Wendy K. Leigh Goes Cherry Picking in Zillah
Average summer high 85
A name like Zillah raises the bar on expectations, with lively adjectives springing to mind: zesty…zippy…zingy. That’s a lot of pressure on a tiny town in eastern Washington. Fortunately, when the Yakima Valley springs to life with the cherry harvest in early summer, the 3,000 people who call Zillah home are up to the challenge of meeting the expectations of just about anyone from “the big city” who cruises over Snoqualmie Pass with a craving for newly ripe Bings, Rainiers, Reginas and Attikas.
Along the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Seattle, verdant evergreens and snow-spotted mountains give way to fertile farmland, lush vineyards and orchards bursting with millions of cherries ready to be picked.
Tietons are the first blushers, saturating the valley in early June with a riot of crimson fruit, firm and glossy, clinging to thick, grasshopper-green stems. Not far behind, deep mahogany Bings dominate the fields, reasserting their status as the most prominent commercial sweet cherry in North America. Then the belles of the ball start arriving en masse: the bright yellow and pink flush of Rainiers, deep heart-shaped Lamberts and Sweethearts, Lapins and Skeenas—all gracing market bins and roadside stands from early July into August every year.
I first went to Zillah in early July to help with the harvest. After passing through Yakima, the self-described “Palm Springs of Washington” on Interstate 82, the road curves gently off exit 52 before dropping into the heart of Zillah. As the central winemaking hub of the Rattlesnake Hills American Viticultural Area, the town is home to more than 18 of Washington’s most creative wineries, which blend seamlessly with a quirky and robust community of artisans, horse-wrangling cowgirls, goat-hugging cheesemakers and generational earth tillers.
Bumping along dusty, country roads leading deep into the farmlands of Zillah, I spotted the fields of Blue Sky Orchards, whose owners would be my gracious harvest hosts. Dale Knotts, co-owner of the orchard with her husband, Gilbert, was engrossed in covering crates of freshly picked Bings with wet burlap to protect the cherries from the late-morning sun. She cranked up an improvised golf cart and waved for me to jump on, and we bumped along dusty orchard paths dotted with dozens of pickers belted to trees like circus performers. Left on my own with a handful of workers, each bearing a single bucket and ladder, it was straightforward work, plucking the ripe, dangling fruit one cherry at a time. The repetitive motion, mixed with intoxicating sweet aromas drifting through branches on an occasional welcome breeze, created a mesmerizing routine. Three hours and what felt like thousands of cherries later, I collapsed on the ground with a few blisters, and a belly full of the best cherries I’ve ever tasted.
Wandering through the quaint towns and farms east of the Cascades, it’s easy to forget that Washington is the third-largest agriculture exporter among the 50 states. It’s big business for sure—but somehow, it doesn’t feel that way. Small farms throughout the area offer many opportunities for cherry jubilation, including roadside stands, U-pick farms, festivals, contests and cherry-soaked food delicacies.
In the curve of a country road just off the highway, a hand-painted wooden sign sits in front of the historic barn at Bella Terra Gardens (Zillah, 660 Bella Terra Road; 509.865.4554; rosehillacres.com), giving a rundown of which organic vegetables are ready for picking in the fields each day. Owned by the Obert family, longtime Zillah farmers and fruit packers, the stand is stocked with a continuous supply of just-off-the-branch Bings and Rainiers from their nearby orchards. Visitors can browse local art and antiques, spread a blanket for picnics, and feed goats, chickens and sheep.
About 10 minutes west of Zillah, The Fruit Bungalow (Wapato, 2560 Donald-Wapato Road; 509.877.3115; pietyflatswinery.com) sits off exit 44, displaying enormous tubs spilling over with cherries from local farmers. Grab a handful of Rainiers and ramble a few dozen feet over to Piety Flats Winery (pietyflatswinery.com), housed in a country mercantile store that’s chock-full of old-fashioned candies, hot pepper jellies and local barbecue sauces. Kids can gobble natural root beer floats, while adults sip Syrah, Carménère and Black Muscat on the front porch.
Celebrating the season in grand style, Bill and Julie Michener, along with their eight children, fling open the gates of Bill’s Berry Farm (Grandview, 3674 N County Line Road; 509.882.3200; billsberryfarm.com) for an annual cherry festival (June 28–29), which is about a half-hour drive from Zillah. Each day of the festival features a barbecue lunch and a petting zoo, with the winners of gunnysack races and cherry-seed spitting contests receiving the ultimate prize: fresh, hot cherry doughnuts. All ages are encouraged to pick their own ripe, succulent cherries from the fields.