72 hours in the Inland Northwest

Wine Press NorthwestSeptember 1, 2014 

Wine collector Bing Crosby, who dropped out of Gonzaga law school in 1925 to seek fame, would be proud to sing the praises of the wine scene in his hometown.

Between Spokane, Spokane Valley and the Idaho Panhandle cities of Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, there are 19 wineries and five tasting rooms. A Spokane city councilman has even created a marketing concept for the Inland Northwest’s emerging wine scene, coining it “The Cork District” with references to the “Spokane Valley Cluster” and “Mount Spokane Cluster.”

To help gain respect among visitors, these winemakers readily point out they rely on some of the same vineyards their friends in Walla Walla use for international acclaim.

Forty years ago, Spokane was known as the heart of the Inland Empire. Thankfully, environmentally themed Expo ’74 stripped much of Spokane’s industrial feel and removed skid road. Historians remember the World’s Fair in part because President Nixon opened it in person — amid shouts of “Jail to the Chief.” President Ford closed it by proxy.

But the 21st century revitalization of downtown Spokane (population 209,000) stems from Walt and Karen Worthy’s $36.5 million purchase and restoration of The Davenport Hotel. From 1985 to 2000, Louis Davenport’s iconic hotel stood out as a 14-story marble-floored shipwreck in the heart of the city. Fears of asbestos fallout may have been the only thing that spared the birthplace of the Crab Louie from demolition.

Fortunately, The Davenport Hotel celebrates its centennial anniversary this September. And since its re-opening in 2002, support for it is virtually unanimous among those with ties to commerce or tourism.

“It has meant everything,” said Barrister Winery’s Greg Lipsker, a Gonzaga University grad who shares ownership and winemaking duties with longtime friend Michael White.

In 2004, the two attorneys moved their winery into a 100-year-old building they purchased on Railroad Avenue in what’s known as the Davenport Arts District. Nearby train traffic imparts subtle vibrations on their underground barrel room and sleeping wines, which makes for a unique Northwest experience. It’s just one ingredient that helps Barrister annually produce one of the country’s most acclaimed examples of Cabernet Franc, and its smooth Rough Justice red blend ranks as one of Spokane’s favorite wines.

Near the Amtrak station, a few blocks to the east, physician/pilot/winemaker Joe Gunselman and well-hatted wife Rebecca specialize in award-winning reds from the Horse Heaven Hills, where they wisely planted vines a few years after launching their ultra-urban winery on Pacific Avenue in 1999. Call them at 888-4CLARET.

Between those two Spokane anchor wineries are a number of smaller wineries and tasting rooms, including Arbor Crest Wine Cellars’ third-floor tasting gallery near Nordstrom in River Park Square.

A couple of blocks north of Interstate 90, the two-floor tasting room/winery of Gary Hustad’s Italian-themed Barili Cellars pours award-winning reds made from Shaw Vineyards on Red Mountain and Dineen Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.

In the Freeman Center on Second Avenue — between Barrister and Barili — Grande Ronde Cellars pulls Bordeaux varieties from Walla Walla Valley vineyards Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills. Caterer/turned winemaker Dave Westfall bottle ages his wines more than three years before release. That care shows, and he combines catered food, live music and art.

Last year, EMVY Cellars and BridgePress Cellars, which also source from Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills, began sharing space and a tasting room as Market Place Wineries, near Robert Karl.

No one has a stronger Walla Walla presence in Spokane than Cougar Crest Estate Winery. The Hansens, who used cuttings from Seven Hills in their own Walla Walla Valley vineyard, moved kitty corner from The Davenport in 2011. And directly across the street from the entrance to The Davenport is the tasting room for Patit Creek. A cheesemonger dotes a full display case from the West Coast and beyond while small plates are paired with wines made at its Walla Walla airport winery.

Whitestone Winery produces its wines in the Palouse town of Creston with 20-year-old estate vines along the shores of Lake Roosevelt, but Spokane native Michael Haig also operates a tasting bar next door to Cougar Crest.

The biggest character in the region’s wine industry might be Jerry Gibson, founding winemaker at Overbluff Cellars. The charming, self-taught golden ager skillfully creates a variety of wines from the Walla Walla Valley, including a suave Cab called LSD underneath a tie-dyed label. Gibson now works for an ownership group that includes Anvil Coffee roaster Mark Camp, but he still pours it on at the tasting room from bottles he trusts to the VinoLok glass stopper. If its master plan holds, Overbluff will be moving from the northern flank of the South Hill and creating a buzz in the Amtrak neighborhood.

