If Bernie and Anne Lerch had their way, the Hood River Valley would be known as much for its grapes as its pears.
Give them a few years, and it just might happen.
The Lerches own Hood River Vineyards, and over the past 10 years, the Westside winery has become a labor of love for the couple as much as a way to make a living. They have about 40 acres of grapes, along with 40 acres of tree fruit — mostly pears and cherries, with smaller amounts of apples and peaches.
“We’re shifting more and more toward grapes,” Bernie says. It’s a shift he thinks more orchardists should make.
“I think the valley could support 10 to 12 more wineries — even 15,” he says. He and Anne envision a “contiguous loop” — similar to the Fruit Loop — of vineyards and wineries that could bring more tourists to the valley, and more stability to orchardists.
“In agriculture, it always pays to be diversified,” Bernie says. “In years the cherries do very well, I can come back and buy barrels for my wine.” Diversification “gives us a lot more flexibility,” he adds. “I think it’s a trend we’ll see more in the Northwest.”
The Lerches moved to Hood River from California in the early 1990s. Bernie, with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, had been a molecular biologist in the biotech industry for 25 years and was looking for a change. The couple began looking for farm property in Eastern Oregon and Idaho. Then, on one of their trips to the Northwest, they found themselves in Hood River and the rest, literally, is history.
“I came from a farming family in Ohio,” Bernie says. “I grew up next to the Ohio River. I drove through here, smelled the river and I was home.”
The couple began looking for an orchard to buy. Not long after they moved here, the Lerches met Cliff Blanchette, who then owned the fledgling Hood River Vineyards and was looking to retire. The Lerches hit it off with him, and soon became the owners of 12 acres of vines.
Since then, the Lerches have more than tripled their acreage of vines, and expanded wine production from a few thousand cases a year to more than 7,500. They plant nearly 50 varietals — some in small, experimental amounts — and produce blends, which they’ve become known for around the region. The Lerches produce primarily red wines, but also make dessert wines and liqueurs that have become increasingly popular. Last year they sold 1,000 cases of marionberry dessert wine, which is consistently among the top three sellers at Made in Oregon stores.
“We’ve always made a large number of ports and liqueurs, but we’ve decided to expand the line using fruit we grow,” Bernie says. “We converted all of our Bartlett pears this year to wine.” The Lerches now make four different pear products, including pear cider and pear sherry.
At a time when much of the valley is focused on the pear harvest, the Lerches have spent the past few weeks scrambling to pick their grapes and begin the long process that is winemaking. By the end of last week, they had more than 40 bins of fermenting grapes cold soaking outside their winery. Bernie and Anne take turns “punching down” the grapes several times a day, which they do with a long-handled tool that stirs up the frothy liquid.
“It keeps the skin in close contact with the juice,” Bernie says. “Color and aroma come from the grape’s skin.” After about two and a half days of cold soaking, during which time yeast is added, the grapes and liquid from the bins are transferred to another tank where the temperature is increased. The grapes ferment there from eight to 14 days, depending on the type of grape and the wine being made. Then the whole concoction goes through a press, which separates out the liquid. The wine is then pumped into another tank for settling, then put into barrels.
“This is a messy, dirty business,” Bernie says with a laugh. “And a lot of hard work this time of year.”
But the Lerches clearly relish it. The couple’s strengths complement each other; Anne is the creative one, designing labels and helping educate visitors to their tasting room about wines. Bernie, ever the biochemist, pores over the winemaking process from the time the vines begin to flower to long after the barrels have been racked and the aging begun.
But both Bernie and Anne share a belief in making wines in the European tradition. That means, among other things, that their wines are aged in the barrel longer.
“We do more barrel aging than anyone in the Northwest,” Bernie says. That’s unique in an era where many wineries are striving to produce more wines faster.
“Most wines are aged 14 to 18 months — the premium wines,” Bernie says. The Lerches age most of their wines in oak barrels for a minimum of 24 months.
“I find it hard to sell a wine that you have to say, ‘Well, you have to imagine what it will be like in two years,’” Bernie says. “Unfortunately, it kind of flies in the face of the current trend.” The Lerches also have picked hillside areas for their newest vineyards, which Bernie calls “classical European.”
“We just terraced off an area too steep for fruit trees,” Bernie says. “I refer to it as our classic Italian vineyard.”
Bernie, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Oregon Wine Advisory Board, plans to spend more time marketing wine — not only his own, but also the Hood River Valley as a wine-growing region.
“This is a world class growing area,” he says. He likens the conditions to the Bordeaux and Burgundy areas of France and to the Piedmont in Italy.
“Our conditions are almost identical,” he says. The Lerches have seen vast changes in the winemaking business since they entered it a decade ago.
“Ten years ago, it was hard to sell red wines,” Bernie says. Now, Pinot noir makes up nearly half of Oregon’s annual wine production. The largest amount of white wine produced in the state is Pinot gris, which accounts for 17 percent of all Oregon wine. Oregon ranks behind only California in number of wineries, although, as Bernie points out, “We’re still trivial compared to them.”
“Oregon sells itself on the notion of quality, not quantity,” he says — a trend he expects will continue. But with a little more time on his hands, and with Anne’s help, Bernie intends to tout the virtues of vineyards to his fellow orchardists — and anyone else who will listen.
“With tree fruit, you send it off to the packing house and you never see it again,” Anne says. “You go through a kind of postpartum depression.”
“With grapes, you put it in a tank and you know it’s here,” Bernie adds. “And there’s nothing quite like it when someone pulls a cork from a wine you’ve made, and they like it.”