Two Days of Wine and Tacos in the Yakima Valley

There’s no better pit stop between tasting rooms than a taqueria.

Why aren't you going to Walla Walla?" That was the reply of my wine-geek friends when I asked them for recommendations on my upcoming wine-tasting tour of the Yakima Valley. True, Walla Walla has more wineries--and more 90-point scores--per capita than Yakima. But Yakima is home to a third of Washington state's vineyards, and includes a number of distinct viticultural areas, such as Rattlesnake Hills and Red Mountain. It's also a two-hour drive compared to four. Plus, wine was only half my plan. Since the mid-1960s, fruit pickers, hop-vine pruners, and cattle feeders have been emigrating to the valley from Mexico, and now people of Mexican descent make up more than a third of the county's residents. Which is why the valley's flush with the kind of real-deal taco stands and sit-down restaurants that I can't find enough of in Seattle. I pitched the trip to my friend Sean as "two days of great wine and tacos." Wine with tacos may be a tough match, but there's no better pit stop between tasting rooms than a taqueria, and no better antidote to a cabernet-sodden afternoon than a big plate of rice and refried beans. Then again, maybe we should eat first. As Sean, Sean's dog, and I headed east from Yakima's downtown en route to the wineries, the houses shrank, the markets gave way to mercados, and I could all but smell the cilantro in the air. We parked in front of a turquoise house ringed in flowers and sweet corn, and entered a rickety, ranch-style building where a small machine was transforming blobs of masa into hot, thick tortillas. At Salsita Antojitos Mexicanos (902 S. Fair Ave., Yakima), Sean and I fueled up on properly messy tortas stuffed with stewed goat meat and carnitas tacos, going to the bar to spoon onions, cilantro, and a powerful roasted-chile salsa over crisp-edged pork meat wrapped in those soft, sweet fresh tortillas. Then we hit the road. I had asked the illustrious Maggie Dutton (author of the column to the right) for winery recommendations, and her cautious advice was to travel as far east as we could stand. So Sean and I drove 40 minutes to Prosser, amid rolling golden hills alternating with apple trees and V-shaped hop vines, the transparent blue above filled with clouds so lit up from the sun behind that they appeared to be spun out of glass. We had picked up Wine Yakima Valley's master map of the region (download a PDF at www.wineyakimavalley.org or find a hard copy at any hotel or tourist station), and used it to find found our way to Willow Crest, Chinook, and Thurston Wolfe. At each one, we joined other Seattle and Tacoma travelers at the bar, quickly sipping and spitting our way through wines that were sweeter, thinner, or just too off balance for my tastes (all prickly pepper and candied cherries, say, or whiffy with raw alcohol). After a few hours spent fruitlessly driving back and forth on Highway 82 trying to locate Apex Cellars, which turned out to be closed pending a move, we landed in Sunnyside, midway between Prosser and Yakima. Sunnyside's economic prospects don't look good—there were empty strip malls and storefronts everywhere, and by the look of the homes, the "housing bubble" popped here a long, long time ago. But we passed stands selling roasted corn, 200-square-foot panaderias (bakeries), and everywhere signs promising tacos. Gut instinct drew me to Tacos Apatzingan (808 Yakima Valley Hwy., Sunnyside), a former pool hall painted orange and stripped of everything except a few plastic tables. A big pot of beef tongue was steaming away on a portable burner outside the door, while inside, a cook was griddling up carne asada and melting down onions. Oh, were the tacos greasy and good. After our afternoon snack, we headed back downtown for dinner at El Mirador (418 W. Walnut St., Yakima), patronized by everyone from big Spanish-speaking families to bikers in full leather. Every surface at this long-standing favorite had been lovingly, psychedelically decorated, from the hand-swirled plaster ceilings to the tiled window arches, from the carved booth-backs to the bright-green chandeliers, which looked like saguaro cactuses blooming lightbulbs. El Mirador's steak- and chicken-mole enchiladas weren't the greatest—this was a smother-it-in-cheese kind of place—but its chips were the best I've eaten in months. Who cares if they're not authentically Mexican? They were warm and ethereally crisp, served with a decent tomato salsa and creamy beans refried in porky, home-rendered lard. Afterward, we decided to do some homework at the Barrel House (22 N. 1st. St.), a Yakima wine bar, where we ordered two more glasses of uninspiring wine. "The tacos are good, but how can you tell people to drive two and a half hours for this?" Sean complained. Then I asked the bartender about two of the cabernets on the list, Hedges and Sandhill, which came from the Red Mountain subregion 60 miles east of the city. He gave us tastes: potent, complex, balanced. Sean and I looked at each other. We just hadn't driven far enough. We spent the rest of the evening on the Internet, looking up winery schedules, and left early the next morning in order to arrive by the 10 a.m. opening at Kestrel Vintners, on the east side of Prosser. An amazing Friday had ceded into a drizzly Saturday, and Sean's car was filled with an atmosphere of faint hope and wet puppy. We sipped gingerly at our first glass, a crisp viognier that smelled of peaches and stone, and then moved through to a syrah co-fermented with viognier, the white grape keeping the red lean and focused. Giddy with relief, we each bought bottles, then walked across the strip-mall parking lot to nearby Alexandria Nicole and did it again. From there, we moved east to four more wineries. Chandler Reach's reds were a bit too pretty-sweet for my tastes, but we snapped up solid value-priced whites and reds at Snoqualmie and Sandhill, and stood admiring the hills and approaching thunderstorm from the sleek new tasting room at Fidelitas, whose clean, dry semillon could have sliced through a stick of butter, and whose giant cabs rivaled Walla Walla in ka-pow factor. By 2 p.m., liver and palate failure scuttled the rest of our ambitious itinerary. We drove back through Yakima, stopping at Villaseñor (601 Fruitvale Blvd.; waaaay too much cheese) to put us asleep on the road back. Yakima had seemed like the perfect place for a quick one- or two-day trip from Seattle, but it turns out to require more driving than I expected. If Prosser and Benton City on the eastern end of the valley had more Mexican restaurants, I'd recommend that you stay out there. But the best strategy seems to be eat in Yakima before and after your drinking, stopping in Sunnyside for tacos or roast corn midtrip. Besides the fact that I didn't hit Hedges, Klipsun, and a half-dozen more wineries I want to try, and barely scouted out the taqueria terrain, one of the other reasons I would return to Yakima instead of Walla Walla or the Willamette Valley was the cost. We spent $50 a person on food over the course of the trip—and if we'd stuck to the taco trucks and scrappier holes in the wall I prefer anyway, we could have dropped even less. Best yet, all the places we visited poured wine for free. These days, many wineries charge tourists for the entertainment value of swilling their wares, and it was refreshing to visit vintners still focused on selling their wines, not the wine-country lifestyle. As the half-dozen bottles in my closet attest, the strategy worked on me. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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