A River Runs Through It

By Karl Klooster

This story contains two departures from the standard criteria of this column. First, it is about a wine tasting I didn't attend and second, some of the wines mentioned were not made in Oregon.

As much as I would like to have been there, a prior commitment prevented me from going to the first major trade tasting put on by wineries from the Columbia Gorge American Viticultural Area.

Fortunately, two staffers of the Oregon Wine Press made the trip from McMinnville to Portland on April 5, where they performed the swirling, sniffing and sampling duties at the Hotel Monaco.

OWP sales manager Holly Goodman and account executive Nelli Vanberburg had promotion on their minds when they decided to attend the tasting. But they accounted themselves well in shouldering the additional responsibility of thinking about what they were drinking.

In regard to the non-Oregon aspect of the tasting, half of the wineries on hand were located on the north side of the Columbia River, which, of course, places them in the state of Washington.

But, when it comes to wine, a human-contrived boundary, even when a river defines it, is of little importance in comparison to essentially identical microclimates, soil consistencies and topographical configurations.

Even more to the point, conditions in Hood River present considerably greater contrast with those in The Dalles than the north and south sides of the river do to each other in either locale.

It is this very kinship of vintage similarities and well-suited varieties shared by its primary geographic sections that define the unique characteristics of wine grapes grown within the Columbia Gorge AVA.

On that Monday afternoon, 21 wineries offered their vinified wares for evaluation by members of the trade and media. Goodman and Vanderburg applied their noses and palates to the task.

Before relating some of their impressions and preferences, however, it should be noted that, like the Governor Hotel, which has become the popular wine industry venue in Portland, the Monaco apparently provides some quite attractive attributes.

The luxuriously appointed establishment is the San Franciso-based Kimpton Group's newest property. The San Francisco-based chain also owns and operates the nearby Hotel Vintage Plaza. Our OWP duo was favorably impressed. Atmosphere is said to influence any gustatory occasion, and they were thrilled by what they found similar to "a sultan's palace," and "classic elegance with an Asian flair."

They agreed that the warmth and richness of the colorful decor definitely enhanced their tasting experience. And the Gorge group put the positive environment to good advantage, offering up a generous cross-section of well-crafted wines.

Owing to a broad spectrum of microclimates spanning the AVA's narrow, east-west configuration, many of the noted Northern European wine grape varieties can achieve full ripeness there.

Among the reds are Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah. Whites include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Grüner Veltliner.

It must be said, however, that several of the wineries, primarily on the Washington side, source warmer weather varietals from vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA near Prosser and Horse Heaven Hills AVA on the Columbia River east of The Dalles.

The likes of Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Grenache, Barbera, Roussanne, Chenin Blanc and the Muscat family, which would fare poorly in Hood River, do well in these AVAs. And most of them can be found in various Gorge winery portfolios.

At the tasting, wines made from Columbia Gorge-grown grapes that particularly impressed Goodman and Vanderburg included a "wonderfully round and lively" Pinot Gris from Cathedral Ridge and a "classic" 2005 Estate Pinot from Pheasant Valley.

Another Pheasant Valley favorite was their organic pear wine made from fruit grown in their own orchards. "Fragrant, off-dry and delightful" were apt descriptors.

The 2008 Pinot Gris from Wy'East scored high with them as did the just released '08 Cabernet Sauvignon. The former is Columbia Gorge, the latter, Columbia Valley.

Celilo Vineyard Gewürztraminer is always outstanding and Viento's version stood out, as did their Sangiovese Rosé. Once again, Columbia-wise, the Gorge and the valley separate the two.

No Gorge tasting would be complete without mentioning The Pines 1852's Old Vine Zinfandel, a big, ripe layered beauty in anybody's book. It may be the best wine ever from The Dalles.

White Salmon Vineyard is one of the few wineries on either side of the river that sticks strictly to Columbia Gorge grapes. The Chardonnay proved clean and fruity and the Pinot Noir showed stylish elements of mineral earthiness and dried cherry.

Blending is a Domaine Pouillon strong suit and both their red and white were apparently winners. The Deux white blend is a harmonious marriage of Chardonnay and Viognier.

The Black Dot red blend successfully combines the quartet of Syrah, Primitivo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. Both the Deux and the Black Dot are made entirely from Washington grapes.

Other accolades for wines from north of the Columbia River went to Major Creek Cellars for its mouth-filling, intensely flavored Syrah; Memaloose for a bold Barbera; and Marchesi, whose only mistake was calling its crisp, tasty Pinot Gris a Grigio.

Oh well. After all, the owner is Italian. 

Special thanks to Holly Goodman and Nelli Vanderburg 


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