Most people fancying a day of wine tasting head south to the Willamette Valley, but there’s an alternative: Take the 84 east to Hood River. The area is better known for its breweries, but it’s also home to a number of wineries, some of which are hidden gems that rival anything found in the Valley. The Gorge in general could do with some TLC as it recovers from last year’s fires, so you could think of a visit as your civic duty. Plus, the traffic doesn’t suck as much.
The area around Hood River is part of the Columbia Gorge American Viticultural Area, which straddles both Oregon and Washington. It’s increasingly being recognized as a significant region, with diverse topography, soils, and microclimates, and the means to grow an impressive array of grape varieties.
A 10-minute drive from downtown Hood River is Hiyu, the art house cinema of wineries—conceptual, challenging, occasionally baffling, and not to everybody’s taste. Owner and winemaker Nate Ready is a master sommelier who chose the location in the Gorge because of its distinctive terroir (that is, the combination of things like soil, climate, and landscape).
Considered important by most winemakers, terroir is essential to Ready. Rather than plant separate blocks of certain grapes (Pinot Noir here, Chardonnay over there), he mixes up varieties, interplanting dozens of different ones. His intention is to express the site without having to “taste” the grape. This is an odd way to proceed, as much of winemaking lore is about the pure expression of grape. Ready, though, is not interested in trying to make the perfect Pinot Noir; instead, he wants you to drink the “place” where the grapes were grown and the wine was made.
Whatever the theory, the results are something wondrous. The Falcon Box, which Ready describes as a blend of Burgundian red and white grapes, is fresh and complex, darting around the mouth and tasting of a million things. These wines are hard to categorize and certainly won’t suit everyone’s palate, but they rank as some of the most exciting wines being made in Oregon.
They can be expensive (the top end breaks the $100 mark), but Ready does produce a more affordable range (from $30) called Smockshop Band. These are more conventional (a Pinot Noir, a Rhone-style blend, a Zinfandel), with grapes sourced from four vineyards around the Gorge. Hiyu is also a farm, and they put on dinners and winemaker’s lunches, which also emphasize the sense of place.
A few minutes’ drive from Hiyu is Phelps Creek. Their tasting room is actually in the Hood River Golf and Country Club, as the road to the winery, which sits at 1,200 feet, is unsuitable for general traffic (though they shuttle visitors up during the warmer months for tours).
The focus is on small-batch Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which is made by Alexandrine Roy, a fourth-generation winemaker at Domaine Marc Roy, located in the prestigious Gevrey-Chambertin region of Burgundy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the wines are Old World in style—the Pinots tend towards earthy rather than jaunty fruitiness. The entry-level Columbia Gorge ($34) is a great example of an intricate Pinot that’s savory yet still buzzes brightly in the mouth.
They also source fruit from Underwood Mountain, just across the Columbia River in Washington, which allows them to expand their repertoire, producing a solid Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. Their Sauvignon Blanc, which isn’t a grape normally associated with the Pacific Northwest, was the most interesting I’ve had in a long time.
Take a 10-minute drive east from Hood River to the small town of Mosier and you’ll find Analemma. Founders Steven Thomp-son and Kris Fade have established a reputation for producing exacting and original wines. They make a Pinot Noir from one of the oldest vineyards in the Pacific Northwest (and from a rare clone, if you’re into that sort of thing), but just as compelling are their other varietals, including rarities such as Mencia (usually found in northwest Spain) and Trousseau (big in Portugal). I don’t have the space to go into all that’s good about Analemma—just hit up their tasting room when it reopens March 31.
There are a number of tasting rooms in downtown Hood River, including Cerulean, which gets into some Italian varieties; such as Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, and the Pines 1852, which boasts an old-vine Zinfandel, though their property is actually out in the Dalles. I’m particularly excited about a new spot that opens in May—Ben Wasby’s Mylan label makes fantastic natural wines, and he’s bringing a tasting room to a gallery space that will showcase his own wines, among other personal favorites.
Hood River Hotel, 102 SW Oak, Hood River, hoodriverhotel.com
Hiyu, 3890 Acree Hood River (tasting room opens in March), smockshopband.com
Phelps Creek, 1850 Country Club, Hood River, phelpscreekvineyards.com
Analemma, 1120 State, Mosier, annalemmawines.com
The Pines 1852, 202 Cascade, Ste B Hood River, thepinesvineyard.com
Mylan, 111 2nd #300, Hood River, mylan.wine