Benton City’s Red Mountain is Washington’s smallest AVA, and its most intense. That’s because the “mountain” (it’s only about 700-feet tall) is the state’s hottest AVA. But its slight elevation and the Yakima River, which skirts the base of the hill, help cool things down at night. Consequently, its wines—most notably cab sauv, merlot, cab franc and syrah—tend to balance intense fruit characteristics with tannins and acidity. And this is why top winemakers across the state seek these coveted berries. (It’s also why wines made with Red Mountain fruit cost so much.) Red Mountain wine tasting opportunities include about a dozen wineries. Of these, about about half require appointments; the rest welcome walk-ins. Fun fact: Red Mountain gets its name from the cheatgrass that gives its slopes a reddish hue in spring.

Down from the mountain

With no hotels, inns or restaurants to speak of on Red Mountain, most visitors stay in the Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick and Pasco), about 15 miles east. The latter towns form a bustling population center around the Columbia River’s confluences with the Yakima and Snake rivers. And the area offers a plethora of restaurants and hotels. National chains seem to dominate. But creative local entrepreneurs are bringing artisan aesthetics to the local hospitality scene. This is best demonstrated at the picturesque wineries along Tulip Lane. Meanwhile, Columbia Point Marina offers easy access to boutique lodging, locavore dining, watersports and golf. And Kennewick’s Columbia Gardens Urban Wine and Artisan Village is emerging into another epicurean-focused destination. (The Tri-Cities are also home to several fun, well-kept and moderately priced golf courses—and several more wineries and tasting rooms.)

In addition to their proximity to Red Mountain, the Tri-Cities are less than an hour’s drive from Walla Walla to the east and Prosser to the west. From Seattle, the Tri-Cities are about 215 miles southeast, and about 215 northeast of Portland. Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines serve Tri-Cities Airport (PSC). For mileage-plan members, Alaska waives baggage fees on up to one case of wine and offers other benefits in select wine regions, including the Tri-Cities

. Map it.

Photo: By Rob Bhatt.