Two decades ago, Rhode Island chef Mark DeResta joined a pack of college buddies on a summer vacation destined for Hood River, Ore. -- an outdoor paradise he'd only been told about.
More than 25 years ago, Jan McCartan also left the East Coast and came upon the Columbia Gorge with little knowledge of Pacific Northwest wines.
Judging by their success and satisfaction at the Riverside Restaurant, it seems as if neither will soon leave the Hood River Inn.
"I had a friend in college who was out here windsurfing in the summer and he said it was a great place," DeResta said. "So five of us packed our bags, rented a
U-Haul and drove across the country for a month.
"We got to Hood River on a Sunday night. I went up to the top of that ridge on my mountain bike on a Monday, and Tuesday at four o'clock I was in a kitchen and started working that night," he continued. " That was 1993 and I have never left. Why would you leave?"
The Hood River Inn -- a Best Western Plus property -- features 158 guest rooms. The adjacent Riverside Restaurant seats 100 diners with 75 in the Cebu Lounge. McCartan serves as wine director and catering manager.
"One of the things people don't realize about a Best Western is they are all independently owned and operated," McCartan said, "and we're committed to upgrading the property and making it more trendy."
They've accomplished those goals as recent renovations to the Cebu Lounge and the Riverside Restaurant seem to transport the guest downriver to the big city.
"Our goal is to offer that type of feel and cuisine that you might find in downtown Portland, only with a more casual Gorge style and feel," McCartan said. "Whether you come in your shorts or come off the water or come off the mountain, we want you to feel comfortable and have a great meal."
DeResta has been providing those since he landed in Hood River, starting at the Sixth Street Bistro -- one of the first in the Pacific Northwest to showcase regional cuisine and Northwest wines.
"That was one of the only places in town in '93, and I think now there are 63," DeResta said.
Sixth Street bartender Brian McNamara subsequently recruited DeResta to create the food program at Brian's Pourhouse. Then in 2001, DeResta and a business partner launched Abruzzo Italian Grill. Their 36-seat restaurant closed after an eight-year run.
"It was open five nights a week for dinner only, so you could get there between 12 and 1 p.m. to start preparing for dinner," DeResta said. "For a single guy in this town, you couldn't have it any better. Play all day and work all night."
Chuck Hinman, general manager of the Hood River Inn for more than 20 years, soon hired him as executive chef at the Riverside, and DeResta seems to appreciate the job security and a large staff that provides food service for the 400-seat conference center.
"I have a family now -- married with a 3-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old step-son -- so I am busy from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed," he said with a smile.
However, the Riverside embraced Columbia Gorge wines years before DeResta, thanks to McCartan.
"For a lot of folks, they think of the Columbia River Gorge and how it divides Oregon and Washington, but when you visit the Gorge, you realize it is a region. It's not, 'I'm in Oregon' or 'I'm in Washington.' And it's exciting to have a lot of great wineries to work with on both sides of the river."
Summer is the high season, and that broadens out into the outdoor deck seating. The shoulder seasons are short because of the proximity to skiing on Mount Hood. There's little time for DeResta or McCartan to take a breather because of the continued growth of the conference center.
McCartan also moved from the East Coast and started working at Timberline Lodge in the mid 1980s.
"I just happened to arrive when their wine program took off, and that's when the light bulb turned on for me," she said. "They were doing a lot of intensive training, and I had the privilege of doing tastings with pioneers such as Bob McRitchie (Sokol Blosser, Willamette Valley Vineyards) and David Lett (The Eyrie), who would come to Timberline and give mini-seminars."
Her path took her to Salishan, then to the Columbia Gorge, where she helped open Skamania Lodge. After five years at the resort in Stevenson, Wash., she arrived at the Hood River Inn.
"I started the wine program from the ground-up, and I've had the privilege of management being very supportive and allowing us to grow and work with local wineries," McCartan said.
Several years ago, McCartan showed enough confidence in her wine program to begin entering Wine Press Northwest's annual Great Northwest Wine List competition. And it's been fascinating to see where McCartan has taken it.