Two of Spokane’s newest wineries are V du V Wines and Vintage Hill Cellars. John Morrow and Kirk Phillips boiled it down from Vin du Van, a legacy of their early days when some of their Adams County grapes were fermented in the back of a van. Vintage Hill works with distinguished vineyards such Les Collines, Seven Hills and several belonging to the Milbrandt brothers.

Visiting two of the state’s oldest wineries means a trip east of downtown. Arbor Crest started in 1982 and produces 20,000 cases, making it the biggest. It also features the largest commercial vineyard — a small block just below the historic Cliff House and planted to Burgundian varieties. Those grapes have been used in sparkling wine, but talented winemaker Kristina Mielke-van Löben Sels and her husband, Jim, slowly are sacrificing those family-planted vines to increase parking for the weekly outdoor concert series. Some nights, more than 1,000 fans stroll the manicured grounds, listen to local musicians and drink from the Arbor Crest, van Löben Sels and Avansino labels while looking out from the rocky promontory across the Spokane Valley with the Spokane skyline in the distance. The dangers of the 450-foot basalt cliffs, sensitive relics and the nature of the business make it an adult-only facility.

This year, Parducci-trained Mike Conway also celebrated the 32nd anniversary of Latah Creek Wine Cellars, just a stone’s throw away from I-90 and along the road to Spokane Valley Mall. That traffic — combined with consumer-friendly wines, well-appointed gift shop and distribution model — allow him and his cookbook-writing wife Ellena to sell their 13,000 cases. These days, daughter Natalie handles much of the winemaking and day-to-day operations.

A mile or so west, you’ll find Nodland Cellars, where winemaking attorney Tim Nodland continues to receive praise for his Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon and $15 red blend called Bad Attitude.

Between Spokane’s Felts Field and I-90, Knipprath Cellars remodeled the old Parkwater Schoolhouse on Commerce Avenue and built a reputation as one of the Northwest’s most dedicated producers of fortified wines.

Don Townshend heads up the Mount Spokane Cluster, and he began his eponymous winery with the 1998 vintage as a result of his relationship with Columbia Valley pioneering winemaker Bill Preston. A few years ago, Townshend took control of local brands Caterina, Lone Canary and Mountain Dome, while his own winery has grown in the range of 20,000 cases. Success with his T3 — one of the state’s first popular proprietary red blends — helped Townshend build a tasting room on Green Bluff Road. Of those acquisitions, only Mountain Dome continues to produce, and Erik Manz’s bubbles now are poured at Townshend.

Nearby, there’s Trezzi Winery & Farm, which began with California grapes, but its small vineyard in Green Bluff allows it to make about 300 cases of estate wine from Italian varieties such as Barbera and Pinot Gris.

Toward the eastern part of Spokane County, Liberty Lake Wine Cellars celebrates its 10th harvest this fall, but co-owner Doug Smith is in just his first full year as a full-time winemaker for the 500-case brand.

Wine tourists also have reason to venture beyond Stateline and its disreputable relics of the dangerous days along I-90 when the Gem State was an outlier with its drinking age at 19.

Early on, Coeur d’Alene Cellars owner Kimber Gates modeled her downtown tasting room and bistro after that of J. Bookwalter in Richland, Wash. She’s since pulled back into her production facility north of I-90 and re-launched the Barrel Room No. 6 concept. Her series of Syrahs, from top Washington growers such as Dick Boushey, has ranked among the finest in the Northwest.

One of the best stories in the Idaho wine industry is found near the shores of Lake Pend Oreille (Pon-der-ray) in downtown Sandpoint. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Pend d’Oreille Winery, but it will be the first full year for Stephen and Julie Meyer’s renovation of the historic Belwood Building.

A retired accountant and past winner of Wine Press Northwest’s Idaho Winery of Year, Stephen relies on some of the Columbia Valley’s top vineyards for his award-winning program that includes his flagship Bistro Rouge. Each year, the proprietary red blend ranks as one of the Northwest’s best values and also serves as the centerpiece of his Think Green, Drink Red program — a refillable magnum that blazed the trail in the Northwest for wine growlers. It also stimulates tasting room traffic year-round.

