Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Other Terroir-Driven Treasures of the Columbia Gorge

Columbia Gorge in Washington State/Photo by David Lloyd

The Columbia Gorge looks like a postcard: The mighty Columbia River shimmers in the sun as windsurfers knife up into the air. Thousand-foot basalt cliffs tower above. Vineyards and orchards dot the landscape. To the north and south, glacier-clad volcanoes stand like sentinels.

“The place is raw with elemental energy,” says James Mantone, cofounder of Syncline Winery. “The earth, wind, fire, water thing is just laid as bare as possible here in the Gorge.”

While most of Washington’s winegrowing regions are in the state’s eastern desert, the 30-mile-long Columbia Gorge, half of which sits in Oregon, stands in contrast.

It stretches into the foothills of the Cascade Mountains to the west, where Douglas firs prevail. Annual rainfall decreases by an inch each mile you move east, with some western vineyards dry farmed, a rarity in eastern Washington.

As a result, everything is grown here, from heat loving Zinfandel in the warm, dry east to cool-climate Pinot Noir in the cold, wet west. With endless variations in topography and microclimate, viticultural and varietal exploration abound. It results in buzzworthy, distinctive wines.

Bearded man walking among juvenile vines
James Mantone, cofounder of Syncline Winery/Photo by Andrea Johnson

A New Beginning

The Columbia Gorge’s earliest viticultural pioneers arrived in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the early 1970s and ’80s that modern-day winegrowing began. Come the turn of the millennia, a new wave had arrived.

“It was a chance to make cooler, edgier wines, and explore something new,” says Mantone of opening family-owned Syncline Wine Cellars in the town of Lyle, population 455, in 1999.

At the time, the Gorge was mainly home to earthy, outdoor types who came in search of the good life. For winegrowers, the area offered something more.

“There was a chance to farm and grow wines that, even though the vineyards might look at each other, they won’t taste anything like each other,” says Mantone. “That was exciting.”

Syncline’s estate vineyard is an example. It has everything from windblown soils and heavier clays to almost two feet of pure volcanic ash. It’s planted to Gamay Noir, Syrah, Viognier, Furmint and Mondeuse. The latter two are new varieties for Washington.

“There’s really crunchy red fruit with some good structure,” says Mantone of the Mondeuse, which clocks in at a moderate 12.5% alcohol by volume (abv), almost unheard of for modern day Washington reds. “We’re able to make wines with a lot of freshness.”

Family in a juvenile vineyard, barn in the background
Luke Bradford, Meg Gilbert, and daughters Liv and Delphine of Cor Cellars/Photo by Andrea Johnson

Wines Scoured By Wind

With its basalt walls cut through by the Columbia River and scoured by Ice Age floods, the Gorge provides the only near-sea level channel through the Cascade Mountains. That brings barometric pressure differentials that yield average winds of 20–40 miles per hour during summertime. Hood River, which converges with the Columbia at the Gorge’s heart, draws windsurfers from around the world, but that’s not its only benefit.

“You can’t underestimate the impact the wind has on grape growing,” says Luke Bradford, owner of Cor Cellars. “It slows ripening down by two weeks to a month.”

Bradford started to make Gorge wines in 2003, with a focus on a Gewürztraminer/Pinot Gris blend from Celilo Vineyard. Located on an extinct volcano at the appellation’s western edge, Celilo looks down onto the Columbia River. Its backdrop is the 11,250 foot, glaciated giant Mount Hood. The vineyard creates some of the state’s best white wines.

“Celilo, to me, across every variety, it has this sort of citrusy, floral viscosity,” says Bradford. “You’re picking late, late, late, and you have these incredible acids, but they never come across as searing.”

Vibrant acidity is a hallmark of western-Gorge-grown wines, which makes them darlings of Northwest sommeliers and food lovers.

Bradford’s vineyard sits about 500 feet above sea level, with soils of river rock and clay over basalt. It’s planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and a newcomer to the state, Tocai Friulano.

“Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Friulano, Ribolla, those are the white wines that have sort of taken hold in my mind,” says Bradford.

Michael Savage looking pensively at the camera
Michael Savage of Underwood/Photo courtesy of Savage Grace Wines

Savage Beautys

As the Gorge has drawn attention, the next generation’s arrived. In 2018, Michael Savage relocated Savage Grace Wines from Woodinville, up north near Seattle, to Underwood.

“From the very beginning, I knew that this was where I wanted to be,” says Savage, who purchased Underwood Mountain Vineyard. “It’s a very limitless area. Kind of edgy and exciting.”

Wind keeps mold and mildew at bay, which assists with organic and biodynamic farming. It fits the area’s back-to-the-earth ethos and appeals to urbanites from nearby Portland, Oregon.

“More and more, I’m interested in working with organically farmed grapes, or as close as I can get to that,” says Savage, who started to transition his vineyards in 2018. “I can already see changes in the wines.”

Higher rainfall here also means some vineyards can be dry farmed, seen by some as a purer form of winemaking than through the use of irrigation.

Taken together, the confluence of raw beauty, vibrant outdoor life, bucolic towns and cutting-edge winegrowing makes the Gorge one of the country’s most exciting wine destinations.

“I feel like the lifestyle and energy of the people are always translated into the wines,” says Mantone. In the Gorge, the proof is in every glass.

