Wednesday, October 12, 2011

It's Just a Little Crush... on Maryhill Winery

Maryhill Winery is in Washington, just off of Route 14 along the Columbia River Gorge. Owners Craig and Vicki Leuthold left corporate careers to pursue their interest in the wine industry, and opened the Maryhill doors in May 2001. Since then Maryhill Winery has earned over 800 awards across their 17-varietal production and in 2009 was named the Washington Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest. This past weekend I had the opportunity to spend some time with the amazing Maryhill Winery staff as they began their 2011 harvest season.

If you haven’t yet made it out to the collection of wineries dotting the Columbia River Gorge, it is definitely must. I left Portland in a storm cloud of gray and torrential rain and my expectations for the drive were bleak. Having done my fair share of backpacking, hiking and the obligatory Multnomah Falls trips, I thought I knew what I was in for. Normally I-84 is my commuter hell and I was ready. To my great surprise, the drive turned out to be the perfect weekend segue and I was ready for my introduction to the Columbia Gorge wineries. By the time I hit The Dalles, the clamor of city traffic was far behind me; marshmallow clouds hung in blue skies above the Columbia, cradled by the over-sunned, yellowing grassy expanses and the rocky Gorge walls. The drive alone is worth an exploratory trip, but did I mention there’s wine at the end? We are in Columbia Gorge Wine Country

I was welcomed to Maryhill by Craig and Vicki and had arrived just in time to try my hand (well, feet) at crushing the grapes they have just begun to harvest. While other members of our group took turns crushing, I scanned the surroundings; the Maryhill property is immaculate, from the new tournament quality bocce ball courts to the terrace overlooking the picturesque expanse of the Gorge. Just below their tasting room and gift shop sits Maryhill’s world class, 4,000-seat amphitheater, the setting for their summer concert series. Past shows have included headliners such as Train, Yes, Styx, Earth, Wind & Fire, India Arie, and Counting Crows.

During my visit the Maryhill staff is preparing for Harvest Fest, a celebratory leap into harvest season where visitors can participate in grape crushing, taste wine both new releases and classics, nibble on local food creations and listen to live music. This time of year Maryhill’s winemaker and hunky (yeah, I said it) New Zealand native, Richard Batchelor, is working nearly around the clock to produce their award-winning wines, the more well-known being their Maryhill blend, Winemaker’s Red. Richard and the rest of his team work all but about three hours of the day during peak harvest season; hard work that certainly seems to pay off.

After the inaugural grape crushing we converge on the bocce courts for game time and wine tasting. Resident canine Potter, a 120lb Great Pyrenees, saunters over to meet us and sprawls leisurely in the grass as we play. Craig and Vicki’s personal vegetable garden lines the far wall of the courts, lush with cucumbers, tomatoes, 28 varieties of chili peppers, kale, onions, beets and more. It’s chilly enough to confirm that Fall has arrived, but the refreshingly crisp fresh air and competitive edge of the bocce ballers keeps us out there. Oh, and the wine of course…

Our group tasted several wines including their 2007 Sangiovese, a Cabernet Franc, Super Tuscan and my favorite of the evening, their 2009 Zinfandel. I’ve never been a Zinfandel kind of girl, but the Maryhill Zinfandels have me reexamining my opinions entirely. Our tastings were paired with delicious appetizers catered by nearby restaurant The Glass Onion, which Craig and Vicki often use to provide food service during their concert series and other winery events. Perfectly grilled baguette slices topped with a poached salmon spread, roasted tomatoes or kalamata olive tapanade pair well with the wine, the people and with bocce.

Dinner, also catered by Glass Onion, was served in Craig and Vicki’s personal residence. Their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon accompanies a light, fresh Greek salad. The main course is oven-roasted duck breast with stone vegetable salsa and the most amazing potatoes au gratin I have ever tasted – sweet potatoes, traditional potatoes and parsnips smothered and baked in cheesy, buttery goodness. I could seriously eat it for dessert… and then dessert comes: a massive piece of Tiramisu paired with their equally delicious 2007 Vintage Port. Aaaaaand food coma.

The next day, Craig provides a tour of their bottling processes start to finish and showcases the amphitheatre space. We follow the tours with a few more bocce games and tastings from the Maryhill Reserve releases. Their reserve 2006 Syrah, 2007 Malbec and 2008 Zinfandel make a clear impression on me. The Syrah is velvety smooth and both the Syrah and Zinfandel have crazy bright fruit flavors through the finish. The Malbec is also deep, with a characteristic finish of fresh ground pepper.
Overall I was impressed with the collection of Maryhill wine and was eager to learn more about their growing region. Their location in the Columbia River Gorge is unique for Maryhill and other neighboring vineyards. The low average rainfall, only 10” a year, provides a high desert-like climate with sun enough to create the perfect growing and ripening conditions for varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Zinfandel. The Columbia Gorge Wineries slogan “a world of wine in 40 miles” truly speaks to the range of varietals the Gorge can offer as the ripening conditions can change based on the differentiated rainfall patterns throughout the region, the proximity of the vines to the river, and more.

So maybe it’s more than a little crush, and it won’t be long before I’m back out to visit the Maryhill staff. Want to see what all the fuss is about? You still have this weekend to take the scenic Columbia Gorge drive out to Maryhill’s Harvest Fest, happening October 15th and 16th, 12pm to 5pm. Come out and celebrate the harvest season by participating in their annual grape stomp! Get away from the city and taste new releases, enjoy free live music on the Maryhill Terrace, and take in some of the best views the Gorge has to offer. You’ll only be sorry if you don’t.


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