Hood River: Oregon's wild west wine country takes center stage

On so many levels, this region of the West Coast is pretty close to paradise.

Wine Press NorthwestSeptember 2, 2013 

Hood River is the heart of the Columbia Gorge. It is, by any definition, one of the most beautiful stretches in America, maybe the world. To the south, Mount Hood dominates the skyline. To the north is rugged Mount Adams.

The stunning landscape of this region goes from sagebrush to evergreens in just a few miles. The theme throughout the region is the Columbia River, which gouges its way through the Cascade Mountains here. It is still a mighty river, even if it has been tamed by four hydro dams after it turns west toward the Pacific Ocean.

This has long been an agricultural region, and wine grapes have been part of Hood River and its environs for more than a century. Yet when the pioneers of the modern Oregon wine industry made their way north from California back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, their focus was on the Willamette Valley southwest of Portland. Those vintners who ventured toward Hood River were largely ignored as outliers until the past decade.

Suddenly, it would seem, Hood River is one of the hottest locales for wine touring in the Northwest.

Paul Robinson, general manager of the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, has had his eye on the scene since arriving a half-decade ago to bring the once-struggling historic property back to its 1921 glory. In short order, Robinson has restored the Columbia Gorge Hotel into the crown jewel of the region.

And just in time, as his 39 rooms regularly fill with wine travelers exploring the region.

“We’re definitely seeing more visitors coming specifically for wine touring,” Robinson said. “The baby boomer generation is 90 percent of those coming to the wineries.”

A large portion of visitors are daytrippers or weekend visitors from Portland, though he is seeing more from Canada, Europe and Asia arriving specifically for wine touring.

“It’s definitely changing the culture,” he said. “In the past, recreation was all geared around water sports. We’re seeing growth in higher-quality food. We’ve added a couple of restaurants that have definitely stepped up their games.”

Those who arrive to take advantage of the seemingly constant wind ply the Columbia between Hood River and The Dalles. They tend not to visit wineries, Robinson observed. Rather, they prefer the growing microbrew scene.

“That group comes out and stays all summer long,” he said. The wine and wind crowds “are kind of going parallel to each other.”

Some 38 miles east and across the Columbia River, Bob Lorkowski has been growing grapes and running Cascade Cliffs Winery for the better part of three decades. His winery was going along just fine at his remote Wishram, Wash., location, but he figured he could do better. So three years ago, he came to downtown Hood River. Technically, he opened an entirely new winery — also called Cascade Cliffs — because a Washington winery cannot legally have a satellite tasting room in Oregon. So he does some wine production in Hood River and sells all his wines at both locations.

“We took the approach that Hood River is a bridge for customers,” Lorkowski said. “The strategy is they have their first Cascade Cliffs experience there. After that, they come out and see the main facility. It’s a way to get more people to come from Portland to Wishram.”

And it’s working.

“Hood River is better than any distributor we’ve had, better than any grocery store we’ve sold to,” he said. “It’s an outlet, and it’s surprising how well it does.”

The lion’s share of his wine is sold in Wishram because more visitors like to see the vines and where most of the wine is made, he said. Lorkowski realizes he could have followed the trend to Woodinville. But Woodinville is so far away, and greater Portland’s 2.3 million residents are so close.

Robb Bell, owner of Cathedral Ridge Winery in Hood River, is a savvy businessman who has built his operation into one of the largest in the area. He was living in Hood River running a consulting business, and one of his clients was Sam Sebastiani of the famed Sonoma County winemaking dynasty.

Flerchinger Winery was one of the first three producers in the region, and Bell purchased it in 2003, renamed it and hired Michael Sebastiani as his winemaker. Today, more than 30 wineries dot the landscape, which Bell believes is good for everyone.

Bell said many things needed to go right to turn Hood River into a wine-focused community, and he applauds Craig and Vicki Leuthold, who launched Maryhill Winery more than a decade ago in Goldendale, Wash.

“Let’s give them a whole lot of credit for this scene,” he said.

Having a large, beautiful, award-winning winery and amphitheater just 40 miles east is a huge draw for the entire region, Bell said.

And the quality of Columbia Gorge wines, he said, have wine lovers coming back. As far as medals and scores are concerned, wineries here are playing well above their pay grades.

“I think we’re really spoiled here,” Bell said. “We’re blessed with great grapes, we all get along very well, and we have the small-town feel and a great restaurant scene.”

