Grapes of Wonder

Robb Bell blends local grapes, wine-making expertise at Cathedral Ridge Winery

August 31, 2005

Robb Bell has spent a lifetime telling corporate bosses how to run their businesses better. But when he bought a small local winery last year, he knew he needed help. Professional help.

So he called his friend, Michael Sebastiani. Yes, from that Sebastiani family, the one that’s been making wine in Sonoma, Calif., since the 1800s and which helped put the region on the map.

“Would you consider making wine for a small winery in Hood River?” Bell asked. Sebastiani, who had never been to the Gorge, asked one question: Would he be able to get grapes?

The rest is not so much history as it is an ongoing story, one that will have sequel upon sequel — not just for Bell’s enterprise, Cathedral Ridge Winery, but for an entire region that is waking up to the exciting and sometimes daunting truth that Mother Nature has rendered it a wine grape-growing paradise.

It’s that very realization that prompted Bell, who has lived in Hood River most of the last 30 years, to put his successful career as a marketing and business strategy consultant behind him in favor of running a small, craft winery. He was also tired of the relentless travel that forced him to miss out on things like his daughter Morgan’s soccer games and school functions.

Bell bought Flerchinger Vineyards on Post Canyon Drive from Don Flerchinger last year. He changed its name to Cathedral Ridge Winery in honor of the western shoulder of Mount Hood visible from the winery. In addition to cultivating the winery’s seven acres planted in Riesling and Pinot Gris grapes, Bell arranged to purchase premiere grapes from some of the best growers in the area — including Lonnie Wright, whose 175 acres of vineyards in The Dalles produce several varieties of grapes, including old vine zinfandel dating to the late 1800s — and, after answering Sebastiani’s question with a resounding yes, brought the winemaker onboard.

Sebastiani was happily surprised by what he found upon visiting Hood River and the surrounding Columbia Gorge AVA. (The area roughly from Hood River to The Dalles and White Salmon to Lyle was federally designated an American Viticultural Area in 2004, meaning wines made mostly with grapes produced in the area can designate them as such on their labels.)

“From a winemaker’s standpoint, my God, it’s great,” Sebastiani said. “Within a 20-mile span, you can pretty much do anything.” The relatively vast climate change from the Hood River Valley to The Dalles provides one of the most unique grape-growing regions in the world.

Across that span, rainfall varies from 36 inches per year to less than 10 inches. Other subtle variables, including seasonal temperature variations across the AVA and how far from the thermal mass of the Columbia River the grapes are grown, create conditions where an unusually wide variety of wine grapes can thrive.

The Columbia Gorge AVA favors varieties like Riesling, Pinot noir and gewurztraminer in its western end and merlot, syrah and zinfandel to the east.

Bell and Sebastiani want to capitalize on that diversity and, as Bell calls it, the “propinquity” of the grapes.

“We have the ability to pick the grapes at the perfectly right time, and they don’t have to travel very far,” Bell said. “We can drive them right down the road and get them into bins before anything bad can happen to them.”

Bell has increased production at Cathedral Ridge during the past year to more than 5,000 cases, along with adding more wines. But he’s more interested in quality than quantity. That’s where Sebastiani comes in.

“We have a common vision,” the winemaker said of Bell’s and his partnership. “It’s a natural fit.” Sebastiani has known Bell, who was a friend and business consultant of his father’s, since he was a boy working in his parents’ vineyard. Sebastiani now has his own winemaking enterprise with some partners in California called Generations of Sonoma. But he commutes to Hood River a couple of times a month — sometimes more, depending on the season — as sole winemaker for Cathedral Ridge.

Along with creating the wines, Sebastiani works closely with the growers, checking on the grapes as the season progresses.

“Eighty percent of winemaking is in the vineyard,” he said. The rest is in what he calls “the kitchen,” — and in his head and his blood.

He enhanced his innate skills as a fourth-generation winemaker (the tradition was started by his great-grandfather, who made wines for monks in a Tuscan village) by a degree in enology and viticulture from U.C. Davis.

Sebastiani is not only enticed by the microclimates here that foster great grape-growing, he’s excited about the burgeoning wine scene in general in the Gorge.

“Hood River is Sonoma 25 years ago,” he said. “It’s real people, real community — it’s got more than Sonoma.”

Bell knows that. Having lived here through the demise of the logging industry, and the subsequent rise of windsurfing and then outdoor recreation in general — and the tourism industry they have fostered — he thinks the growing wine business is a perfect fit for the area.

“We’re a more complete community compared to where we were in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s,” said Bell, who likes to tell people, “We are not it, we are of it.”

“We are fortunate enough to live in this wonderful place,” he said. “At the end of the day, wines enhance the quality of life. The wine scene is inexorably enhancing the quality of life here.”

Bell plans to do his part to contribute to that, with a little help from his friends.

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