Columbia Gorge AVA: One of Washington and Oregon’s Best Kept Secrets

By Kori ~ June 2nd, 2010.

We spent Memorial Day Weekend visiting the Columbia Gorge AVA. The Columbia Gorge AVA was established in 2004. It runs along the Columbia River and encompasses areas in both Washington and Oregon. The area boasts gorgeous views, numerous outdoor recreation options, quality vineyards, excellent wines, and very friendly folks.

We arrived in Hood River, Oregon, on Friday afternoon, checked into our hotel, and then crossed the Hood River Bridge back into Washington for our first visit to Celilo Vineyard. Celilo Vineyard is the premier white wine grape vineyard in Washington State. Rick Ensminger, Celilo’s vineyard manager, gave us a tour of the vineyard in the pouring rain. Celilo has breathtaking views of the Columbia River and Mount Hood, but they were hard to see in the rain. We returned the next day to take pictures when the sun finally came out.

On Saturday, it was overcast but thankfully dry. We spent the day on the Oregon side of the AVA and visited four wineries: Cathedral Ridge, Phelps Creek, The Pines 1852, and Viento.

Founded in 1985 as the second winery in Hood River, Cathedral Ridge Winery was originally known as Flerchinger Vineyards. Sonoma-based winemaker Michael Sebastiani makes their wines. Today, Cathedral Ridge produces 6,000 cases per year.

The tasting room for Phelps Creek Vineyard is at the Hood River Golf Course. It is the first winery I’ve visited at a golf course, but I must say the setting works. And the wines are excellent. Rich Cushman is their Director of Winemaking. I absolutely loved the 2008 Phelps Creek Celilo Vineyard Chardonnay. Alexandrine Roy from Burgundy, France, is a contributing winemaker for Phelps Creek and crafts two wines for them each year, the “Fleur de Roy” Rosé and the Cuvée Alexandrine Pinot Noir. Phelps Creek is lucky to have Rich and Alexandrine making their wines. It is a rare occasion when I find domestic Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that I really like. Founded in 2004, Phelps Creek produces 6,000 cases per year.

At The Pines 1852 tasting room in downtown Hood River, we had the pleasure to meet Sierra Wright, daughter of founder and owner Lonnie Wright. We were able to schedule a tour of the family’s The Pines Vineyard in The Dalles for Monday. Their Old Vine Zinfandel vines are over 100 years old, one of the oldest vineyards in the Northwest. Annual production for The Pines 1852 Winery is 3,500 to 4,000 cases.

We wrapped up our day with a wonderful visit at Viento. We ran into Celilo’s vineyard manager Rick Ensminger and his wife Jody there. They were wine tasting with their friends Dennis and Becky Beeks, owners of Chukar Ridge Vineyards. After tasting through Viento’s regular lineup of wines, we had the pleasure to meet owner and winemaker Rich Cushman (yes, the same winemaker as Phelps Creek) and concluded the day tasting his ice wine barrel samples (outstanding, by the way) on the patio along with the Ensmingers and Beeks. In addition to enjoying great wines, it is always a treat to get to spend time with growers and winemakers. They are some of the most down-to-earth, genuine people you will ever meet.

On Sunday, we explored the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge AVA and visited four wineries: Syncline, Cor, Memaloose, and Domaine Pouillon.

Our first stop took us to Syncline Wine Cellars in Lyle, Washington. We had the pleasure to finally meet both James and Poppie Mantone in person. Poppie was carrying their newborn daughter in a sling while their older daughter collected rocks around the winery, and James was busy working on his tractor. All the while, both of them and their staff welcomed guests to the tasting room for one of their busiest weekends of the year. No rest for the weary. We are very appreciative that we were able to steal a few minutes of their time and had a wonderful visit about bottle closures (Syncline is a cork-free winery, using screw caps and glass closures) and farming practices. They are wonderful people and excellent winemakers.

Owner/winemaker Luke Bradford founded Cor Cellars in 2005. Cor means “heart” in Latin. Cor specializes in Bordeaux-style and Mosel-style wines.

The McCormick Family owns and operates Memaloose on their Mistral Ranch property in Lyle, Washington. McCormick Family Vineyards includes five estate vineyards, three in Washington and two in Oregon. Memaloose sources fruit from their estate vineyards and purchases about one-third of their grapes from other vineyards in the area. Annual production is about 1,200 cases per year.

Domaine Pouillon is family-owned and operated by Alexis and Juliet Pouillon. Founded in 2005, Domaine Pouillon produces approximately 1,500 cases per year.

Before returning to Seattle, we stopped at The Pines Vineyard in The Dalles on Monday morning for a tour with owner/vineyard manager Lonnie Wright. It was fascinating to get a look at century old Zinfandel vines. I have seen old vines in California but these were the oldest vines I’ve seen in the Northwest. Look for a detailed post about The Pines Vineyard in the coming weeks.

