Food & Culture
Washington Wine Spotlight: Columbia Gorge AVA
When it comes to buzzworthy Washington wine regions, a little bit of everything—and magic—is happening on a tiny patch in southern Washington
By Paul Zitarelli March 24, 2017
Draw a triangle around the Columbia Gorge AVA, Washington’s most beautiful winegrowing region. From the west comes the maritime influence of the Pacific Ocean. From the east, dry air from the arid continental Columbia River basin. From the north, the cooling effects of the alpine Cascade crest. At the nexus (somewhere near Hood River, Oregon), these forces collide, with predictably wild climatic results. Here, in the transition zone between east and west, a rogues’ gallery of farmers and winemakers are producing some of the Northwest’s most exciting wines.
The Gorge is best known as Washington’s most successful coolest-climate winemaking region, perfect for brightly acidic white wines and light-bodied, ethereal reds. But the region stubbornly resists easy characterization. Brian McCormick, the farmer/winemaker behind Memaloose, a winery located in tiny Lyle, Washington, arrived in the Gorge in 2001 “on the run out of Sonoma County,” he says. He was attracted to the Gorge precisely because its varied microclimates and soils make it a difficult region to pin down. “There is a distinct phase change that occurs in the Gorge, as between a liquid and a solid,” notes McCormick. “In the transition, you can witness unexpected behavior.”
McCormick is not the only wanderer attracted to the Gorge. Because of the dynamic geography of the place, with 2,000-foot elevation swings and little in the way of flatlands, vineyard holdings have remained tiny, and a community of small-vineyard owners and small wineries has emerged, with a shared love of pushing the winemaking envelope. James Mantone, whose Syncline (also in Lyle) is the best known of the Gorge wineries, calls out the area’s “tortured topography,” which offers “potential for creating wines of singular terroir; wines from small intimate vineyards that will never be big enough to sell to 30 clients.” McCormick, too, champions the intimacy of the Gorge, noting that the wineries are “small-scale, varied and personality-driven, with an unmistakable, restless propensity for experimentation.” This region is the science lab of Washington wine.
Currently, a high proportion of visitors to the Gorge come from Portland, only an hour’s drive away, but the region seems perfectly poised to attract more Seattleites. About a four-hour drive from Seattle, it is perfect long-weekend territory, and the town of Hood River offers charming restaurants and accommodations. The wineries are delightful to visit and often too small to hire tasting-room staff. “Many of us are owner/operators who you’ll meet in the tasting room,” says Steven Thompson, whose Analemma Wines is based across the Columbia in Mosier, Oregon.
Thompson relocated to the Gorge after stints in Walla Walla and New Zealand, in part because of the area’s “unparalleled aesthetic and geographical beauty.” It’s a viticultural area that looks more like the Mosel region in Germany, with its scenic hillsides descending towards a meandering river, than it does like eastern Washington’s arid desert. “There are thoughtful farmers here,” adds Thompson, “farming some of the Northwest’s oldest sites, and creating some of the most compelling cool-climate wines in the Northwest.”
From left: 2014 Syncline Estate Syrah, 2013 Memaloose Estate Cabernet Franc Idiot’s Grace Vineyard, 2015 Domaine Pouillon Blanc du Moulin, 2015 Cor Cellars Alba Cor Celilo Vineyard, 2014 Analemma Pinot Noir Oak Ridge Vineyard