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On the same latitude as France's main wine regions, the Yakima Valley is Washington's premier wine region. The valley sees sunshine on about 300 days of the year, which, combined with the rich volcanic soil, provides near-perfect grape-growing conditions. The only thing missing is rain. Central Washington is virtually a desert, but irrigation long ago overcame this minor inconvenience, and today the area produces award-winning chardonnay, Riesling, chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, semillon, gew├╝rztraminer, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, lemberger, and muscat wines. Because of the clear weather here at harvest, and because freezing weather sometimes arrives when grapes are still on the vines, a few wineries in the valley produce limited amounts of sweet, delicious ice wine made from frozen berries. Quite a few wineries also produce port-style wines.

The Yakima Valley wine country stretches roughly from Zillah (about 20 miles east of Yakima) to the Tri-Cities area (Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick), although the Tri-Cities area is officially in the Columbia Valley appellation. You can get a guide and map of the wine country from the Yakima Valley Visitors & Convention Bureau or Wine Yakima Valley, 5808A Summitview Ave. #325, Yakima, WA 98908 (tel. 800/258-7270; www.wineyakimavalley.org). This map covers the area from the city of Yakima east to Benton City's Red Hills region. For a map of Tri-Cities area wineries, contact the Columbia Valley Winery Association, P.O. Box 6644, Kennewick, WA 99336 (tel. 866/360-6611 or 509/628-8082; www.columbiavalleywine.com). However, even if you don't have a map, you can follow signs throughout the valley that point the way to various vineyards and wineries, or you can just follow Yakima Valley Highway/Wine Country Road (U.S. 12) between Zillah and Prosser, dropping in at whichever wineries strike your fancy. There are more than 50 wineries in the valley, and you could easily spend a week here visiting them all. However, most people spend no more than a weekend in the area. I suggest picking no more than four or five to visit during a day of wine tasting. It's also advisable to have a designated driver.

The Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail (tel. 888/375-7498 or 509/965-4521; www.rattlesnakehills.com) is an association of 16 Yakima Valley wineries that have issued a "Wine Trail Passport." This pass costs $5 and provides you with free tastings of reserve wines, as well as discounts on bottle purchases. Current members include Bonair Winery, Claar Cellars, Eaton Hill Winery, Horizon's Edge Winery, Hyatt Vineyards, Maison de Padgett Winery, Masset Winery, Paradisos del Sol, Piety Flats Winery, Portteus Vineyards, Sagelands Vineyard, Severino Cellars, Silver Lake at Roza Hills, Steppe Cellars, Tefft Cellars, and Two Mountain Winery.

Let's Do Lunch -- Because good restaurants are few and far between in the Yakima Valley, you should consider bringing along picnic supplies when you go out wine tasting. Lots of wineries have patios, picnic tables, and great views.

The Zillah Area

Pick up some fresh Yakima Valley fruit or indulge in a fresh peach sundae (in season, of course) at Donald Fruit & Mercantile, 2560 Donald-Wapato Rd., Wapato (tel. 509/877-3115), which first opened in 1911 and is reached by driving north from exit 44 off I-82. This country store is also the tasting room for Piety Flats Winery.

Texas Tea? -- While in Zillah, don't miss the Teapot Dome gas station, 14691 Yakima Valley Hwy. a national historic building constructed in 1922 in the shape of a giant teapot to call attention to a scandal in the administration of President Warren G. Harding. You'll find the teapot on the south side of I-82.

Prosser

Here in Prosser, at exit 80 off I-82, you can also stop in at Chukar Cherry Company, 320 Wine Country Rd. (tel. 800/624-9544 or 509/786-2055; www.chukar.com), and sample dried cherries and lots of dried fruits and candies. The shop is open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 6pm and Sunday from 9am to 5pm.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.