One of the most difficult things about driving through the Columbia River Gorge is leaving the Columbia River Gorge. Shaped by volcanoes, ice age floods and the mighty persistence of the Columbia River, there simply is no other place like it. Over a span of about 80 miles, its banks transition from steep forested hillsides to towering basalt cliffs. And each bend in the highway reveals another spectacular view. The Gorge’s climate, slopes and soils also lend to favorable growing conditions for a wide variety of wine grapes. But even though its post-Prohibition vineyards and wineries date back to the 1970s, it remains under the radar for too many people. Here’s a look at some of the top spots to put on a Columbia River Gorge wine tasting itinerary.
Syncline Wine Cellars
James Mantone studied in microbiology and organic chemistry in college and named his winery after a geological formation. So, yeah, the owner and winemaker at Syncline Wine Cellars knows science. But he also brings a tremendous level of artistry to winemaking. For example, the four syrahs he produces each provide a distinct flavor profile. These include a rich, jammy version sourced from Horse Heaven Hills and a lighter, Northern Rhône–inspired sipper made from his estate vineyard. He is also one of the few Washington producers of grenache blanc, picpoul and grüner veltliner. Each balances its respective fruit notes with a healthy dose of food-friendly acidity.
The latest addition to his repertoire is an estate gamay noir. On an impromptu tour of Syncline’s vineyards (above), a tasting room manager explained how these grapes grow within a wind-exposed belt on the undulating grounds. When the winds pick up, the grapes stop photosynthesizing. This tempers the pace at which they ripen, allowing long hang times.
The winery sits on 35 hillside acres, in Lyle, about 10 minutes off Highway 14. The grounds include Adirondacks, fire pits and even a few hammocks in its tasting garden (pictured up top).
While studying soil science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Alexis Pouillon got to know the team at Tablas Creek Vineyard, in Paso Robles. The winery was co-founded by France’s renowned Perrin family. And the connection helped Pouillon land an internship with the Perrin’s Château de Beaucastel, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. When he returned to the U.S., Pouillon managed vineyards in California for a few years. Then he acquired an abandoned Lyle alfalfa farm that is now home to Domaine Pouillon. The boutique winery produces a mix of estate wines and those sourced from elsewhere, about 2,500 cases a year.
My visit prompted Pouillon to share a bottle of his 2015 estate syrah. The medium-bodied pleaser offers notes of cocoa and leather that dance across your palate. In contrast, his French Press syrah, sourced from Horse Heaven Hills, possesses more-luscious qualities. Interestingly enough, the mother vines for Pouillon’s Rhône varietals, including marsanne, viognier and syrah, are from Tablas Creek, whose vines stem from Beaucastel’s cuttings. Among other things, this gives Pouillon’s estate wines a nice link to Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Set on a bluff in Goldendale, overlooking the Columbia River’s steep banks, Maryhill Winery offers an unparalleled setting. Many know it for its Winemaker’s Red blend and its viognier. Both are delicious and widely available at approachable price points. But the easy-drinking nature of these “greatest hits” should not detract from the depth and complexity of Maryhill’s reserves and vineyard-select varietals and blends. Sourced from prestigious vineyards across Washington, including Maryhill’s on-site Gunkel Vineyard, wines in both tiers are crafted in small lots to retain their distinct characteristics.
Maryhill is also getting ready to open a sizable new tasting room in Woodinville’s Hollywood Schoolhouse later this year. This will follow the tasting room it opened earlier this year along the new waterfront promenade in Vancouver, Washington. (Its first remote tasting room opened in Spokane a few years ago.) These satellite spaces are bringing Maryhill’s wines to the people. But a visit to the winery itself is always a special treat.
Wy’East and Marchesi
On the Oregon side of the river, the Hood River County Fruit Loop offers a chance to soak in the area’s agrarian lifestyle. Approximately 35 miles long, the route passes farm stands, lavender fields, cideries and more at the base of Mount Hood, with 10 wineries along the way. Among these, I found the tasting rooms at Wy’East Vineyards (above) and Marchesi Vineyards and Winery to be great places sample local flavors. The former produces pinot noir, pinot gris and other varietals, primarily from estate vineyards that date back to the 1980s. The latter focuses on estate-grown Italian varietals, including nebbiolo, barbera and sangiovese, in a tasting room that seems plucked from Piemonte’s countryside.
