Columbia Gorge for wine lovers

Donna Moyer, a Seattle resident, guides us round this region that straddles the Washington–Oregon border. See this guide to all the entries in our travel writing competition that have been published so far.

The Columbia Gorge is one of the most dynamic places in the United States. Juxtaposed extremes of humanity and nature define it, the latter shaped by every force on earth, and the Columbia River bears witness. I first experienced this region from the river, providing occasional week-long wine programs on riverboat cruises. It was love at first sight. A more common experience is to drive east along the Old Scenic Columbia River Highway. Within a mere 30 minutes from Portland, lush underbrush and heavy forest of red cedar and Douglas fir give way to yellow grass, ponderosa pine and white oak. The broad, placid river flows alongside and begins to show a memory of its pre-dammed wildness as white caps appear, driven by wind funneling through this narrow passage through the Cascade Mountains. 

Rivers are known for carving canyons, but the Columbia River did not carve the Columbia Gorge. It predates the Gorge and the mighty Cascade range with its chain of ash-spewing volcanos. The river has for millions of years drained the Columbia Basin. Persistently seeking a path of least resistance to the Pacific, easing out of the way of rivers of lava that flowed from crust fissures to the east, shifting and turning as the Cascade Range rose against it. The river also predates the advance and retreat of the glaciers from the north, and offered a path to the Pacific ocean, thousands of years before the Lewis and Clark expedition, for multiple catastrophic floods of this period from Montana and Idaho. Floods that violently and abruptly carried away millennia of geologic formation leaving behind the Gorge, a geology nerds’ paradise, and it turns out grapevines love it too. Below is the Gorge from Memaloose Overlook.

Columbia Gorge from Memaloose Overlook

The varied topography and soils provide a new phenomenon for the river to witness: wine growing. The Columbia Gorge has drawn that intrepid, at times obsessively compulsive species of human, aptly captured by the French term vigneron. Alpine on the western end, high desert on the eastern, where maritime climate meets continental. The potential combinations of grape and terroir within this narrow 40-mile long strip, with 300 acres under vine and 40-ish wineries, seem limited only by the vision of its modern pioneers and their belief in the consumers’ openness to filling their glass with something different and delicious virtually every night of the week. But the Columbia Gorge AVA (American Viticulture Area) has very determined opinions about which varieties may and may not thrive. The Gorge is home to those who work around those strictures, and those who listen to them attentively.

In fact, the majority of grapes grown here are purchased and made into wine outside the Gorge, and the majority of Gorge wineries buy grapes from other AVAs. Good wines are being produced within this common Washington State dynamic, some even excellent, and for a broad-strokes sampling of Pacific Northwest wine, these provide that. Subtleties are lost as grapes travel from vineyard to winery, with intervention and inputs necessarily increasing with distance so that they are likely impossible to quantify. Such differences may be so esoteric as to justify dismissal by a large contingent seeking compromise between where they prefer to live and the wines they desire to produce. For those pursuing that magic sense of place in a glass, these subtleties are meaningful. While the Columbia Gorge is a great place for either perspective, on this visit I chose to seek the latter.

Most producers here have a history of life-changing experiences in European wine regions, yet I didn’t hear the term ‘old world style’ bandied about often, and I took this as a good sign. You don't hear a Riesling producer in Alsace claiming German style; the Sauvignon Blancs from northern Italy are lovely and quite Italian and do not seem to aspire to be French. What I did hear again and again is a clear focus on the art of matching variety to location in pursuit of the best expression of a Columbia Gorge wine that is distinctive, delicious and stands on its own merit. Commitment to optimising vine health and minimising the necessity for inputs so the true character of a particular variety, and a particular place can shine through. It’s a subtle perspective that gets its share of chaff in an industry commercially invested in volume and convenience. I believe the Columbia Gorge has exceptional potential for displaying this subtlety, both for its unique geology and climate, but most particularly for the culture of the wine community developing here. 

Getting there

Portland, Oregon, provides the nearest international airport. The wineries of the Gorge are an easy hour’s drive on Interstate 84, which follows the Columbia River and a large portion of the historic Oregon Trail. All of which means you will want to be a passenger as distractions are aplenty.

