We live in remarkable times. Age 60, according to leading-edge boomers, is the new 40. Tom Cruise is the new Werner Erhard. And Prosser, say adventurous...

WE LIVE IN remarkable times. Age 60, according to leading-edge boomers, is the new 40. Tom Cruise is the new Werner Erhard. And Prosser, say adventurous wine tourists, is the new St. Helena, Calif.!

Prosser?!? That little-bitty burg tucked into a bend in the Yakima River, just before you get to Red Mountain? Yep, that Prosser. After 30 years of struggling along in the valley’s backwater, Prosser’s wine community has reached a tipping point. And we’re not talking about merlot-filled dump buckets.

This is the tipping point that most towns with a population of just 5,000 or so can only dream about. The combined efforts of the Port of Benton, the Prosser Economic Development Association, the sponsors of the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center and many individual wineries have come together with projects that are making Prosser a must-see for anyone touring Washington wine country.

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Just a few years ago, visitors whizzing by on Interstate 82 might have pulled off for a brief visit with Kay Simon and Clay Mackey at their cozy little Chinook tasting room, or a quick stop to see Mike Wallace’s Hinzerling Winery, one of the oldest in the state. On a dry, dead-end stretch of Wine Country Road, a rather industrial-looking strip of buildings ambitiously named the Prosser Wine & Food Park held a cluster of small tasting rooms; that was pretty much it for Prosser.

Time to look again. In the immediate area are some two dozen wineries, half of them right in town, and more are coming. Other amenities, such as gardens, cafés and B&Bs, are blossoming. And the downtown — an inviting two-or-three-block stretch of classic Americana, blessedly free of heavy motor traffic — is being revitalized, the centerpiece a renovated performing arts center in the Princess Theater.

Not to pick on Napa, but visitors are looking for something a bit more real in their wine touring these days. Crammed roads, sky-high prices for lodging and meals, absurd fees for tasting rooms and no chance to even see, let alone talk to, the winemakers have turned the Napa experience for the average visitor into a bad day at Disneyland.

Washington’s wine regions, on the other hand, are just beginning to be explored. Prosser embodies the best features of them all, and believe me, the town will welcome you with open arms. It is finally living up to its claim of being “the birthplace of the Washington wine industry.”

From Seattle, Portland or Spokane, Prosser is about a three-hour drive. There isn’t a bad way to get there; whether you are coming over the Cascade Mountains, through the Columbia Gorge or down from the Palouse, you are going to see spectacular scenery.

For Seattle drivers who enjoy exploring back roads, try taking the Canyon Road exit off I-90 to Yakima; then continue south on I-82 to the State Route 22 exit. That road follows the south bank of the river all the way into Prosser. In terms of driving time, this route doesn’t really add much; in terms of scenery, it’s way better.

For those coming in on I-82, take exit 80 and follow the signs to the North Prosser Business Park, a 32-acre “wine village” under development. If you’re going this Thanksgiving weekend, a bit of imagination will be required, as several sites are barely open and others are just beginning construction. Next spring there will be gardens, lighted pathways and outdoor gathering places. But for now, you will find some lovely wines being poured at the Willow Crest tasting room and the Thurston Wolfe winery nearby. Just across is the Winemaker’s Loft, a winemaking studio that is soon to be home to six tiny boutiques and owner Mike Haddox’s own Michael Florentino winery.

Haddox, who learned winemaking at Columbia Crest and later at Silver Lake, says he has been “brewing” on the idea of a winemaker’s loft for six years. The opportunity to purchase land in the North Prosser Business Park “scared” him at first, he admits — it was more a field of dirt than a field of dreams — but then Willow Crest and the Yellow Rose nursery got going, and suddenly, others started hopping in. “Now Prosser’s a destination,” he enthuses, “and we have this unique, high-visibility site. When people come wine tasting they can spend a whole day here; there will be 13 wineries by spring.”

Haddox’s wine-studio concept offers startups the space and equipment to make up to 1,000 cases of wine. It’s literally “add grapes and stir” — with everything else provided. Martinez Family Vineyards, Canyons Edge Winery and WyndStone Cellars are already signed up, and several more are under consideration. Haddox also has “a whole slew of people” who are making even smaller quantities of wine in the space; barrels everywhere! When they are ready to go to the next level,” he adds, “I can slide them in to one of the larger bays, as those startup wineries expand and move on.”

The official opening of the Winemaker’s Loft is scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend. “It’s pretty aggressive,” he admits, “but I think it’s realistic.” When we spoke in mid-September, Haddox was on his way to Seattle to pick up his new Italian-made crush equipment, predicting that at least his late-picked cabernet sauvignon would be fermenting in the Winemaker’s Loft by the time the first visitors arrive.

