Drink in the grand vistas and the relaxed tasting rooms of the Columbia River Gorge
The winemakers in the Columbia River Gorge march to their own beat, but most have one thing in common: winning major awards. Maryhill was named the 2009 Washington Winery of the Year by Wine Press NW, and AniChe’s “Atticus” won gold at the 2011 Women’s International Wine Conference. The wines by Syncline regularly score 93 points or more in Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, and Cascade Cliff’s “Estate Barbera” has won gold at Northwest Wine Summit every year since 2006. Less than twenty wineries call the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge home, but they are gaining a reputation for excellent wines and friendly tasting rooms.
The Columbia Gorge Wine Growers Association was established in 2005 to promote “everything’ that the Gorge has to offer,” and it regularly hosts Gorge-wide wine events that verge on parties, typically on public holidays. The association’s slogan, “a world of wine in 40 miles,” highlights the fact that the Gorge is well suited to grow grape varieties from all over the world.
“The Gorge is a pretty darned diverse growing region,” says Brian McCormick of Memaloose winery. “I am confident that one could make something—in many vintages—from almost any grape variety.” Brian worked at Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in France’s Alsace region and spent three years working a vineyard in Sonoma Valley before moving his family to the town of Lyle. Memaloose takes its name from a nearby island that was once a Native American burial ground. Lewis and Clark chronicled the island in 1806, and the winery’s labels feature portions of their journals, including maps and writing.
This year, Memaloose relocated its tasting room to downtown Lyle. It offers a deck with seating and old barrels for tables, and visitors sip wine while watching windsurfers zip across the river. Brian makes wines in the Alsatian style, focusing on barbera, cabernet franc, and syrah. “The wines are food wines,” says Brian’s father, Rob, who can regularly be found pouring in the tasting room. “They are low in alcohol and do not see any new oak.”
If there were a mad-scientist wine award, the duo at AlmaTerra would take it. “When I was still on the faculty at Washington State University, I harbored a secret dream to plant a vineyard,” says Dr. Alan Busacca, who teamed up with winemaker Robert O. Smasne in 2006. Alan, who has wispy white hair and wears Clark Kent glasses, lectured on geology, agriculture, and soil science for nearly thirty years. AlmaTerra’s slogan is “inspired by terroir,” and Alan studied the geology in vineyards across the state before approaching Robert with the idea of producing a series of single-vineyard wines. The idea is to let the qualities of each vineyard shine through.
“I think it is really cool,” says Alan, “for people who want to taste wine and are excited about traveling through the Gorge, that the Washington side has a nice mosaic of winery locations and winemaker styles. It is much different now than it was, even compared with two years ago.” Alan regularly pours at the AlmaTerra tasting room in downtown Bingen, which stays open late, and live music is offered on Friday evenings.
Of all the wineries on the Washington side of the Gorge, Syncline may consistently receive the highest scores from international publications. The winery uses 100% Washington-grown fruit to make its Rhone varietals. It places extra emphasis on being a family-friendly destination. “For me, wine is part of life, so why isolate it from children,” says winemaker James Matone. He and his wife, Poppie, have two kids, and the eldest helps with the wine production, from picking grapes to bottling. She’s eight years old.
Though reluctant to quantify his winemaking style, James says, “I want intensity. I don’t want concentration. People talk about concentrated wines a lot, but concentration just means dehydrated grapes.” In 2011, Wine Spectator gave the 2009 Ciel Du Cheval Vineyard Syrah 94 points, and Wine Enthusiast gave the 2007 Steep Creek Ranch 94 points. Modeled after the wineries in France’s Loire Valley, Syncline is dedicated to supporting the local community, and the winery provides jobs for locals and donates a portion of its garden to the local food bank annually.
Whereas the wineries in the Western Gorge have a true Northwest environment, the wineries in the Eastern Gorge have an almost desert-like climate. This is because the Cascade Mountain Range bisects the region. The Columbia Gorge AVA lies to the west of the mountains and the Columbia Valley AVA to the east, beginning near the town of Wishram. If the towns of Hood River and White Salmon seem small, Wishram will seem microscopic. “I know most of my customers,” says Brad Gearhart, winemaker at Jacob Williams. “If your pump breaks while bottling, one of the other wineries up the road will help you out.”
Brad built a new winery complex this year. Perched on 400-foot cliffs and surrounded by cherry trees, lupine, and yellow balsamroot, the Jacob Williams tasting room has incredible views of the river and Mt. Hood. Brad has made wine in the area since the 1990s; his 2009 Merlot won a gold medal at the 2011 Northwest Wine Summit, and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon won gold in 2010.
Also in the Eastern Gorge, Cascade Cliffs uses huge slabs of trees—none of the knobby contours removed—for tables, and its logo is a petroglyph found on the property. Dressed in cowboy boots and Stetson shirts, Jared Germain, general manager of the winery, says, “Our area is more like Yakima Valley than Hood River.” You’d think John Wayne ran the winery, but Jared isn’t into cattle rustling. “We want wine geeks,” he says.
Cascade Cliffs focuses on the Italian varietals nebbiolo and barbera. “We were some of the very first people in the Northwest to grow those kinds of grapes,” says Jared. Owner and winemaker Robert Lorkowski entered their “Estate Barbera” into the Northwest Wine Summit competition for the first time in 2006, and it won the best of the best award: the double gold. “It kind of put us and barbera on the map here in the Gorge,” says Jared. Having planted its vineyard in 1986, the winery is one of the oldest to continually operate on the Washington side.
The easternmost winery in the Gorge is a true destination. With a 4,000-seat amphitheater, bocce courts, a spacious vine-covered terrace, and a 3,000-square-foot tasting room, Maryhill has firmly planted its roots, and this summer’s musical line-up includes Earth, Wind & Fire and Chris Isaac. “It is the kind of place,” says owner and winemaker Craig Leuthold, “where people can spend a day and never run out of things to do.” The winery, which has won more than a thousand awards in the past ten years, is opening a new Reserve Room, where they will feature many of their most heavily awarded wines.
“As the Gorge wine region expands,” says Craig, “and the wineries continue to improve on the quality of the wines they are producing, I think we will see a significant increase in development and investment in new vineyards and wineries. This region is really just in its infancy.”