TOURING

THE GORGE

If wine-loving Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he might lift a quote from Capt. William Clark’s journal and cry “O! the Joy” to see what has become of the Columbia Gorge.

For nearly 200 years after the Corps of Discovery, there weren’t many roadside attractions along the mighty Columbia between Multnomah Falls and Sam Hill’s mansion in the middle of nowhere.

Those same natural forces responsible for the beautiful scenery, the microclimates, the famous orchards and outdoors thrill-seekers now produce grapes for world-class wines.

There are more than 30 wineries and 50 vineyards in this region living up to its slogan of “A world of wine in 40 miles.”

TOURING

The Columbia Gorge can be defined at least three ways:

-- An area stretching from Hood River, Ore., to Goldendale, Wash.

-- A federally defined American Viticultural Area that was approved in 2004 and spans four counties on either side of the river (Hood River and Wasco in Oregon and Skamania and Klickitat in Washington).

-- The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which runs from just west of Maryhill Winery to just east of Troutdale, Ore.

For touring purposes, we will use the first definition.

HOOD RIVER

Hood River, the largest city in the region, offers the widest selection of wineries. It’s fitting for travelers from Portland to spot Viento as their first winery along Interstate 84. Rich Cushman, born in Hood River, recently built a tasting room for Viento, the Spanish word for wind. He’s been making wine in the Columbia Gorge and throughout Oregon for decades, and his two sons have joined in the business. Their tasting room looks out upon 30-year-old Riesling vines and is just across the freeway from the Columbia Gorge Hotel.

Cathedral Ridge earned Wine Press Northwest’s Oregon Winery of the Year in 2007. Springhouse Cellar has renovated a downtown cannery and was among the state’s first to offer refillable bottles. Stoltz Vineyards transformed a longtime funeral home, downtown Hood River’s oldest Victorian house, circa 1886. It is open weekends and features wines from Fernão Pires, a white Portuguese variety, and Zweigelt.

The historic orchard hills south of Hood River feature several wineries worthy of attention.

Marchesi works with Italian varieties and produces award-winning results. Scott Hagee, owner and winemaker at Pheasant Valley, established the region’s first organic vineyard and winery. Phelps Creek, owned by Boeing 777 pilot Bob Morus, attached its tasting room to the clubhouse at Hood River Golf and Country Club. Hood Crest, just east of the golf course, requires an appointment.

Highway 35, one of the most beautiful drives in the Northwest, takes in Mt. Hood Winery, which makes some of the finest Riesling in the Northwest, and Wy’East Vineyards, with wines by renowned Peter Rosback.

MOSIER, THE DALLES

Between Mosier and The Dalles, along the Highway 30, there’s Granier Vineyards, which offers a stunning view of the river.

One of Oregon’s easiest wineries to spot is the Sunshine Mill in The Dalles. The century-old, nine-story-tall former flour mill serves as the home to Quennet Winery as well as Copa Di Vino — wine in a single-serving plastic container that’s become one of the Northwest’s hottest brands. Inside, the rustic and eclectic ambiance of the Sunshine Mill should not be missed.

Maison de Glace, a former ice house, is a new winery downtown that’s shined at Northwest competitions with its off-dry Roussanne. Dry Hollow Vineyards offers a more traditional wine country experience with a picturesque, weekend-only tasting room above its Hi Valley Vineyard.

WHITE SALMON

Take the toll bridge from Hood River into Washington and drive Highway 14 to reach Stevenson, Bingen, White Salmon, Underwood, Dallesport and Wishram, with Lyle in between. There’s AniChe, Gorge Crest (by appointment), White Salmon Vineyards, Major Creek (by appointment) and Marshal’s.

LYLE

James Mantone of Syncline Cellars put this tiny town on the wine map starting in 1999 for his work with Rhône varieties. Their peaceful and organic grounds are open for picnicking, as are Cor Cellars, Domaine Pouillan, Klickitat Canyon & Columbia Gorge Winery’s vegan-friendly production facility, and Memaloose, which uses estate plantings on the Oregon side.

EASTERN GORGE

To the east near Wishram are Cascade Cliffs and Jacob Williams near Avery Park. On opposite sides of Highway 97 are Maryhill and Waving Tree.

Maryhill has defined itself as one of Washington’s destination wineries by earning more than 1,500 medals since opening in 2001 and combining breathtaking views with a 4,000-seat amphitheater.

