Travel, Etc. --> The Columbia Gorge
Oregon Spring Break Tour 2007, Part II
The Columbia Gorge
When we first began to plan this trip back in December, one of our goals was to spend some time with Peter Rosback, winemaker and owner of Sineann Winery. So, when Peter told me he would probably be in New Zealand making wine there during the March Pinot Noir harvest, I began to reconsider the trip. Then that six degrees of separation thing intervened (actually it was three degrees). Over Christmas, an old friend and good customer, Mike Burks, brought me a bottle of wine from The Pines 1852 Winery in Oregon. It seems he had hooked back up with his old college friend, Lonnie Wright, who was now a grape grower and winery owner in Oregon and Lonnie had sent him a case of his wine.
First degree: "Here, Doug, see what you think of this bottle of Syrah." Well, we tried it and not only was it very, very good... the style sure was familiar. The first thing I learned when I spoke to Lonnie on the phone was that not only did he grow a lot of the grapes Peter Rosback uses, including the Old Vine Zinfandel that put Peter on the map, Peter makes all of the wines for Lonnie's Pines Winery!
Second degree: I knew that Mike had gone to Butler, but I never knew that he and Lonnie had graduated just one year ahead of me.
Third degree: We discovered that Lonnie had grown up in Plymouth, Indiana, just a few short miles north of Linda's childhood home.
Suddenly, we had good reason to go to Oregon. If you are amongst our customers, you almost have to know that we all think that Peter Rosback makes some of Oregon's best wines. The tastings we have held with him are the most successful we have every had and his Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay have sold out every season. Peter may be one of Oregon's leading winemakers, but Lonnie is one of its leading growers and the pioneer of the entire Columbia Gorge area.
The Columbia Gorge is one of the country's newest wine growing appellations and Lonnie is one of its patron saints. It begins about 60 miles east of Portland near Hood River and stretches for 40 miles along the the steep slopes of the Columbia river and its tributaries. Having a universe of tiny micro climates, the region has none of the Burgundian limitations of the Willamette Valley to the west. Cabernet, Merlot and Zinfandel thrive here, along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The key seems to be knowing what to plant where and Lonnie seems to be one of the masters.
Our first stop was the vineyard that started it all for Lonnie...the three acres of old vine Zinfandel vines that he brought back from 20 years of neglect in the early 1980's. Somewhere between 1906 and 1914, an Italian immigrant named Luigi Comini came by way of California to cut stone for the Cascade Locks on the Columbia river. And he brought Zinfandel vines with him to his new home. He planted them on a terraced 30 degree slope just south of the town of Dalles on the Columbia River. Just below the vineyard is Lonnie's home and the future home of his winery, The Pines 1852, named for The Pines Dairy that operated on the property from 1926 through the 1940's and the 1852 land grant that established the property.
What struck me at first was the fact that while very gnarled, the vines were only a few inches in diameter. In California, the 100 year vines we encountered looked like ancient tree trunks. The answer is in the climate. Columbia Gorge does not enjoy the maritime influence that moderates the winter temperatures in the Willamette Valley. It can get cold enough to freeze the vines to the ground. And when it does, like it did in 1986 and 1991, the trunks must be cut away and new shoots nursed up from the roots. It's a painful experience since the entire vineyard loses a full year's production.
Nearby, we saw the new Pines Zinfandel vineyard that Lonnie has planted with cuttings from the old vine Zin along with his Merlot and Cabernet Vineyards. He also manages hundreds of acres of other vineyards all over the area including the McDuff, Wyeast, Celio and Phelps Creek vineyards that fans of Sineann Pinots and Cabernets might recognize. You have to admire passion, and Lonnie has plenty for his grapes. He learned his trade in the 1970s working for Columbia Crest, helping to plant the thousands of acres of vineyards in the Columbia Valley that now produce some of the best wine values in America. We spent the entire day visiting vineyards, watching his crews prune and generally learning more than our brains could absorb about the unique and diverse viticulture of the Columbia Gorge.
