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Growing Confidence

Location and potential nourish local wineries and grape growers

By SAM LOWRY

Special to the News

It’s 5 p.m. on a Saturday. Not a parking space to be had in downtown Hood River.

An early spring crowd, energized like rising sap, drifts into bars, bistros, and cafes where prominent wine lists feature Hood River and Flerchinger, Wind River, Syncline, and Cascade Cliffs vintages.

“People always ask for local wine,” said Colleen Craig, head waitress at Pasquale’s.

Her observation could serve as a motto for those who call Hood River the future hub of the most diverse viticultural pocket on the planet.

These growers and winemakers talk of world-class grapes ripening on cool nights in orchard margins. They see a valley basking in notoriety from the distinctive Columbia Gorge wine appellation, and city visitors frequenting these same cafes on their way to a string of wineries set in flowered beauty.

Proponents of viticulture (grape growing) and winemaking in the Hood River valley make a very strong case. What they hope for, may happen, whether by plan or by circumstance.

It is an idea that has been gathering momentum since 1974 — at about the pace of an upriver barge. Not much acceleration, but plenty of force against wind and current, and all flags flying.

Today, there are just 12 or 15 vineyards in the county, and two wineries: Hood River and Flerchinger. Most attribute the slow growth to orchards’ prominence, and to the valley’s compact, complex geography.

Back in the early 1970s, Pat Campbell, who thought old vines near her native Parkdale were proof of a conducive climate, looked for grape acreage to buy. A strong pear market was keeping land prices high and availability low — Pat and husband Joe opted instead to go plant Elk Cove Vineyards in the hills near Gaston.

Harry Peterson-Nedry also gave Hood River a long look, before continuing west to start Chehalem winery outside of Newberg.

Still, the climate, the setting — the Hood River Valley spoke grapes. It was just a matter of time.

In 1974 Cliff Blanchette took the plunge, planting 11 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that would become the core of Hood River Vineyards, later purchased, expanded and diversified by Bernie and Anne Lerch.

In 1981, Rich Cushman planted Riesling vines on family land to create tiny Columbia Gorge Vineyard, which still greets eastbound drivers at freeway Exit 62. It is the flagship of Cushman’s Viento label.

By 1983, Lonnie Wright was pacing the valley, helping clients find warm corners where grapes would ripen. And in 1984, Don Flerchinger, about to retire from Les Schwab, planted his hay field to Riesling and Chardonnay vines at Blanchette’s urging.

The 20 years since then have seen modest experimentation. A third winery, Three Rivers, has come and gone. Lerch and Flerchinger, stalwarts, have stayed to represent the valley at tastings and competitions, as their many awards attest. Lerch is a distinctively active grower, working and waiting to see how some 47 varietals will do on his estate.

But still only 12-15 vineyards? Where do people see such a vibrant future?

In conversations about Hood River viticulture, the word you hear most often is: potential, potential, potential.

Some of what keeps wine proponents confident is obvious: Hood River’s diverse tourist economy — orchards and natural beauty, great access and amenities — would naturally support wine-related business. Areas such as Yamhill County have shown how synergy — and cash flow — can result from this combination.

But there is also new confidence coming from unexpected quarters.

Sinnean winery (pronounced shi-NANN), near Newberg, is one of the State’s most respected labels. Winemaker Peter Rosback likes to cast his net wide, buying the best available fruit from vineyards around the state. In recent years he has turned, for some of his Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, to two vineyards in the Hood River Valley. One is high up, the other low in the valley. Intriguingly, both are 1980s-era Lonnie Wright projects.

“You can call me a real believer in Hood River fruit,” says Rosback. “And I”m telling you, the best places haven’t been planted yet.“

The Hood River Valley leans north; grapes prefer south, so “the best places” are scattered here and there, on side-slopes and back-slopes.

The Valley’s climate is a bit like the Willamette’s, but drier. It has warmer days but maintains cool nights; it has gentler rains. The valley is most often thought best for cool-climate, “Burgundian” varietals such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, as well as Riesling.

Rosback and Bob Morris, owner of Sinnean supplier Phelps Creek Vineyard, favor the planting of more vineyards. Especially with the two Pinots.

But Rosback also likes to use the second most frequently heard word in Hood River viticulture: caution, caution, caution.

“The industry is young here,” says Rosback. “Producers are under-capitalized. No-one should plant grapes unless they’re thinking long term. You have to have the best sites, successful varietals, highest quality — these will always find a market.”

Rosback’s current goal is to demonstrate the quality of grapes that can be grown here. He thinks interest and investment will follow.

In advising caution, Rosback is in very good company. Economist Clark Seavert and horticulturalist Steve Castagnoli of the OSU Agricultural Research and Extension Center primarily support the orchard industry. In tough times, with growers thinking diversification, they found themselves talking a lot of grapes. Castagnoli had a background; Seavert quickly developed one.

With help from a local grower, the pair calculated real vineyard startup costs for the area. The results were sobering: higher labor costs and lower return on investment than any fruit the grapes might replace. Not the magic bullet many had hoped.

“I don”t pooh-pooh grapes,“ says Seavert, “but I really hope I”ve brought some of this truth to bear.“ Misguided start-ups would only set everything and everybody back.