If you have not spent any time in the Columbia Gorge, I highly recommend it, for both outdoor recreation and wine tasting.

Here’s a breakdown of the wines that we tasted while visiting the Columbia Gorge AVA. Under each Quality heading, the wine name and region will be listed along with price and QPR rating. Since the Columbia Gorge AVA runs into both Washington and Oregon, I have indicated in parentheses the state(s) in which the grapes were grown. Wines in bold type received a QPR rating of 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5).

Quality: 4 stars (out of 5)
2008 Syncline Subduction Red, Columbia Valley (WA), $18, QPR: 5
NV Domaine Pouillon Black Dot Red Blend, Horse Heaven Hills (WA), $18.50, QPR: 5
2008 Phelps Creek Celilo Vineyard Chardonnay, Columbia Gorge (WA), $24, QPR: 5
2005 Alain Fouquet Cabernet Sauvignon [Viento], Pepper Bridge Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley (WA), $40, QPR: 5

2009 Syncline Viognier, Coyote Canyon Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills (WA), $20, QPR: 4
2007 Viento Barbera, Lonesome Spring Ranch, Columbia Valley (WA), $24, QPR: 4
2008 Syncline Mourvedre, Coyote Canyon Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills (WA), $30, QPR: 4
2008 Phelps Creek Cuvée Alexandrine Pinot Noir, Columbia Gorge (OR), $42, QPR: 4

Quality: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
2005 Viento Cuvée Tuition Sangiovese, Columbia Valley (WA), $20, QPR: 5
2008 Phelps Creek “Vin Dore” Dessert Gewurztraminer, Columbia Gorge (WA), $24 [375ml], QPR: 5
2006 Viento Pinot Noir, Underwood Mountain Vineyard, Columbia Gorge (WA), $24, QPR: 5

2008 Viento Riesling, Columbia Gorge Vineyard, Columbia Gorge (OR), $16, QPR: 4
2008 Phelps Creek Unoaked Chardonnay, Columbia Gorge (WA/OR), $18, QPR: 4
2007 The Pines 1852 Tres Syrah, Columbia Gorge (WA/OR), $22, QPR: 4
2007 Domaine Pouillon Pierre (Syrah/Cab), Horse Heaven Hills (WA), $24, QPR: 4
2008 Syncline Columbia Valley Syrah, Columbia Valley (WA), $25, QPR: 4
2008 Syncline Pinot Noir, Columbia Gorge (WA), $28, QPR: 4
2007 The Pines 1852 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Gorge (OR), $30, QPR: 4
2008 Phelps Creek Oak Ridge Vineyard Gewurztraminer, Columbia Gorge (WA), $17, QPR: 3
2008 The Pines 1852 Pinot Gris, Columbia Gorge (WA), $18, QPR: 3
2009 Alba Cor Pinot Gris/Gewurztraminer, Celilo Vineyard, Columbia Gorge (WA), $18, QPR: 3
2008 Memaloose Idiot’s Grace Cabernet Franc, Columbia Gorge (OR), $25, QPR: 3
2008 Syncline McKinley Springs Syrah, McKinley Springs Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills (WA), $30, QPR: 3
2008 The Pines 1852 Old Vine Zinfandel, Columbia Valley (OR), $38, QPR: 3
2006 Cathedral Ridge Cabernet Reserve, Columbia Valley (OR), $44, QPR: 3
2009 Phelps Creek “Fleur de Roy” Rosé of Pinot Noir, Columbia Gorge (OR), $20, QPR: 2
2008 Syncline Roussanne, Horse Heaven Hills (WA), $22, QPR: 2
2008 Cathedral Ridge Reserve Chardonnay, Columbia Valley (OR), $36, QPR: 2
2006 Cathedral Ridge Syrah Reserve, Columbia Valley (OR), $44, QPR: 2
2007 Cathedral Ridge Rock Star Red (Cab/Syrah), Columbia Valley (OR), $44, QPR: 1

Quality: 3 stars (out of 5)
2007 The Pines 1852 Big Red (Cab/Mer/Syrah/Zin/Grenache), Columbia Valley (OR), $20, QPR: 4
2007 Cor Cabernet Sauvignon, McKinley Springs Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills (WA), $25, QPR: 4
2005 Viento Nocturne Dessert Wine (Touriga), Lonesome Spring Ranch, Columbia Valley (WA), $36 [375ml], QPR: 4
2007 Cathedral Ridge Bordheauxd Red (Syrah/Cab/Merlot), Columbia Valley (OR), $26, QPR: 3
2008 Phelps Creek Pinot Noir, Columbia Gorge (WA/OR), $29, QPR: 3
2009 Syncline Rosé, Columbia Valley (WA), $16, QPR: 2
2008 Memaloose Trevitt’s White (Viognier/Chardonnay), Columbia Valley (WA), $17, QPR: 2
2008 Domaine Pouillon Deux (Chardonnay/Viognier), Columbia Valley (WA), $18.25, QPR: 2
2007 Cathedral Ridge Syrah, Columbia Valley (OR), $32, QPR: 2
2008 Memaloose Barbera, Columbia Gorge (OR), $20, QPR: 1
2009 Viento Grüner Veltliner, Underwood Mountain Vineyard, Columbia Gorge (WA), $20, QPR: 1
2007 Cathedral Ridge Zinfandel Reserve, Columbia Valley (OR), $38, QPR: 1
2007 Phelps Creek Estate Reserve Pinot Noir, Columbia Gorge (OR), $42, QPR: 1
2006 Cathedral Ridge Pinot Noir Reserve, Columbia Valley (OR), $52, QPR: 1