Willow Crest was the first winery to open in the park, in August of 2005. Owner Dave Minick farms 185 acres of grapes on the other side of the river, about six miles north of Prosser, and makes 5,000 cases of wine. Willow Crest was one of the first wineries in the state to grow and make pinot gris, the winery’s must-taste wine, along with the Willow Crest syrah. The Prosser tasting room offers the full range.

Thurston Wolfe, just a quick stroll away, was next to open. Winemaker Wade Wolfe and his wife, Becky Yeaman, have moved their small, family winery several times in the past two decades, but this latest move looks to be their last. It’s a visually imposing, industrial-chic room, the color palate a wash of grays and blacks, the centerpiece a huge, howling wolf logo in brushed brass.

Wolfe, whose Washington winemaking experience dates back to 1978, holds a Ph.D. in plant genetics from the University of California, Davis. As much as anyone alive, he knows Washington viticulture, and his wines have always led down interesting trails to unusual destinations, from aligoté to zinfandel. At the striking black “galaxy” granite tasting bar you can tap into whatever unusual obsessions have caught the winemaker’s fancy in recent vintages.

Production at Thurston-Wolfe has climbed steadily, from 1,500 cases in 2000 to 4,500 this year. With the new, expanded production facility (adjoining the tasting room), Wolfe and Yeaman expect to reach 6,000 cases shortly.

AS WE GO TO press, several new wineries are under construction or about to begin. All bring seasoned winemaking talent, grower experience or both with them. Next to open will be the Olsen Estates winery. The Olsen brothers are Prosser-area growers with more than three decades’ experience. They farm more than 800 acres of wine grapes, contracted to Ste. Michelle, Northstar, Hogue and Snoqualmie, among others. Their new building will provide plenty of space for both a 12,000-case winery and a tasting room, and the first crush is already under way. Red Bordeaux and Rhone blends, made by Ron Bunnell, will be the stars of the show here.

Airfield Estates has broken ground for its new space, and this month Bunnell Family Cellar and Milbrandt Winery plan to begin construction, too. Ron Bunnell, whose winemaking career has included stints at Beringer, Chateau Souverain, Kendall-Jackson and most recently Chateau Ste. Michelle, introduced the first releases from his own winery last spring. The focus is on syrah and other Rhone varietals, but the winery also offers a bright, fruity, country red called Vif ($25) and some white wines — a viognier, dry riesling and dry chenin blanc.

Equally exciting are plans for a Milbrandt winery. The Milbrandt family vineyards — more than 1,000 acres of prime Columbia Valley land — supply grapes to dozens of small wineries statewide. Their own wines will be made by veteran Gordy Hill (Northstar), and will include a pair of chardonnays (oaked and unoaked), a riesling, a pinot gris and a trio of reds. Plans call for extensive, park-like landscaping between the Milbrandt and Bunnell projects, part of a larger pathway project developed by the Port that is designed for leisurely strolling and picnicking throughout the site.

Deb Heintz is the executive director of the Prosser Economic Development Association, a private, nonprofit group that includes representatives from the Port of Benton, Benton County, the city of Prosser and other community organizations.

“The story that I’m telling for Prosser in 2006,” she explains, “is there is estimated to be $20 million in new construction projects. We’ve already seen eight new projects, beginning from the ground up, in all phases of the industry, not just the wineries. Some are in manufacturing, some in retail, some in government; it’s nicely spread out across the economy.”

But no one would dispute that the winery projects, both large and small, are driving the tourism, which in turn supports everything else.

“We’re getting interest now from big wineries outside of the area looking to build additional winery tasting rooms,” Heintz confides, apologizing that she can’t yet name names. “That’s very exciting for little old Prosser,” she adds. “I asked a longtime resident the other day if they had seen something like this building boom in Prosser’s history before. He said, ‘Not in my lifetime.’ So as far as I can tell, we have this one opportunity in this lifetime, and we’re going for it!”

LEST YOU WORRY that this is all about the future, fear not. There is plenty of wine being poured in Prosser right now. Mike Wallace, as friendly and easy-going a vintner as you will ever meet, is celebrating 30 years of winemaking this fall. Better yet, you can still visit him in his original Hinzerling Winery, a time-travel experience that hasn’t changed much since he opened in 1976.

Next to Hinzerling is Wallace’s Vintner’s Inn (1520 Sheridan Ave., 800-727-6702), built in 1905 and recently moved from its original location downtown. The quaint old house is now a two-room B&B, and also hosts Saturday-night dinners with Mike Wallace as the featured guest (and sometimes chef).

Right in the heart of downtown Prosser is the tasting room for Coyote Canyon Winery, whose estate-grown wines come from its vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills. The lounge-like room, which originally housed Alexandria Nicole Cellars, is also an art gallery and Internet café.

Don’t miss the Princess Theater just down the street. This 1919 gem, which underwent an aborted renovation attempt a decade ago, is now being lovingly restored by new owner Julie Mercer. Mercer, a Prosser native, says it will be “the premier south-central Washington entertainment venue for music, film and the performing arts.”

