of Washington Wine,” along with Sid Morrison and his dad Charlie. They jumped on the opportunity.
In the early days, Gail was the wine maker and Shirley was the manager. Now they have a full-time wine maker, manager and tasting room staff. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t constantly on site. They prefer to be in the tasting room to visit with customers. The odds are you’ll meet them when you visit, and after a few minutes, you’ll feel like you’ve known them forever.
Shirley mentions having three wines with a “cult” following. One of them is Shirley’s favorite — the Reserve Rattlesnake Hills Chardonnay, which she describes as having oaky buttery notes. The others are the Morrison Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon made from the oldest vineyard in the area, and the well-known and loved Sunset. Sunset is made with Riesling and 55% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and has been a wine of choice for many of their customers for years.
Bonair Winery has two distributors that distribute to Seattle and Oregon. “It’s much better than the days of delivering it in person.” Shirley laughs. Bonair currently grows nine varieties of grapes and is one stop you can’t miss whenever you have the opportunity.
PASSION IN ALL SIZES – RUBY MAGDALENA VINEYARDS
Winemakers and growers around the Rattlesnake Hills AVA are passionate about wine making, and that passion comes in all different sizes of vineyards. In fact, Ruby Magdalena Vineyards is a mere 1 ¼ acres. Marty Johnson, the winemaker and co-owner with his wife Ryan, calls it a “nano” vineyard, joking that it’s even smaller than “micro.” Yet their 2015 Estate Graciano recently won a Gold Medal and 92-point score at the 2019 Critic’s Challenge International Wine Competition, and is just one of the impressive awards their wines have won.
Marty started studying and evaluating wine more than 40 years ago and has been working in the industry for the past 16 years. Marty and Ryan readily welcome visitors for vineyard tours and to learn about their wines. Although they both have full time jobs, they come home and spend hours on their labor of love, all hand farmed. Varietals are Spanish and the “Ruby Magdalena Vineyards” name is in honor of Marty’s mother. While their annual production is just 250 cases, they can ship to 33 states. Their unique and elegantly labeled bottles have even been used in corporate displays.
“I describe the Rattlesnake Hills AVA as ‘Quality with a lack of pretense.’” Marty explains. I couldn’t agree more. The Johnsons welcomed me right onto their patio, handed me a glass of ice water as if we were old friends, and taught me all about their Tempranillo, Graciano and Grenache Rosé. A bonus for me was more than a dozen ‘”winery cats” that keep the area rodent free, some of which were happy to greet me.
THE UNIQUENESS OF THE RATTLESNAKE HILLS AVA
I asked Jeremy Porter of Pinebrake Vineyard for some insight as to why the wines from the Rattlesnake Hills AVA are so remarkable. He told me “The reason why the wines are so expressive here has everything to do with the unique terroir of this region. There is, quite literally, no other place in the world like it. Many people might be surprised to learn that there are many very well-known and world-renowned vineyards here, which have been producing some of the most well-regarded wines in the state for decades. That has a lot to do with the terroir of this place.”
He also explained that the terroir in most of the AVA includes a unique combination of wind-blown silt overtopping cobblestones that washed down from the ancestral Cascade Mountains 10 to 15 million years ago. Coupled with 300-plus days of sun per year and a higher-than-average elevation, it’s a near-perfect grape growing region.
The Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail offers a passport available for $20 that features special offers at participating wineries. The wine trail is made up of 12 wineries located in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA , which begins just outside of Union Gap to the North and ends in the town of Outlook in the Yakima Valley. Passports do not expire and include a Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail map. To purchase a passport, visit www.rattlesnakehills.org.
Some of the wineries that offer dining on site include J. Bell Cellars’ 900 Degree Oven, VanArnam Vineyards’ Tin Roof Grill and you can enjoy Wood Fired Pizza at Dineen Vineyards (dining is generally offered on weekends only, check with each winery separately).
In addition, the local dining scene has a lot to offer. The Chophouse at the Old Warehouse in Zillah is located in a historic fruit company warehouse with an amazing history of shipping Yakima Valley fruit around the world from this location. They offer high quality comfort food that appeals to foodies. In particular, I enjoy the Blue Gouda Burger, but the Pastrami Cheese Steak is a close second. There is an actual furniture auction on site every Saturday evening, adding to the uniqueness of this location – so grab a table and watch the action.
Authentic Mexican food at Taqueria La Plazita Ofrece, El Porton and El Ranchito get rave reviews from the locals and visitors alike. Each person I’ve spoken to has their own favorite – you may just have to find time to try them all.
A trip to Zillah wouldn’t be complete without a visit to The Squeeze Inn. Opened in 1932, it had one counter, 12 stools and was only 8 feet wide. In 1943 The Squeeze Inn expanded into the space it occupies now. This family friendly Restaurant and Lounge is known all around the Yakima Valley for their famous Prime Rib Dinner. In fact, when you mention Zillah, WA., to someone familiar with the area, this is the location they often think of first. The Squeeze Inn has been run by three generations of the same family for over 80 years. They open Thursday-Saturday for dinner.
