HOOD RIVER, Ore. Steve Bickford and his family grew up in the Hood River Valley with generations of success with tree fruit, but theyve been a rather quick study when it comes to wine.
And it wasnt even his idea to plant a vineyard back in 2000.
I just took a gamble on some grapes, Bickford said. A friend spurred me into it, telling me there was nursery that had some grape vine cuttings. I asked how many, and he said, 4,000. I guess it was go big or go home.
He began by replacing Newtown Pippin apples with 5 acres of Pinot Noir and 1 acre of Pinot Gris. Those efforts by Bickford, his brother Don and sister-in-law Libby paved the path to Wine Press Northwest naming Mt. Hood Winery as the 2016 Oregon Winery of the Year.
Their résumé for 2015, authored by winemaker Rich Cushman, led with a double platinum for its 2014 Dry Riesling the highest-ranking Riesling at last falls Wine Press Northwest Platinum Judging. That wine earned its way into the Platinum with a double gold at the Great Northwest Wine Competition, one of six gold medals won by Mt. Hood at the spring event, which also awarded the 2012 Glacier Late Harvest Riesling as best dessert wine and 2012 Barbera and 2014 Gewürztraminer with best-of-class awards.
More validation came this winter when the Mt. Hood 2013 Merlot finished second overall in the Wine Press Northwest peer-judging of 100 Northwest examples of Merlot.
I dont come in and just get work orders, Cushman said. It feels like a family here. We all have lunch together every Friday and drink other peoples wines. But Ive also walked through those vineyards so many times since 2007, and the Bickfords are really good farmers. They are dedicated.
Its been a steady climb for Mt. Hood Winery. Those initial plantings reached their third leaf in 2002, and the grapes werent going to turn themselves into wine.
So I went to a trade show in Portland and after three hours and $20,000 poorer we had enough stuff to make wine, Bickford chuckled. I was told that it needed to be not only good enough to drink but good enough that I could sell.
And he needed to come up with a name for the winery. Fortunately, the Mt. Hood Winery brand created during the 1960s in the valley by the late Lester Martin became available after an ownership change. Its a small town, too. Bickford went to WyEast High School with Martins daughter, Vicky. Bickford and Cushman were part of the buildings final graduating class before students were blended into Hood River Valley High.
Steve was the cool kid from the country, Cushman said. I was the city kid who was into science and the last player off the bench.
Cushmans winemaking path included stops in Germany and the University of California-Davis before working throughout Oregon for 25 years. He moved back home to Hood River and began making wine for a couple of clients. One brand rented space from the Bickfords, whod recently sold their successful fruit-packing operation and transitioned into a 10,000-square-foot winery facility.
We got bigger, and Rich ends up staying here, Bickford said.
Cushmans arrival in 2007 is not a coincidence with the rise of Mt. Hood Winery. Production of the brand has reached 3,000 cases, with Cushmans own Viento label at about 2,000 cases. There also are a handful of custom-crush clients, and they partner on their growing Hood River Ciderworks. Estate plantings make up 70 percent of Mt. Hoods bottlings.
Rich is in charge, Bickford said. I help a lot at crush and with bottling - we own our own bottling line - and we all just share the workload in the vineyard, which is 25 acres. We also have a full-time, year-round crew that enjoys the change of scenery from the ladders and pruning trees to no ladders and pruning grape vines.
Orchards continue to dominate the Bickford familys 160 acres, but they sacrificed a number of 80-year-old pear trees in 2008 to make room for their new tasting room and their 30-foot-long antique wine bar. On some weekends in spring, summer and fall, longtime general manager Linda Barber could use a longer bar.
We were pretty early on the scene in the Gorge, Bickford said. There were a handful of wineries in the region then Maryhill, Cascade Cliffs, Hood River Vineyards and Flerchinger (now Cathedral Ridge).
Bickford, a mechanical engineer from Oregon State University, sits on the board of directors for the Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association. The group counts more than 30 wineries along both sides of the river with 80 vineyards covering a total of 1,250 acres.
And what about that friend who inspired the initial planting of 4,000 cuttings in 2000? Dick Reed, the Chicago stock trader who went on to launch nearby WyEast Vineyards. They still travel together for business and fun.
Yeah, Ive mostly thanked him, Bickford chuckled. He got me into the wine business, and I got him into the volunteer fire department with me.
Eric Degerman is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.