So if not diversifying orchardists, who would create Hood River Valley’s wine future”

“The potential is mostly for “cottage” wines,“ says Castagnoli. “We”re not going to compete with volume, so we have to compete with quality.“ Everything points to small, hands-on operations. This echoes Rosback’s view.

Those who do own vineyards are an interesting bunch. A pilot; a lawyer; husbands with working wives; professionals with family ties to the land.

Take Dave Waller, who sells Riesling and Chardonnay to Flerchinger: he got into it “by accident.” Land next to his in-laws’ orchard had vines; he and his wife bought it, and were soon hooked.

The growers’ common bonds are capital, wide open eyes, and desire. Grapes are a calling and a passion, as much as a business. They have to be.

And don’t discount orchardists. Over the years, many have called Castagnoli and Seavert, Lerch and Flerchinger for advice. Some visited Columbia Wine Growers’ Association (CWGA) meetings. A few have bitten.

Steve Bickford, Don Bickford and Dick Reed, of Pine Grove, know their efforts are being watched. Fruit growers all, they are partners in a 5.5-acre Pinot Noir/ Pinot Gris vineyard behind Bickford Orchards’ Cold Storage.

The ground is a little flat, the soil a little deep. They are experimenters, their vines up on special trellises developed in southern Oregon for such conditions.

Reed, who has worked with Rosback, knows that quality is paramount. And they are aware of Seavert’s figures. “But it’s still okay for long-standing guys,” says Steve Bickford. The trio have a winery in mind to sweeten the economies. They are a bit of a new breed. And they like their chances; so does Castagnoli.

The three orchardists have chosen Pinots. Rosback is adamant about proven varietals, and the economics support him. But are Burgundian grapes really the only future?

Joel Goodwillie of Wind River Winery, across the Columbia in Washington, worries Hood River growers will face Willamette Valley pressure to plant nothing but Pinot Noir. Bernie Lerch has invested in many warmer-climate Bordeaux varietals, with successes to back him up. Mike Caldwell, former cellarmaster at Flerchinger, would love to see Rieslings “get the respect they deserve.”

Aspect, too. Steve Castagnoli’s office window looks at west-facing, eastside slopes he thinks have untapped potential. But west-valley growers will tell you it’s morning sun that makes their grapes.

Everybody does agree on one thing: this is still a pioneering time, when experimentation is crucial.

“It’s what the Willamette Valley went through years ago,” Castagnoli sasid.

One especially hopeful notion, shared by many, is that great grapes can be grown in orchard margins, without pulling anything out. Grapes prefer steep slopes and shallow soils; fruit trees prefer the opposite. The two even require their most intensive labor at different times of year.

Should wine-growing and wine-making expand, experimentation can also be expected in town. Caldwell and Phelps Creek’s Morris both think a key to success will be shared, cooperative facilities, proven to lower overheads and create economies of scale. Morris sees shared mechanization. Caldwell watches with interest as Ron Dodge at Hood River Distillers prepares a new crush pad, designed for a line of fruit brandies but potentially a model for a public grape crush.

And Caldwell, truly devoted to local wines, features them at his restaurants, Stonehedge Gardens & Bistro and North Oak Brasserie.

Hood River’s other bars, hotels, restaurants, pubs and theaters, the WineSeller, and the only Internet and Wine Bar in Oregon, all wait to hold up their end of the local wine equation.

Which brings us to the last term to keep popping up in wine conversations.

“Critical mass.”

It’s the intangible something that would give the upriver barge wings.

Most think the missing ingredient is a few more wineries.

All agree that more wineries and more vineyards would spur one another on.

It couldn’t happen right away.

Unless: The Hood River Valley is unique, complicated — and, for viticulture, underdeveloped.

It is also part of a larger system, which brings further complications and many benefits.

Willamette Valley wineries buy Hood River grapes. Hood River wineries buy Columbia Valley grapes. Hood River growers eye Washington vineyards’ success. Washington wineries eye Hood River’s access.

In 2001 the CWGA filed federal paperwork, still pending to create the Columbia Gorge appellation. This would at last give growers from Hood River to The Dalles — and from Husum to Dallesport — a brand, an identity, a calling card.

According to Goodwillie, Bernie Lerch and others, the bi-state CWGA is an experiment that started with nervousness, but has grown into a fair collaboration.

Its bailiwick stretches from the renowned Gewurztraminer grown in Rick Ensminger’s Celilo Vineyard on Underwood Mountain, to Maryhill Winery across from Biggs, to Lonnie Wright’s “home place” in The Dalles with its 120-year-old Zinfandel vines, to newcomer Brian McCormick’s five organic acres of red grape experiments in Mosier, and even down to a little vineyard on family property belonging to Lee Bartholemew, vineyard manager for heavyweight Archery Summit Winery of Dayton.

It’s a big community.

And this is what makes some people wax expansive contemplating the new appellation’s future.

Within a radius of 20 or 30 miles, along this strange climatic breach, you could grow almost any grape — maybe, say some, at a world class level.

It really may be unique in the world. So, what’s the next step“

According to Goodwillie, Hood River shouldn’t be too surprised to see a new winery soon, maybe not of local origin, but still a local investment. That’s the “unless.”

Such a winery could be just the thing to provide a very swift nudge toward critical mass.

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