After numerous trips to California over the previous eight years, I was long overdue to explore the wine world of the Pacific Northwest. Following an enjoyable day in Seattle I headed east towards Walla Walla, blown away by the view along the way. What could have been a four-hour drive took more like seven, thanks to all the times I pulled off the highway to get out the camera and take in the scenery. As a nearly lifelong east coaster, experiencing the landscape in Washington first hand is truly amazing.
The only scheduled pit stop on the way was to check out The Benches vineyard (also known as Wallula vineyard) in the Horse Heaven Hills appellation of the Columbia Valley. The vineyard is really remote. It’s a forty-minute drive from the nearest town, and I was warned that the final seven miles were nothing but hilly gravel roads. About half way out to the vineyard the low fuel light came on, and I had to decide between turning back for gas at the risk of missing the photo that I was there to get, or keep going and risk getting stranded out there.
Naturally, since I’m an idiot, I decided to keep going. After all, if I run out of gas I’ve got a car to sleep in and a bottle of Champagne in my bag to quench my thirst. So I kill the air conditioning and deal with the late summer heat to preserve whatever gas I’ve got left in my rental. Spoiler: No, I didn’t run out of gas. Just wanted to get that cliff-hanger out of the way.
Once you get to the edge of the vineyard, the gravel gives way to baseball-sized stones, so you’re really plodding along for the last mile or so. The underside of the SUV sounds like it’s taking a beating from all the rocks that are being kicked up, and I’m more and more convinced that I’ve screwed myself with the decision not to turn back. At this point I have no idea if I’m all that close to my destination at the end of the vineyard, or whether I’m even headed in the right direction. You’d think, “Hey, it’s on a cliff overlooking the Columbia f***ing River. It can’t be that hard to find,” but you just keep driving.
Eventually I make it out to The Benches, and the view is absolutely ridiculous. My immediate thought is that this must be the most dramatic view from any vineyard in the US. If it’s not, I’m eager to see what can top it.
Well, suffice to say, I got the picture, packed my shit up and coasted into Kennewick on fumes. I pulled into Walla Walla later that evening, just in time to catch up with my host for the next few days, Trey Busch at Sleight of Hand Cellars, and enjoy a glass of wine while he laid out the plan for checking in on his vineyards.
I’m eager for a return trip to the Columbia Valley, and maybe this time I’ll remember to gas up before visiting The Benches so I can spend a little more time there with a little less stress.
The Den Hoed family planted The Benches, currently viewed as one of Washington’s best vineyards, in 1997 with Allen Shoup of Chateau Ste. Michelle. The vineyard is planted to fifteen different grape varieties, both red and white, including Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling. Wine from The Benches is bottled under both the Den Hoed label, as well as under Shoup’s Long Shadows project, founded in 2002.
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