Along with its many boutiques, Prosser has two of the state’s largest wineries, Snoqualmie and Desert Wind. Snoqualmie, part of the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates group, opened in 2003. It would be fair to say that the current revitalization of the town really found traction at that time. At the opening dedication, Ste. Michelle president and CEO Ted Baseler called Prosser “a must-see destination for any complete tour of Washington wine country” — a bit of corporate hyperbole that has turned out to be absolutely true.

Snoqualmie winery, at 660 Frontier Road just east of downtown, covers 44,816 square feet in all. It is most notable for its reserve wine program. Winemaker Joy Andersen produces limited quantities of a reserve merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. The tasting room, open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., offers a full selection of wines, including some available only at the winery. There is a $5 charge to taste the reserve wines.

Two other massive projects will soon join Snoqualmie. The 17,000-case Desert Wind winery is actually two buildings: a 16,000-square-foot production facility and an about-to-be-completed, 18,000-square-foot winery, tasting room and inn. Wines come from the estate vineyards, Desert Wind and Desert Gem, which cover more than 500 acres in the Wahluke Slope appellation. The newest building, which is supposed to open this fall, will also house banquet rooms, a commercial kitchen and five B&B-style bedrooms.

Just across the way from Desert Wind, ground has already been broken for the proposed Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center. Clore, a Prosser native, is generally considered to be the founding father of the Washington wine industry, thanks to his pioneering research in growing vinifera (European) wine grapes in the Yakima Valley. The 22-acre site, a beautiful piece of land right on the river, will ultimately have exhibition galleries, a theater/lecture hall, a demonstration kitchen, working vineyards and gardens, a wine bar, restaurant and retail shop, and much more. The hope is that the center will be open by mid-2007, though fundraising has lagged a bit.

For now, no visit to Prosser would be complete without a stop at Chinook winery, on Wittkopf just off Wine Country Road. Kay Simon and her husband, Clay Mackey, founded their winery in 1983 and have consistently made impeccably clean, varietally true wines that perfectly capture the flavors of Yakima Valley grapes. Their friendly, homespun tasting room and winery are in original farm buildings bounded by apple and cherry orchards, and a vineyard where the winery’s signature cabernet franc is grown.

Another group of tasting rooms is clustered nearby, at the Prosser Wine & Food Park, where the road dead ends. Don’t let the strip-mall appearance dissuade you; some gems are hiding here. The largest winery tenant is Hogue Cellars, and many limited-production wines are exclusively available at its tasting room. The best is a ‘Terroir Series’ cabernet sauvignon from Red Mountain fruit. Nearby are the tasting rooms of C.R. Sandidge, Kestrel Vintners, newcomer Cowan Vineyards and Alexandria Nicole Cellars. The C.R. Sandidge wines are sourced from top vineyards such as Minick and Boushey, while the other wineries all farm vineyards of their own.

One of the most satisfying aspects of this exciting growth spurt, both for Prosser and the entire state, is that more and more grape growers are moving into winemaking, as evidenced by the newly established wineries for Olsen Estates, Cowan, Alexandria Nicole, Coyote Canyon and Milbrandt, among others. The direct connection to the land where the grapes are grown is the essence of the role of the vigneron.

The vigneron, a French term that encompasses grape-growing and winemaking, is an essential component of great wine regions throughout the world. Washington, with its rather odd wet/dry divide, has been an anomaly in this regard. But with the rise of wine touring in this state, more and more growers are encouraged to become true vignerons. Nowhere is this more apparent than right here in Prosser.

Should you wish to extend your Prosser stay a bit, it is easy to expand your explorations. Just across the river, on the north side of the highway, are some of Washington’s most important vineyards. Scattered among them are small tasting rooms for Pontin Del Roza, VineHeart and Waddle Family Cellars, places where you can see the grapes growing right out the front door.

In brief, Prosser is the anti-Napa, offering visitors a genuine wine-country experience without pretense. Pioneer Mike Wallace is still around to welcome you with a glass of his port and a home-cooked dinner in his B&B. Dr. Wade Wolfe, the Walt Clore of his generation, is right there at Thurston Wolfe and ready to talk lemberger, zinfandel or anything else you might inquire about.

Prosser doesn’t (yet) have the sexy deli delicacies and clothing boutiques that line the streets of St. Helena, but what Prosser does have, most of all, is heart and vision. Go there now, while it’s all just blossoming. It’s a magic time, in a special place. Watch out St. Helena — some day they’ll be calling you the Prosser of the Napa Valley.

Paul Gregutt, The Seattle Times’ Wine Adviser in the Wednesday Food & Wine section and a regular contributor to Pacific Northwest magazine’s Taste column, has written for Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, Sunset and Decanter magazines. His new book on Washington wines will be published next spring by University of California Press. He can be reached at wine@paulgregutt.com.

Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.