STEVENSON, Wash. — Raised in the High Sierras, Matt Hale seems happiest when a morning with Sam, his 12-year-old Lab, and his new Sage One fly rod ends with his catch of the day served on a bed of his risotto.
“I’m all about work right now,” Hale said. “I dirt bike and go fishing, which is how I clear my mind, but if I want to be good at this — being a chef — I need to keep my mind on being a chef.”
At this point, he’s living his dream in the outdoor paradise that is the Columbia Gorge, where the 33-year-old is putting the finishing salt on his first year as executive chef at Skamania Lodge.
“It’s been a lot busier this year than I thought we’d be,” Hale said on a sunny autumn afternoon, one of many during an unusually dry year in this historically wet saddle of the Cascades. “We’ve had lots of convention groups and lots of people here on leisure. It’s been pretty insane, but every day I wake up, come into work, look out there and see that river. It’s a beautiful place. The fishing is amazing. The farms around here are amazing. And I love the people.”
Skamania Lodge, named for the Chinook Tribe’s term for swift water, was established in 1993 within 175 acres along the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. It’s an ideal getaway from Portland — an hour’s drive upstream just beyond Bonneville Dam — because of the serene forest, challenging tree-lined golf course, full service spa, hiking and array of regional wine, beer and food.
“There is something for everybody, and we have the zip-lining, too, which is amazing,” Hale said. “You come up here and you get away from all that city stuff. There isn’t rush hour up here. People are driving slow and looking at all the beautiful scenery. This place is paradise, especially for people who want to do something outdoors. And this resort is built for that.”
Portland industrialist/philanthropist John Gray and his Grayco Resources developed Salishan on the Oregon Coast and then Sunriver in the 1960s before working with the Forest Service to create Skamania Lodge. The resort now belongs to publicly traded Pebblebrook Hotel Trust, a group with a national portfolio that includes Kimpton properties Hotel Vintage Seattle and Hotel Vintage Portland.
Pebblebrook spent a reported $2 million this past year renovating the 254 rooms and conference/event center at Skamania Lodge, which has been managed by Colorado-based Destination Hotels for a decade. West Coast resorts operated by Destination include Suncadia, Sunriver and the Resort at Squaw Creek in Lake Tahoe.
“I slowly worked my way up the chain at Destination, and when this opportunity opened up almost two years ago, I tried to jump on it,” Hale said. “I didn’t get the job at that point, but I kept on it and wanted to be up here because I had fallen in love with the area while on a task force helping out in between chefs.”
Hale graduated from the culinary program at Lake Tahoe Community College, then fought fires for four years prior to his years with The Resort at Squaw Creek. His penchant for cooking, however, began at home in the remote ranching community of Sierra City, Calif.
“My mom is a great cook, and we had a chore list that included ‘Help Mom in the kitchen’ so I would always try to steal that job from my brother and sister,” Hale said. “Ever since then, I’ve loved cooking.”
The family ranch continues to influence his culinary career.
“Most of our food came off our little farm,” he said. “We’d can everything for the winter and eat fresh in the summer. We were so far away from anything that my parents would shop about once a month in Reno. It’s crazy. I didn’t even have fast food until I was 16. I didn’t know what it was.”
These days, Hale digs his KTM 500 2015 EXC dirt bike, but he’s also comfortable in the Pacific Ocean, where he’d dive for abalone and spearfish while cooking in Mendocino. Daily trips to the fish market only deepened his appreciation for nature’s bounty.
Now, he’s surrounded by indigenous ingredients that include regional wine and beer, and Skamania Lodge partners with Pacific Northwest wineries and breweries for its Taste of the Place dinner series. Each of the four courses takes a farm-to-table approach, and Hale and the winemaker or brewmaster explain each pairing for guests. Participants have included nearby AniChe Cellars and Garnier Vineyards as well as The Eyrie Vineyards and L’Ecole No. 41.
