As the Pacific Northwest continues its growth and has continued to mature as a wine region over the past two decades, we have seen the inevitable emergence of a wine culture.
I say inevitable because there are 1,000 wineries just in Washington and another 1,000 in Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia, so a wine culture can’t help but emerge. There are wineries and vineyards in almost every corner of our region. In fact, only six of Washington's 39 counties don’t have at least one winery. Now, almost everywhere you go in Washington means you'll be in wine country.
With this comes a reminder that we as Northwest residents don't take nearly enough advantage of being a part of wine country. I live in the heart of the Columbia Valley and regularly don't take advantage of this. When I do attend an event, I silently rebuke myself for not doing this more often.
The best way to take full advantage of wine country is to join the wine clubs at your favorite wineries. Not only do you get regular wine releases ar a nice discount, but membership also grants you entry to a lot of events. This summer, my wife and I attended a wine club release party where we enjoyed food, wine and live music on the crush pad under our region's perpetually blue skies. We saw old friends, made new friends and generally had a fabulous time. We went home wondering why we didn't do this more often.
Coupled with this is the growing following for food trucks. Many wineries now regularly have a couple of these mobile caterers show up on scheduled nights. Open a few bottles, add some live music, and you’ve created instant magic for attendees.
Another way to immerse yourself in your local wine culture is to offer to volunteer at your favorite winery, Years ago, I helped pick grapes in early November at a now-defunct Yakima Valley winery. The owner had a few rows of Nebbiolo, not enough to bother bringing in a crew to pick. We spent a couple of hours picking an acre of grapes, then huddled around a warm grill eating freshly made pizza. I went home with a few bottles of wine and many fond memories. When the wines from those grapes came out a couple of years later, I proudly served them with the knowledge I had played a small but important role in it. I think the wine tasted better because of my recollections from that participation.
There’s also the critical aspect of developing a Northwest wine culture by defining our own style of cuisine. Braiden Rex-Johnson first began writing about Northwest cuisine in her myriad cookbooks extolling the virtues of the Pike Place Market. Her 2007 book, Pacific Northwest Wining and Dining, did a particularly marvelous job of looking at the Northwest as a whole while examining our style of cuisine collectively.
I would define Northwest cuisine as anchored in our fresh seafood and the bounty of our fresh produce. Certainly coffee culture plays into it, as well as the glorious artisan cheese industry that is starting to flourish. Our food is a fusion of the cultures that are here, especially the Asian and Hispanic populations. Fortunately, those foods go especially well with the abundant Riesling produced in the Northwest.
Where Northwest wine culture and cuisine come to a delicious crossroads is with the proliferation of wineries with on-premise restaurants. This trend took flight in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley and thankfully caught on in Washington. Talented chefs use ingredients procured from small, local farmers to provide delicious dishes for discerning palates. Of course, it is in their best interest to prepare menus that pair with their wines, enhancing the sense of wine culture and their interpretation of regional cuisine. I have found that some of my favorite dining experiences are at wineries and their restaurants.
I hesitate to lean on the overused trope, but I sense we are entering a new era, and the next few years will see the development of Pacific Northwest wine culture and cuisine, a golden age, if you will.
We can collectively take advantage of this by joining wine clubs, going to winery events, eating in their restaurants, picnicking in vineyards and helping at wineries when opportunities arise.
I've long believed that the most important way to embrace a growing, robust wine industry is not necessarily through the delicious wine that becomes available to us, but rather through what it brings to the region. In this case, that’s good wine and food.
I often wonder what it's like to live in Napa or Sonoma and the lifestyle that brings. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I feel blessed to be in the middle of wine country while living near where I was born and raised. I just have to remind myself to take advantage of our growing wine culture more, attending more events (including winemaker dinners), eating at more winery restaurants and taking fuller advantage of what lies before me. I need more fully embrace it with gusto.