The Columbia Gorge is a mammoth valley of waterfalls and neon-green moss-covered cliffs. The northern bank of the Columbia River is Washington and the southern bank is Oregon. From Portland, the closest place to taste wine in the Gorge is in Hood River, which is a small town of 6,500 people (home to the Full Sail brewery). It's an hour ten by freeway I-84, and the drive is as scenic as it gets. I think we saw -- at the very least -- 10,000 waterfalls. There are many more wineries further along the 84, but they require a longer drive, and there are enough wineries in Hood River for a full day or two of wine tasting.
The wineries in Hood River utilize many grape varieties, whereas most of Oregon's wine country focuses almost exclusively on Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. The Gorge's wineries feature Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, and other varieties. The Willamette Valley is closer to the coast (Pacific Ocean) and cooler than the area around Hood River, making it nearly impossible to ripen grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon (though there are exceptions!). Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned grape that loves to suffer (think dramatically changing temperatures, hail, frost), making the Willamette Valley the perfect location for such torment. Thick-skinned grapes take longer to mature, and they get this chance in the Gorge. There are plenty of Pinots in the Gorge too, and I also came across several Italian varieties, including Barbera, Dolcetto, and Primitivo wines. Unfortunately, I didn't get to taste all of them (in my next post, I'll share my tasting experience).
When planning a wine-tasting trip to Hood River it's good to know a few things. Here are the tips:
1) Most wineries charge $5 for a tasting, and this tasting fee is waived with purchase of a bottle
2) Many wineries are closed from December-February
3) Some wineries only operate on the weekends from March-May and September-November, so make sure to check their scheduled hours before heading up on a weekday
4) Some wineries are by appointment only
5) Note that there are wineries on both the Washington and the Oregon sides of the river near Hood River (the Washington wineries almost all require appointments)
You can find a good map of the wineries here. Below is a list of the area's wineries:
Wineries on Oregon Side:
Cathedral Ridge (popular winery, open most days, $5 tasting fee, Winemaker Michael Sebastiani grew up in Sonoma Valley, California, offers wines made from many different grape varieties)
Marchesi (Hood River is the same latitude as Piedmont, Italy, and Winemaker Franco Marchesi uses many Italian grapes, including Dolcetto, Barbera, and Primitivo)
Phelps Creek ($5 tasting fee, open most days, focuses on Pinot Noir)
Pheasant Valley (really liked this place, $5 tasting fee, offers wines made from many grape varieties, including Primitivo)
Wineries with Downtown Tasting Room/Bars in Hood River:
Wineries on Washington Side:
Major Creek Cellars
Demi Anni Vineyards
One last note on climate: Oregon contains patches of temperate rain forest, which are in turn part of the largest section of temperate rain forest in the world, which runs from California up to Alaska. This means that many parts of Oregon are exceptionally wet (think 130-150 inches of annual rainfall) with mild temperatures. The vineyards around Hood River get around 30 inches of annual rainfall, which is a friendlier amount for grapes; grapes suffer from molds and parasites when climates are too hot and moist. Right across the river, on the Washington side, the average annual rainfall is around 50 inches. In other words, this region of micro-climates is very peculiar and the Hood River grape growing environment is very unique, making equally dynamic wines. In particular, I noticed that the Cabernet Sauvignons have a pleasant herbaceous quality.