This fall, a pair of Meyer’s ski buddies at Schweitzer — Jon Harding and Patrick Werry — gives Sandpoint its second winery. Their Super Tuscan-style wine from Red Mountain is worth an appointment at Small House Winery.

To get a snapshot of five wineries based outside the Inland Northwest, there’s Nectar Tasting Room in downtown Spokane across the street from the Parkade. Josh Wade used his blog to not only educate himself but also to build an audience before launching his tasteful and hip tasting gallery that features Anelare in Benton City, Hard Row to Hoe in Lake Chelan, Northwest Cellars in Kirkland, Skylite in Walla Walla and Terra Blanca Winery on Red Mountain.

They all stand to benefit next year when just around the block, the Worthys open their 750-room, 15-story Grand Hotel Spokane — the largest convention hotel in Eastern Washington. Spokane wineries, hoping for a presence in the lobby, a la The Marcus Whitman in Walla Walla, have been told there are no plans for any retail space in the Grand.

Other ways to grab local wines are to visit Vino! Wine Shop on Washington Street, the new Mezzo Pazzo Wine Bar on the South Hill or Huckleberry’s Natural Market, also on the South Hill but much closer to downtown.

Lodging

The opportunity to spend a single night at The Davenport Hotel and touch the history is worth a trip to Spokane. Ask to stay in the original section designed in 1914 by Kirtland Cutter, whose Northwest architecture includes the Rainier Club in Seattle. The Davenport Collection also takes in the nearby Tower and Hotel Lusso. Other worthy options include Hotel Ruby and the Roberts Mansion B&B. In Spokane Valley, check into Mirabeau Park Hotel.

The world-famous Coeur d’Alene Resort offers first-rate accommodations and service. Those looking for something less touristy should look at the historic Roosevelt Inn.

In Sandpoint, the luxurious Talus Rock Retreat is a mile from downtown but wouldn’t be out of place in Sun Valley or Tahoe. Yet this remarkable lodge and spa spreads a portion of its proceeds to children’s causes locally and around the world.

Food

Despite the awards that Spokane wineries continue to earn, their wines have not won the support they deserve from locally owned restaurants. Oddly, some list Spokane-produced wines yet make it difficult — if not impossible — for out-of-town guests to pick them out. That’s a shame.

Among the few that do highlight local wines is Anthony’s at Spokane Falls, which also offers perhaps the best view of any restaurant in town, especially when the river runs high. Winemakers also gush about local wine-and-food program at Masselow’s in Northern Quest Resort & Casino near the Spokane airport.

Mizuna and Wild Sage also pair creative Northwest-inspired cuisine with Spokane wines, as does the new Wandering Table at Kendall Yards. Ask for the fun “You Choose the Price” option.

Downtown winemakers have been making the 10-minute drive to Audubon Park and regionally focused Downriver Grill for more than a decade. Luna’s history of fine dining and placement for 10 local wineries is worthy of the trip to the southern rim of the South Hill.

The Davenport offers the type of dining options — led by the Palm Court Grill — atmosphere and service that business travelers and tourists expect from a AAA Four Diamond hotel. For those who seek a quick change of pace and adventure, hop across the street to NUDO Ramen House for a bowl of Spicy Miso and a quenching glass of Riesling.

Come morning, you won’t’ find a heartier breakfast than at Wandering Table’s nearby Yards Bruncheon. Santé combines coffee, pastry and some of the region’s best charcuterie for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Those focused on coffee and pastry should stroll to Madeleine’s Cafe & Patisserie on Main. If it’s just coffee, Atticus features locally roasted beans and an eclectic gift shop.

In Coeur d’Alene, Beverly’s on the seventh floor of the resort combines one of the Northwest’s top wine lists with one of the area’s top chefs and offers an unparalleled view of the lake. The Cellar at 317 Sherman downtown employs the Enomatic preservation system, specializes in regional wines with Northwest-inspired cuisine, and backs it all with live music.

This summer, Pend d’Oreille Winery opened its new The Bistro Rouge Café adjacent to their tasting room. The Meyers hired an award-winning chef from Los Angeles and will use a tap system to feature not only their own wines but also wines from others in the Northwest and beyond.

