Story by Mark Stock/Photography by Andrea Johnson
No border in the nation matches the severity and grandeur of that between Washington and Oregon. With the mighty Columbia River as mediator, the two states flex their respective geological muscle. The closest contest exists within the dramatic and teetering split between Hood River and The Dalles, a 22-mile aesthetic battle of castle-like terraced rock faces, leaning evergreens and windswept brush.
Had the states been defined then, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would have agreed, in between natural science lessons from Sacagawea and heavy rain in late 1805. The immortal exploratory duo—of a grade matched only by Leif Ericsson or Neil Armstrong—spent over two years unmasking the American West in the name of boiling national curiosity. And it was the wily Columbia River that saw them through to the end of their journey; past the semi-arid bareness that framed Celilo Falls into the lush and rocky terrain just east of Portland and finally to the seemingly infinite Pacific Ocean.
The same restless excitement that warmed the hands of Lewis and Clark as they approached the last few bends of the Columbia has seeped into the surrounding soils and is spilling out in grape form. The Columbia River Gorge AVA, only five years old and 15 miles wide, is Oregon’s banana belt, having successfully produced everything from pears and Gewürztraminer to wheat and Dolcetto. Annual precipitation can vary up to 30 inches between Hood River and The Dalles, essentially creating a Burgundy and Bordeaux within a canoe’s ride of one another.
The Gorge has a history of heavy first impressions. In addition to being the first bonafide National Scenic Area in the United States, the majestic and meandering natural causeway is home to the nation’s first Scenic Highway, built between 1913 and 1922. It’s easy to be captivated by the Gorge’s colossal crevasses and velvety green slopes. Submitting to the sensory overload is healthiest and in doing so—with a tent, palate and intrepid mind—one can see much of what Lewis and Clark saw two centuries ago. What better year to do so than in this, Oregon’s sesquicentennial.
Dubbed Fort Rock Camp by the two explorers in reference to its protective landscape—especially welcome after a strenuous bout with Celilo Falls upriver—The Dalles was once a remarkable trading post. Half a century after its documented potential, the Gold Rush swept through. Rumors of several hundred dollars worth of the precious metal found in a single pan were enough to attract the masses and by 1864, President Lincoln commissioned the creation of The Dalles Mint.
An incredible feat of architecture, the stone building was to be a premiere Oregonian trading post. Paces from the river, the building could store gold and transport it via the Wells Fargo Company to the San Francisco Mint. But the gold dust never fully settled, and The Dalles Mint lost its federal endorsement in the midst of construction. The country had a civil war to attend and little cash to spare.
Today, The Mint is home to Erin Glenn Cellars, one of several wineries in The Dalles that craft a few of the eastern Gorge AVA standards like Viognier, Cabernet, Syrah, Tempranillo, even Nebbiolo. Grapes are pulled from either side of the river from high and dry sloping vineyards with rich alluvial and volcanic soils.
Approximately 150 years ago, one could hear the thunderous roar of Celilo Falls from here, the concentrated and cascading narrows of the mighty river drowned in 1957 after the creation of The Dalles Dam. Here, salmon struggled to climb the 50-yard-wide natural hydraulic escalator while Lewis and Clark labored westward, flooding a few canoes in the process of portage. Like the water slide of one’s wildest dreams, the Columbia’s massive flow then dropped 80 feet over 12 miles then.
Downriver, deeper shades of green paint the countryside and the rain shadow becomes—simply—rain. Hollow canyons are waterfalls here, the wetter soil better suited for pickier varietals like Pinot Noir and Riesling and cooler—respective to The Dalles—varietals like Dolcetto, Gewürztraminer and Malbec. Even in the peak of summer when the rest of the Gorge is torched and smoldering, Hood River maintains its healthy, breeze brushed glow. The Gorge’s countless inlets create a host of microclimates and provide perfect cover for camping and exploration.
In the months leading up to The Corps of Discovery’s monumental trip, Lewis is known to have shared wine with Thomas Jefferson, enjoying the fruits of the president’s incredible collection. In April of 1806, Lewis and Clark were surely out of the 30 gallons of red wine they packed upon departure. In fact, they were short of many provisions, the establishment’s original name, “Dog River” (as opposed to “Hood”), referring to their consumption of canine meat in tough times.
Had the explorers come a century later, they could have seen Oregon’s first Zinfandel planting by an Italian mason near Hood River, now part of The Pines 1852 Vineyard. It was the beginning of a tradition that didn’t gain good footing until several generations of pear and apple orchardists tried their luck with the lush soil.
From my accommodating campsite at Memaloose State Park just west of The Dalles, I wonder what it all looked like before the dam, the power lines, the interstate. Lewis and Clark referred to the spot as “Sepulcher Park,” a reference to the bones of old tribesman buried on the small island in the Columbia. In fact, Memaloose means “land of the dead” in Chinook.
With a glass of Erin Glenn’s 2007 Relm Ridge Pinot Noir—even richer and more fetching than that vintage has been described by so many in the Gorge—I toast the original inhabitants. Later on I pair some miner’s lettuce—foraged for and stashed after a quick hike at Eagle Creek—with some local Pinot Gris. A fillet of freshly caught salmon, or “quenett” as the natives called the noble fish, grills atop my camp stove. I’m a little early for wild berries but salivate at the thought of them anyway.
