The Most Exciting Wine Region in America - The Columbia Gorge AVA

Credit: Jacob Williams Winery

Credit: Jacob Williams Winery

More than 150 years before the Columbia River was transformed by a series of dams into the lazy mass of a river that it is today, the Lewis and Clark Expedition spent six months navigating the river until they established Rock Fort Camp in 1805 near what is now The Dalles, Oregon. Wine was likely the last thing on their minds, an occasional mental footnote for the wealthy and well-traveled in the expedition, but far superseded by more basic needs: food, shelter, and safety. It's unlikely that Lewis and Clark could have envisioned the impact of their expedition on the western United States. Even less likely was the prospect that the Columbia Gorge would become a thriving and diverse wine region more than 200 years after their expedition concluded.

I went on an adventure in the Columbia Gorge with several friends during a trip to Portland in January and was blessed with unseasonably warm weather and sunny skies. This is the story of the wineries we visited, the wines we tasted, and the unparalleled landscapes we experienced along the way.

Heading east from Portland, the rolling, farm-speckled and Pinot Noir-saturated hills of the Willamette Valley yield to the fog draped cliffs of the Columbia Gorge and the foothills of Mt. Hood. Walls of rocks plunge toward the Columbia River while wind-swept trees hang on for dear life over the edge of outcrops. Waterfalls the size of Godzilla appear out of dense fog and a deep green canopy of Douglas Fir and Spruce trees blanket the creek beds leading to the hills above. There is little subtlety in the Columbia Gorge - its beauty is unmistakable.

The Columbia River slices through the middle of Cascade Mountain Range, leaving Mount Hood to the south in Oregon and Mount St. Helens, Rainier, and Adams to the north in Washington. As you travel east, the landscape dramatically shifts from the soggy, rich soil and dense air of the Pacific Northwest to the windy and dry desert of the high plains. As illustrated by the Google Earth satellite photo below, each mile of earth heading east receives one less inch of precipitation. The desert is in full effect only a handful of miles east of Mt. Hood. 

With Mt. Hood and Oregon to the south, Portland to the west, and Washington to the north, the Columbia Gorge encompasses a range of diverse microclimates in less than 40 miles. 

With Mt. Hood and Oregon to the south, Portland to the west, and Washington to the north, the Columbia Gorge encompasses a range of diverse microclimates in less than 40 miles. 

The Oregon and Washington wine industries collided here, resulting in one of the most exciting, eccentric, and picturesque wine regions in the United States. The Columbia Gorge American Viticultural Area (AVA) was established in 2004 and is home to more than 30 wineries, 45 vineyards, and 40 different grape varietals. Many wineries source grapes from vineyards outside of the AVA's boundaries but a growing number are focusing on "homegrown" grapes nearby. Italian and Spanish varietals-Dolcetto, Primitivo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Tempranillo, Albarino, even Arneis-have found a home here, as well as a selection of Bordeaux and Burgundy varietals influenced by the proximity to more established winegrowing regions in Washington and Oregon. This list only scratches the surface of the varietals found in the region; you can also find Chenin Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Gewurtztraminer, Lemberger, and a host of other grapes rarely seen outside of Europe. For many, the diversity of grapes would be off-putting, the mark of a young wine region not yet aware of its most symbiotic and prized vinous assets. But the region's diversity of microclimates and a culture of experimentation among winemakers is a powerful and unique combination that is resulting in a growing selection of high quality, intriguing wines.

Comini's Vineyard Circa 1911. Credit: The Pines Winery

That the region is young is not to say that there isn't a long history of winemaking. Before the start of the 20th century, Italian stonemason Louis Comini planted Zinfandel vines in what is now one of the oldest vineyards in the Pacific Northwest. The property was rediscovered in 1982 by Lonnie Wright, owner of The Pines 1852 Vineyard and Winery, and he nursed the vines back to health over the following decade (Check out this great article over at Wine Peeps for the full story of Louis Comini and his "Dago red" wine).

The Pines offers a selection of small production red, white, and sparkling wines made from grapes grown in the Columbia Gorge AVA and the Columbia Valley AVA. Their white wines were tasty and the sparkling wine, apparently in high demand, was not available when I visited their tasting room in downtown Hood River. The reds, however, are the real stars of their lineup. Compared to the neighboring wines in the Willamette Valley, the majority of the The Pines' red wines-Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot-are deliciously robust and powerful.  These are wines to dig your teeth into and gnaw on, yet they retain their balance and avoid the over-extracted winemaking antics that so many wineries use these days. While I'm never shy in declaring my love for Oregon Pinot Noir, it was refreshing to drive the length of the gorge, from soggy Portland to the sandy desert, and experience the mouth-drying, hearty, tannic bite of these wines along the way.

