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Columbia Gorge AVA Diverse and Unique by Definition @gorgewine

Taste Washington Appellation Seminar Columbia Gorge AVA

There are always opportunities to educate yourself. This year I have expanded my knowledge about the Columbia Gorge AVA. During the weekend of Taste Washington I attended a seminar featuring wines made from grapes grown in the Columbia Gorge. While I was familiar with some of the wines and wineries in this AVA, at this seminar I was introduced to new winemakers, wineries and vineyards. The focus was on wines made from higher elevation vineyard sources in the Columbia Gorge AVA.

"A world of wine in 40 miles."

The Columbia Gorge was carved out by the epic Missoula glacial floods around 15,000 years ago. The area where I live in eastern Washington was once covered by the flood waters of the short lived Lake Lewis, before breaking free and creating the Columbia Gorge. Glacial erratics, large boulders carried by glacial ice, were deposited hundreds of miles from their origins as far as the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The violent geologic history of the region has created a unique and beautiful Northwest destination. An hours drive from Portland, Oregon, the dramatic Columbia Gorge is easy to reach. And yes, there are wineries and tasting rooms.

Vineyards and windmills on Washington side.

Today in the Gorge, strong currents of the Columbia River energize the power grid, while persistent coastal and maritime winds funnel down the Gorge and turn sleek, modern wind turbines supplying additional energy to the grid. This is also one of the top windsurfing locations in the world.

Columbia River Gorge looking west, Oregon at left, Washington at right.

The Columbia Gorge has diverse micro-climates because it is situated at the transition point between the warm, dry side of eastern Washington and the cool, wet side of western Oregon. The Columbia Gorge AVA overlaps both Washington and Oregon.

Vineyard view near the Columbia River, Zone 3.

Unique Growing Region

Macro and micro climates make up this AVA. It is the coolest part of Washington for growing grapes (outside of the very wet Puget Sound AVA). Interestingly, the Columbia Gorge AVA overlaps both Washington and Oregon in a 50/50 split. The AVA is not really state specific; Washington wineries may use Oregon fruit and Oregon wineries may use Washington fruit, all from the same AVA.

Location of Columbia Gorge AVA.

Within this AVA are approximately 1,200 acres planted to vine. As a cooler growing region, the growing degree days range from regions 1-3. Much of the AVA is in region 1 (cooler), so it makes sense that 1/3 of the AVA is planted to Pinot Noir! You will also find Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Gruner Veltliner too. A unique AVA for Washington and Oregon. The wind is constant and never stops blowing.

There are approximately 38 Wineries and 83 Vineyards in the Columbia Gorge AVA. While the Columbia River physically divides Washington from Oregon, there is a sense of community uniting the Columbia Gorge AVA. On my last visit to Maryhill Winery, I was impressed by the alliances which have been forged among Columbia Gorge wineries and grape growers on both sides of the Columbia River.

Sommelier pouring wines for the seminar.

This seminar was especially interesting to me because of the focus on higher elevation vineyards. Most of the wines I've enjoyed from the Columbia Gorge have been made from grapes grown in the warmer regions near the Columbia River. You could say that my knowledge about the Columbia Gorge was "elevated." Think Sub-Alpine climate.

*Note: It is important to note that the Missoula glacial floods stripped bare the native soils at the lower elevations. A huge amount of earth and rocks were moved and soils were deposited from other places. The Columbia Gorge vineyards planted at the higher elevations are above the areas affected by the Missoula floods. They are growing in native Washington soil types. Interesting and again, a unique growing region for Washington.

(L to R) Yashar Shayan, Brian McCormick, Steven Thompson, Luke Bradford.

Tasting Notes Seminar Wines  

The appellation spotlight on the Columbia Gorge Appellation featured a panel with: Yashar Shayan of Impulse Wines, Memaloose winemaker Brian McCormick, Steven Thompson of Annalema Wines, and Luke Bradford of Cor Cellars. We had samples of six wines, three white and three red made from fruit grown at higher elevations in the Columbia Gorge AVA. Two of the featured wines were from Walla Walla wineries.