Other notable wines along the loop include Cathedral Ridge Winery and Phelps Creek Vineyards. When I arrived at Wy’East, a group touring the area on electric bikes with MountNbarreL was getting ready to head to its next stop. MountNBarreL offers guided winery tours on backroads. And everyone in the group I saw seemed to be having a good time.
Burnt Bridge Cellars
Hewlett-Packard was famously founded in the 1930s by two guys in a garage, in Palo Alto, California. In Vancouver, Washington, two guys who worked together at HP have created a 2,500-case-a-year winery in a former auto garage. While the origin story for Burnt Bridge Cellars is not as widely known as the one behind the revered tech company, it is pretty cool in its own right. Business partners Mark Mahan and Greg Wallace, along with winemaker Ben Stuart, have created a fun, friendly environment for sampling superb selections sourced from multiple Columbia Valley sites. (Mahan established the winery with a different business partner in 2008, with Wallace joining in 2015.)
I was particularly impressed with Burnt Bridge’s inky malbec. Sourced from a combination of Yakima Valley and Walla Walla vineyards, its black fruit notes were complemented by lingering hints of tobacco and a touch of minerality. Other interesting selections in the tasting room included a tempranillo–grenache blend and a syrah, each balancing supple tannins with notes of mature fruit and barrel spice.
Delicious wines, a friendly staff and fun events have helped Burnt Bridge develop a strong local following. The winery participates in the city’s First Friday Art Walk. And it also hosts “sip-and-stretch” yoga and “sip-and-fold” origami. Mahan’s wife even offers cooking classes next door to the tasting room. The winery is set in a 1920s building that originally housed an auto repair shop.
When I first visited Vancouver, Washington, about a decade ago, locals told me everyone crossed the bridge to Portland for fun. My how things have changed. These days, Vancouver is hopping, with lively restaurants, cocktail lounges, brewpubs and winery tasting rooms. These were some of the other things that I discovered at the western gateway to the Gorge. (Accommodations for a portion of my trip were provided by Visit Vancouver USA.)
From downtown Vancouver, it’s an easy stroll over to the new Waterfront Park (above), where restaurants and tasting rooms line a waterfront promenade. The walking path provides views across the Columbia River into Portland. And its public art installations showcase the river’s power and cultural significance, from ancient times to the present day.
I’ve already mentioned Maryhill’s new space along the promenade. The group that owns Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars is also opening a tasting room along the waterfront soon. As is Hood River’s Naked Winery.
Meanwhile, the area’s craft beer boom is showing no signs of slowing down. I counted four brewpubs on the walk from the Hilton Vancouver Washington to Burnt Bridge Cellars. These included Beerded Brothers Brewing Company, which bills itself as Vancouver’s smallest brewery. Owner Max Scudder embraces the creativity and collaborative approach that local brewers share. The owners of a neighboring brewpub encouraged him to move into his storefront space, even though it would bring another competitor to their block. As is the trend among his colleagues, Scudder brews a mix of the traditional and the creative. The latter included an American amber infused with a peanut extract—it was delicious. And an agave-lime lager proved refreshing on a hot summer evening.
Other interesting wineries in the Gorge include COR Cellars, located between Syncline and Domaine Pouillon, in Lyle, and three cool spots in Underwood: AniChe Cellars, Savage Grace Wines and South Hill Vineyards & Winery.
Underwood is about 5 miles northeast of Hood River, while Lyle is about 14 miles northwest. Meanwhile, Underwood, Hood River and Lyle are about 65–75 miles east of Portland and Vancouver. In all, the Gorge region is home to about 30 wineries and tasting rooms, between the Vancouver area and Goldendale, on the Washington and Oregon sides of the river.