In the Pacific Northwest we generally speak of two climatic zones for wine. There’s the cool and wet one, the Willamette Valley, with its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards, and the Columbia Valley, the warm and dry high desert east of the Cascade Mountains, where Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varieties ripen without effort. They are, in effect, side by side, linked by the rivers that give each their name.
But rivers, they move. The Columbia veers west after its desert meander in Washington state, having chiseled its way through the Cascades on its way to the ocean. There it enters the Columbia Gorge, which straddles Washington and Oregon. This is one of the most dramatic transition zones for winemaking in the world, a 5,000-acre confluence of maritime, alpine and desert environments, an appellation for which average temperatures, rainfall and harvest dates are meaningless. On its western reaches, the gorge is among the coolest places to grow grapes in the Pacific Northwest; on its eastern border, the heat units approach Napa’s.
So we are talking about an array — weird, excessive, disproportionate — where the range of potential expression is so great that it invites extreme experimentation. In Napa or Sonoma, planting six varieties on one property seems a typical upper limit; in the gorge it’s not uncommon for a grower to plant 25 or 30. That’s what happened to Brian McCormick at Idiot’s Grace vineyard in Mosier, Ore.: “We just planted a … ton and hoped for obvious failures,” he explains. “Unfortunately, not much failed.”
Grapes have been grown in the Columbia Gorge for more than a century, but mostly on the warmer east end.
As you move west you see what the river has carved through: dark and craggy waves of basalt, once molten, frozen in place and piled up in jumbled strata like slabs of sheet cake dropped from a great height. The soils are shallow and impoverished, routinely redistributed by winds that stream as if by spigot through Hood River, one of the world’s great parasailing destinations.
It was the cool alpine vineyards that attracted Steven Thompson and his wife, Kris Fade, to found Analemma there in 2010. Thompson was hired to manage an old Pinot Noir vineyard and, naturally, thought he’d make some, but 2010 was the coolest vintage in decades, and pinot wouldn’t ripen, so he made sparkling wine.
Analemma has become one of this country’s most compelling sparkling wines, a flavorful blanc de noirs that rivals the driest Champagnes for its nerve and angular line.
Thompson has since acquired land in Oregon’s warmer Mosier Hills and has planted a dozen warm-climate varieties. “We like the push-pull character,” he says of the place, “the constant tension between cool maritime air to the west and hot desert air to the east. During every season, both are at play.”
McCormick of Idiot’s Grace also realized that the gorge was not going to be the sort of place known for a single grape variety — so he planted 20. “We find that the local identity is much more interesting than a variety,” he says.
No one has gone as far as Nate Ready of Smockshop Band, an outfit he runs with partner China Tresemer. Ready draws fruit from five gorge vineyards, from every facet of its varied landscape.
A master sommelier with floor stints at the French Laundry and at Boulder, Colo.’s Frasca, Ready was lured into winemaking, ending up in the Willamette Valley — where, he found, he was bored. But whenever he and Tresemer drove to the gorge they felt energized.
“We could be open here,” Ready says. “There was no history or tradition, nothing impinging on what we could do.”
They live at Hiyu Wine Farm, a 30-acre permaculture plot just a few miles from the base of Mt. Hood. There, Ready and Tresemer raise animals, grow vegetables, berries, orchard fruit and 14 acres of grapes, planted with more than three dozen varieties, which he fashions into blends.
These blends, composed of five, eight, 10, maybe 20 varieties, are peculiarly delicious. They’re often grown in the same vineyard, the same block, sometimes in the same row, thrown in the same bin and crushed together, a wine more given to serendipity than calculation. The gorge, says Ready, has pushed them toward heterogeneity: “We just felt it was what the land, the terroir, the climate was allowing here,” he says.
Three Gorge wines to seek out
Analemma 2013 Atavus Blanc de Noirs Sparkling Wine: A faint whiff of strawberry gives way to citrus and breadcrust notes. Flavors are lean, red-berried; texture is bracing and mineral. About $55.
2013 Idiot’s Grace Vineyard Cabernet Franc: Loire-influenced leafiness with a dark berry core of fruit, framed by a grippy minerality. About $30.
Hiyu Ramato Estate Blend, Columbia Gorge: An Alsace-inspired blend of white varieties exposed to skin contact, with a woodsy, floral scent and a flavor of cellared apples, with a chewy grip of tannin. About $75.