The mighty river shapes this uniquely rugged setting.

The steep, multihued banks of the Columbia River help make the Columbia Gorge one of the most scenic wine-tasting regions anywhere. Shaped by prehistoric lava flows and cataclysmic ice age floods, the terrain is as rugged as it is scenic.

Geographically, the Gorge region is home to about 50 wineries and tasting rooms that sit in either the Columbia Valley or the Columbia Gorge AVAs. The Columbia Gorge AVA is among the most fascinating in the Northwest for a number of reasons. Most notably, its cooler, wetter maritime climate in the west transitions into a drier, desert climate to the east. Consequently, grapes grown in the western portion of the region possess cooler-climate characteristics, including higher acidity. In contrast, the eastern part of the region is conducive to warm weather grapes, including cab sauv, syrah and even zinfandel. Most area winemakers supplement locally grown grapes with those from other parts of the state. Fun fact: Annual rainfall totals in the Columbia Gorge AVA range from 10 inches on the eastern edge to about 36 inches in the west.

Meanwhile, a small part of the Columbia Valley AVA also sits within the Gorge area. However, the Columbia Gorge AVA is one of the few in Washington that is not a subregion of the Columbia Valley AVA.

Among Gorge-area wineries, Syncline Cellars and Maryhill Winery stand out as particularly noteworthy. The former’s owner/winemaker James Mantone keeps raising the bar on the technical quality of Washington-produced Rhône–style varietals. The latter is set in a remarkable location. overlooking the river’s steep, multihued banks. More importantly, its impressive portfolio of wines range from everyday drinkers to cellar-worthy reserves.

Beyond wine

Most of the Gorge area’s wineries are spread out between Hood River, Oregon, and Goldendale, Washington. You’ll find the most, in terms of restaurants and hotels, in and around Hood River, about 60 miles east of Portland. The powerful winds that make their way up the Columbia River have turned Hood River into a windsurfing mecca. This, in turn, helps the town attract a young, active and independent-minded set. Consequently, you’ll feel a casual vibe in its eclectic shops and locavore restaurants. This spirit also prevails in the area’s brewpubs and cideries. You’ll find additional dining and lodging options in White Salmon and The Dalles, among other nearby towns. Map it.