Fifteen years ago, Jill House was a single parent in her hometown of Hood River, Ore., in need of a second job and bewildered by what to do with the farm that had been in her family since 1919.
This spring, she celebrates the opening of a stunning lodge-style tasting room surrounded by the 20-acre vineyard on her four-generation farm. But it is the success of her wine program, keyed by one of the Northwest’s top winemaking talents in Rich Cushman, that led Wine Press Northwest magazine to name Stave & Stone Wine Estates as its 2019 Oregon Winery to Watch.
“There are some good friends in the business who have helped guide me,” House says repeatedly.
The meteoric rise of Stave & Stone streaked across West Coast wine competitions throughout 2018. The 2016 Broken Boulder Vineyard Dukes Valley Block Pinot Noir first won gold at the Savor NW Wine Awards on Cannon Beach and followed up with another at the Cascadia International Wine Competition before ending the year with a Platinum from Wine Press Northwest. The 2017 Broken Boulder Vineyards Pinot Noir Blanc went double gold at the Oregon Wine Competition in Jacksonville on its way to Platinum. And the 2016 Chardonnay kicked off the year with a gold at the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Ten months later, it brought home a third Platinum for House.
Other achievements include the 2016 Artur Pinot Noir (gold, Great Northwest Invitational), 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon (gold, Chronicle), 2016 Riesling (gold, Cascadia), 2015 Quiver Red (gold, Cascadia), 2017 estate Pinot Noir rosé named for her grandmother, Dorothy (double gold, Savor NW; gold Cascadia).
“None of this that I’ve built is possible without Rich,” House says.
Cushman says, “She knows my skill set in the winery, which is where I’m most comfortable. I’ve got 40 vintages in my belt now, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Her path as a winery owner began with another historic figure in the Northwest wine industry, Lonnie Wright, owner of The Pines 1852. His storied career took root in 1978 when he helped plant the first vineyards for Columbia Crest in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills. Three decades later, he opened a tasting room in Hood River.
“I got divorced in 2005 and needed a second job, so I worked nights and weekends in Lonnie’s tasting room downtown,” House said. “My daughter, Hannah, and the dog would go with me on Sunday afternoons when I was working at tasting room.”
House, Class of ’86 at Hood River Valley High, continued to work at the county courthouse and fell in love with Hannah’s dentist. Dr. Kyle House, who grew up in Texas cattle country, found the Columbia Gorge while driving from Seattle to ski Mount Hood. He encouraged Jill’s fascination and she became a force in the growing wine industry. Along the way, she asked Wright for advice on what to do with the 50-acre farm she took over in 2001 that had been in cherries, apples, pears and hay.
“I needed to do something with the land, and my heart and passion wasn’t going to let someone else farm on our family’s land,” she said.
Wright took one look and exclaimed, “This is beautiful! Why didn’t you tell me you had a hillside?”
That was in April 2012. Two months later, the family established Broken Boulder Vineyard with 6 acres of Pinot Noir. A year later, it stretched to 20 acres devoted to Burgundy varieties and dominated by Pinot Noir (15 acres, all Pommard clone) with Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. She worked off her maiden name of Fletcher and its origins to the Scottish word for arrow and learned that stave is an archery reference as well as an integral part of a wine barrel. “Stone” fits alliteratively as a synonym for “boulder.”
By spring 2016, House opened a tasting room on Oak Street for Stave & Stone Wine Estates, just a few blocks from her first job in the industry. She knew Steve Bickford, owner of Mt. Hood Winery, and his winemaker, Cushman. They arranged for House to open with 343 cases of wine to sell.
“It’s a lot of fun, and I couldn’t have done it without Steve and Rich, their knowledge and their willingness to help,” she said.
Cushman’s work with Bickford family fruit led to Mt. Hood Winery becoming Wine Press Northwest’s Oregon Winery of the Year in 2016. Cushman works on the Stave & Stone wines at the Bickfords. The arrangement allows Cushman to keep his award-winning Viento Wines program separate at his own winery that’s among historic Riesling vines near the picturesque Columbia Gorge Hotel.
“It’s fun,” Cushman said. “Sometimes, it’s a bit of a zoo remembering what is what, but that’s the interesting part of the game. I’m very, very proud of the awards that Jill and Steve have won and to help them build their brands, but I’m proud of every wine I make.”
Wines in the works for Stave & Stone include a 2018 Pinot Noir made with carbonic maceration and a Pinot Noir pétillant naturel sparkling wine. Also known as pét-nat, these bubbles require a deft touch, but she’s in the right hands with Cushman, a sparkling wine producer since 1982.
“How many different ways can we make Pinot Noir?” House laughs. “We like to experiment, so we’ve had a lot of fun.”
She’s transformed her brother-in-law, Don Loop, from beer drinker to vineyard manager.
“He’s done about 99 percent of the work in the vineyard and looks like Larry the Cable Guy, but now he is quite the wine aficionado,” she chuckled. “He twirls his glass the right way and has a pretty good palate.”
Nearly every drop of Stave & Stone wine is sold direct to consumer. Production has grown to 2,500 cases, with the Broken Boulder rosé accounting for 400 cases. Her new tasting room features three fireplaces, a covered patio and terrace seating with views of Mount Adams and Mount Hood.
“People want go to a winery’s estate to touch the dirt and see the grape vines,” she said. “And nine times out of 10, you will be meeting either me or Don in the tasting room.”
House, on the board for the Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association and president of the eight-member Hood River Downtown Wine Alliance, plans to continue to operating her downtown tasting room for at least two years.
“I really believe our region is becoming a destination,” House said. “The Columbia Gorge is such a little sweetheart. We just have to get it out there more like the Willamette Valley and Walla Walla have. This is such a diverse growing region. You can get everything here.”