About 15,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, there was a huge lake up in Alberta, Canada. The lake was held in place by a glacier that formed an ice dam, and when it broke the water came down the west side of the Continental Divide in a wave 300 feet tall, now known as the Great Missoula Flood. The water blasted its way to the Pacific Ocean and formed the Columbia River Gorge in its wake.
The soils here are deep, deposited by the flood, but relatively low in organics and well-drained because of the prevalence of pea gravel below the topsoil. Today, that landscape has become one of the best areas in North America for viniculture, and winemakers are cultivating a number of premium varietals in this area. Known for its hot summer days and cool nights, plus the unique terroirs on the Oregon and Washington sides of the river, the gorge is becoming known as a leading winemaking region.
We took The Star's official staff car, our 2017 C-Class, on a day tour to explore the options available within a couple hours of Portland. With temperatures in the low 80s and the steady east wind that has made the gorge a leading windsurfing destination, it was the perfect summer day.
Begin at Hood River
From Portland, Interstate 84 quickly takes you eastward along the south shore of the river to the picturesque town of Hood River, Oregon. There in the downtown center at 210 Oak Street, you'll find the tasting room for Stave & Stone winery (https://staveandstone.com/). The actual winery is located farther south, in the hills on the way to Mount Hood.
Stave & Stone produce a number of different varieties, from a medium-bodied Riesling to several Pinot-based wines including Noir, Blanc, Gris, and a Noir Rosé. The winery won gold medals from Sunset Magazine in this year's competition for their 2019 Pinot Noir, and the 2021 Pinot Noir Blanc.
While you're there in Hood River, there are many great options for lunch. Pub food predominates in the town's microbrewery scene, and we recommend Solstice Pizza. You can find the Solstice restaurant at 501 Portway Ave in Hood River, or just head for the Waterfront Food Truck lawn around the corner, where you'll find the Pizza Truck with its own wood-fired pizza oven. We recommend the Country Girl Cherry pizza, topped with chorizo, goat cheese, and world-famous Hood River cherries. (http://solsticehoodriver.com)
You can make an entire day of wines in the Hood River area, with additional options including the Phelps Creek Tasting Room, Cathedral Ridge Winery, Hood River Vineyards. Both Cerulean Wine and Cascade Cliffs are within steps of Stave & Stone's downtown tasting room.
Cross the Columbia
To find the greatest selection of wineries, cross the Columbia River at Hood River and find your way westward along Washington State Highway 14 to visit several of the excellent wineries on the sun-drenched south-facing hillsides over the river. Note for drivers: Highway 14 is an excellent road for spirited driving in your Mercedes, but do be careful to mind the speed limit. Towns along the road are funded by ticketing speeders.
Right by the highway you'll find Willow Wine Cellars (https://www.willowwinecellars.com/) Their 2020 Riesling is made from grapes grown in the gorge, and sells for just $22 a bottle. That's fitting, as their motto is "wine for drinking," and the winery takes pains to keep things from getting too complicated. This small estate makes only 900 cases a year, split between the Riesling, Chardonnay, Rosé, and some sparkling wines. Additionally, they make a Merlot and Cabernet Franc from grapes grown farther north in the Yakima Valley.
Additional stops in this area may include South Hill Winery, Loop de Loop Wines, AniChe Cellars, and Savage Grace Wines. Gorge veterans also know that many local wines can be tasted in one location if you take Highway 14 west to Stevenson, Washington and find the wine shops there. Along the way to Stevenson, you'll pass Skamania Lodge (https://www.skamania.com/) which makes a great place to overnight in luxury if you want to extend your wine tour.
Pay your respects at Maryhill
If you head east along the Washington side of the gorge, you'll soon come to the grande dame of Columbia River Gorge viniculture, Maryhill Winery. (https://www.maryhillwinery.com/) Maryhill is located in an expansive farm right on Highway 14, and unlike many of the smaller operations, its tasting room, bistro, and store are open on weekdays. Arguably, that's the best time to visit, since the weekend crowds will be toiling away in their offices and you'll have the place mostly to yourself.
Maryhill has been making excellent wines since 1999, but you'd never know the place was barely old enough to drink its own product. This winery has received over 3,000 awards since its first vintage in 2001. Maryhill was named 2015 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest and the 2014 Winery of the Year at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. Maryhill's resident winemaker Richard Batchelor has twice earned the Winemaker of the Year award at the Indy International Wine Competition. Most recently, Maryhill was named Most Valuable Producer by the 2022 Washington Wine Awards.
The attraction of Maryhill is that you can buy great wines in virtually any style for about $20 a bottle, though more expensive options are certainly available. The basic Winemaker's Red is a staple of Northwest households at $19. This wine took a gold medal at the 2022 Seattle Wine Awards and is a full bodied red blend, low in tannins and extremely smooth and enjoyable. The initial flavor profile features blackberry, bing cherries, and a hint of oak. Some note nutmeg, cedar, coffee, and tobacco flavors in the midpalate and finish.
Maryhill's 2020 Viogner was also a gold medal winner in Seattle, for its fruit-forward character. At $21 a bottle, it's hard to go wrong here. This refreshing wine presents fresh nectar notes with jasmine, grapefruit and white peach. Apricot and ripe nectarine layer over honey and a hint of chamomile to a long juicy finish.
If you plan your visit to Maryhill for the latter half of the afternoon, it's a great time to enjoy a tasting flight in the bistro. The seating area is shaded by grape vines and exposed to the cool breezes, with a commanding view of the river gorge. There's a menu of small plates including tasty olives, charcuterie, sandwiches, salads, and other shareable appetizers that go well with the wine flight. The flight menu varies from day to day, but expect to taste up to seven of the winery's classic and reserve vintages for $25. However, bear in mind that if you buy just $30 of bottled wine, your tasting is complimentary.
Other wineries in the vicinity of Maryhill include Cor, Jacob Williams, and Waving Tree. If you're looking to cross the river again, the Waving Tree tasting room is adjacent to the Highway 97 bridge.
To head back towards Portland, it's easiest to cross the river into Oregon and take I-84 westbound, but don't set your cruise control just yet. It's worth your time to stop at Marchesi Winery (https://www.marchesivineyards.com/) at 3955 Belmont Drive, just southwest of Hood River. This winery was established by Italian immigrants intending to make Piemontese wines similar to those from Northern Italy.
The open air tasting room at Marchesi is nestled among the vineyards, and offers food as well as a selection of Italian-inspired wines including Sangiovese, Primitivo Riserva, Barbera, and Pinot Grigio. A full tasting flight is $20. Bottle prices range from $25-$40 at the winery.
All of these wineries are located within 90 minutes of Portland, or about a three-hour drive from Seattle via Interstate 90 and US Highway 97. From either city, the drive will take you and your Mercedes-Benz through some of the Pacific Northwest's most beautiful scenery. You can do it all in a day, but it's better to make a long weekend and take your time. Good road trips, like good wine, are best made at a relaxed pace.
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