For the full-blown backpacker, or one who aspires to be, there’s the GingerRoot Rendezvous. Based in Hood River, the four-day educational event (June 19–22) teaches hikers and campers how to locate and prepare wild edibles. Such knowledge can free up pack space for wine, open the door to new pairing ideas and set you down as close to nature as our previous explorers.
My limited knowledge of the area gets me at least as far as a full stomach. But there’s little outside demand when four outstanding state parks flank the Columbia within a 60-mile stretch of Interstate 84. They also happen to graze the state’s most versatile and up-and-coming viticultural area.
It is possible for product and environment to intertwine in a dizzying dance of inflated perception. The salmon Lewis and Clark devoured in the Gorge after nearly starving was probably the best meal they’d ever eaten. Tracing Oregon’s beloved pioneering partners’ steps with a glass and tent in tow, I found my senses gravitating more and more toward the wine and away from the mystical majesty of this great watery chasm. And that’s no easy task.
Moreover, there’s a new frontier in the Wild West, and it’s sprouting from the soil of a region soaked in history. So eager was the president to hear about the nature of the Louisiana Purchase, he shut down the post office the day Lewis and Clark’s report was being sent back. And just as Jefferson reported to Congress of the duo’s extensive and enlightening travels, I am here to declare that the varietals are many, the quality tremendous and the landscape utterly unmatched. ◊
Put a Cork in It, Camper
Somehow you’re without even your Swiss Army knife. Worry not. Wrap something soft (shirt, towel, etc.) around the base of the wine bottle. Hold it perpendicular to the ground, and bash the base of the bottle against something sturdy, like a tree. The pressure created from a few good whacks ought to push the cork out far enough so it can be plucked by hand. Of course, you can always jam the cork into the wine with something as elementary as a spork or stick.
The simple act of pouring wine oxidizes it. In the worst of binds, you can always pour back and forth between two containers. Letting a bottle respire works also if you’ve the time but place some fabric over the bottle mouth to keep the insects out. A tea kettle works well if you have it, as the added surface area will open up the wine and washing out any residue is relatively easy.
Find the nearest river, lake or stream. Submerge the whole bottle for quickest results, being sure to anchor it with some twine, fishing line or a shoelace. In dryer zones, burial can be effective. Even a foot beneath the surface shows noticeable temperature difference. Dig out a snug spot, and don’t forget to mark it with something obvious (sadly, your label will probably be ruined).
Many companies make portable wine glasses. By and large, it’s an over-the-top purchase. Glassware is silly (though they make some more durable, detachable glasses now) and stainless steel always seems to taste like stainless steel. Try stemless plastic glasses (preferably made of recycled materials). They’ll pack better and can double as water glasses.
A celebratory ritual adored by Napoleon and for obvious reasons. There’s a special miniature sword for the job—the saber—the blade of which you run across the neck of the bottle, toward the cork, until the lip breaks. Hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle, up and away from you to launch the cork the farthest and be sure you’re running the blade along the bottle’s weak spot, the seam. For sparkling wines only.
Some outfitters make bladders for just this purpose. Platypus makes what is essentially a Camelbak for wine in the PlatyPreserve. The airtight bag has a polyethylene liner that keeps juice from oxidizing, even over several days worth of pouring. Tightly fastened canteens and Nalgene bottles can do the trick, too. For the bottles, the darker the tint, the better, as light exposure does bad things to wine—red especially.
Circling the Wagons
Ainsworth State Park
With 43 full-service campsites tucked under pines near Multnomah Falls, there are plenty of hiking trails and access to many towering area waterfalls. Six walk-in campsites exist for those looking for supreme solitude. Location: Exit 35, 17 miles east of Troutdale.
Viento State Park
Named after the first letters of three Railroad tycoons—not the Spanish word for “wind”—this park has 56 electrical sites with water and 18 tent sites. Location: Exit 56, 8 miles west of Hood River.
Memaloose State Park
With tremendous vistas for Gorge viewing and open meadows for picnicking or stargazing, there are 44 full-service sites and 66 tent sites in a shady oasis among the rocky upper shores of the Columbia. The bones of old Chinook tribesman were laid in ritualistic fashion here generations ago. Location: 11 miles west of The Dalles off I-84 westbound.
Deschutes River State Recreation Area
A great spot en route to the Washington side of the Columbia Valley and Gorge AVAs. There are 34 electrical sites and 24 “primitive” campsites at the confluence of the Deschutes and Columbia rivers. Popular among water recreation types, there are trails that can transport you away from the summer crowds. Location: Exit 97, 17 miles east of The Dalles.
Columbia Gorge Wineries
Cascade Cliffs Vineyard
Cathedral Ridge Winery
Columbia Gorge Winery/Klickitat Canyon Wines
Dominio IV Winery
Dry Hollow Vineyards
Erin Glenn at The Mint
Gorge Crest Winery
Hood River Vineyards
Jacob Williams Winery
Major Creek Cellars
McCormick Family Vineyards
Mt. Hood Winery
North Shore Wine Cellars
Pheasant Valley Vineyard
Phelps Creek Vineyards
The Pines 1852
Syncline Wine Cellars
White Salmon Vineyard
Waving Tree Vineyards
Wheatridge in the Nook
Wind River Cellars
Mark Stock, a Gonzaga grad, is a Portland-based writer and photographer with a knack for all things Oregon.