"I'll change the menu and she'll change the wine list," DeResta said.
This summer, about half of the 80 wines on the list are either locally made or made with local grapes, and 20 Columbia Gorge wineries are represented.
"We have great things to work with," she said. "The tagline for the Columbia Gorge Wine Growers Association is 'A World of Wine in 40 miles.' That really is true, starting with Celilo Vineyard that has Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Gewuerztraminer and Riesling on Underwood Mountain, which you can see right outside our front door. As you creep to the east, we are growing Rhone varieties to Italian varieties."
Her attention to detail goes beyond that of most wine directors, including making sure of the proper accent mark of famed Pinot Noir producer Beaux Freres. No still wine offered is priced higher than the Leonetti Cellar 2008 Merlot, and about half of the reds come to the table for $40 or less.
Arguably the best deals for diners come from the "Riverside Selection," a remarkable house wine program with Hood River winemaker Rich Cushman.
"When Mark joined our team 2 1/2 years ago, he said he wanted to have an inexpensive wine by the glass or liter as they do in Europe -- something the guest can enjoy for a reasonable amount of money and something we can call our own," McCartan said. "I immediately thought about Rich and Viento because his winery is just five miles away, he's a Hood River native and we've featured his bottled wines for years."
Cushman provides two wines for Riverside -- a Pinot Gris and a house red made with Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. McCartan and DeResta collaborate on the blending. A glass of each is $7. Order a half-liter and it's $15. The charge for full liter is $27.
"The wines are never bottled," McCartan said. "They stay in the winery in storage and as we need them, Rich fills a 15-liter canister for us that is refillable and brings it to us. We push the wine through nitrogen, so there are never any bottles, no boxes and no corks. We estimated that we saved about 1,400 bottles from recyclng or the landfill just last year. We're very excited about that."
Fruit for those wines also is local. The Pinot Gris is from Hubert Vineyard on Underwood Mountain while the reds are sourced within the Columbia Gorge American Viticultural Area (AVA).
The proximity to skiing on Mount Hood helped the Hood River Inn weather the recent economic downturn. More important long-term growth might be in the form of wine tourism.
"People are coming to the area because they've read about the wines, and we find folks aren't just visiting the Columbia Gorge, but also the Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Walla Walla and the Willamette Valley, making it a wine vacation," she said. "They are great guests to have because they like to dine out and drink good wines."
While DeResta has transitioned from line cook to executive chef to restaurant owner into now a corporate chef, the one constant in his life other than the kitchen is being in the bike saddle.
"The bike has always been my passion," he said with a smile. "I rode to work today. I'll ride home. I'll ride in the rain. It doesn't matter. I try to do a couple of 'centuries' -- 100-mile rides -- every summer, but my three- and four-hour bike rides seem to be gone. I don't have that much time."
His collection ranges from the Italian-built Bianchi road bike and to the all-terrain Santa Cruz Nomad, but DeResta admits responsibilities of adult life keep him closer to the ground.
"There's a big free-ride population here and I was doing that for a while," he said. "Every ride was with a full-face helmet and pads and stunts, but I have since gone back to my cross-country days with a smaller helmet and no pads. The restaurant and the family make you change your ways a bit."
When it came to the Match Maker assignment, McCartan and DeResta were tempted to spotlight Riverside Selection Pinot Gris, "but we didn't like the thought of how having a canister shot in the magazine would look," she said with a chuckle.
They chose to serve Viento 2010 Sangiovese Rose from Chukar Ridge Vineyard in Dallesport, Wash., with DeResta's signature squid appetizer.
"I realized the calamari dish is what I've done for 14 years in this town, and there are locals that come down to see me and know they will get that," DeResta said. "It's got this great chary flavor of the calamari on the grill, the smokiness of the paprika in the romesco and the meaty lentils. We tried a lot of wines with it, but that rose really had a nice brightness to it and matched the romesco well."
When it came to the other pairing, DeResta went off the board and back into his mother's kitchen by preparing veal with the Memaloose 2007 Idiot's Grace Cabernet Franc from the Columbia Gorge.