1. Cor Cellars 2013 Alba - Pinot Gris/Gewurztraminer, Columbia Gorge. 
Strongly Recommended. Big Like.
Celilo Vineyard is an Alpine site. Luke mentioned that the location could be its own AVA. The wine is a Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer blend, fermented in concrete, lovely wine, fresh, bright, nice finish, restrained, perfect for oysters. Interesting. Unctuous. There are 75 acres in the Celilo Vineyards. Exciting place for Gewurztraminer. Amazing site. Luke Bradford, studied in Washington. Eventually worked with James Mantone of Syncline Cellars, they are now neighbors. Mostly white varieties planted. Still experimenting. A cool site. Niche wines defined by acid and pristine fruit. Food wines. Low alcohol. Tend to be low oak and low alc below 14%. A sunny style of wine. Seafood ready too.

2. Dowsett Family 2013 Gewurztraminer, Walla Walla. 
Strongly Recommended. Interesting.
100% Gewurztraminer. Winemaker Chris Dowsett. Early ripening varietal. His fruit gets long hang time in Celilo, last fruit he picks. Neutral oak, planted 1982. Dry style, Wow. Floral sexy perfume, Jasmine, it is rose on nose and palate. Dry. Perfumed. Interesting.

Chris Dowsett, talking dry style Gewurztraminer.

Chris Dowsett Family Vineyards. First time Chris made Gewurztraminer he could not stop fermentation, so he ended up with a dry Gewurztraminer. He loved it! And continues to make it. Early ripening grape which can be made sweet to acidic. Has amazing hang time in Celilo Vineyard. Wonderful location for Gewurztraminer.

*Note: Celilo Vineyard was planted 1972, one of the most important vineyards in the Columbia Gorge. Exciting place for Gewurztraminer.

Rick Small, Woodward Canyon.

3. Woodward Canyon 2012 Chardonnay, Walla Walla. 
Strongly Recommended. Racy.
Second winery in Walla Walla. Celilo Chardonnay is a Wente Clone. High elevation, an eight acre block shared with Abeja. Wine was creamy, fresh pear, lovely finish, about food, crisp. Lighter style, more acidity, racy.

4. Analemma Wines 2012 Pinot Noir, Columbia Gorge. 
Recommended. Lighter Body.
Classic vintage, vineyard located at 1400 ft elevation, dry farmed, planted in 1984. Wine had a pretty nose, dry, lighter body. Grapes had a later than usual bud break, picked around early November. Wine had more tannin than I expected. Alpine environment type of Pinot Noir, had 24 brix late October. 2012 was a warmer season. Fermented in stainless. Aged 16 months. Whole cluster fermentation, 50% on stems, more oxygen exchange, aromatics, tannin. Sub-Alpine climate.
Mozier Oregon, from Walla Walla school of enology. Oldest NW vineyard, on Washington side 1,800 ft. elevation, sited by Walter Clore. Located above Missoula flood. 1,500 case production.

5. Syncline Cellars 2012 Pinot Noir, Columbia Gorge. 
Recommended. Food Wine.
Fruit from Celilo Vineyard planted in 1973. Floral, three different clones 667,777, Pommard clone, 20% whole cluster fermented, foot stomping, long lees contact, old barrels, aged 10-11 months, Germanic style, acid, cranberry, light body, funk on finish, lingering finish, needs food.

Brian McCormick at Taste, Memaloose winemaker.

6. Memaloose 2012 Estate Cabernet Franc Idiot's Grace, Columbia Gorge.
Oregon winery, located in the middle of the Gorge. Treating Cabernet Franc like Pinot Noir to see results. Wine had light body, paper cup palate, neutral oak, no fruit...dry, wanted food. Interesting personality. Has 21 varieties planted on Oregon and Washington sides.


This appellation seminar exposed me to the cooler climate varieties grown in the Columbia Gorge AVA. I have to admit I was surprised by this experience. For me the white wines stood out, they were beautiful, racy, aromatic and intriguing. The red wines of course, were of a style I don't typically associate with Washington red wine. They were lighter bodied, lighter flavored and generally thinner than I anticipated. Vintage plays a more important role in the Gorge because of the generally cooler nature of this location. Growers are still experimenting with varieties at these higher elevations. Expect to see changes in techniques and styles of wines from this region.

This experience has shown me that I need to plan another trip to the Columbia Gorge. A visit to the wineries on the western side of the AVA is merited. Understanding Washington wine takes a lot of palate exposure to diverse styles of wines. I'm still learning.


A big thank you to Washington State Wine and Visit Seattle for allowing me to attend this appellation seminar as a media representative. Don't forget to make plans for next years Taste Washington.


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