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Appellation: Columbia Gorge Gorge Wine Association Pours Out High Hopes For Pacific Northwest's Newest Viticulture Area

Wine region growing fast

By JANET COOK

Gorge News Report

One sign of a big crowd is when the hosts have to mow a field at the last minute for overflow parking. That's exactly what happened Sunday afternoon at the Cathedral Ridge Winery on Post Canyon Road when more than 400 people showed up for the first ever Gorge Wine Celebration.

"We were very pleased," said Christie Reed of Mt. Hood Winery, one of the event organizers. There were 14 local wineries and vineyards present at the event offering tastes of their wines as well as snacks. The gala also featured an exhibit of artwork of the Gorge by local artists, a silent auction and live music by the Hood River band Blue Trick.

As of Friday night, 250 tickets for the event had been sold, according to Reed. "You just never know how many walk-ins you'll get." Hence, the last-minute mow to create enough parking space.

The event was held to celebrate the creation of the new Columbia Gorge appellation -- or wine growing region. In July, the Alcohol and Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department approved the application by the Columbia Gorge Wine Growers Association for federal recognition of the Columbia Gorge as a unique American Viticultural Area (AVA). The designation took 2 1/2 years to get and means that wines made with 85 percent of grapes grown in the Gorge can put the title "Columbia Gorge" on their labels.

The Columbia Gorge AVA includes approximately 280 square miles, roughly from Stevenson, Wash., to The Dalles, spanning both sides of the river and running up the Hood River Valley and the White Salmon River Valley. The Columbia Gorge Wine Growers Association is comprised of about 40 members -- including both winery owners and grape growers -- who are in the appellation or, like Maryhill Winery and others east of The Dalles, sell wines made with Columbia Gorge AVA grapes.

The AVA designation is primarily a marketing tool, according to Kate Dugan, planning specialist with the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District.

"It brings recognition to the area," Dugan said. "But it means nothing if we don't do something with it."

The Gorge Wine Celebration on Sunday was a fundraiser for the Columbia Gorge Wine Growers Association with that in mind; the organization will use the funds to help promote the Columbia Gorge AVA.

"We're hoping to crank up the marketing machine to promote wineries and grape-growing in the Gorge," Christie Reed said. One of the buzz-phrases that the association has been kicking around for potential use in marketing is "the fabulous 40" -- referring to the roughly 40 miles encompassing the Columbia Gorge AVA.

"It's like a miniature world tour of wine regions," Reed said. That stretch, from the cooler, wetter west end of the appellation to the dry, high desert conditions at the east end, make it one of the most diverse grape-growing regions on earth, according to local growers. Pinots, Gewurztraminer and white Riesling grapes thrive in the western end while Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet grapes do well in the eastern end. The distance from the Columbia River and the elevation they're grown at also produce subtle differences in the grapes.

Historical records show that some of the earliest settlers planted grapes and made their own wine. But it wasn't until about the 1980s that the grapes from some of the long-standing vineyards were discovered by good winemakers, who began experimenting and producing quality wines that got attention beyond the region.

In the past few years, vineyards and wineries have sprung up around the Gorge, and the potential for an economic windfall for the whole area is good, according to Dugan. She cites a Washington Wine Commission report that found that every 50 acres of grapes creates 20 new jobs. The commission also estimates that every dollar spent by a wine tourist generates $13 in the community.

The overwhelming response to Sunday's event -- which drew a large local crowd but also many people from the Portland area -- suggests that windfall could already be in the works.

"I think the whole area is ready for it, and this shows it," said Scott Hagee, co-owner of Pheasant Valley Vineyard and Winery. Scott and his wife, Gail, recently turned a portion of their organic pear and apple orchard into a vineyard and transformed a fruit cold storage and packing building into a tasting room. They opened in April and have had as many as 50 people a day visit the winery for tastings.

Christie Reed agrees that the area is ripe for the wine industry and the benefits it could bring.

"We think the wine business is a perfect business to promote in the Gorge," she said. "It's agritourism at its most fun, it's a value-added agricultural product and it certainly promotes and ties in with the other hospitality industries going on around here." She added that it's also something that can be promoted in the off-season.

Linda and Lonnie Wright, owners of The Pines Vineyard in The Dalles, felt like their dream had come true on Sunday evening. The couple have been immersed in wine-making and promoting local wineries in both Hood River and The Dalles for more than 20 years and Lonnie was instrumental in pushing for the Columbia Gorge AVA designation.

"It's an appellation, but it's also a movement. You can feel it," Linda Wright said. "We're standing in history."

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