"We love the name and it's grown locally in the Gorge," McCartan said. "It's not very fruity, and a bit subdued, while it does feature the characteristics you would expect for a Cab Franc -- a little bit of an herbal nature, but pleasantly so. And the dark mocha characteristic seems to also work well with the veal chop."
The key feature, DeResta said, is the pan sauce with vinegar.
"I try to keep around a little bit of what I grew up with, and that's the way my mom always made it -- pork chops with vinegar. I'll never forget that, and I use it in a lot of other dishes, but it really stands out with the veal. I remember being a kid standing at the stove with the piece of bread sopping up the sauce.
"The pairing with the Memaloose Cab Franc seemed easy, and it's a big dish," he continued. "There's a big chop with a big bone in it, so it looks pretty grand. The veal is robust, and so is the wine. With the spinach, you get the earthiness that ties to the wine, and the vinegar in the dish doesn't bother the wine at all. It's a really nice match."
Riverside at the Best Western Plus Hood River Inn,
1108 East Marina Way, Hood River, OR, 97031, 541-386-4410, riversidehoodriver.com.
Chili Marinated Calamari with Lentils and Romesco
Serves 4 as an appetizer
1 pound calamari tubes and tentacles, cleaned and dried (Note: Large shrimp may be substituted for calamari)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
red chili flakes
4 tablespoons Pimenton smoked
paprika, portions divided
salt and pepper, to taste
1 1/2 cups tiny green dried lentils
2 ribs of celery, finely diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 small onion, finely diced
1 large red bell pepper, roasted, peeled and seeded
3 plum canned tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup whole roasted almonds
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1. In a small mixing bowl, mix calamari with minced garlic, 2 tablespoons Pimenton, a generous pinch of red chili flakes, salt and pepper and olive oil. Allow to marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour and up to 24 hours.
2. Place lentils in a small stock pot with 6 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat and reduce to a simmer. Cook until lentils are tender yet still firm, approximately 15-20 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt to water during final five minutes of cooking. When lentils are cooking, saute celery, carrots and onion in olive oil until tender, but not brown. Drain lentils, add to vegetables and mix well. Set aside.
3. To make the romesco sauce, place bell pepper, tomatoes, garlic, almonds, vinegar and 2 tablespoons of pimenton in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth. With blender running, drizzle in approximately 1/3 cup of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
4. Preheat a barbecue or cast-iron grill pan to high heat. Remove calamari from marinade. Cook over high heat for 1-2 minutes on each side until calamari is cooked to medium. Be careful not to overcook. Serve with lentils and romesco sauce.
Pan Roasted Veal Chops with Sherry Vinegar Pan Sauce
4-6 small Yukon gold potatoes, halved
salt and pepper
4 large garlic cloves, sliced
red chili flakes (optional)
1 1/2 cups fresh spinach leaves
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 natural bone-in veal loin chops, 12-14 ounces
1/4 cup high-quality sherry vinegar
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in 2 cups of hot water
1. Preheat oven to 400* F. Toss the potatoes in 2 tablespoons olive oil with a pinch of salt and dash of pepper. Lay side-up on baking sheet and roast until brown and tender, approximately 20-25 minutes.
2. Saute garlic in olive oil until just browned, then add a pinch of chili flakes, a pinch of salt and dash of pepper. Add spinach and cook until entirely wilted. Drain excess liquid.
3. Place a large heavy-bottom skillet over medium high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter and heat until butter begins to brown. Aggressively season both sides of chops with salt and pepper. Place chops in skillet and sear until one side is nicely browned. Turn chops and place skillet in 400* F oven for 12-14 minutes for medium doneness.
4. Remove chops and allow to rest for minimum of 10 minutes. Drain excess fat from pan. Place pan on high heat and add vinegar and mushroom stock. Reduce by half and swirl in 3 tablespoons of butter. Serve chops with pan sauce, potatoes and spinach.
Viento Wines 2010 Chukar Ridge Vineyard Sangiovese Rose, Columbia Valley, $12
-- 227 cases produced, 12.6% alcohol
Rich Cushman proudly adopted "Born in the Gorge" as his tagline and named his winery Viento in reference to the Spanish word for "wind."