After my visit to The Pines, my friend Alan took me see Brian McCormick, winemaker and viticulturist at Memaloose Winery in Mosier, Oregon. Along with his wife and two children, Brian farms grapes, cherries, pears, and garden produce at his 7-acre certified organic estate vineyard. Memaloose farms four other sustainable vineyards in Oregon and Washington, totaling more than 16 acres, and grows a wide variety of grapes: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Primitivo, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Dolcetto, Barbera, Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne, and Sauvignon Blanc. Many of the Columbia Gorge wineries source grapes from Oregon and Washington vineyards outside of the AVA but Memaloose is one of the few wineries that source all of their fruit from vineyards within the Columbia Gorge AVA's boundaries.

If anyone is the face of the Columbia Gorge AVA's vinous experimentation and dizzying complexity of terroir, it's Brian. We sat down with him at his kitchen table and tasted through several of his wines, notably the 2012 Estate Cabernet Franc and the 2012 Idiot's Grace Primitivo. Brian is contemplative, "a bit of a recluse" as the winery's website says, and speaks with a depth of intention that I imagine makes some people uneasy. I've been drinking his wines since my time living in Portland in 2009 and one thing is clear: he makes beautiful and elegant wines that have few parallels in the United States.  

Current buzz words of the wine world - minimal intervention, low sulfur, terroir - are no fluff at Memaloose. Brian's 2012 Estate Cabernet Franc, clocking in at a cool 13% alcohol, took me straight to the Loire Valley in France, home to the world's most sought after Cabernet Franc. Elegant and deliciously perfumed with silky sweet fruit and a long finish. It was impeccably balanced - one of the few wines that made me consider purchasing multiple cases, to which my bank account promptly said no. The Cabernet Franc is a flagship wine but others dazzle as well, including the Mistral Ranch, a red blend of Rhone Valley varietals and Trevitt's White, a white blend of Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Muscat. I tasted more of his wines later that week in Portland, each of which was unique and intriguing. Call his wines what you wish - classically-styled, old world, restrained - but they are in a world all their own. 

A visit to Memaloose's tasting room on the Columbia River in Lyle, Washington is a must if you are in the area. Along with stunning views west into the gorge, you may spot a few bald eagles perched on trees nearby.

Looking west from Memaloose's tasting room in Lyle, Washington. Credit: Mat Elmore

Heading farther east and onto the Washington side of the gorge, my friends and I came to Syncline Winery. Tucked away in a patch of old oak trees off of Old Highway No. 8, there isn't much nearby but a few old barns and a windy gravel road that offers the occasional view of the river below and Mount Hood's snowcapped peak in the distance. The land here begins to breathe and stretch out as open grassland dappled with trees lead a slow rise to the plateau above. The winery is named after a nearby geological formation called the Bingen Syncline:

Directly west of the vineyard and winery is a series of 300-foot cliffs rising up into the surrounding mountains straight out of the Columbia River. Locally known as the Coyote Wall Syncline and to geologists as the Bingen Syncline, this dramatic feature gives the winery its name. It is at this point that the rainy western Columbia Gorge transitions to the semi-arid eastern Gorge.

Looking west into the Columbia Gorge near Syncline Winery. Credit: Mat Elmore

Credit: Mat Elmore

Visiting Syncline is tantamount to stepping back in time: a farmhouse and single-building winery surrounded by a small vineyard, picnic tables, and a creek that edges the northwest boundary of the property. The grounds are quiet and still and proudly patrolled by two friendly canines and the occasional hawk.

