Wine tasting has become a year-round pursuit in the Northwest. But thanks to reliably pleasant weather and the buzz of harvest activity in the vineyards and wineries, fall is prime time. Now that autumn has officially arrived, here’s a look at the top things to check out on Red Mountain and in the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla and Yakima on your next Washington wine country escape.

Wine-friendly lodging at Columbia Point

The little things make a difference between a nice hotel and a great hotel. In Richland, the Lodge at Columbia Point (above) has created a great environment for wine travelers by tending the big and small. The “big” begins with a great waterfront location at Columbia Point Marina and tasteful amenities throughout the 82-room property. The little things include a set of Riedel wine glasses in each room. The complimentary wine socials it hosts Thursday–Saturday evenings give guests a chance to sample a rotating selection of Northwest wines. (Guests get a complimentary beverage in the wine bar on other nights.) And its in-room and common areas offer plenty of space to uncork a find from any of the nearby wineries.

The kitchen staff brings panache to its complimentary breakfast spreads with an evolving selection of hot dishes. On one recent visit, these included egg-and-sausage breakfast sandwiches on brioche. On a subsequent stay, the choices included blueberry pancakes and bacon. These complemented an array of morning staples—fresh fruit, yogurt parfaits, pastries, toast, coffee, juice and more. Guests can also borrow the hotel’s cruiser bikes for leisurely pedals along the car-free River View Trail, which passes right by the hotel’s riverfront deck.

On-site dining includes full-service dinners at Drumheller’s Food & Drink and a more-casual experience at Vine Wine & Craft Bar. The hotel is also steps away from Anthony’s at Columbia Point, Budd’s Broiler and locally owned Lu Lu Craft Bar + Kitchen. And its proximity to Columbia Point Golf Club, about a half-mile away, only adds to its resort-like feel. (The hotel’s restaurant is named for Tom Drumheller, the beloved CEO of the company that built the hotel. Sadly, Mr. Drumheller died from cancer shortly after the hotel opened in 2017.)

Potable pleasure at The Bradley

The Bradley's signature cocktail adds to a Washington wine country escape

Also in Richland, about a mile north of Columbia Point Marina, The Bradley has gained attention for its modern takes on classic cocktails and globally influenced tapas. The beverage selection includes a signature cocktail (also named The Bradley) whose presentation makes it worth splurging for at least once. The basic elements—a shot of Earl Grey–infused bourbon, an upside-down absinthe-rinsed glass filled with applewood smoke and large cube of honey-infused ice (above)—are brought to your table on a wooden platter. After your server combines the ingredients, the ice cube imparts sweetness as it melts, complementing the lingering hints of absinthe and smoke.

The food offerings are dominated by eclectic small plates such as steak bao buns, turmeric-rubbed pork loin skewers and brioche grilled cheese with tomato bisque. On one visit this past August, the happy hour menu included braised short-rib corn dogs in a polenta crust. A second visit on a Thursday night in September coincided with taco and margarita specials. And now I can’t wait to go back.

Valdemar Estates elevates the art of pairing

Valdemar's tapas add to a Washington wine country escape

The Bujanda family from Spain’s Rioja region generated buzz when they opened Valdemar Estates in Walla Walla this past spring. By then, the Jesús Bujanda and his team had already been producing Washington wines in the Walla Walla area for two years, borrowing space at other wineries. That makes this year’s vintage the first in the new facility for Bujanda’s team. But their tasting room is already a big hit.

The modern two-story space is set among the vineyards and wineries off J.B. George Road. Wines are produced and aged downstairs. Meanwhile visitors can soak in dramatic views stretching out to the Blue Mountains from the second-floor tasting room and patio. For now, the staff pours the Bujanda family’s Spanish wines and their 2017 Red Mountain and Walla Walla Valley syrahs. And additional Washington selections from the 2017 and 2018 vintages will be available soon.

The chance to compare the characteristics of the family’s Spanish wines to those produced in Washington is pretty cool in its own right. But their tapas and pinchos make a visit particularly special. Just thinking about the Bonito-Stuffed Piquillo Peppers—piquillo peppers stuffed with cured tuna belly and capers— makes my mouth water. Same goes for the Jamón Iberico—cured pork seasoned with varying levels of spice. Salt, fat, spice and umami amplify the best properties in each wine. And vice versa.

Grappa enhances tastings at Col Solare

Vineyards views from Col Solare on a Washington wine country escape

Did somebody say grappa? That was my reaction, when I heard that the tasting room at Col Solare’s Red Mountain winery offers the distillate in its tasting room. Though not highly publicized, Col Solare has been distilling its cabernet sauvignon pomace in small batches since 2011 or so. The resulting grappa comes in hot. And it delivers floral notes, hints of dark fruit and a smooth finish. But it’s only available at the winery’s Red Mountain tasting room.

A partnership between Tuscany’s Marchese Antinori and Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle, Col Solare initially only offered tastings by appointment at its Red Mountain facility, which opened in 2007. But it started welcoming drop-in visitors a few years ago.

On my mid-September visit, the tasting flight included samples of its Shining Hill red blend and the two most-recent vintages of its Red Mountain cabernet sauvignon. A grappa sample added $4 to the roughly $21 tasting fee, which struck me as a decent value, compared to what you’d pay for comparable wines in a restaurant or wine bar. (The grappa retails at $40 per 375-ml bottle.) The views across vineyards out to Horse Heaven Hills (above) are not bad, either.

Yakima travel notes …

A refreshed Hilton Garden Inn in Yakima for a Washington wine country escape

One of the best things about the drive through Yakima Valley is the stop for scratch-made tamales at Los Hernández. For the uninitiated, the legendary shop’s staples include pork and chicken tamales featuring a cakey masa made from hand-milled corn. And the shop is recognized as an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation. It’s not uncommon for the line to stretch out the door at the Union Gap location, where you’re likely to see founder Felipe Hernández holding court. But there’s also a lot to like about the second location the Hernández family opened this past spring in Yakima’s West Valley. Most notably, the new location has about three times as many seats as the Union Gap store. It’s a bit of a trek off I-82. But it’s also reasonably close to Wilridge Vineyard, Winery & Distillery‘s tasting room, in Naches Heights. Just sayin’.

Also in Yakima, the Hilton Garden Inn recently finished refreshing its rooms and common areas. The first thing you notice when you enter the lobby is all the open space. A large selection of grab and go snacks and soft drinks are available for purchase right next to the front desk. And the space seamlessly transitions to the restaurant and bar (above). As a nod to the area’s hop farms, the latter features eight taps for locally produced craft beers. Sounds like the perfect antidote to any post-winery palate fatigue.

[Top photo: Courtesy of the Lodge at Columbia Point]