Winemakers’ Dinner, Columbia Gorge

One of the traditions of the Wine Bloggers Conference is the “mystery bus” jaunt. Bloggers bravely board buses, blindfolded. (Not really, just had to get in that alliteration.) All we know is that we are headed to a winery, where we will be served dinner whose multiple courses will be paired with multiple winemakers’ offerings.

The group’s destination is revealed during the journey, sometimes by  people in the know on the bus, sometimes by theatrical scenarios such as this year’s state trooper who stopped one of the buses for a bogus “situation,” revealed where the bus would be “detained,” and then directed traffic for the bus to go elsewhere later on. Hey, no one ever said wine blogging doesn’t get kinky once in a while. As Ken Kesey said, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.”

All I knew was, I wanted to be on Bus Number One. And so I was. Our bus left the city of Portland and headed east. The scenery became more and more beautiful, complete with craggy rock formations, the Multnomah Waterfall, Columbia Gorge and Columbia River, and bald eagles. We were poured glasses of sparkling wine by Sierra Wright, a young woman who turned out to be the daughter of one of the winemakers, surely a rising winemaker herself. She was also the person who let the cat out of the bag and told us we were being hosted by the Oregon Wine Board, and that we were on our way to Phelps Creek Vineyards, in the Columbia Gorge AVA, one of the few AVAs that crosses state lines (Oregon and Washington). From the OWB Web site: “Just 60 miles east of Portland, the Columbia Gorge Wine region lies in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, a dramatic river corridor that straddles the Columbia River for 15 miles into both Oregon and Washington. This region, which encompasses 40 miles, includes both the Columbia Gorge AVA and part of the Columbia Valley AVA. Lewis and Clark first made the Columbia Gorge famous when they passed through on their way to the Pacific Ocean in 1805.”

The bus stopped at the bottom of a civilized yet challenging gravel driveway that wended its way up a mountain. We were met by three vehicles that took us on a hayride; I opted for the pickup truck in order to avoid the tractor’s diesel fumes. (I live on a farm in Florida and own a diesel tractor, so was well aware of the “nose” as well as the heat that would emanate from its engine’s exhaust.) The driveway, winding around hills and climbing its way to the top, reminded me of the winding road up to my Dad’s place in West Virginia.

And then, the glorious view from the top, with Mount Hood’s majestic presence in the distance.


Our hayrides continued into the valley for a reception, where the five wineries’ families and representatives were setting up their tasting stations. On the far left is Sierra; she and her Dad, Lonnie Wright, were pouring the family’s The Pines wines. The woman in the foreground with her back turned is Nanette Eaton, chief bottle opener at the Wine Harlots blog. The other folks will pop up and be introduced in photos below.


Flowers by Wildwood Farm. Gorgeous arrangements!


We enjoyed a brief tour of one of the Phelps Creek vineyards, although most of us didn’t venture out for long in the 100-degree heat. The view of Mount Hood standing sentry was just as lovely from beneath the shade tree!

We headed back up the hill for an alfresco dinner at the Phelps Creek homestead. A beautiful setting (Riverhood Rentals) and a beautiful menu (Din Din Supper Club & Catering) awaited us.

Our hosts, Robert Morus and his daughter, Becky Morus. As you can see, it was a very hot evening, but everyone had a wonderful time anyway. Photo ©2012 Brian W. Robb, from www.facebook.com/PhelpsCreekWinery.

The food courses were absolutely delicious, and the wine pairings were very interesting (more on that in a moment). But the heart of the evening was the people: these amazing winemakers, how they fell in love with wine and winemaking, how they found and developed their properties in Oregon, how they’re making wine today, and the sheer passion with which they’re doing so.

With each new course, another winemaker joined a new table and spent 15 minutes or so visiting and talking about their wines.

Lonnie Wright is pictured below, and information about him and The Pines Vineyard appears underneath his picture. We had already heard some of his vineyard’s story from his daughter, Sierra, on the bus trip.