TASTING ROOMS

The Gorge White House, a historic property along Highway 35 toward Mount Hood, pours wines from virtually every producer in the Gorge. The Gallery 301, downtown in the Butler Bank Building, offers small bites and serves local wine.

Several wineries also operate tastings rooms in downtown Hood River. The Pines 1852 moved two blocks this summer. Lonnie Wright, one of the region’s foremost vineyard managers, created the winery after reviving a vineyard planted in the late 1800s.

Cerulean Skies operates organic Acadia Vineyard on Underwood Mountain, but it established its tasting room on Hood River’s Oak Street.

The Barringer and Michalec families make their Naked wines in Wishram, Wash., but the action is every day at their wine bar in downtown Hood River. Suggestive names such as Penetration Cabernet make for a fun experience, and Naked embraces lightweight plastic bottles for its Outdoor Vino line.

White Buffalo Wine Bar & Bistro, with local wines and live music, is a stone’s throw from the Columbia Gorge Hotel. Just look for the larger-than-life concrete white buffalo.

The new Pour Moor Wines features a tasting room in Bingen but stages private tastings at its winery in Dallesport. Klickitat Canyon & Columbia Gorge Winery operates a tasting room in downtown Stevenson, the seat of Skamania County.

DINING

Hood River may offer the highest concentration of top restaurants in Northwest wine country, and Wine Press Northwest has profiled five of its restaurants over the years. The past Match Makers are Celilo Restaurant & Bar, Riverside Grill at the Best Western Hood River Inn, Simon’s Cliff House at the Columbia Gorge Hotel, Sixth Street Bistro & Loft and 3 Rivers Grill.

The Baldwin Saloon stands out in The Dalles. Built in 1876, it’s been a restaurant for more than 20 years and serves only Northwest wine, with Columbia Gorge wines available by the glass.

Across the river, Solstice Wood Fire Cafe in Bingen touts a mention in Food Network magazine that its Country Girl Cherry Pizza was chosen the best pizza in Washington. In Stevenson, there’s Big River Grill across from the Skamania County courthouse and Walking Man Brewing’s pub near the Columbia. The Lyle Hotel focuses on Columbia Gorge wines but limits public dining to Friday and Saturday nights.

To change up the palate, the Gorge also is home to some of Northwest’s top breweries and cider houses. There are eight beer producers in the region, led by Full Sail, and two members of the Northwest Cider Association.

Those in need of caffeine should look for regional roaster 10 Speed Coffee, which has four outlets in the Gorge: Hood River (two), White Salmon and Mosier.

LODGING

Hood River also dominates overnight options in the Gorge, starting with the Columbia Gorge Hotel. The 93-year-old property sits atop a cliff above the Columbia River.

It shares a driveway with Columbia Cliff Villas, vacation condos with up to three bedrooms that can be rented by the night. Their offerings include a deluxe suite with a 270-degree view of the Columbia Gorge.

One of Best Western’s top West Coast properties is the remodeled Hood River Inn. For downtown lodging, there’s the Hood River Hotel, which celebrates its centennial this year.

In The Dalles, the Celilo Inn overlooks the dam and partners with Gorge wineries on touring packages.

On the Washington side, there’s the tony Skamania Lodge, the Lyle Hotel and the 16-room Inn of The White Salmon.

Many B&Bs have opened in the Gorge. Sakura Ridge Farm and Lodge serves a unique experience with fresh eggs. Near the quiet town of Mosier, Three Sleeps Vineyard and B&B overlooks the organically farmed vines of Dominio IV winery in McMinnville, Ore. Pheasant Valley Winery also offers B&B options.

The Columbia River Gorge and Hood River B&B Association lists its members at gorgelodging.com.

TRANSPORTATION

Columbia Wine Tours offers a range of packages and a shuttle to Maryhill concerts. The list also includes Aspen Limo Tours and EverGreen Escapes, both with offices in Portland; Martin’s Gorge Tours, which features hiking and biking components, and G-Limos.

MORE INFORMATION

The Columbia Gorge Winegrowers’ website (columbiagorgewine.com) is the best source for information on member wineries, but the Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association (crgva.org) and Hood River County Chamber of Commerce (hoodriver.org) are also handy.

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-- ANDY PERDUE & ERIC DEGERMAN run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

JACKIE JOHNSTON, a freelance photojournalist, is a regular contributor and a page designer for Wine Press Northwest. Her website is: JackieJohnston.com

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