Andy Perdue

The accidental wine capital

The Tri-Cities is an unexpected capital of the Washington wine industry. Not a lot of vineyards here, not even a lot of wineries within its sprawling borders.

But the community, home to more than a quarter-million residents, is at the heart of Washington’s burgeoning wine industry. From here it is an easy one-hour drive to Walla Walla, 30 minutes to the heart of the Yakima Valley. To the southwest are the Horse Heaven Hills. This region's most famous winery - Columbia Crest - is 30 minutes south of the Tri-Cities.

Between the wineries of the Walla Walla Valley and the Yakima Valley, it’s safe to say that within an hour’s drive of the Tri-Cities one can visit more than 200 wineries. Additionally, roughly 90 percent of wine grape vineyards are in that same 60-minute circle. By any definition, the moniker “Heart of Washington wine country” is accurate.

I’m not sure, however, that the community has completely embraced the wine industry and the potential it provides.

Tourism is the biggest opportunity for the Tri-Cities. Wine tourism attracts consumers with disposable income, people who are willing to spend their cash on the finer things of life.

Tom Drumheller understands the opportunity. He built the Ocean Lodge at Cannon Beach (one of the best places to stay on the Oregon Coast). And now he’s building the Lodge at Columbia Point, a boutique hotel in the heart of the Tri-Cities that will bring the accommodations deserving of the capital of Washington wine country.

The wine industry tends to raise the quality of life in its surrounding communities, and it’s certainly doing that in the Tri-Cities. For years, the community has had a reputation for not having much of a restaurant scene. The locals, it seems, preferred chains over something more interesting. Anyone who says that's true today simply isn’t being honest.

Thanks in no small part to the wine industry - four Tri-City wineries offer food service now - there are now a dozen great places to dine, all places worthy of the wine-loving visitor.

I arrived in town in the summer of 1989. Having grown up on the Kitsap Peninsula with a great view of the Olympic Mountains, I found the region barren and dusty. Through the years, sagebrush-covered hills have slowly been replaced by vineyards, which happily turn green under the perpetually blue skies. As a result, the region has become much more attractive, thanks in no small part to good weather, low cost of living, an absence of traffic and very little crime. I never thought I would say this, but it's a great place to live and raise a family.

The sprawling vineyards across Washington wine country’s most important regions help give the Tri-Cities the feel of Santa Rosa, Sonoma County’s largest city (roughly the same population as the Tri-Cities), the jumping off point to the Alexander Valley to the north, the Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley to the east, Anderson Valley to the northeast, Sonoma Valley to the south and, of course, Napa Valley to the east.

The Tri-Cities is blessed with an amazing highway system, the state's third-busiest airport and a highly educated population, thanks to the Pacific Northwest National Lab in Richland.

Most people who come here to visit arrive for a child's soccer or softball tournament. Sports marketing is an important tourism draw, and the Tri-Cities does that well, if only because few outdoor sports get rained out here. Parents looking for something to do when their kids’ games are over enjoy the robustness of the surrounding wine region, and the familiarity of chain restaurants has its appeal.

Now, the crown jewel of Washington wine education is in the Tri-Cities. Last year, the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center opened for business at Washington State University Tri-Cities in Richland. Funded by wineries and grape growers across the state, the center will not only help educate the industry's next generation, but it also will supply research into how to make Washington's already excellent wines even better. That important research has begun, and the results are rippling through the industry.

University of California-Davis helped build the California wine industry - and the American wine industry by extension - through education and research. I believe the same thing will happen with the Wine Science Center. It’s going to attract some of the best and brightest, helping to transform the industry around it. This is a big deal, and the Tri-Cities surrounds it. By extension, it will elevate the entire community.

Just as the Yakima Valley is the cradle of the Washington wine industry, and the Walla Walla Valley is the center of red wine production in the state, the Tri-Cities is going to become the accidental capital of the state wine industry. For that reason, I'm glad to be here, and it will be fun to watch it unfold over the next couple of decades.

This story was originally published May 22, 2017 12:00 AM.

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