Between Two Worlds: The Paradox of the Columbia Gorge AVA

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Columbia Gorge: Washington on the left, Oregon on the right.

Washington State produces much more wine than Oregon, but Oregon wines are sometimes easier to find outside the Pacific Northwest. That was a paradox that I discovered as I traveled around the country last year on the Wine Wars book tour and giving alumni talks for the University of Puget Sound.

The Signature Wine Advantage

One explanation for this surprising situation is that Oregon has a “signature wine” while Washington does not. When people think of Oregon they think Pinot Noir and so retailers know what to stock — Pinot Noir at various price points. But what comes to mind when you think of Washington? Nothing, the argument goes, because Washington is many things — Cabernet, Merlot, Riesling, Chardonnay, Syrah, various blends, etc. etc. — and not any one particular thing. Lacking a signature wine variety, retailers don’t know what to stock on their shelves, so they stock less, concerned that it might not sell.

This argument is over-simplified for sure and probably over-sold, too, but the signature variety issue does seems to give Oregon a bit of an advantage over Washington and has caused much  hand-wringing on the north side of the Columbia River over the years.

Lucky Oregon — they’re Pinot Noir. Everyone knows who they are. Poor Washington — we’re [almost] everything, but how do we communicate that? I want to look at both sides of this dilemma over the next few weeks and see if I can shed any light on the question of how wine regions define themselves and the challenges and opportunities of the different strategies.

The Other Oregons

So let’s talk about Oregon. It is rightly known for its fine Pinot Noir wines and it highlights this fact each year at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville.  The IPNC gathers Pinot-makers and Pinot-lovers from all around the world, drawing attention to the Oregon industry. It’s an intense experience — so intense that I use it as the focal point for the chapter on “Extreme Wine People” in my forthcoming book Extreme Wine.

But Oregon is not really a one note samba — it is more than Pinot Noir and more than the Willamette Valley, too. And that’s a bit of a problem, because while signature varieties like Oregon Pinot open doors to a wider market, they can also erect barriers to public recognition of other wines and regions. The wine world is very complicated and I wonder if consumers and retailers who think they finally understand Oregon (or Washington or Chile, etc. etc.) are interested in having that understanding challenged, even if the result would benefit them?

I’m exploring how this question plays out in the “other Oregons” in two stages. We’ve just returned from a weekend of research in the Columbia Gorge AVA, to see one example of Oregon beyond Pinot Noir, and we plan to visit Southern Oregon later in the year for a different take on the situation.

Absolutely Gorgeous

The Columbia Gorge AVA, established in 2004, is a beautiful region with many excellent wines, but it is sort of trapped between two worlds. It starts near the town of Hood River, about an hour east of Portland on Interstate 84, and extends past The Dalles. The AVA runs along both sides of the Columbia River, embracing vineyards and wineries on both the Washington and Oregon shores. Is it a Washington AVA or an Oregon AVA? Both, I think, but that’s part of the “two worlds” confusion.

Vineyard

A typically complicated Columbia Gorge terroir.

The western end of the AVA is very much classic Oregon on both sides of the river. Like the Willamette Valley, the climate is rainy (36 inches a year on average, but as much as 50 inches at the famous Celilo Vineyard) and cooler climate grapes like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer do well here.  The Chardonnays and Pinots we tasted at Phelps Creek Vineyards were distinctly and intentionally Burgundian in style, for example, and Rich Cushman’s Rieslings at Viento Wines are works of the Riesling-maker’s art. Nice wines!

Oregon to the West, Washington to the East

So the Gorge is Oregon on the west end (and on both sides of the river), but as you drive east things begin to change. By the time you reach The Dalles you’ve experienced a rain shadow effect and the average rainfall is just 10 inches! Cabernet and Merlot (Washington wine grape varieties) do really well here as do Syrah and even Zinfandel. (Watch for a future post about the 120 year-old Zinfandel vines we found!).

Washington or Oregon? It’s not so much which side of the river as which end of the AVA. But it gets even more confusing (for anyone seeking a simple identity for the wine region), because elevation and aspect are key factors, too. Winegrower Lonnie Wright (the curator of those old Zin vines), drove us to a hilltop where rows of Zinfandel vines cascaded down the south-facing slope while Pinot Noir vines streamed down the north-facing side, the Zin benefiting from the advantageous aspect while the Pinot prospered because of the elevation.

It’s Complicated

The Gorge is divided in other ways, too. While you and I might think of it in terms of wine, other crops are probably bigger business for the local landowners. You can’t imagine the acres of apples, pears and cherries we drove through on our way to the hillside vineyards. And tourism just might be a  bigger industry in the long run. Fortunately these three sides of the Gorge economy mainly reinforce each other in a happy way except of course when they don’t (water rights in drier areas, for example).

Washington or Oregon? Well, as I said, both, but not a region that clearly fits into the stereotype of either state’s wine industry. Some of the wine people I met were happy to have the Oregon association since that is so clearly defined (and works quite well for the quantities of Pinot Noir grapes grown here, which often end up in Oregon appellation wines from Willamette Valley makers). But obviously it cannot encompass the great variety of terroirs, climates and grape varieties found in the Gorge.

Wine is just too darn complicated to be reduced to a single thing. Even in Oregon. Or Washington. Or wherever the Columbia Gorge is!

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The paradox of the Columbia Gorge AVA is just one aspect of the increasing interwoven nature of the the Washington and Oregon wine industries (and the fact that the Columbia River actually unites these regions more than it divides them). The Walla Walla AVA also crosses the state line, of course, and many “Oregon” wineries have grapes trucked down along the river from Washington AVAs such as Horse Heaven Hills to wineries in the Gorge and the Willamette valley, where they make “Washington wines” in “Oregon” wineries — a good thing for everyone involved in my book even if it adds to the wine region identity crisis just a bit.

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Thanks to Lonnie Wright (The Pines 1852) and Rich Cushman (Viento Wines) for showing us their sides of the Gorge — look for more about their projects in future posts. Thanks to Bob and Becky Morus for making our visit to Phelps Creek possible.  Thanks to research assistants Bonnie Main and Richard Pichler for their expertise and enthusiasm.  Thanks to contributing editor Sue Veseth for research assistance and the photos shown here.

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3 responses

  1. Insightful article exactly on point! We growers/producers in the warm orographically dry portions of the Southern Oregon AVA have worked in the shadow of our states iconic grape but have been gaining attention. Our alternative vision for Oregon wines which began with Tempranillo and Albarino have changed the paradigm. Abacela, a winery that has never grown or produced a Burgunian grape being named the 2013 Oregon Winery of the year by Wine Press Northwest is a valadation that southern Oregon has a Brits future.
    Earl

  2. The article makes me think the Mosel river is a similar border between Luxembourg (no signature wine) and Mosel (Germany) (riesling signature). As well as between Alsace (France) (no signature wine) and Baden (Germany) (no signature wine).

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