Where to stay

Chain hotel and AirBnB options abound, and unfortunately competition is stiff due to this area being a top destination for windsurfers, hikers, and history buffs, but the following offer value-added experiences in their own right:

The Society Hotel, Bingen, WA
I thought there must be a wine story behind this name, but it’s as simple as a homesick German immigrant finding comfort in geography that reminded him of home. Perhaps we can at least assume a foreshadowing! This is a very reasonably priced, yet pretty swanky ‘hostel,’ with commune-style bunkbed or private cabin options, as well as a spa with hot/cold pools and a dry sauna. I stayed here and happily recommend it to the budget-minded, aesthetic-conscious traveller.

The Columbia Gorge Hotel, Hood River, OR
A stay here is high on my bucket list. Walking in the door is taking a step back in history. Juxtapose this with the new-age spa on site.

Where to eat

Aside from the quality offerings of the small cafe the Society Hotel, The Columbia Gorge Hotel offers a well-regarded PacNW food- and wine-centric restaurant. I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences at the following:

Celilo Restaurant, Hood River, OR
Celilo is a word you will see throughout the Gorge, a tribute to Celilo Falls, buried since 1957 when the Dalles Dam was completed. This is a chef-driven restaurant with locally-sourced fresh ingredients, and a comprehensive regionally-focused wine list with a few thoughtfully-selected European options. 

White Salmon Baking Co, White Salmon, WA
Expect topnotch espresso and bakery items the PacNW is known for. What will surprise? Ask to see the wine list that is eight pages and Italian/Slovenian-centric, with a strategic smattering of local producers and, if you’re lucky, a table for the Monday-only Italian dinners.

Wineries to visit

Stats and philosophies can be found on their websites. I give only a brief impression of these favourites:

Cor Cellars, Lyle, WA Luke Bradford, ‘Wines from the edge’  
An estate vineyard and purchased fruit from neighbouring AVAs. I love the Alba, a blend of Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. I learned that Riesling struggles to ripen in the persistent winds of the eastern Gorge, which lowers disease pressure but can shut down photosynthesis. They are exploring Tocai Friulano!

Syncline, Lyle WA Poppie and Nicco Mantone, ‘The Gorge is wild, its vineyards reflect that’
In the Gorge since1999, they have nine certified organic acres under vine and also purchase fruit from neighbouring AVAs. They have a focus on the western Gorge’s untapped potential for sparkling wine and a preview taste makes me inclined to agree!

Domaine Pouillon, Lyle, WA  Alexis Pouillon, ‘Biodiversity is a primary factor in Gorge character’
Biodynamic in practice, this 40-year-old unirrigated farm is one of highest sites in western Gorge at 1,000 feet, and the underlying acidity of the wines attests to that.

Idiot's Grace, Mosier, OR Expressive, experimental’
100% estate, certified organic, minimum-intervention farm. Dolcetto shines here though its exuberance must be disciplined with wire trellising, while most of the vines on the rest of the farm are grown on stakes. Love that such decisions are based on trial, error, and intuition.

Analemma Stephen and Kris Thompson,Demeter certified biodynamic’
Estate winery with some purchased fruit from western Gorge vineyards in which Stephen shares stewardship. 15 acres under vine and growing, with a NW Spanish varietial focus. The 2017 Blanco, a blend of Godello, Albariño with a touch of Viognier is beautiful, but they had me at Mencía!

I wish I’d made it to…

  • Hiyu Wine Farm, Hood River, OR, where Nate Ready MS is setting a new bar for experience of place.’
  • The Pines 1852, Hood River, OR, where Lonnie Wright farms century-old Zinfandel vines
  • AniChe Cellars, where Rachel Horn and her all-female team perch on the side of a mountain with the best views of the valley.

No need to taste and drive…

Currently I have the good fortune to work in one of Seattle’s best wine shops, Pike & Western Wine Merchants. We stock the wines of some of the producers highlighted here, but no compensation was offered or received for the perspective given here.

Columbia Gorge Rowena plateau