Sierra Wright gave us a brief history of The Pines Vineyard. An Italian stonemason named Louis Cimone settled eight acres and planted Zinfandel in 1895. He made wine for decades, even during Prohibition (his boss was a priest). The property was abandoned in 1960, and Sierra’s Dad, Lonnie Wright, bought the land in the early 1980s; he and his family moved onto the property in 1989. Lonnie had a significant background in winemaking that started in 1978; he learned the craft of viticulture when he and several others planted 2,000 acres in two years, creating the first vineyards at Columbia Crest, a winery owned by Chateau St. Michelle, in Patterson, WA. Lonnie became the area manager for 650 acres of grapes and supervised the first harvest. Today Lonnie’s vineyard consists of 20 acres of the Old Zin, new Zin planted in 1987 and 2002, Merlot, and Syrah. Recently Lonnie was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Oregon Wine Board for work spanning “not only a personal lifetime, but the lifetime of the Oregon Wine Industry.” He was recognized for his work pioneering vineyards from 1978 to the present in the Columbia Gorge and Columbia Valley AVAs.

Speaking of the Oregon Wine Board, Michael Donovan, Chairman of the Board of the OWB, was our “official” host. He has been involved in the Oregon wine industry since 1973, and since 2003, he has been the Director of National Sales & Marketing
and a minority shareholder of RoxyAnn Winery in Medford. He has served as a member of the Marketing Committee of the OWB since 2008, when he was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the OWB for service to the Oregon wine industry.

These folks represent Naked Winery: Kelly Medler, Marketing Communications Manager, and Peter Steinfeld, winemaker. If you think these folks look like imps who are having way too much fun, you’re right! With their wines bearing names such as “Jugs DD,” “Penetration Cab,” “Foreplay Chardonnay” … well, you get the picture. Visitors to the tasting room are greeted with a smile and the question, “Wanna get naked?” Truthfully, their 2009 “Oh! Tempranillo” knocked my, uh, socks off … yes, that’s it, socks.

I didn’t get a decent dinner-table picture of Hunter Morton, winemaker for Cathedral Ridge Winery. This isn’t a decent picture, either (it’s from the pre-dinner valley reception), but I couldn’t just leave the guy out. :-) He’s actually a strikingly handsome man, making strikingly handsome wines, with winemaker Michael Sebastiani (there’s that famous, fabulous name again).

Sebastiani wrote on the Web blog that the Hood River AVA includes a 40-mile stretch of land which encompasses dramatic temperature and rainfall changes and environments ranging from rain forest to desert, including areas that almost perfectly duplicate four of the world’s greatest grape-growing regions, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone and Rhine. “Cathedral Ridge Winery is located less than thirty minutes from all four of these marvelous microclimates! The grapes travel less than 30 minutes to get to the winery allowing us to capture the most intense concentrations of flavors.” As with Columbia Gorge and Columbia River, the Hood River AVA environment changes rapidly in that with each mile further east, the annual rainfall decreases significantly. Cascade Locks gets 130 inches of rain/year and is called a temperate rainforest, but Underwood Mountain, less than half a mile away, gets only 60 inches. The Dalles, 18 miles further east, receives only 12 inches of rain, and five miles further east, only eight inches/year.

Hunter told us, “Not only are we blessed with a myriad of microclimates, but we have incredible soil, much of it volcanic from the Cascades, but also a good deal of rich soil was brought over from Montana during the Lake Missoula floods 10,000 years ago. Lake Missoula was huge, covering much of the northwest and would form great ice dams. When they broke, all the water would come rushing through the Gorge (thus helping to form it) on its way to the ocean. As it slowed, huge amounts of sediment were left behind. The Gorge is also known for its wind, which is very beneficial to the grapes. If we get moisture late in the season, the wind helps dry out the clusters and prevents mold and mildew. It also helps suck all that water back out of the grapes (evaporation from the leaves) so we can be ready to harvest more quickly. If the grapes take in too much water, it lowers the sugar and will weaken the wine if not allowed to dry back out. Late in the season this can be disastrous, as an early frost can hit while you are waiting and destroy the crop. The stress of farming.”

Rich Cushman, winemaker for Viento Wines, was graduated from Oregon State, went to UC Davis’s master’s program, spent time in Germany, and began making wine in the Willamette Valley in 1981 with the planting of his Riesling vineyard, now the oldest Riesling in the Gorge. He assisted with the beginnings of 18 other wineries, is currently the winemaker for Phelps Creek, Mt. Hood, Dry Hollow, consults for several wineries, and works with the Alain Fouquet French Cooperage in the Northwest. His philosophy is straightforward yet all-encompassing: “Winemaking is art, with science there to support your decisions. Winemaking is working with Mother Nature. Winemaking is natural, and pretty simple, really, so be minimalistic. Get fruit from the region where it grows best.” His two sons are involved in winemaking with him.