His roots literally run deeper than most in Hood River, Ore., having planted Riesling in 1981 at his vineyard called Columbia Gorge Vineyard.
Thirty years later, he's got one son, Peter, making wine with him. Another son, Joe, is closing in on his horticulture degree, with a focus on viticulture, from Oregon State -- his alma mater.
"Maybe we'll have a dynasty," Rich said.
His first job as head winemaker came in 1986 at Chateau Benoit, and he began working on his own label soon after. He's long made the wine for Phelps Creek Vineyards and its Mt. Defiance Wine Co., brand, as well as Dry Hollow, Mt. Hood and the new Ziegler Vineyards. He builds sparkling wine, embraces Gruener Veltliner and adopted screwcaps early on.
"I hate cork," he said. "Even my sparkling wine will be under a crown cap."
He sources grapes from Allegre Vineyard in Hood River and Underwood (Wash.) Mountain Vineyard. And in 2005, he began relying on Chukar Ridge Vineyard for the Sangiovese he uses to make his dry rose that casts off notes of strawberry and Indian spices. Dennis and Becky Beeks' named their vineyard in Dallesport, Wash. -- just east of the Columbia Gorge AVA -- for the game birds that frequent their property.
"I drink roses all winter long, and this is my favorite of all the roses I've made," he said. "It has the highest acidity and the lowest alcohol, and it's at 0.7% sugar, but it comes off as totally dry because of that acidity."
By Thanksgiving, Cushman hopes Viento will be in its new tasting room adjacent to his vineyard on Country Club Road -- across Interstate 84 from the Columbia Gorge Hotel. In the meantime, Viento Wines are poured and sold out of an annex behind the historic Gorge White House along Hood River's Fruit Loop.
Viento Wines, 2265 Highway 35, Hood River, OR, 541-490-6655, vientowines.com.
Memaloose Wines 2007 Idiot's Grace Cabernet Franc, Columbia Gorge, $25
--165 cases produced, 13% alcohol
Brian McCormick wondered about the direction of his life when he graduated from Dartmouth after studying philosophy and religion.
In this case, mother knew best. Barbara -- a chef in Carmel, Calif., -- took her son to France for a week. The trip proved to be a life-altering experience for Brian, inspired by the French culture of food and wine.
"He was a vegan before that," said Rob McCormick, his father and co-owner of Memaloose Wines in Lyle, Wash. "Then he fell in love with all the organ meats -- sweetbreads, kidneys, tripe. So when fell off the wagon, he fell WAY off."
Brian went on to earn a graduate degree in viticulture and enology from University of California at Davis. He trained in Alsace before working in Sonoma.
"He's very European-oriented with his approach and really wanted to get out of the heat of California, so our wines are low-alcohol and with no new oak. We are highly anti-Parker," Rob McCormick said with a chuckle.
By 2002, the McCormick family moved to the Columbia Gorge and began planting vineyards across the Columbia River from each in Mosier, Ore., and Lyle, Wash. Rob farms the Washington blocks, Brian those in Oregon where his wife is a family physician.
The McCormicks' five vineyards are five miles apart as the crow flies. In between is Memaloose Island. Lewis & Clark documented their time on the island, and the McCormicks used their journal entry as the label of Memaloose Wines.
Their first commercial vintage of 2006 produced 250 cases. By 2010, Memaloose had jumped to 1,600 cases. Some of those white wines are available at their new tasting room just east of the Klickitat River Bridge in Lyle.
The 2007 Idiot's Grace Cabernet Franc hails from the McCormicks' certified organic farm in Mosier and spent 16 months in French barrels aged 2-5 years.
Hear the late Bob Woehler's entertaining interview with Brian McCormick, Bobcast No. 43, at winepressnw.com/bobcast.
Memaloose Wines, 34 State St., Lyle, WA, 360-635-2887, winesofthegorge.com.
Eric Degerman is Wine Press Northwest's managing editor. Have a suggestion for a future Match Maker?
This story was originally published September 15, 2011 5:54 PM.