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A Wine For Every Season
by Kathy Watson

Reprinted courtesy of the 2005 Gorge Guide®. Copyright by Gorge Publishing, Inc. To order your free Gorge Guide call (800) 98-GORGE or email crgva@gorge.net.

The Gorge is producing a world of wine in just 40 short miles, and winemakers are stepping up to the diversity. France has its Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Italy has its Pinot Gris, Barbera and Nebbiolo. Germany has its Riesling and Gewurztraminer. But the Columbia River Gorge... has it all. And more.

“It’s a world of wine in 40 miles,” says grape grower and wine make Lonnie Wright of Columbia Country Vineyards and The Pines wines, in The Dalles. “To make that kind of journey in the world of wine, you’d have to go 700 or 1,000 miles in Europe, across Germany, France and Italy.”

So what makes the Gorge such a rich and varied landscape for wine grapes, and now, as the word gets out, a magnet for grape growers, wine makers, tasting rooms, and of course, wine drinkers? What is causing long-time pear growers to replace pear trees with precise rows of Pinot Noir? What makes Sineann winemaker Peter Rosback select grapes from Lonnie Wright’s vines for his Old Vine Zinfandel (listed as the #1 wine in the Pacific Northwest by Tom Stevenson’s 2005 “The Wine Report”) or grapes for his single vineyard designated Pinot Noir from Phelps Creek Vineyard in the Hood River Valley? (That wine, incidentally, rated a 90 from Wine Spectator.) What makes Randal Graham, winemaker of the famed Bonny Doon Vineyard gush that the best domestic Viognier he’s ever tasted is from Syncline Wine Cellars in Bingen?

A drive through the Gorge is the way to experience the answer to those questions. A long meandering drive along the Columbia River, through basalt cliffs, lush forests, rich grassland, and finally, sparse desert landscape. Within the National Scenic Area, and up the long river valleys that feed the Columbia with water and salmon, the climate varies dramatically even over the course of a few miles.

“The biggest impact here is that we have three climate zones that are close together,” says James Mantone, proprietor and wine maker at Syncline. “There’s the marine influence meeting high dessert meeting the alpine. And then cold mountain air at night. I think that shapes the structure and characteristics more than anything.” It’s a recipe for something unique, and the powers that be (the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) finally acknowledged that.

In July 2004, the western portion of the Gorge became a federally-recognized wine grape growing region, the Columbia Gorge American Viticulture Area (AVA). The 40 members of the Columbia Grape Growers Association spent years winning the designation.

This appellation weaves a north-south boundary line from Underwood Mountain in Washington, across the Columbia River and south through the Hood River Valley, all the way to Parkdale at the foot of Mt. Hood. West to east, it goes from the Hood River Valley through Mosier over to Salmon Road in The Dalles, and back across the Columbia to its Eastern Washington boundary at the Klickitat River, and up from there to Trout Lake at the foot of Mt. Adams.

The eastern portion of the Gorge is part of an appellation as well, the Washington-dominated Columbia Valley designation. Between the two, the grape variety is astounding.

But it’s not grapes alone that make a great wine. A talented vat of wine makers and grape growers, some home grown, some with hefty California and Washington pedigrees, are making wine here. Like the grapes around them, they are diverse, and sometimes, a bit quirky.

Take Bob Lorkowski of Cascade Cliffs Vineyard and Winery in Wishram. On his 23 acre farm on the hot, sunny lip of the Columbia River way out east, he grows mostly heavy, dark reds: Nebbiolo and Barbera, for instance, and Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1996 when he bought the place, there were a lot of empty miles between him and the nearest Gorge winery, Wind River Cellars in Husum (on the way to Trout Lake from White Salmon). Now he has neighbors: Syncline, Marshal’s and Maryhill.

Expect to feel right at home in his tasting room. “We’ve been referred to as ‘casually sophisticated,’” he says with a grin. “People walk in and my wife says, ‘Whasssupp?’” Tastings, of such wonders as Goat Head Red, are free. Of course. That’s the Gorge way.

“There’s not a lot of snobbery here,” says Kate Dugan, marketing coordinator of the Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association. “Wine makers ask, ‘What’s it taste like to you?’”

Or stop in and meet Bob’s closest neighbor, Marshal’s owner and winemaker Ron Johnson, former aluminum plant worker, affectionately known as Ron-John. Make your way through a passel of yard dogs to the tasting room, where kitch holds sway, and where a whole pig (or two) is roasted during the Thanksgiving celebration.

Drive up the well-traveled dirt road from Husum to Wind River Cellars for a stellar view across the Columbia River to Mt. Hood towering above the Hood River Valley. Winemakers Kris and Joel Goodwillie welcome novice tasters to their converted barn winery, accented by a large view deck, and are happy to explain the winemaking process. From the rich, velvety flavors of Wind River Cellars Merlot to the award-winning taste of “Port of Celilo,” they produce a variety of wines that appeal to every type of wine consumer.