About four in the afternoon, after more vineyards and beautiful scenery than anyone can absorb in one day (the scenery in this part of Oregon makes Napa look like Terre Haute), we found ourselves at the new The Pines 1852 tasting room in downtown Hood River Oregon. There, we tasted through the entire portfolio – the Pinot Gris, the Viognier, the Syrah, the Merlot, the Old Vine Zinfandel, his new Satin, a blend of Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer and the Big Red, a blend of all four of his red varietals. Lonnie and Peter seem to have an interesting symbiotic relationship... when we tried the Zinfandel Port, I noticed that Lonnie calls the Port Sweet Sierra while Peter calls it Sweet Sidney... same wine, different daughters!
As you can imagine, Lonnie's production is quite small and currently the wines are only distributed in Oregon and Washington. The good news is the Indiana will be the third state! We hope to have some of his two blended wines for the wine club soon and should even have a little left over to sell. And, if we ask real nice, I hope to get some of the Zin, Syrah and Merlot as they are released. Visit them at their web site http://www.thepinesvineyard.com
The Columbia Gorge Hotel and Restaurant
We had decided to spend the second night of our trip in the unique town of Hood River, and when he heard that, Lonnie recommened staying at the Columbia Gorge Hotel. We love historic hotels and the Columbia Gorge Hotel certainly qualifies. Built in 1904 and restored in the 1980's, it is set on beautifully landscaped gardens perched directly above the falls where Phelps Creek plunges 208 feet into the Columbia river. The feel of the turn-of-the-century elegance has been preserved down to the original elevator that still requires an operator. The rooms are not large by current standards, but have been nicely updated with modern amenities and ours was large enough to contain comfortable chairs and a table.
It's obvious that today the Hotel exists to host weddings, anniversaries and special occasions, but we found the overall ambiance and grounds charming, even for a one night stay.
The Dining Room
We dined early enough to enjoy the wall of windows overlooking the river and the bluffs of the Washington side beyond. The room is elegant and looks the picture of historic elegance. The service was attentive, if a bit old fashioned, with the staff in uniform and large silver entree domes that were uncovered with a flourish by four staff members at once.
The food itself was well prepared and presented, and while not quite up to the standards of the previous evening at the Timberline (the prices however, matched that standard), everything was good. For starters,I enjoyed the grilled prawns wrapped with Proscuitto served over rosemary polenta, and Tom pronounced the oysters excellent, although I don't think Tom has ever met an oyster he didn't like.
The entrées were also good. My choice of a grilled fillet was perhaps a bit boring, but I was seduced by the promise of it being served with foie gras and gratin potatoes. Here we are, looking down on the Columbia river and I order a steak! However, it was perfectly prepared and I didn't regret not ordering the salmon a bit. Tom was inspired by my selection to ask that they add foie gras to his grilled duck and he pronounced it good. Linda and Suzanne both had the sole stuffed with Dungeness crab and while they both enjoyed it, the sole was pronounced a little dry.
The wines were a high point. We began with Bergevin Viognier that had just enough crispness to complement the appetizers and then moved to a bottle of Lonnie's The Pines Old Vine Zinfandel that was simply exquisite with the steak (and even those with the fish did not complain a bit).
All in all a very nice meal. Appetizers and salads $6 to $14 and entrees at $23 to $36, and the wine prices about average, at a little above twice retail. Actually their wine prices, while what I would consider typical for here in Indianapolis, were by far the highest of the trip. Wine with dinner in Oregon is generally much less painful than here in the Midwest.
The World Famous Farm Breakfast
The breakfast, on the other hand, was very special. Included in your room rate is the eight course "World Famous Farm Breakfast." It is just what you need before a strenuous day of wine tasting or perhaps riding a stage of the Tour de France. And there is no need to choose your courses, they bring them all! In fact, you may have to feign illness to skip one, so enthusiastic are the servers about being sure you have an opportunity to sample everything.
A large platter of fresh fruit greets you at the table. Then the parade begins... Grandma Lallah's baked apples were quite good and the hot apple fritters with cinnamon sugar impossible to refuse. We did manage to persuade them that we could forgo the old fashioned oatmeal. Then our eggs arrived, along with homemade baking powder biscuits , hash browns and a platter filled with bacon, apple pork sausages, maple smoked pork chops and grilled mountain trout. The pancakes that arrived as we were finishing our eggs were sadly left untouched while we contemplated how brisk business must be for local cardiology practices and cath lab. A hardy breakfast indeed... and so well-fortified, we made or way to the the Willamette Valley.
Next: "Pinot Land"
April 25, 2007