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Wine pioneers ready to hit the trail

June 8, 2011

The Wine Sellers has always been so much more than just a wine shop.

Over the past 25 years, it's been a lunch spot, a trove of unique art, jewelry and gifts, the place to get Lou's fresh-baked bread and other surprising delicacies. A bottle of wine was always open for the tasting, the Italian coffee machine ready to fire up a latte, and a cushion beckoning on the white wicker couch.

"That's headquarters," said Cathie Kelter, pointing to the wicker furniture where many a visitor has sat over the past quarter century. In fact, when The Wine Sellers closes later this month, it will have been in business in the yellow house at 514 State Street for nearly 26 years.

"It's been a good run," said Jean Dills, Kelter's daughter who has been involved in the business since it opened in September 1985.

Cathie and her husband, Don, who died in 2001, were unlikely wine enthusiasts. They moved to Hood River in 1971 from Nebraska when Don was hired as the administrator for Hood River Memorial Hospital. They had seven children -- the youngest just starting kindergarten when they arrived -- and instantly loved Hood River.

"It was like dying and going to heaven," Cathie recalled. They began taking vacations to northern California where they frequented the wineries of Napa. Jean remembers them returning with the car loaded down with cases of wine.

"Back then, there was no place in town to buy wine except at Safeway," Cathie recalled.

When their youngest son went off to college, Cathie told her husband, who was nearing retirement, that they should open a wine shop.

"He must have thought I was crazy," Cathie said. But they found a space to rent in the yellow house - across the hall from where the shop is now - and opened for business with an inventory of 10 cases of wine.

"We were so dumb," Cathie said. "We just knew we loved wine."

The business soon outgrew its initial space, and by 1990 The Wine Sellers moved across the hall to the much larger area it still occupies.

The Kelters carried a wide ranging inventory, but most of the wines were priced from about $8 to $30. In fact, one of the great draws of The Wine Sellers was always its unpretentiousness nature.

"I think people can easily be intimidated by wine," Cathie said. Cathie and Jean have always made wine very approachable.

"Most people are comfortable paying $11, $12, $13 for a bottle of wine," Jean said. "We've always had the peasant wines." But they were good peasant wines. Their wine reps - most of whom have become close friends with the Kelter clan over the years - knew what would sell well in Hood River and passed on their knowledge of each wine to Cathie and Jean.

The store's "staff picks" section became popular - it was an easy way for locals to grab a good, inexpensive bottle of wine on their way home. Some regulars began ordering cases of favorite wines and have done so on a regular basis for years.

And time, the store also became a gallery of sorts for family members to display and sell their work: Jean's jewelry, cards and quality crafts; daughter-in-law Peggy Dills Kelter's fabulous paintings; daughter Anne and her husband Lou's mouth-watering baguettes. The Kelters offered space for other local artisans to display and sell their wares, too, turning the Wine Sellers into a unique gift shop as well.

When the Kelters opened the store, there were fewer than five local wineries in the entire Gorge. Now, there are more tasting rooms in downtown Hood River alone - with dozens of vineyards and wineries located up and down the Columbia. The Kelters made a point of carrying many of those local wines on their shelves as the Gorge wine industry burgeoned.

All those wineries and tasting rooms have not, according to Cathie, played a part in the decision to close. Other factors have contributed: the economy; the vast quantity of wines available at grocery stores; the library's closure, which has emptied the street in front of the store for the past year. ("The kids used to come in with their parents after they checked out books," Cathie recalled. "The kids were so much fun. We miss that.")

But mostly, it's just time.

"This is like one of our kids," Cathie said. "It's the eighth Kelter kid." And, at 25, it's all grown up.

Cathie, at 81, is ready to spend time in her garden. Jean, 52, plans to delve deeper into her art - particularly large mosaic projects she loves to create. Maureen Higgins, whom the Kelters "adopted" more than a decade ago and who's been a staple at the store ever since, will be volunteering at the library when it re-opens in July.

While they're ready for the next phase of their lives, the three women are going to miss being at The Wine Sellers every day. They're simply going to miss brewing a latte or offering wine or sharing Don's favorite chocolates with loyal customers, tourists, locals and reps.

"One of the greatest things about the shop," Cathie said, "is I never would have known all these people if I hadn't been here."

The Wine Sellers will close for good June 23. Until then, many items in the store are on sale.

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