But that’s not all – Zillah’s Calico Cat Café just opened in July of 2019 – the only cat café in the region, and a cat lover’s dream. Enjoy a snack, breakfast, lunch or dinner from their fresh-made café menu, coffee and baked good (cats are not allowed to roam the dining area.) Cat enthusiasts can also purchase a beverage to hang out with the cats in their own special lounge. Cats are supplied by area shelter and rescue groups and are adoptable. Plus, this café has another benefit. Customers are supporting the Community Seeds Program – a program that hires, trains, and offers therapy rich social activities for adults with disabilities in the Yakima Valley. Adorable cat-related souvenirs are available in the gift shop.
Knowing you’ll need more than a day to fully explore the treasures that await you in and around Zillah, you’ll find various options for a stay, as lodging is surprisingly plentiful for such a small town.
The Best Western Plus Vintage Valley Inn welcomes you with a relaxing spa-like feel, complimentary full hot breakfast from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. in a lovely setting, 24-hour coffee bar, conference rooms and suites – as well as an indoor pool and hot tub with plenty of space. The vintage pictures of Zillah that line the walls are an attraction themselves. What caught my eye were the three-bed suites with a kitchen, the perfect accommodations for a ladies’ weekend filled with wine tasting and good times (a huge bonus is that hot breakfast that no one would have to cook!). Any question you have about the area can likely be answered by manager Gail Van Wyk, and she is happy to give you information on local attractions and events.
Zillah Lakes Inn offers modern luxury in a rustic lake side setting you might not expect to find in this area. Close to nature and the Rattlesnake Hills AVA wineries, Zillah Lakes Inn includes a 6-hole golf course and two miles of nature trail to explore. With seven beautiful rooms available that range from 320 to 800 square feet, you can enjoy the patio and fire pit with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine right by the lake any time of day. Solar panels help generate most of the electricity for the site, making it environmentally friendly. Innkeepers & owners Pam and Doug Lakman tell us “Dogs that are guests of the Inn can take their people for a walk on the nature trail.” Armed with the knowledge of all the happenings in the area, they’re always ready to help you find local activities and entertainment you’ll enjoy.
The Cherry Wood Bed, Breakfast and Barn is a unique experience, with actual teepees and outdoor ‘Twilight Tubs’ for bathing, making this an outdoor adventure worth talking about. Not to mention, you’ll fall in love with the view, the rescue horses on site and their stories. Add the well-known hospitality, perfectly maintained teepee dwellings and passion of the property owner Pepper Fewel, and you’ll be telling everyone you know about your one-of-a-kind experience.
In addition, there are Airbnb’s at some of the wineries, as well as the historic Simonds Guest House – an early 1900’s duplex once used to house care takers of the nearby Sawyer Mansion. These rooms are decked out in elegant antiques, each side unique. Newly opened Freehand Cellars, located in Wapato, WA., offers two stylish modern units that can be rented separately or may be unlocked and used as a single house, with outdoor hot tub and level-2 electric vehicle chargers available for use. Plus, making its debut this summer is a “glamping” experience with vintage trailers available to Cultura Winery Wine Club Members for rent
From the Red Wine & Chocolate event in February to Barrel Tasting in April, the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Run in May, Catch the Crush in October and Thanksgiving in Wine Country in November, there is a reason to visit Rattlesnake Hills almost every season.
In addition, individual winery events all summer long offer some of the best entertainment in the Valley. Of note is J. Bell Cellars, which features a “Jazz at J. Bell” outdoor concert series as well as Days of Lavender (and amazing lavender products on site). VanArnam Vineyards hosts popular summer concerts in a beautiful setting, Two Mountain Winery offers fun events like Comedy or Trivia Night, and you’ll find additional events at many others.
Perham Hall at The Old Warehouse offers big entertainment in an unexpectedly hip venue with historic beams and brick walls that you might expect to find in a big city. Headliners this year have included names like Scott Stapp, Shooter Jennings and Jeffrey Foucault to name a few. Planning your visit around an event will allow you to enjoy the full Rattlesnake Hills AVA experience.
In addition, biking, photography, the historic Teapot Dome Visitor’s Center, Zillah Veterans Memorial, the Valley’s amazing fresh produce and catching the sight of a soaring bald eagle or other wildlife are highlights to enjoy. The astonishing amount of wedding venues in one location isn’t surprising with the impressive views, not to mention it’s a bonus for guests to enjoy wine tasting around town before or after their event.
Although many tasting rooms are closed certain days of the week or for winter, most welcome you to call ahead and find out if someone will be on site when you would like to visit, as many accommodate visitors whenever possible.
Zillah, WA., and the Rattlesnake Hills AVA are just waiting to be discovered. Once you do, you’ll want to return again and again. The wines speak for themselves, but in addition, every tasting room has its own flair and personality, and they are all supportive of each other. Stopping at only a few won’t give you the full experience, so pack your bags and plan to stay awhile.
While there are many more vineyards and wine labels that call Rattlesnake Hills AVA home, I’ve focused on tasting rooms but please research for more vineyard tour opportunities and labels from the area. The most complete and up to date information is currently being organized at https://www.rattlesnakehillsava.org/home.