Other activities

Spokane’s riverfront continues to attract thoughtful development and builds upon the legacy of the World’s Fair. The Spokane Falls SkyRide, named last year by CondeNast as one of the world’s top scenic cable rides, provides breathtaking views of the river as it first did in 1974. Another unique Northwest features is the Looff Carousel, circa 1909, which made Riverfront Park its home in 1975.

Below the iconic Washington Water Power substation and the Monroe Street Dam are the new City Plaza and redesigned Huntington Park, a gift to the city by the regional power company. It opens up the lower falls to the public.

The best way to get a feel for Spokane is the self-guided, well-marked City Drive. The 90-minute roundtrip tour takes in historic homes, landmarks, Manito Park and other natural features. However, on Friday nights in July and August, sit back as Highfalutin and her brother Manly Stanley supply the horsepower for free, family-friendly carriage rides through downtown Spokane.

Wholesome activities also await at the Green Bluff Growers, particularly at the family-themed Walter’s Fruit Ranch. Call ahead to schedule a tour and trip on the Fruit Loop Express. North of Coeur d’Alene is the regionally acclaimed Silverwood Theme Park.

Spokane boasts one of the country’s best collection of municipal golf courses, with scenic Indian Canyon as the crown jewel. The Inland Northwest counts 33 course, public and private. Perhaps the most famous is the Coeur d’Alene Resort course with its floating green.

Cycling is huge in the region, and the 37-mile Spokane Centennial Trail runs through Riverfront Park, connects with the North Idaho Centennial Trail and creates a 60-mile path with Coeur d’Alene.

There’s a rich history in the region surrounding Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, with Northern Quest Resort & Casino standing as a modern sign of the Kalispels’ influence.

Sandpoint, just 60 miles south of British Columbia, sits between Schweitzer Mountain and Lake Pend Oreille, the fifth-deepest lake in the United States. The Kalipsels’ presence in Sandpoint is featured at the Bonner County Historical Museum near Lake Pend Oreille.

Getting to the Inland Northwest

Interstate 90, the country’s longest freeway, spans from Seattle to Boston and splits both Spokane and Coeur d’Alene (pop. 38,388). There’s an idea to build a marketing campaign trying to convince jet-setting wine tourists to fly into Spokane and spend time in the Cork District before driving to Walla Walla. After all, it’s less than a three-hour drive between to the two regions, which means about two hours less time in the car for those who choose to land at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. A 20-minute drive east of Spokane Valley leads to the Lake City of Coeur d’Alene. Sandpoint is 50 miles due north on Highway 95.

When to visit

Ask a native and they’ll admit winter in the Inland Northwest gets brutal and snow can arrive early. I recall trick-or-treating on Spokane’s South Hill in knee-deep powder. On the other side of winter, golfers don’t expect to hit their tree-shaded city courses until Tax Day.

Spokane wineries stage regular events around Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day weekend and Thanksgiving weekend, but the emergence of Kendall Yards between the Monroe Street and Maple Street bridges spawned an August walk-around pouring called “The Wines by the Yards” featuring all members of the Spokane Winery Association.

But up at Sandpoint, where seemingly everyone lives to ski at Schweitzer, Pend d’Oreille Winery opens each day because the community is home to an arts community that plays outdoors year round. The town’s signature event — The Festival at Sandpoint — spans 10 days in early August and concludes with its Taste of the Stars wine pouring by more than 30 Northwest vintners. (Expect to see the executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission there.) Its open-air concert lineup during the 31-year history has included Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett and Wynton Marsalis as well as the Spokane Symphony.

More info

VisitSpokane, a nonprofit economic development group, actively promotes wine tourism in Spokane County and operates a robust website with information on wineries and tasting rooms. The site also serves as a handy portal for suggestions on lodging, dining, shopping and recreation. In fact, there’s an interactive feature called Trip Builder that allows website visitors to create an online itinerary by clicking on wineries, restaurants, lodging and recreational activities. It also links to the Spokane Winery Association site at SpokaneWineries.net. The Davenport Hotel Collection site includes a Cork District section and map.

A good place to get started for the Idaho Panhandle is the state’s tourism site at VisitIdaho.org. Coeurdalene.org starts by highlighting the Inland Northwest’s 55 lakes. Sandpoint.com prominently promotes The Festival, but it also provides suggestions for most everything a tourist would want.  --Eric Degerman is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com

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