Poppie and James Mantone's story is familiar: they met during harvest at LaVelle Vineyards near Eugene, Oregon, fell in love shortly thereafter, and decided that they would start their own winery in the future. They made their first batch of wine at Syncline in 1999 from Pinot Noir grown at Celilo Vineyard, one of the oldest vineyards in Washington, and have steadily grown the production to 6,000 cases each year with an emphasis on Rhone varietals. While they source the majority of their grapes from non-estate vineyards in Washington, they farm biodynamically on the vineyards they own and are closely involved in the farming regimens of the vineyards they purchase fruit from. They have plans to expand the estate vineyard with another 15-20 acres nearby. Their winemaking practices are explained in detail on their website:

All grapes are hand picked and brought to the winery where they are partially destemmed, with a portion of whole clusters, into a variety of fermentation vessels. Over the years, we have grown to love our concrete fermenters. Fermentation in concrete occurs for all of our finest lots of grapes. Native or ‘feral’ yeast fermentations are primarily employed, though inoculated fermentations are used when needed. Each lot is foot trod (pigeage à pied) along with manual punch downs or pump-overs. Free run juice is kept separate for our top bottlings. Gently pressed, and free run juices are separately matured in either older french oak, or concrete tanks. Our focus is on vineyard characters and flavors.

We tasted more than 10 wines amidst the cozy confines of their "tasting room", a dark wood bar with five chairs surrounded by egg-shaped cement tanks and oak barrels in the corner of their winery.  I had tasted several of Syncline's widely distributed wines when I lived in Portland but I had only scratched the surface of their offerings. This is not your average line up of wines from, well, anywhere really. Syncline makes single-varietal bottles of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Cinsault, and Mouvedre and several Rhone-inspired red blends. They also offer an intriguing selection of white wines, including Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, rosé, and brut rosé, though sadly none of them were available at the time of my visit.

It was a stunning selection. Where can you get single-varietal Counoise in the United States? In the world? How many wineries in America make such expressive, chewy, and untamed red Rhone blends? And why not throw in Gruner Veltliner, one of the geeky wine world's recent obsessions? 

As we tasted I thought to myself, these wines are damn good. Every last one of them. Wonderful aromatics, pure fruits, and an alluringly consistent and fresh liveliness to the reds. Each wine was expressive, nuanced, and well-balanced and there was a wide diversity of intensities, textures, and flavors on display. I fell hardest for Syncline's two bottles of Mouvèdre, one a blend from Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain AVAs and one purely from Red Mountain that includes a dash of Syrah. I was stunned by how simultaneously bright and rich these wines were. The little Mouvèdre I've drank has hailed from Bandol in France and trends toward a wild, untamed, and hedonistic interpretation of the grape. Bandol reds are utterly distinct and delicious in their own right, but if you blind-tasted these bottles from Syncline with a couple bottles of Bandol, I'm not sure you'd be able to recognize that they were the same grape. I ended up purchasing a bottle of Counoise and a bottle of Mouvèdre, the most expensive bottle available at $45, without a hint of guilt, which is a testament to their quality because I can't remember ever paying $45 for a single bottle of wine. Syncline was a revelation. 

Syncline's cozy tasting room nestled in a corner of the winery. Credit: Mat Elmore

A lone canine watches over the picnic. Credit: Mat Elmore

The last stop of our adventure was Cor Cellars, a short jaunt 2 miles east of Syncline. The odds were stacked against it. I had sensed that the group was fading after a windy drive from Portland, a hearty lunch, and too many wines to count. Our palates were tired, the mid-afternoon haze had set in, and Cor was the only thing keeping us from devouring perfectly-charred pizzas at Double Mountain in Hood River.

We were greeted by a corkscrew the size of a mailbox at the entrance to the property. Comical and a touch surrealistic, I took this as a good sign, the playful intent of the owners to connect wine to its agricultural origins, a connection often lost amidst the sterile rows of retail supermarket shelves. We found a small, humble tasting room connected to the winery with a simple patio stocked with four wood chairs and a picnic table. With the Mercury surpassing 60 degrees and the sun streaming in from the west, we plopped down outside and made our way through Cor's selection of red and white wines.

Cor Cellars was founded by Luke Bradford in 2005 after working at several wineries in Italy and Wind River Cellars and Syncline Winery in Washington. Luke's motto, "Old School Tradition with New School Style", is well-suited for the selection and characteristics of wines he offers. Luke sources the majority of his fruit for red wines from Horse Heaven Hills area in Washington while using grapes from vineyards in the Columbia Gorge for his white wines. Like Syncline, he biodynamically farms a small estate vineyard, with hopes to expand in the near future. He makes a number of single-varietal wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Luke also produces two intriguing red blends, the Momentum, a Merlot-based blend with Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, and the Old Highway, a nod to old-school southwest France that blends Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

Cor's selection of red wines is impressive and the quality is exceptional across the board, especially considering the majority of their wines are $35 or less, a rare feat for a boutique operation of its size. There wasn't a single wine I didn't enjoy. Many of them, including the Cabernet Sauvignon, were surprisingly aromatic while also rich and dense. I wouldn't describe any of these wines as restrained but similar to the reds at Syncline, they contained a liveliness and vivacity that is uncommon for an entire portfolio of wine. The Malbec was a stand out, as was the Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, but surprisingly my favorite was the Old Highway, a decadent blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Twenty-two months in oak gives this wine a luxurious mouthfeel, with dark black fruit, cassis, and lifting notes of floral/violet on the palate. Somehow this still came across as elegant without feeling overdone. 