Up the Hood River Valley, just 6 miles from Hood River, meet Gail and Scott Hagee, who were pear growers before planting 15 acres of wine grapes a year ago, and opening the Pheasant Valley tasting room. With 10 more acres of grapes to go in this year, and under the hand of winemaker Rich Cushman, they are entertaining Portlanders who have never been to Hood River before.

“They usually go to the Willamette Valley for wine, but there’s no traffic coming out here. They taste our wine, and they’re blown away,” says Gail Hagee, who also runs a bed and breakfast on the grounds.

A bridge, a river and a state line may separate Oregon and Washington winemakers in the region, but you’d never know it. They are a close-knit group, sharing grape growing techniques, grapes and tasting events. It’s such a fresh time here, no one is sure what will happen next, though everyone agrees it’ll be more wineries and tasting rooms. For now, winemakers without tasting rooms collaborate on special occasion tastings, like the 6 wineries that came together for a Valentine’s tasting in the Hood River Hotel, to big crowds.

“The people coming in from Portland said it had been a long time since they had that many good wines in the same room,” says The Pines’ Lonnie Wright. “They were amazed at the breadth of the offerings. In the Willamette Valley, they can taste Pinot Noir, and then, maybe another Pinot Noir.”

Like bookends, the Gorge’s two largest wineries are at either end. On the west end in Troutdale, visit Edgefield Winery on the grounds of McMenamin’s Edgefield, a sweeping estate of restaurants, lodging, and ale brewing. The winery enjoyed its first crush in 1990 and later established its own vineyards and tasting room. The tasting room and cellar are open daily. Each April, the winery holds a two-day “Celebration of Syrah” festival.

On the far east end, Maryhill Winery, near Maryhill Museum of Art, offers a spectacular tasting room with a sweeping view of the Columbia Gorge and Mt. Hood. Maryhill boasts the most lush of winery grounds in the Gorge, including picnic areas and a 4,000-seat outdoor amphitheater built into the natural slope. Once again, the miraculous Gorge micro climate allows this one winery to produce: Syrah, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Viognier, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Merlot, Malbec and Grenache.

gorge map

A few miles east of Maryhill, you’ll find Waving Tree Winery, located in the log cabin Maryhill Visitor Center at the north end of the Maryhill Bridge. Sample their wine selection during the main tourist season (spring/fall weekends and summer).

Another of the larger wineries, Cathedral Ridge (formerly Flerchinger), is popular with tour groups because it’s close to Hood River, is open daily, and has a lovely gift shop and picnic grounds. Michael Sebastiani, of the Sebastiani family of Sonoma, has joined the re-born winery as the new winemaker. Cathedral Ridge is named for the north flank of Mt. Hood.

Nearby, Hood River Vineyards, the oldest Gorge winery at 25 years, is noted for its wide range of grapes. They have over 47 varietals in the ground, specializing in reds, as well as several dessert wines, including Pear Sherry and Zinfandel Port. Don’t miss their popular Perry, a hard pear cider.

OK, so there’s diversity here, but is it diversity with distinction? Do Gorge wines have a special something that sets them apart?

“You’re seeing a lot of young wine exuberance. It’s intense, and fruity. It’s not old

enough to show a regional consistency yet,” says Syncline’s Mantone. But there is, he says of the Syrahs he makes, “definitely a Gorge flavor, a higher acidity, really bright aromatics and flavors; it’s not so jammy.” From the white Burgundies of the region, he gets “lime and lemon zest and minerality.”

Bob Morus of Phelps Creek Vineyards may be a glimpse of wine to come. He’s into his tenth harvest of pinot noir, which he’s been selling for years to King Estate and Ponzi, as well as Sineann. Now he’s starting to bottle a few hundred cases under his own label.

“That’s part of the reason the Gorge is getting so much attention now. Great fruit was coming out of here, and then more people started coming out seeking the fruit. It’s just natural,” says Morus.

What’s next? Expect several new tasting rooms this year, from Mt. Hood Winery in Hood River to Erin Glenn and Dry Hollow Vineyards in The Dalles, all of whom already produce excellent wines. Visit any time, especially during the big wine weekends: Blossom Festival in April, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Wineries are timing releases for these weekends. The Grape Growers Association is also planning a second annual Gorge Wine Celebration the first week of August 2005, location yet to be determined.

And watch for more winemakers to pick up stakes in the Willamette Valley, and head this direction. Rich Cushman, Pheasant Valley’s winemaker, was born and raised in Hood River, educated in wine making at Davis, but lives in McMinnville for the moment. He’s bottling Gorge grapes under his own Viento label, and waiting for the day he can return. He’s looking for a Riesling revival, and thinks it could start here, just over the ridge from the Syrah.

Kathy Watson is a writer and proprietor-chef of Viento, a new restaurant in Bingen, where Gorge wines hold sway.

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