The Columbia River Gorge is different from the Columbia Valley. Quite different in fact from any wine region we’ve ever been to–and we’ve been to them all (mostly).
What makes the Columbia Gorge so unique? We’ve compiled a list.
1. Sheer beauty
The first thing you’ll noticed when driving to the Gorge (most commonly east from Portland), is how strikingly beautiful the approach is. The vast, quick-moving Columbia river flanked by large cliffside mountains, create an appearance of a long, running canyon. Waterfalls line both the Oregon and Washington sides with few noticeable housing structures (thanks to a strict preservation committee).
Many wine regions are beautiful, but often present a similar image of rolling hills, moderate climate and the “zen” of wine country. Few destinations have such eye-popping natural wonders, like Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams complimenting the foreground of waterfalls, rivers and vines.
2. Variety is the spice of life
To characterize the Gorge from a varietal and climate perspective is a difficult task. When people ask us, we usually respond with “well.. it depends”. To the west on the Washington side, you have a cold, rainy climate which barely reaches enough growing days to ripen white varietals and few reds. This region of Underwood is said to be getting its own Sub-AVA soon and is often compared to Burgundy.
As you head east in Washington, things start to warm up and by the time you reach the town of Lyle (about 30 miles east of Underwood), it’s roughly 5-10 degrees hotter with half the average rainfall. Here in Lyle, Domaine Pouillon works primarily with Rhone varietals (Syrah, Viognier etc..).
South of Lyle on the Oregon side is Mosier, where Analemma Wines is producing everything from Grenach to Cabernet to Pinot Noir to Gerwurztraminer. Adding another variable into the mix is the high winds which can create small pockets of microclimates.
Many regions are typified into one or two i.e. Willamette Valley: Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, Margaret River: Cabernet and Chardonnay, Burgundy: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But in the Gorge, there are virtually endless possibilities.
3. So much room for activities!
We’ll just assume you’re not complete wine nerds like us who will spend a week tasting wine at 20+ wineries (this is not an exaggeration, and here are some tips). Thus, you and/or your party may want to fill the schedule with a few non-wine related activities.
There is no shortage of adventure here: Kite boarding, wind surfing, rock climbing, mountain biking, white-water rafting, horseback riding, sailing, hiking, kayaking, skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing.. you name it, it’s here.
4. Less developed than ______
Over the last 50 years, many wine regions around the world have transformed from sleepy farming areas to bustling tourist industries resembling the likes of Disneyland (we’re looking at you, Napa). Crowded wine regions not only make it harder to nab tasting appointments, but naturally drive up the costs ($100+ per person is not uncommon in Napa and Sonoma).
Not in the Gorge. Average tasting fee runs ~$15/flight and bottle prices are very reasonable.
Another perk of regions that are relatively unknown is the “pioneer” or “wild wild west” element. Since there are still relatively few producers, there’s not one tried and true format that others are copying nor are there any mega beverage brands that owns multiple properties; winemakers are channeling their entrepreneurial spirit and doing things their way.
At Savage Grace, Michael Savage is creating wines that are bright, fruit forward with high acid. Nate Reddy at Hiyu Wine Farm is making natural wines, with organically farmed grapes. Alexis Pouillon at Domaine Pouillon is creating french-style wines as an homage to time he spent working in the Southern Rhone.
Diversity is not just in the grapes, but in the styles and passions of the different winemakers.
5. Major airport proximity
Visiting the Gorge is easy. For those near Seattle or Portland, the Gorge can be accessed via a car ride. For those further away, Portland (PDX) is a major international airport and is less than an hour drive to the Gorge. This makes assembling a group trip a breeze and is one reason why this area is becoming a very popular wedding destination.
6. Cooler than you
Many warm climate wine regions are in trouble. Both from the perspective of fire danger and also global warming, forcing the replanting of certain varietals. Bordeaux and Napa are both reporting that the rising temperatures will result in their famous Cabernet Sauvignon grapes being replanted with Malbec and Zinfandel respectively.
While parts of the Gorge do get warm and have some risk of fires, areas like White Salmon and Underwood are considered cool-climate (classified by temperature growing degree days). On top of this, the wind and river proximity brings a cooling presence over the vines in the Gorge.
While traveling across the world's many wine regions, most often my favorites were ones that flew under the radar; those regions without national recognition but with massive potential. I would dream about one day running a small label in such a region, being somewhat of a pioneer to a region that would one day boom with tourism and superfans.
Three years ago, Cassie and I discovered the Columbia Gorge AVA by happenstance. We were blown away with the naturally beautiful terrain, the array of adventure activities and the budding wine scene. Ever since, we've used much of our vacation and remote flexibility to spend time here; we continue to grow more attached each day.
Dream of starting a winery
The goal of starting our own boutique wine brand remains our lifelong goal; perhaps a small winery facility and tasting room. But how does one attain this? We do have a fair amount of wine-related experience. Between us, we have:
Worked three harvests around the world
Hold certifications from WSET and Enology degree-in-progress at UC Davis
Visited & tasted in nearly every global wine region.
But even with this knowledge, there is still so much to learn about running and managing a wine label.
Learn by doing
Enter Domaine Pouillon: a boutique-sized winery in the Columbia Gorge producing ~2500 cases per annum, specializing in Rhone Varietals. It's a family-run operation complete with cool-climate estate Syrah vines and a small tasting room. The wines are fresh, bursting with aroma, acidity and depth--reminiscent of the types of wines we would find while traveling in Northern and Southern Rhone.
Domaine Pouillon is the type of winery that Cassie and I want to build down the road; it's the type of winery we seek out when we travel to new wine destinations. Locating the best small wineries around the world is the reason we started Wine Scribes. Thus, I've started working for Domaine Pouillon, channeling the motto of my alma mater: "Learn by doing".
First month on the job
The first month has been a cacophony of cellar and vineyard tasks including barrel topping, sampling, tasting, racking, bottling, labeling, sanitizing, vine extractions, trellising and even roof repair. I'm drinking from the proverbial fire hose and loving each moment.
This is the benefit of working with small wineries--learn more, faster by being exposed to as many duties and responsibilities as possible. The experience so far has been priceless and am confident that it will serve as the building blocks of our dream.
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