June 24, 2012

Visiting The Grande Dalles

Soon after returning from my New York trip last month, I got an email from Scott Elder of The Grande Dalles wines. We share a distributor in NYC, Ice Bucket Selections. After being intrigued by two Grande Dalles wines that I tried on my visit, I was happy to get Scott's invitation to come see the vineyard.

The Dalles is a dusty town on the Columbia River about 90 miles east of Portland, full of orchards on the west side and expanses of wheat to the east. When it's cloudy and wet in Portland, it's likely sunny and windy in The Dalles. When it's sunny in Portland, it's sunnier still in The Dalles and probably still windy. This is the beginning of our land of little rain, a desert in the rain shadow of the Cascade mountains just a short drive from lush Portland. It's truly another world, for people as well as grapes.

Sometimes I think I'm stretched too thin with a family, a day job, two wine businesses and dreams. But I don't have a vineyard. Scott and wife Stephanie live and work in Portland, and nearly ten years ago they bought this land and began to plant grapes. If I remember correctly, they're up to around 30 acres planted. As their web site says, the vines struggle in this exposed, stark place, the land and vines accepting each other more than anything else. This couple has something incredibly special in this place, but clearly they have their hands full.

The vineyard was easy to find. A long, steep hill covered in young but already gnarled vines sticks out amid the rolling wheat. I pulled through the gate and Scott walked over, his crew of workers suckering the vines to focus the plants on growing and ripening fruit. We talked about our histories, mine in wine and his path via studies in France and general wine geekiness, a long study of soils that led him to his not exactly remote but still remote feeling place.

Stephanie and their young son were driving behind me on the road to the vineyard, so after introductions, we went up to the top of the hill where they have a small trailer on what one day will be a home site. The exposure here is extreme, the view of Mt. Hood and rolling hills worth taking lots of pictures. Which I did (and which you'd see here were it not for a freak thunderstorm later that day back in Portland that claimed my iPhone and all my recent pics).

Scott has lots of varieties planted. Syrah, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo are most of the reds, with Cabernet Franc not faring so well and soon to be grafted to other varieities and Pinot Noir of all thing on the north-facing backside of the hill but not yet bearing fruit. And there's Riesling, which doesn't immediately come to mind in this inland climate. But it's windy here, the soils are thin, the vines struggle, Riesling included.

Walking down the steep rows a bit, the Riesling vines small with small leaves, Scott tells me he's happy for four feet of vine shoot growth in a season. When Willamette Valley growers are hedging their vines to control growth, out here you take what you get. I pick up some of the sandy, rocky soil in my hand and smell it. Clean, earthy, something I sensed in the wines I've tried from here along with exotic ripe fruit.

We wandered around the more gentle slope on the north side, talking about living and working in the city and the challenges of growing grapes and making wine, of a falling out with an original partner and Scott's challenge of selling wine in Oregon not made from Pinot Noir. My challenge has been the opposite - how to sell Pinot Noir when it seems everyone is selling it. There is no answer, we both will continue the fight, though I do think Portland needs to take more looks at The Grande Dalles wines. Local people, seek out these wines.

We ended up back at the hilltop trailer, tufts of rye grass and not much else growing out of the hard ground. Scott and family were planning to hunker down for the night, and I heard later it was pretty windy but dry there as Portland experienced a record (and iPhone killing) deluge. I left a bottle of my wine for them and we promised to get together in town soon to taste each others wines together and continue the conversation of how all this can work.

We better do that, because I lost my photos and it turns out that bottle I gave them was corked. Not a great start for me, but I really enjoyed meeting this couple, seeing their land after tasting some of their wines, and I appreciate the wry sense of humor you find on their website. Scott's the eternal dreamer, Stephanie the recovering pessimist. Their project here is daunting, but great things come from challenges. I'm looking forward to following their adventure.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Thank you Vincent, for a lovely recount of your visit at our frontier vineyard. We really appreciated you coming out! Can't beat that Columbia Gorge drive. And come back any time for more pictures! Terrible you lost yours. Until then, we have a bunch on our FB page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Grande-Dalles/197101560313503?sk=photos

Best to you -