I just returned from the opening night of the Columbia Gorge Passport Tour, and there's a lot to get excited about. The event takes place all this week and will culminate over the weekend, April 13-15. Columbia River Gorge wineries are the highlight—both in Washington and Oregon, from Hood River all the way to Kirkland, Washington (where Waving Tree Winery is the last stop on the line). Winelovers can purchase passports here, or pick them up on location at any of the participating wineries. Passports cost $15 and include discounts, such as reduced or complimentary tastings, discounts on wine purchases, discounts on hotel rooms, and so on. The event is a great excuse to visit a blossoming wine country and partake in a Gorge-wide party!
For those living in Portland, the passport tour reveals another side of Oregon wine country. Unlike in Willamette Valley, you'll find cabernets, syrahs, viognier, zindfandels, and other varietals in addition to pinot noirs. Pinot noir is still a major player, but it stands in the middle of the tasting line-up rather than across the entire table.
AlmaTerra Wines, in Bingen (right across the river from Hood River), is one of several wineries featuring live music on Friday and Saturday, and most wineries, including Marchesi Vineyards and Phelps Creek Vineyards, will be serve special appetizers to go along with the wines. The discounts offered by the wineries vary greatly. Wy'East Winery has a particularly enticing deal: All passport holders, when they purchase one bottle of wine at full price, can get an second bottle of equal or lesser value for half price. "We've got a deck and a pond, too, so it's a great place to have a picnic," said Keely Kopetz, daughter of Christie and Dick Reed, owners of Wy'East.
Other wineries offering discounts include Pheasant Valley Winery, which is offering half-price wine tastings ($2.50 for six wines); Phelps Creek Vineyards, which offers 30% discounts for new wine club members; The Pines 1852, which offers 20% off half cases; and Memaloose Wines, which will sell their Mistral Ranch Red blend for $19 instead of $23. Many wineries will also be offering barrel tastings and pouring special wines, such as library wines, rare single vineyard wines, and other winery experiments that are usually kept hidden in the back of the cellar.
The Columbia Gorge is the land of boutique wineries, and Rob McCormick, father of Memaloose Wines winemaker Brian McCormick, said that "We'll just be pouring wine and having fun." When I asked him what provoked his son to become a winemaker, Rob said, "Well, he was floundering after majoring in Philosophy of Religion at Dartmouth, then he took a trip to France and fell in love with food and wine. It changed his life, and he went on to get his masters in wine at UC Davis." Since I too majored in philosophy and fell in love with food and wine after a trip to Europe, Rob's story struck home. It also paints a picture of the winemaking scene in the Gorge. The wineries are pretty young for the most part, and the winemakers tend to be eccentric, which in turn creates a high percentage of eccentric wines (both Memaloose and The Pines 1852 had full bodied reds that tasted pepperminty to me). The Gorge is home to a massive amount of microclimates, too, which allows winemakers to draw inspiration from multiple locations–( I would say "just like a painter might use a wider variety of colors if given the chance" but that'd be a bit much, wouldn't it?).
I didn't even come close to tasting all of the wines at all of the wineries at the Columbia Gorge Grand Tasting, but here's a list of those that stood out.
The Pines 1852 - 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel (made with fruit grown in the oldest vineyard in the Northwest, this wine is rich, silky, and complex and exceptionally well balanced with notes of peppermint—a true Northwest wine!)
Phelps Creek Vineyards - 2009 Cuvee Alexandrine Pinot Noir (crafted by Burgundian winemaker Alexandrine Roy, this pinot noir is deep and balanced)
Pheasant Valley Winery - Syrah (I'm not sure the vintage, but this syrah is earthy, dark, concentrated, and very full bodied—a massive food wine for a good price; $21)
(jeez—you'd think I only visited the "P" section of the room... but there's also...)
AlmaTerra Winery, 2010 Teres White Blend (I don't like viognier wines in general, but this unique wine—a blend of viogner, roussane, and marsanne—is full-bodied, round, and yeasty; $16; Dr. Alan Busacca was pouring two white blends featuring roussane and viognier, and the two were entirely different: try to taste them side by side at the winery)
AlmaTerra Winery, 2008 Coeo Syrah (AlmaTerra makes three single vineyard syrahs, and this blend features fruit from the three vineyards; the wine is inky and masculine)
Marchesi Vineyards, 2009 Natal Dolcetto (this fantastic dolcetto took me straight back to Italy; it is light and fruit forward and has perky acidity; it is friendly enough to be an everyday drinking wine but complex enough to warrant more attention; $24)