The white wines, a blend and a single-varietal bottle of Riesling, are full of life and paint a nice contrast to the reds. My favorite was the Alba white blend, 60% Gewurztraminer and 40% Pinot Gris, sourced from the Celilo Vineyard within the Columbia Gorge AVA's boundaries. It was bright and expressive with classic floral and spice notes from the Gewurztraminer and added complexity and structure from the Pinot Gris. This bottle is easy drinking enough to enjoy without much thought but complex enough to contemplate and savor.

Luke's operation is not short on praise from the official wine press but it felt like we discovered a hidden gem unencumbered by the glamour and glitz that accompanies much of the wine industry today. Our time at Cor Cellars was one of the most enjoyable winery visits I've had in a long time. 

The patio at Cor Cellars. Credit: Mat Elmore

As the sun set and we made our way back west to Hood River for our date with delicious pizza, I pondered how terroir has helped define all of the most famous wine regions in the world. Terroir can be associated with a wine region, such as Chablis in France, or in comparing two nearby vineyards. As Eric Asimov describes, terroir is "the combination of earth, climate, and culture that results in a consistent and singular expression in a wine." But how does this apply to a region as geologically and varietally-diverse as the Columbia Gorge AVA? And what does it mean for the future of winemaking here?

The wineries here will continue to experiment with different sites and hone in on the most suitable sites and grapes, but the Columbia Gorge AVA has already staked its claim as one of the most diverse wine regions in the United States. It is clear to me that, with the aid of the stunning scenery, the region's wineries' commitment to bold experimentation, sustainable farming, and hands-off winemaking make it one of the most exciting wine regions in the world.

Thank you to Alan, Christina, Colin, Lindsay, and Bill for joining me on the adventure. Other wineries to visit in the Columbia Gorge AVA: Domaine Pouillon, Cerulean Wine, Analemma Wines, Phelps Creek Vineyards, Cascade Cliffs Winery, and Jacob Williams Winery. 

Some Wines I Enjoyed

The Pines 2013 Big Red ($20) - Super soft fruit and incredibly drinkable with smooth tannins. Lots to love in this entry-level red from The Pines. Bought a few bottles to enjoy by the fireplace in the winter.

The Pines 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel ($40) - The grapes for this come from one of the oldest vineyards in the Pacific Northwest, planted by an Italian stonemason in the 1890s. Th estate vineyard straddles the Columbia Gorge AVA and the Columbia Valley AVA just outside of The Dalles, Oregon. The Willamette Valley doesn't even register on the character, pure, complex, full of soft fruits. Alluring from the first sip.

Memaloose 2012 Estate Cabernet Franc ($30) - A stunning wine. This was my favorite wine of the trip. Organically grown grapes from Memaloose's Estate Idiot's Grace Vineyard within the Columbia Gorge AVA's boundaries. Restrained and elegant with enough sweet fruit, finesse and character to satisfy the most dedicated fans of Loire Valley Cabernet Franc. There is not another bottle of Cabernet Franc in the United States like it. Get it!

Syncline Winery 2012 Red Mountain Mouvèdre ($45) - Incredible purity and length, great perfume, an utterly unique interpretation of Mouvèdre that I highly recommend.

Cor Cellars 2013 Alba ($18) - This Alsatian blend of 60% Gewurztraminer and 40% Pinot Gris comes from the Celilo Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge AVA. Incredibly expressive, refreshing, and well-balanced with intriguing complexity. Spicy, floral, and fruity. A great value.

Cor Cellars Old Highway No. 8 ($35) - Red blend of 60% Malbec and 40% Cabernet Franc that is more commonly found in Cahors and the outer regions of Bordeaux in southwest France. 22 months in oak gives this a luxurious mouthfeel, with dark black fruit, cassis, and lifting notes of floral/violet on the palate. Somehow this still comes across as restrained and elegant without feeling overdone. Rare find in the US!

Credit: Mat Elmore

Credit: Mat Elmore