Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Columbia Gorge's Maryhill Winery

Maryhill Winery makes a lot of wine: their 80,000 cases rank them as the 15th largest winery in the state of Washington. But there is a lot going on at this scenic spot on the Gorge that would lead one to believe that Maryhill is a bit atypical of the big boys of the Washington Wine industry.

The arrival at Maryhill is about as breathtaking an arrival as one can make. The beautifully placed facilities have a view of the Gorge, the Columbia River, and Mt. Hood that is certainly an enviable one. Perched atop a terraced cliffside among the Gunkel vineyards, this beautiful estate (but not estate winery) defies many of the expectations that its huge case production might create. Why isn’t Maryhill an estate winery? They’re plopped right in the center of the well-regarded Gunkel Vineyards, and the fruit, it belongs to the Gunkels. In fact, the agreement that Maryhill has with the Gunkel family is a lease, a 300 year lease. While Maryhill sources a lot of fruit right there on site, they're also getting fruit from across the state. Maryhill is certainly making a lot of wine from Gunkel fruit, but because Maryhill doesn’t own the fruit, they are not considered an estate winery under the strictest definition of the term.

With distribution in 26 states and 20% of their sales coming from their on site destination tasting room, Maryhill Winery is well positioned, both physically and in terms of the current economy. Maryhill Winery has found themselves in a sweet spot with their wines’ friendly price points - all come in between $10-15 for the non reserve, and the reserve wines barely flirt with $25. On this point Vicki was very clear "We believe wine should be an everyday beverage. If you want people to drink your wine every day, and we do, it should be affordable."

There are a couple things to point out here, of course there's the price of the wines. The wines at Maryhill, particularly the reserve offerings, provide consistent value for the price point. So not only do you have a destination winery with wines that are very approachable where your wallet is concerned, you are also getting consistently well made wines. That makes Maryhill unique among destination wineries, which is unfortunate. Typically wineries with such a prime locale hope the grandeur of the site will blind you to the fact that the wine in your glass is sub par and overpriced.

When it comes to production, Maryhill's large size is more apparent in their practices. Only the Chardonnay is barrel fermented, and all the wines are fermented in stainless steel, with oak staves added when there's a desire to impart the wine with any oak. There is a bit of a departure in how long they hold onto the wines: most of the reds spend two years in barrel and one year in bottle, ideally. Demand may cut this timeline short, but that is an enviable position.

Owners Craig and Vicki Leuthold give off more of a smaller winery vibe. Their upstairs apartment, for one, has them on site and pretty hands on when it comes to the wine, the production and interfacing with their club members and guests of the winery. Last year 75,000 people paid Maryhill a visit, either coming for the wine or the concert series which pulls in national acts that are household names.

Maryhill is making enough varietals that you're certain to find something that suits your tastes. I believe I tasted nearly everything they make and my favorites were the Reserve Zinfandel and Sangiovese. I think these are two varietals that do well in the Gorge but also stand out among the wines that Maryhill makes. From their non-reserve wines I favored the very unique Riesling which has some serious acidity but would do splendidly with food and their tried and true, Winemaker's Blend, of which they make 30,000 cases.

I would have to imagine that when it comes to grandeur it's tough to match or beat Maryhill Winery as a wine destination. The ability to drink a well-made wine at a more than reasonable price while viewing some of the best scenery that that Northwest has to offer makes it easy for me to recommend paying Craig and Vicki a visit.


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