Quality: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
2008 Cor Sauvignon Blanc, Columbia View Vineyard, Columbia Gorge (OR), $10, QPR: NR
2008 Domaine Pouillon Blanc du Moulin (Roussanne/Viognier), Horse Heaven Hills (WA), $17, QPR: NR
2008 The Pines 1852 Viognier, Columbia Valley (OR), $18, QPR: NR
2008 Cor Momentum Red Blend, Horse Heaven Hills (WA), $18, QPR: NR
2007 Cor Cabernet Franc, Alder Ridge Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills (WA), $22, QPR: NR

Filed under: American Wine, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Dessert Wine, Five-Bangs For Your Buck Wines, Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner, Lesser Known Varietals, Mourvedre, Oregon Wine, Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Red Wine, Riesling, Rose Wine, Roussanne, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz/Syrah, Vineyards, Viognier, Washington State Wine, White Wine, Wine Travel, Wines NOT To Buy (1 & 2 Star), Wines Over $25, Wines Under $15, Wines Under $20, Wines Under $25, Zinfandel

Reader's Comments

  1. Melinda | June 2nd, 2010 at 8:11 am

    At the beginning of the year, we started planning a trip to the Gorge for Memorial Day weekend. But our plans were squashed by a good friend’s wedding plans! I was thrilled to read your write up and I hope to get to that region someday. I have seen the Syncline Subduction Red in my local grocery. I will be sure to pick it up next time.

  2. Rick | June 2nd, 2010 at 8:47 am

    Really fun article to read, thanks. Did the Mantone’s explain why they are cork-free? Is it to maintain wine quality? or is is for environmental reasons? I’ve always heard cork is a sustainable, renewable product–but maybe not.

  3. Wine Miser | June 2nd, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Sounds like a fun trip. I had no idea there were 100 yr old vines in the Northwest. Would love a picture of them.

    I will put the Syncline Subduction on my list.


  4. Kori | June 2nd, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    Too bad you had to change your trip plans. Hope the wedding was wonderful! You should definitely keep the Columbia Gorge on your list of places to visit.

    James Mantone has a science background and believes that cork leaves the wine open to cork-taint, oxidation, and variation. He believes that the screw caps and glass closures eliminate those concerns and lets the wine speak for itself.

    Wine Miser,
    I’ll definitely include pictures in my post about The Pines Vineyard.


  5. Mary Cressler | June 3rd, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    As an local Oregonian, sommelier, and former manager of a Gorge winery, I’m so happy to hear more folks discovering and writing about this truly special region! Looking forward to reading your write up on The Pines… I love those people! Cheers

  6. Rick | June 4th, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Kori thanks for your extensive trek with your trip in the Gorge as I know you had tooooooo much fun during your exercise. I had tried a lot of these wines a week earlier so it was enjoyable viewing your comments.

    If you would some time go back a re-visit the Domaine Pouillon Deux (Chardonnay/Viognier), because I had an experience with this wine a week plus ago. I purchased the Deux three weeks ago from my wine merchant with his recommendation. So I forgot about it but opened it at an wine event when I was in the gorge and the comments coming from the tasters was, this is a fabulous wine. Note, I didn’t take credit for the wine as giving credit to the wine merchant.

    After visiting Sincline Wine Cellars we headed over to Domaine Pouillon and went through their wines, not recalling that a had their Deux wine the previous evening. When I tried the Deux I stopped in my tracks as noticed the complexity of this wine.

    I stopped by the wine merchant late last week and talked about the Deux with him. I gave him my thoughts and then he made a statement “It’s so rare to be able to make a wine of this quality with this blend….well you know that because you make wine”.

    Kori, this is not about right or wrong, but take a look at it again it you have the opportunity.

    Thanks again for all your postings! Rick

  7. Kori | June 4th, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Thanks for commenting. It is a special region, and I look forward to visiting again.

    Glad you are enjoying the blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Domaine Pouillon’s Deux. I will gladly try it again if I have the opportunity.


  8. Chris | June 8th, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Cuvee Elena?

  9. Kori | June 8th, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Syncline was not pouring Cuvee Elena the day we visited.