“When you are up here, why do you want a California wine?” Hale said. “You want a Washington or Oregon wine because they are great. These Pacific Northwest wines — the Zins and Pinot and Cabs — are so different compared with what I had been tasting in California. They taste a little brighter, more fresh.”
For his Match Maker assignment, it’s natural for Hale to reach for salmon, chanterelle mushrooms and risotto when pairing the Garnier Vineyards 2014 Estate Chardonnay, a wine produced in Mosier, Ore., less than an hour upstream for Skamania Lodge.
“I love fish, I love mushrooms, and I love risotto — and salmon goes with Chardonnay,” Hale said. “One of the big reasons I moved up here is because I’m a fly fisherman. I do a lot of Spey fishing. This is the mecca. You talk about fishing, and this is the place to be.
“I caught my first chinook on a fly rod two weeks ago,” he added. “It was pretty exciting. I love to fish, and I love to eat fish, but I couldn’t keep him. He was too pretty.”
A recent series of rainy days, which were less than normal in 2015, allowed Hale to forage for a handful of fresh chanterelles. His simple approach to each item on the plate didn’t dull the lemon bar, lemon curd and lemon pepper notes in the fruit-forward Garnier Chardonnay.
“The wine gives the dish that nice tartness, and that’s one of the tricks with fish,” Hale said. “You always have to add some sort of acid. They just go together. Acid and fish. That’s why everyone puts lemon on fish.”
And the risotto, made more versatile by using a vegetable stock and prepared a touch al dente, preserves the lemony approach of the Garnier Chardonnay, accents its creamy midpalate and brushes aside any alcohol.
“I’ve worked in fine-dining Italian restaurants and I pride myself on making risotto the right way, so it ends up making its way onto a lot of my dishes,” Hale said. “A lot of people don’t do it right, but when you have it right, it’s amazing.”
One of Hale’s other delicious discoveries since arriving from Lake Tahoe is the quality of lamb from the Willamette Valley.
“With the Zin, I was going back and forth on doing a braised dish,” Hale said. “Once winter starts to hit, I start doing more braised dishes, but I love the lamb so much. I used a little bit of the Zin for the reduction on the plate so it would tie together better.”
The bright acidity within the Maryhill Winery 2011 Zinfandel makes for a delicious pairing with asparagus, especially when it’s been grilled, and the wine takes on a juicy blueberry angle in between bites of the lamb.
Opportunities to create culinary experiences such as these help explain why Hale enjoys the challenge of taking over the Skamania Lodge kitchen, despite his mother’s warning that the ever-present soaking rain that surrounds Cascade Locks will ultimately drive him back home — which is her desire, he said with a smile.
“Tahoe is an amazing place, and I love it there, but this place is better,” Hale said, gazing through the windows of his Cascade Dining Room, where the Columbia River serves as a backdrop for lodge’s communal fire pit amid the sprawling, seemingly evergreen lawn.
“It’s magical, having the Columbia and all these rivers around it. It’s close to an international airport. There’s fishing and hiking, and the dirt is soft. I love going up Dog Mountain and Wind Mountain, even though they beat me up.”
* Skamania Lodge, 131 SW Skamania Lodge Way, Stevenson, WA 98648, 509-427-7700, skamania.com.
Maryhill Winery 2011 Zinfandel, Columbia Valley, $24
2,157 cases, 14.8% alc.
GOLDENDALE, Wash. — When Spokane residents Craig and Vicki Leuthhold opened the doors to Maryhill Winery in May 2001, there were only about 125 wineries in Washington.
Fifteen years later, Maryhill is among more than 800 wineries in the state, but Wine Press Northwest’s reigning Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year stands out. And early success with Zinfandel helped put the Leutholds on the map beyond the Columbia Gorge.
“It was the first Zinfandel in Washington that really got any recognition,” Craig said. “We entered the 2002 Zinfandel in the West Coast Wine Competition in Sonoma, and it ended up getting best of class — beating out all the other California Zinfandels — and runner-up to best of show.”
