Story by Jessica Swanson
The Columbia Gorge American Viticultural Area, or AVA, is marketed as “a world of wine in 40 miles.” Because of its unique topography, varying elevations and micro-climates, grapes from all over the globe thrive in this four county area — Skamania and Klickitat in Washington, and Hood River and Wasco in Oregon. White Salmon is overlooked as a home to some of the most interesting and experienced winemakers in the Gorge.
One such winery is Major Creek Cellars, owned by Steve Mason. Steve is a new winemaker, on the eve of his sixth crush, but a dedicated afficiando of the craft. Steve, a chemical engineer and environmental manager for Boeing, was in the company’s Employees Winemaking and Brewing Club, known for producing more than a dozen well respected professional wineries. Steve started windsurfing in the Gorge in the 1980s and soon bought the property in Snowden that Major Creek Cellars now sits on. He wasn’t planning to start a winery or grow the half-acre of pinot noir he has today. But good food and European travel led him to wine — and he is hooked.
“I got into it for fun, pleasure, passion. And we’re going to keep it that way,” he said.
His winery is open only by appointment, as are many in the White Salmon area, but he participates in tastings at venues such as The Gorge White House and Hotel Monaco in Portland and sells his wine at Blackbird Wine Shop in Portland and Vino Manzanita on the Oregon Coast.
Each year, Steve makes a syrah, a cabernet franc, a pinot noir, a traditional rosé, and he has a 2004 grenache. Major Creek Cellars may be the smallest winery in the Gorge, producing only 200 cases a year. His wife Jeanne is director of quality control, or “head cellar rat.” Together they handpicked 300 pounds of grapes from an order in their basement for the first pinot noir they made.
“It was a very good way to treat the pinot,” he said. “It is easy to bruise and there are experts who can taste it.”
Steve buys grapes by the pound from vineyards in Oregon and Washington and plans to start using grapes from the Columbia Gorge. The AVA is “growing and maturing fast,” he said.
White Salmon Vineyard is owned by Peter Brehm, who has been brokering frozen fruit for winemakers since 1971 and buying grapes from the Columbia Gorge since 1988. Today he grows 10 grapes at a 550-foot elevation on 20 acres of Underwood Mountain and produces 1200 to 1300 cases on site. Four distinct soils have been planted and trellised to create the best grapes for their particular wine. Established in 2003, his was the first winery in Skamania Co.
Joel Goodwille owns Wind River Cellars in Husum. Joel got his start with Ernest and Julio Gallo and purchased Wind River in the mid-1990s. He co-authored the Columbia Gorge American Viticultural Area application, which was approved in 2002 and led to an explosion of wineries and vineyards in 2005. Wind River produces 3500 cases a year.