Monday, November 1, 2010

The Columbia Gorge AVA is beautiful and it might be magic

One of the perks of writing for the world famous Oregon Wine Blog is that sometimes people invite you to things. I recently attended a media trip organized by the good people at Maryhill Winery and Duo Public Relations. A few members of the print, radio and internet media were invited down for two days of exploration of both Maryhill and the greater Columbia Gorge AVA, unaware that they would unleash magic upon us.

I've been to Ithaca, NY, before and it's nice. “It’s gorges,” right? - that's the joke. Compared to the Columbia River Gorge, though, it's not so special. Unfortunately, the Columbia River Gorge is gorge, and not gorges, so that whole funny t-shirt thing doesn't really work.

The Columbia Gorge AVA is one of the Northwest's newest, designated in 2004. It's a shared AVA to boot; straddling both Washington and Oregon. I personally think sharing is good, though some folks might call that socialism. The Gorge AVA is unique on a number of levels, not the least of which is it's scenic beauty, which is unparalleled. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of pretty places in the Yakima and Willamette Valleys, but the sheer breathtaking beauty of the Gorge is hard to equal. The visual drama that plays out between the mighty Columbia River and the sheer cliffs and rolling hills that flank it make it a visual delight. Add to that the gorgeous Mt Hood and Mt. Adams and you've got one of earth's most splendid places, and not surprisingly America's first Natural Scenic Area. What most people don't know, but what I certainly figured out on this trip, is that the Columbia Gorge AVA must be a magical land.

“Magic is fake,” you scoff? I beg to differ. See, I've seen movies about magic, like the one with all the hobbits, the really long one, and the one about that kid, Hank Porterhouse, or whatever his name was. All of these movies take place in a beautiful, ominous looking place. The Gorge has that. Magical places have strange creatures; the gorge has zebras, which aren't necessarily strange on their own, but in Washington? That's weird. Volcanoes, great ominous mountains like the ones in the movies with all the hobbits, are also found in the gorge. The most magical thing though, the real magic I discovered on the trip, was what’s going on with the wine down there.

In the gorge, when it comes to wine, down is up and back is forth. What do I mean, you ask? The most amazing Pinot Noir in the gorge is coming from, wait for it... Washington. The Celilo and Underwood Mountain vineyards on the north side of the Columbia River are home to some of the highest elevation vineyards in the state. James Mantone at Syncline takes grapes from these vineyards and makes a Pinot Noir that is old world in style, like much of the wine being made at Syncline. It's elegant, beautiful, and allows the fruit to really show itself. It's the kind of Pinot that I love, but that's where the magic comes in, you see, ‘cause it’s from Washington.

Also on the Washington side of the Gorge is Maryhill Winery, a winery making 80,000 cases of wine a year; huge by Washington standards. Maryhill is most definitely the crown jewel of the Gorge when it comes to size and views. Craig and Vicki Leuthold are running this giant destination winery like a small family operation. Craig and Vicki's hands on approach and the family atmosphere they have created belies a winery making a great deal of quality wine, the pricing of which makes it a QPR bargain. Plus? They have concerts.

Craig and Vicki live upstairs and their dog Potter walks around greeting guests and barking at the wind. I don't know about you but I've been to a winery that makes tens of thousands of cases a wine of year; they have a concert thing going on there too. You know how often I've met the owners, or heard that they were living in an apartment upstairs? About as many times as I've met their family pet roaming the grounds, which is to say, never. Unless you count those peacocks.

There's more magic to be found on the Oregon side of the river, because they're growing Zinfandel. I know you thought they only grew Pinot in Oregon, but see, that’s the magic again. The Pines 1852 estate vineyards have zinfandel vines that are more than 100 years old. That's the kind of stuff you hear about from California, but not in Oregon. In addition to the beautiful zinfandel The Pines is making from these old vines, Maryhill is also making zinfandel. This is a grape that is often elusive in Washington and obviously Oregon, but you know what I'm going to say by now...superb growing conditions. Ha, gotcha! (Interestingly The Pines estate vineyard is mostly in the Columbia Gorge AVA but the AVA's boundary actually cuts right through the estate property.)

A visit to the Gorge can certainly be a magical experience. The views are once in a lifetime, the wines defy expectation and the people - from the Leutholds, or the Wright family who operate The Pines - certainly make you feel at home. The opportunity to chat with James at Syncline is worth the trip alone. But beyond that, there are a couple towns in the gorge worth a visit, including The Dalles, where we stayed. The Dalles is located quite close to Maryhill and has a few nice lodging and dining options. We stayed at The Dalles Inn, and ate at one of the most unassuming restaurants I've ever been in, The HiWay House. From the outside, The HiWay House doesn’t look like much. But inside? Damn, the food was amazing, and it boasted white tablecloths and the whole nine yards. I had a macadamia nut encrusted halibut that I was still talking about three days later. While I'm not a beef guy, the word on the street was that the prime rib was dangerously good. Walking into a place that looks sketchy from the outside and ending up with a meal that's sheer delight? Magic. Again.

I'll be chronicling my visit in separate posts on Maryhill Winery, The Pines and Syncline, but I urge you to check out the Gorge for yourself. As a year round destination it has something to offer outdoors enthusiasts from rafting to mountaineering, wine tasting, or just enjoying the hip shops and galleries of Hood River. Even if you're the laziest of people the views alone will make your trip worth while. Get down there.

The Columbia River Gorge Visitor's Association

Columbia Gorge Wine Region

Visit Hood River


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