Their not-so-secret sauce all along has been Gunkel Vineyards, an estate source for Maryhill.
“The Gunkel family planted that in 1993 or 1994, which was pretty early for Zinfandel,” Craig said. “Lonnie Wright was managing the vineyard then, and before us, a lot of what was coming off that site was going to Oliver Winery in Indiana.”
Two other vineyards with views of the Columbia River — Alder Ridge in the Horse Heaven Hills and the Milbrandt brothers’ Clifton Hill on the Wahluke Slope — join the Gunkel fruit to form Washington’s largest production of Zinfandel. The 20-month oak program of 60% new wood — mostly French — makes for a brooding nose of black currant jam on dark toast with macerated cherries and black olive. And rather than the strawberry candy flavor often found in popular off-dry California Zins, Richard Batchelor offers a juicy and vibrant profile of Bing cherry and blueberry while maintaining the lighter tannin structure that has helped the grape receive such fanfare. He strives to bring in Zinfandel with the sugar level no more than 26 Brix.
“Our nights are so much cooler, and we can have that additional hangtime without the Brix spiking and without dehydrating the grapes,” Leuthold said. “The wine becomes more balanced and has more structure because of the natural acidity. And while the alcohol tends to be in the 15-percent range, it’s not over the top.”
That work in the vineyard does not come easily as the variety’s large and dense clusters are notoriously susceptible to bunch rot. Zinfandel doesn’t crack the state’s top 10 in terms of red wine production, trailing even Pinot Noir and Mourvèdre.
“It’s the most cantankerous grape of any we work with for sure, and the main reason why most people don’t plant it in Washington,” Leuthold said. “I doubt there are 100 acres of it in the state.”
Between this tier, known as the Classic, and the reserve program, Batchelor bottles about 4,000 cases of Zinfandel each year. A few of those cases never leave Maryhill, especially when the Leutholds fire up the grill.
“I qualify everything by saying that I’m a Cab guy, but Zinfandel is my go-to wine when it comes to barbecue,” Craig said. “The smokiness of barbecue chicken, ribs or pulled pork — all of it goes well with Zinfandel.”
Maryhill Winery, 9774 Lewis and Clark Highway 14, Goldendale, WA, 98620, 509-773-1976, maryhillwinery.com.
Willamette Valley Lamb Rack with Yellow Polenta and Grilled Asparagus
You can use any lamb rack, but my favorites are Pacific Northwest lamb and Colorado lamb. The flavor is great and usually is a bit less gamey than New Zealand lamb. For this recipe, you will want about four bones per serving (most racks come in about eight-bone racks.) If your rack doesn’t come frenched, then you will need to do this. Frenched racks are when you take all of the fat from the bone, leaving the rib bones clean. After you have frenched the rack, you are ready to season.
Rub for lamb
2 tablespoons stone-ground mustard
7 cloves roasted garlic
1 shallot bulb
2 stems thyme
2 stems rosemary
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 ounces roasted garlic oil
Salt and pepper to taste
4 ounces red wine
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cups polenta
1 cup Milk
1 cup Heavy Cream
2 ounces butter
1/4 yellow onion, finely diced
3 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
6 pieces asparagus
Salt and pepper
1. To make the rub for the lamb, you need to roast your garlic in the oven with the oil for about 45 minutes at about 250 degrees. When the garlic is finished, add all ingredients to a food processor and purée until most of the herbs have broken down.
2. Rub the lamb and let marinade for a couple of hours. After marinating, you must sprinkle the lamb with salt and pepper and sear the top and bottom. Place in a 450-degree oven for about 25-30 minutes. You want to cook the lamb to about a medium rare. For the sauce, you will pull the lamb out of the pan to let rest. Deglaze the pan with the red wine and reduce by half. Add butter.
3. For the polenta, add butter and onions to large sauce pot and brown the onions. Add polenta and toast for a couple of minutes then add milk and cream, turn heat down and let cook until done.
