Monday, March 12, 2012

A Rusty Grape By Any Other Name...

Photo Credit: Paul Freeman

There's an old adage that warns "Don't judge a book by its cover." Battle Ground, Washington, a sleepy enclave in Southwest Washington known locally for its stunning volunteer-constructed contributions to the Portland Rose Parade and its summer Harvest Days festival, knows a thing or two about that expression. For there is no battle ground in Battle Ground, you see.

Quick history detour: Captain Strong convinced Klickitat Chief Umtuch and his tribe to return to nearby Fort Vancouver without a single shot being fired. For his efforts: he was the only casualty of the encounter - some say by soldier, some say by accidental friendly fire. The Klickitat agreed to return to Fort Vancouver after burying their fallen Chief. In the days between, as Strong returned empty-handed, his comrades at Fort Vancouver mockingly referred to the site as "Strong's Battle Ground". A good joke dies hard, and though Strong's (and Umtuch's) name lives on in the form of an elementary school, the city maintained the once mocking (now simply interesting) moniker of Battle Ground.

Battle Ground Lake

It's fitting then, that Battle Ground plays host to a winery that embodies that adage as well: on name alone, Rusty Grape Vineyards might not whet your palette. But thanks to owners Jeremy and Heather Brown, they are making their mark and helping to anchor a burgeoning Southwest Washington wine scene...and giving 'Couve dwellers a reason to get a little rural. In an unexpected location - outside of downtown and near homes, cows and acreage, Rusty Grape has made themselves a go-to stop for a night on the town, or rather, past the town.

They've done so, in no small part, due to their support of talented local musicians. And - what's a good story without a motif? - one such regular performer adds to the case of Books vs. Covers. Her name is Britnee - you may have seen her being compared to another Brittany after an emotional and ass-kicking performance on the American Idol Portland auditions. They share a name, single-motherhood, and aesthetic qualities (think Toxic-era Spears), but that's where the similarities end. Audiences at the Rusty Grape have known for awhile that Ms. Kellogg can wail, without any help from auto-tune.

For over a year, Britnee has played acoustic sets at the Rusty Grape every few months. Though her American Idol experience has ended, Britnee has seen her stock rise with features on Extra, E! and even People online, but her next few shows are back at the place that has shown her support from the get-go. What keeps her coming back? Britnee said, "It's great when small venues are willing to have performers and entertainment, especially in Battle Ground. The owners are wonderful, and really make it feel comfortable. The guests also feel comfortable and it's a lot of fun."

While she may look like the pop princess, Britnee's music is a far cry from dance beats and over-produced vocals. In preparation for her recent March 1 and upcoming April 7 shows at Rusty Grape, she's been putting a full band together, fusing her love of country music with the depth of catalogue she's been able to explore with her other band, Five Guys Named Moe. She suggests sipping on the Pinot Noir if you can get your hands on it, and settle in for fun. When asked what to expect she told me to picture "singing Rihanna and there's a fiddle & a's just going to be fun for people." While not all of Rusty Grape's performer's are rubbing elbows with Ryan Seacrest, Jeremy and Heather's support is giving local musicians a great venue, and Clark County residents a reason to stay on the Washington side of the river for their night out.

In a small area not known for its vineyards, it takes creativity and ingenuity to get noticed. Rusty Grape has steadily made moves to bring people to their wines, and then let the wine and the venue do the talking. What began as a small tasting expanded to a go-to site for weddings in the area. On those nice Pacific NW summer evenings we try not to tell tourists about, they host Movies on the Lawn. Partnerships with local restaurants have provided a mutually beneficial way to get on the radar with new audiences. And - tapping in to the secret that many of us runners like to indulge in a post-race drink - they partnered with smaller Battle Ground wineries to put on the inaugural
Wine Country Run last fall.

While creativity in introducing local audiences to their wine may get folks in the door once, it's the quality of their wine that keeps people coming back. On a hot summer day, patrons soak up sun on the back patio with a glass of the Moto Rouge Rose, a crisp and lightly citrusy wine that walks the fine line between dry and sweet. In the cooler months, their 100% Clark County Pinot Noir is like a comforting old friend for Pacific Northwesterners familiar with the varietal. Southwest Washington, sharing a watery border with Oregon, frequently lends itself to comparison, and Rusty Grape has hopes that their Pinot will follow the tradition set by their friends south of the Columbia.

Perhaps in a nod to southern neighbor Portland's ironic and iconic hipsters, Rusty Grape has chosen their funky moniker (though Jeremy and Heather say they just liked the way it sounds). One thing is certain; they are constantly proving they're letting themselves get anything but rusty.


I really enjoyed this article. So nice to see coverage and hear interesting things about wineries off the beaten path.

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