IT WAS SPRING 1978, and Mike Wallace had no wine to sell yet at his small operation in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser.
He’d launched Hinzerling Winery with the 1976 harvest, and everything was still aging in oak, but he wanted to educate the locals, so he flung open his doors, pulled the bungs on a few barrels and offered free tastes.
This was the humble origin of what has become one of the biggest weekends in all of Washington wine country: Yakima Valley Spring Barrel Tasting. It officially began in 1980, and this year, the 35th annual festival takes place April 25-27 and includes dozens of wineries stretching from Yakima to the Tri-Cities.
Wallace is mostly retired now, and many years ago sold his vineyard — planted in 1972 — to Kestrel Vintners in Prosser. Kestrel, which also has tasting rooms in Woodinville and Leavenworth, is earning a reputation for creating memorable experiences.
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Winemaker Flint Nelson, who arrived a decade ago, will release a viognier ice wine, sauvignon blanc and rosé during the weekend, and will taste the 2012 malbec and 2013 chardonnay from barrels.
Jessica Smith, Kestrel’s executive chef, will be making lunch for about 200. One of the big issues during Spring Barrel Tasting is the sheer mass of people — Kestrel expects more than 2,000 wine lovers to glide through its tasting room during the three-day event. Thus, finding a place to eat in the valley can be difficult. So Smith is putting together grab-and-go gourmet lunches to eat at picnic tables on the lawn or in the winery’s outdoor grotto. Kestrel also sells cheese, antipasti spreads and more.
Twice a day during the weekend, Smith will demonstrate how to make fresh mozzarella. Kestrel also has created a separate space where its wine-club members can relax amid the din.
Kestrel, which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, has developed into a top Yakima Valley destination winery, thanks to a 2007 remodel and Smith’s arrival two years ago. It is part of Prosser’s development into the wine-and-food center of the Yakima Valley, an evolution that has transformed the town into a place that resembles the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg.
Indeed, wineries such as Kestrel, Alexandria Nicole Cellars and Desert Wind Winery have attracted top chefs here in an effort to emphasize their commitment to food. Perhaps the finest example is Wine O’Clock, a restaurant inside Bunnell Family Cellar that serves some of the best cuisine for 100 miles around.
If you haven’t visited the Yakima Valley in recent years, now is the time to gas up and head over the mountains.
Andy Perdue is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.