4. For asparagus, just toss in a little bit of oil, salt and pepper and grill.
Garnier Vineyards 2014 Estate Chardonnay, Columbia Gorge, $18
200 cases, 13.5% alc.
MOSIER, Ore. — Many wine lovers traveling along the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge on Interstate 84 likely are unaware they have driven through the historic Mayerdale Estate and the vines of award-winning Garnier Vineyard.
Tom Garnier’s estate is a century-old farm with orchards dating to 1915, but when the federal government began to build Interstate 84 after World War II, the roadway cut a wide swath through the 350-acre orchard of pears, peaches and cherries.
Garnier, president of SSI Shredding Systems in Wilsonville, bought Mayerdale Estate in 1999 and three years later began transitioning fruit trees into vineyard. Eight varieties now take up 170 acres, with customers such as A-to-Z Wineworks, Argyle, J. Christopher in its history.
Anna Matzinger of Archery Summit fame arrived in 2014 to spearhead the winemaking for Garnier Vineyards, which began making wine in 2006, but a large majority of the fruit continues to be sold. Garnier’s production now stands at 2,500 cases.
While the tasting room for Garnier Vineyards at Mayerdale is closed from October through mid-May, their Chardonnay is available year-round at Skamania Lodge as part of the environmentally friendly keg program. It’s also on tap in Portland at the Ringside and New Seasons.
“It’s huge, and it’s a whole new dimension to our sales,” said Todd Kingston, sales manager for Garnier Vineyards. “Next, we will be including our Pinot Noir, and we’re starting to figure how much will go into bottle and how much into keg.”
For the Chardonnay, Garnier’s program of 20 percent in oak has been a mainstay for several vintages. That style lends it to service with lighter fare such leafy salads spotlighting fresh pear — a natural for the nearby Hood River Valley — summertime and fall salads. Some butter sauces are OK, but heavy cream sauce can overwhelm it.
“We get a lot of people from California in the tasting room, and they are looking for something other than a heavily oaked Chardonnay,” Kingston said.
Next spring, those looking for fruitiness and food-friendly balance from an Oregon Chardonnay should pull off I-84 at the Mosier exit and enjoy the view of Garnier Vineyards at something other than 65 mph.
Garnier Vineyards, 8467 Highway 30 West, Mosier, OR 97040, 541-487-2200, garniervineyards.com.
Wild Columbia River Salmon with Risotto and wild Chanterelles
14 ounces wild Columbia River salmon
Salt and pepper to taste
1.Clean salmon and make sure there aren’t any pin bones in the filet. If there are, remove with needle-nose pliers.
2.Split filet into two 7-ounce portions. Salt and pepper and sear on both sides. Place in 450-degree oven for about 10 minutes.
1/2 pound chanterelle mushrooms
1 clove garlic minced
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Make sure they are clean. The best way to clean them is with a soft bristle toothbrush.
2. Once clean, add your butter to a pan and get it very hot — almost to where it is starting to brown. Add your mushrooms, garlic and thyme.
3. Finish with wine.
1/2 pound Arborio rice
1/4 yellow onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
32 to 48 ounces of vegetable, mushroom or chicken stock
1. Allow yourself 45 minutes, and be prepared to stir 10,000 times.
2. Make sure your stock — start with 12 ounces — is going at a light simmer in the large sauce pan. If your stock is not hot, the risotto won’t get creamy.
3. When your stock is hot, start a different pan with your butter. Melt the butter and add the finely diced onions and garlic. Cook until they are translucent.
4. Add the Arborio rice and toast until it starts to turn golden brown.
5. Add your bay leaves and start adding more stock — one small ladle at a time. As the Arborio soaks up the stock, add more stock — making sure to stir constantly with a wooden spoon. A wooden spoon is important so as to not break the kernels.
6. Once the rice is almost cooked, pull from heat and add the cheese. The rice should be cooked but still have a slight crunch to it.
This story was originally published December 14, 2015 3:53 PM.