And now, the wines!

COURSE ONE:
Viento 2010 Gruner Veltliner. Citrusy, somewhat serious, golden. Rich called this, their fourth vintage, a “groovy” wine that is an “easy wine to make.”
Naked 2009 “Complicated” Viognier. Lightest color of the three. A whiff of bourbon, a hint of sweetness, yet piquant. Spicy, dry finish. Yeast. This was complicated!
The Pines 2009 Viognier. Darkest of the three. Grapes sourced from The Dalles, stainless steel aged. Softest of the three; balanced and round.

COURSE TWO:
Phelps Creek 2010 Reserve Chardonnay. Rich, Bob Morus’s winemaker, explained that they use French oak 1/3 one-year-old, 1/3 two-year-old, and 1/3 three-year-old. 80% malolactic. “We don’t have to do a whole lot to it.” Soft, nutty; honey as it opened.
Cathedral Ridge 2009 Reserve Chardonnay. Stronger and bolder. An interesting contrast.

COURSE THREE:
Phelps Creek 2008 Cuvee Alexandrine.
Green pepper nose, wonderful taste, much fruitier as it opened up. Bob Morus told the story of their associate winemaker, Alexandrine Roi, French winemaker. One year an early frost attacked the winery’s Pinot Noir grapes. They didn’t know what to do, so Alexandrine called PaPa, Marques Roi. Marques didn’t know what to do, but he called 80-year-old Claude, who had experienced this in 1956. He told them what to do. (Not that they told us, but it’s still a neat story.)
Cathedral Ridge 2009 Reserve Pinot Noir. Caramel, pipe tobacco, delicious. Dark cherry, raspberry, silky.

COURSE FOUR:
The Pines 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel.
Big old thing with almost Cabernet-like bubbles. Purple, blood, texture. A softer style of Zin.
Viento 2011 Barbera. Purple. Spicy nose, like Syrah.
Naked 2010 “Oh!” Tempranillo. Purple. Pipe tobacco, smoke, caramel. Smooth, soft. Beautiful. Cedar.

COURSE FIVE:
Phelps Creek 2009 Ice Wine.
Nose like a Champagne, dry; yet a sweet taste. Refreshing.
The Pines 2009 “Sweet Sierra.” Zinfandel made in a Port style. Delicious!
Viento 2009 Gewurtztraminer Ice Wine. Mango nose! Papaya.

This entry was posted in Barbera, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner, Ice Wine, Oregon, Pinot Noir, Tastings, Tempranillo, Travel, Uncategorized, Viognier, Visits to Vineyards/Winemakers, Zinfandel. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Winemakers’ Dinner, Columbia Gorge

  1. Alina says:

    Yeah…that picture does *not* do Hunter justice…at all. I’ve…umm…yeah…let’s just say I’ve been a bumbling fool around him more times than I care to think about.

    And Cathedral Ridge is my #1 favorite winery in the NW, hands down. Naked runs a *very* close second.

    Great post, I’m kicking myself for going back to my room, but I just had to dump some stuff out of my purse before getting on the bus, hence the reason why I missed out on bus #1!

  2. Thanks for the kind review and time taken to show case our people and wines in the Columbia Gorge.

    Every time I read about the WBC12 dinners I realize I missed out on something special. I hope to get up to BC next year.

    Kind Regards, David Barringer

  3. You’ve definitely inspired me to visit this area, which I regrettably didn’t get a chance to visit while at WBC12. May have to stop by on my way to Penticton! Love your photos, and thanks for the recap of what sounded like a great bus to be on! I’ll add this to the WBC12 post directory. Cheers!

  4. Becky Morus says:

    We had such a great time hosting all of you! Thank you for the wonderful blog post- it’s so incredibly detailed and thoughtful. Please let us know next time you’re in the Columbia Gorge; we would love to entertain you again!

  5. Looks like a lot of fun. I think I would’ve spent most of my time in the field, though. ;)

    • HaHa! David, believe it or not, temps were higher than 100F that day, and the tour of the vineyards was a lot shorter than most of us wanted it to be. I’m sure it would have been a GAS for you, though — the vines are vertically trained and everything is just so neat. You would LOVE it out there. Please check out my post on Montinore — I think you’ll get a kick out of the last few photographs. What they’re doing with biodynamics is just amazing.

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