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Rich Cushman, Viento Wines. ##Photo by Michael Alberty

Four Under Flor

Abandoned barrels bloom in Hood River

By Michael Alberty

If patience is a virtue, Viento Wines owner Rich Cushman must be a saint. The veteran winemaker just ended his decade-long wait to turn someone else’s wine into “Fino,” an Oregon take on the iconic Spanish aperitif. 

In 2009, a friend of Cushman’s, we’ll call her “Sherry” for the purposes of this column, asked his help turning four barrels of a lightly fortified Sauvignon Blanc-Viognier blend into vermouth. Cushman describes her project as a “custom processing arrangement.”

The barrels resided at Mt. Hood Winery in Hood River, where Cushman makes wine for Viento, Mt. Hood and three other Columbia Gorge wineries. In 2017, “Sherry” said Cushman could do whatever he wished with the barrels. “She had either lost the time, the interest or both,” Cushman recalls.

Over the years, he noticed a two-millimeter layer of native yeast spontaneously forming on the surface of the wines. Suddenly, he knew exactly what to do with the lot: Bring a bit of southern Spanish flavor to Hood River.

This veil of yeast, known as “flor,” allows the wine to develop without coming into contact with air. A fino aged in this manner is described by wine writer Jancis Robinson as delicate, “having been brought up like Victorian schoolgirls, sheltered from fresh air and sunlight.”    

Viento Wines "Fino" ##Photo by Marcus Larson

In Spain’s Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Denominación de Origen, sherry flor is critically important in developing the unique aromas and flavors of their legendary finos.

Cushman detected some of those notes in his newly adopted barrels. But, just to be sure, he asked his wife, Robin, who studied in Barcelona, for her opinion. After Robin’s enthusiastic “pulgares para arriba,” Cushman proceeded with Operation Fino. 

Besides freshening the wines in barrel with a small amount of Pinot Gris, Cushman patiently waited for the precise time to bottle. That day finally arrived in December 2020. The barrels originally destined to fuel Negronis, had been taking up winery space for more than a decade.

Viento Wines “Fino” is a 375-ml bottle labeled as a non-vintage “Columbia Gorge White Wine.” Its $12 price is worth every penny just to see the stunned looks on your friends’ faces when you reveal this stunner after a blind fino sherry tasting.

The color leans toward golden straw, with tiny flecks of jade appearing as the glass is held to the light. When swirled, pungent scents of fresh sea spray, Marcona almonds, wet stone, Douglas fir needles and a trace of musk melon fill the air.

The flavors of Cushman’s creation are as close to Jerez as you’ll get without an airplane ticket. There’s a cool earth-mushroom combination dancing the tango with flavors like raw almonds, quinine, rosemary and dried lemon peel. It says 15.7% alcohol by volume on the label, yet it feels graceful and lean in the mouth.

The demi-size bottle and screw cap make it quite easy to pour a small apéritif serving before returning it to the refrigerator door. I will confess sipping this wine before dinner makes me feel so impossibly British, conjuring wishful images of hanging out with Steve Coogan at a bar in Knightsbridge.     

In terms of food pairings, there’s more than enough acidity to cut through the fat of any jamón you’ve squirreled away. Or just plain squirrel will do in a pinch, preferably free-range. Google “sherry and squirrel pie” if you think I’m kidding.

This Oregon wine will match up nicely with all the other foods traditionally associated with its Spanish counterpart, from green olives and almonds, to grilled shrimp and fried baby squid.  

A fino fest doesn’t need to be elaborate. In fact, the other night, we tried “Fino” with a series of tapas-inspired plates that took 20 minutes to make.

The “feast” started with a bowl of Goldfish cheddar crackers, our lazy homage to gougères. The main course we borrowed from Alice Waters: 1) Rub toasted slices of sourdough bread with a raw garlic clove, followed by a drizzle of olive oil; 2) filet a salted anchovy, rinsing it well and patting it dry; 3) place the fish shiny side up on the bread and broil it in the oven until golden brown; 4) apply more olive oil. Dessert was simply watermelon slices — grilled or chilled — sprinkled with Spanish paprika and sea salt. 

However you decide to enjoy Viento’s “Fino,” you’d better hurry as Cushman has a mere 125 cases of half-bottles to share with the world. There’s nothing else like this wine in Oregon. Don’t miss out on a “Fino” opportunity.

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