An Armchair Traveler's Guide to Washington State Wine Country

Where to Eat and Dine

In Hood River, Celilo Restaurant & Bar sets the standard for fine dining in the area. Chef Ben Stenn and house manager Jacqueline Carey focus on New American food made from locally sourced ingredients.

“It’s on a level with a larger-city restaurant, with amazing service and an amazing bar,” says Bradford. “If we have a date night, that’s where we want to go.”

Camp 1805, also in Hood River, is the place for handcrafted cocktails later in the evening. This waterfront distillery and tasting room makes its own rum and whiskey from scratch.

In White Salmon, the White Salmon Bakery draws locals and visitors from Portland alike for its breads, pastries and sandwiches, all made in a wood-fired oven. Located across from the Columbia River, it’s open for breakfast and lunch, and offers a pizza night on Mondays.

The bakery has an extensive wine list that features local bottlings alongside those from Slovenia, Hungary, Northern Italy and elsewhere.

“[It’s] got one of the best skin-contact wine lists around,” says Savage. “It’s a place that you can’t believe is there.”

Nearby, Everybody’s Brewing is the spot for a beer and high-end pub food. Founded by Doug Ellenberger and Christine McAleer, it features year-round as well as seasonal brews.

“It’s a community gathering place,” says Mantone. “Totally unpretentious and delicious food with plenty of vegetarian options mixed in.”

Local Meets Global in Portland, Oregon

In Bingen, The Society Hotel features individual rooms, hostel-style bunks and cabins around a courtyard. There’s a Scandinavian-style bathhouse and spa, with a hot tub, sauna and salt-water soaking pool.

“You feel like you could be at a Northern Italian chalet,” says Mantone. Spa day passes can also be purchased.

The Inn at the White Salmon is a European-style, 22-room inn that’s decidedly old school and lies a stone’s throw from many Gorge area wineries and other attractions.

Feel like that’s still more people than you want to see? The historic Lyle Hotel Restaurant & Bar was built in 1805 and contains just 10 rooms. Located not far from train tracks that have long brought goods to and from Portland, the hotel’s restaurant offers small plates as well as entrees.

In Hood River, the Columbia Cliff Villas Hotel is perfect for groups of couples, with gourmet kitchens, multiroom suites and balconies that feature sweeping views 200 feet above the Columbia River.

Many locals will tell you, however, that the best kept secret is the Best Western Plus Hood River Inn. Located next to the Columbia River, it offers riverside dining, private balconies and patios, water access and a private beach.

“It’s the nicest Best Western ever,” says Bradford. —Sean P. Sullivan

Vineyard in autumn, Mount Hood in the far distance
Phelps Creek Vineyards and Mount Hood in the Hood River Valley, Oregon/Photo by Greg Vaughn/Alamy

The Distinctive Oregon Side

The Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge AVA is bordered on the north by the Columbia River and extends just 40 miles east to west, anchored by the town of Hood River. The Hood River Valley gently climbs the slopes of Mount Hood, extending roughly southwest from downtown. The farther south you go, the higher the elevation of the vineyards.

As is true on the Washington side of the river, this rather small AVA incorporates significant variations in climate, soil and elevation—all hallmarks of a distinctive terroir.

Alan Busacca, Ph.D. moved to the Gorge in 2008 after teaching soil science at Washington State University for more than two decades. In Busacca’s view, it’s possible to divide the current Columbia Gorge AVA into as many as six or eight separate districts, “based on the tremendously strong gradient of rainfall and heat units from west to east, and the complex and diverse geology.”

As evidence, he cites many different lava and debris flows, Missoula flood gravels, sands and silts, as well as post-flood loess that vary the soils throughout. Add to that the “huge range of planting elevations from 100 feet to over 2,000 feet, all aspects, and slopes from flat to more than 40 percent [grade].”

All of this accounts for the fact that as many as 50 different grape varieties are grown within a very limited area. Like on the Washington side, many of these that would seem highly incompatible can thrive at varying elevations and rainfall conditions.

The Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association lists more than 90 vineyards scattered throughout the AVA, among them Busacca’s Windhorse Vineyard. Here he’s planted Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with plans to add Sangiovese, Nero d’Avola, Grenache and Cabernet Franc in the next year.

“The Hood River valley in Oregon and the White Salmon River Valley in Washington sit along an axis running from southern Mt. Hood north to Mt. Adams,” says Robert Morus, owner of high-elevation Phelps Creek and current Chair of the Oregon Wine Board. “In this zone divided by the Columbia River, the varietal winners are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.”

Morus makes the case that compared with the Willamette Valley, these eastern vineyards have higher elevations, similar heat and rainfall numbers and drier weather during harvest.

“Pinot Noir, as grown in the prime sites of the Columbia Gorge, tends to express a savory, volcanic nature,” he says. Phelps Creek and others are well above the Missoula flood soils. “I like to say if you see a rock, I paid a truck driver to bring it in.”

As on the northern side of the Columbia River, the annual rainfall decreases by about one inch per mile from west to east. At the far end, the climate turns continental and high desert, with less than half the annual rainfall and plentiful sunshine. Here is where a wide range of Bordeaux, Rhône and Italian varieties are grown.

In the Columbia Gorge, this makes generalizations about an overall regional style irrelevant. But taken one by one, the wineries on both sides of the river make distinctive, focused, well-defined wines across a broad spectrum of varieties. —Paul Gregutt

Published on June 24, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings