By: Becky Garrison
The Columbia Gorge Wine Region is defined by the Columbia River that cuts through the Cascade Mountain Range, as well as the Missoula Floods that scoured the region 15,000 years ago. Within this compact 40-mile region that includes Washington State and Oregon, lies the Columbia Gorge American Viticulture Area (AVA), as well as a portion of the Columbia Valley AVA.
Lewis and Clark first made the Gorge famous during their 1805 passage to the Pacific Ocean, when they found this was the only sea-level passage through the Cascades. However, the first signs of this region’s winemaking potential did not occur until the 1880s when the Jewitt family, founders of the town of White Salmon in Washington State, first planted American vines.
Soon other pioneer families followed suit with some of their original vines still standing. Case in point, during this time period, Italian stonemason Louis Comini planted Zinfandel wines in a vineyard located in The Dalles, Oregon. In 1982, Lonnie Wright, owner of the Pines 1852 Vineyard and Winery, rediscovered this now abandoned vineyard and nursed the vineyard back to health. He continues to grow grapes used for their Old Vine Zinfandel.
In the 1970s, other contemporary pioneers began experimenting growing grapes on the south-facing slopes of the Underwood Mountain in Washington State. Over the ensuing two decades, well known wine makers began exploring the grapes of this region, and the Columbia Gorge AVA was established formally in 2004.
A founding member of the Columbia Gorge AVA and co-founder of Syncline Wine Cellars (Lyle, Washington), James Mantone made his first batch of wine in 1999 at Syncline using Pinot Noir grown at Celilo Vineyard, one of the oldest vineyards in Washington State. Early on, Mantone saw the potential of this area for winemaking. He describes his pull to this area. “We were attracted by the tortured topography, the jumbled soils, the varied aspects and elevations of the hills, the influence of the Cascades cooling the nights, the winds shaping vine photosynthesis, the marginal climate. Here was a place that could reward the winemaker with intimate sites that have the potential to produce grapes unique from neighboring sites.”
Rachael Horn, head wine maker and owner of AniChe Cellars in Underwood, Washington, describes the Columbia Gorge AVA as edgy, literally, and fringe in all kinds of ways. “We can grow a variety of fruit in the Gorge, due to a banana belt micro marine-climate while being surrounded by Continental climes.” She adds how these growing conditions produce a high degree of acid in fruit. “This keeps our wines fresh and less concentrated than nearby regions. Our diurnal difference is often 30 degrees or more, which facilitates the retention of native acids.”
While the Pacific Northwest has become renowned for their juicy red wines, the diverse terroir of this region can produce grapes of almost every varietal. In fact, the Columbia Gorge AVA has the distinction of being one of the few wine growing areas in Washington State where white grape planting exceeds red grape planting with white grapes constituting about 64 percent of the total grape harvest.
The more western vineyards possess a cool, marine influenced climate ideal for cool-weather loving white varietals such as Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Chardonnay which are known for their crisp acidity. This area also produces bold reds such as Pinot Noir that grow well in this lush environment. Some of these western vineyards such as AniChe Cellars can be dry-farmed, as the soil receives upwards of 40 inches of precipitation annually, and does not require additional irrigation.
Conversely, eastern vineyards with their continental high desert climate replete with abundant sunshine and just 10 inches of annual rainfall are perfect for growing hot-weather Rhône and Bordeaux along with Italian varietals such as Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Barbera.
Steve Bickford, one of the owners of the family-owned Mt. Hood Winery situated just outside the town of Hood River, observes how the local weather informs the grapes they chose to grow at their vineyard versus those grapes they decide to purchase from other AVAs.
”The west end is cooler, wetter and with less overall heat units needed for ripening. So, we grow many white wine grapes on the west end in Hood River, and a few reds; mostly Pinot Noir. The east end of the AVA is drier and hotter, and conducive to the bigger reds, like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, So we buy some grapes from our eastern friends.”
Even within a single vineyard, one can find a vast array of wines. For example, Nate Ready, Farmer/Winemaker, for Hiyu Wine Farm near Hood River, Oregon, opines how the different kind of microorganisms, plants, animals, and humans living in a symbiotic system allow him to grow 107 grape varietals. He creates 12 complex field blends through practices such as grafting multiple varieties on to one plant. Here Ready is inspired by natural mutations that happen over time with an eye toward history. He notes, “Each planting is a field blend based on a different moment in the European history of the grapevine.”
Ready chose to situate his 30-acre family farm about 22 miles from the summit of Mt. Hood because he wanted to raise animals and garden in a way that resembles nature more than agriculture. “It works for all kinds of grapes because its a diverse and happy place to be a living, growing, being free of pesticides, herbicides, chemicals, and unnecessary human intervention.”
Graham Markel launched Buona Notte Wines, an Italian leaning winery, after working as an assistant winemaker for Hiyu. While the Gorge is not as diverse as the Italian peninsula, he finds places that grow different Italian varietals. Currently, Markel works with seven different vineyards for the seven different varietals that he makes. “Every vineyard is completely unique and seems to fit that varietal so well. I get Sauvignon Blanc form the cliffs of Underwood and Sangiovese from the rolling wheat fields just east of The Dalles. The two vineyards couldn’t be more different, and are only about 40 miles apart.”
Luke Bradford, proprietor of Cor Cellars wanted to grow the kinds of grapes that would produce the wines he encountered during his trips to Europe such as the wines of Boudreaux and the Mosel, as well as the wines of central and southern Italy. “We wanted to be located in a cooler climate region while still having access to the warmer climate grapes.” Currently, their white wines are made using grapes grown in the Columbia Gorge while they get the grapes for their red wines from the neighboring Horse Heaven Hills AVA.
According to the Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association, fifty wineries reside in this region with 95% of these boutique wineries producing 5,000 or fewer cases of wine each year. These wineries gatherer their grapes from over ninety vineyards (1,300+ vineyard acres planted) within this wine region, as well as surrounding AVAs with a focus on sustainable and organic farming practices.
Given this boutique nature of the Columbia Gorge AVA, an event such as the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire had a very detrimental impact on that year’s harvest. In summer of 2019, neighboring Phelps Creek Vineyards, Mt. Hood Winery and Stave & Stone Wine Estates, launched National Forest Week to help rebuild the hiking trails damaged in this fire. They released 8,376 bottles of three Pinot Noirs made with grapes from this fiery vintage. Each bottle sold generated $3 for the National Forest Foundation’s Eagle Creek Fire Restoration Fund.
Moving forward, ventures such as the Columbia Gorge Express enable tourists without a car to travel from Portland, Oregon to Hood River to explore the town’s numerous tasting rooms, along with three breweries (Ferment Brewing, Double Mountain Brewery and Pfriem family breweries) and Hood River Distilling, home to brands such as Clear Creek Distilling and McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt.
Also, the East Gorge Food Trail worked with the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance to develop agrotourism within the region by focusing on local businesses that source ingredients within 150 miles. They chose to focus on the Eastern part of the Gorge this area was not as well developed for tourism as areas such as the towns of Hood River and Cascade Locks and areas like Mt. Hood. They designed a self-guided tour covering Mosier (pop. 433) to The Dalles (pop. 13,631) or The Dalles to Durfur (pop. 638). These tours encompass ten historic orchards and farms, restaurants, and seven wineries (15 Mile Winery, Analemma Wines, Garnier Vineyards, Idiot’s Grace Wines, Moody Tollbridge Winery, Sunshine Mill Winery, and Tierra de Lobos Winery).
As they are at the beginning stages of this project, they hope to continue knitting together the stories that can connect people to the terroir and tastes of the Columbia Gorge AVA.