Celilo vineyard, home to some of the oldest vinifera vines in the state, is celebrating its 30th vintage this fall. The 60-plus acres of...

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Celilo vineyard, home to some of the oldest vinifera vines in the state, is celebrating its 30th vintage this fall.

The 60-plus acres of vines occupy a southeast-facing slope on Underwood Mountain, an extinct volcano high above the Columbia River.

The view is a jaw-dropper. Spectacular vistas open in all directions as you look upriver toward the desert, across the river to the verdant Hood River Valley and the looming presence of Mount Hood itself or west to the flanks of the Cascade Mountains.

If you are a fan of chardonnays from Woodward Canyon, Harlequin and Ken Wright Cellars, or the gewürztraminers of Sineann, Latitude 46 or Viento, to name just some of the 23 wineries that purchase from Celilo, you know these grapes have something extra. It’s a kind of star power that comes directly from the site and the soil, and it attracts top winemakers like bees to honey.

As I munched on nearly ripe chardonnay grapes with vineyard manager Rick Ensminger, it struck me that the Celilo vineyard he has watched over since that first crush in 1976 is a perfect example of the odd twists and quirky turns that characterize the development of this state’s wine industry.

The late William McAndrew, a Seattle surgeon, purchased the upper part of the property (about 35 acres) late in 1971, after doing extensive research on soil, temperature, rainfall and elevation.

“He was a dreamer and a doer,” his widow, Margaret, recalled when I spoke to her recently. His dream, say all who knew him, was to grow world-class wine grapes.

Pick of the week

Dopff & Irion 2003 Crustacés; $11. The firm of Dopff & Irion makes a full portfolio of Alsatian wines, but also puts out this nicely packaged, inexpensive white blend (sylvaner/pinot blanc). Few consumers are going to get out the hats and horns for sylvaner, but Crustacés, with its colorful picture of a giant shrimp and crab on the label, gets you salivating. Crisp and bracing, this is a classic shellfish wine (whether you like them raw or cooked, this will do the trick). Plus, it’s yeasty enough that it just might convince your beer-drinking friends that wine is OK, too. (Cavatappi).

The land had once been an apple orchard. In fact, most of the state of Washington was unexplored viticulturally, except for a few scattered vineyards planted in the rich soils of the Yakima Valley and Columbia Basin, and an experimental plot in Prosser under the supervision of WSU’s Walter Clore. There were, however, some experimental vines just a few miles east at Bingen, where Chuck Henderson had been having some success with gewürztraminer and pinot noir, among others.

McAndrew took notice and began planting his first 20 acres in 1972. Chardonnay, riesling and gewürztraminer went in, along with small plots of pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and others. No one knew what would survive. Thirty-three winters later, Ensminger happily notes, only one vine has ever died from a freeze.

A second property, once an alfalfa field, was purchased and planted in the early 1980s. Today, Celilo occupies 70 acres (60 planted) spread over two separate sites on the mountain. Roughly half of the original vines remain; the rest of the vineyard is comprised of later plantings of chardonnay and gewürztraminer, with smaller amounts of pinot gris, viognier, Müller Thurgau, lemberger, pinot noir and merlot.

Celilo is unusual in almost every way. All of the vineyard is dry-farmed (unirrigated). It is “sub-alpine,” situated on a climatic cusp. Wet maritime weather blows in from the west, while warm dry air flows down the Gorge from the Eastern Washington desert. Celilo’s proximity to the Cascades assures that rainfall will be substantial — an average of 50 inches annually.

At the same time, its perch above the Columbia River helps to mitigate the severe freeze conditions that can affect vines in many Columbia, Yakima and Walla Walla valley sites.

The elevation (800 to 1,200 feet) and slope prevent fog and cold air from sitting on the vines. No wind machines or smudge pots have ever been needed or used. No insecticides either. “I don’t think the bugs know we’re here,” smiles Ensminger.

The soil, too, is unique: a fine, porous powder that comes loaded with buckshot-sized pebbles. These are about the size and shape of ball bearings and ensure that the vineyard percolates well. This layer of volcanic soil runs as far down as 45 feet, where it hits lava rock, trapping the snowmelt and holding water during the dry summers.

As elsewhere in Washington, the drop in temperature at night during the final weeks of ripening preserves grape acids, while the warm days and southeast-facing slope give the vines the maximum amount of time in the sun, allowing the sugars to ripen fully.

Finally, there is the persistent wind funneling through the Gorge. It toughens the skins, helps to control mildew and rot, and concentrates the juices.

Not too surprisingly, given its unique location, Celilo experiences more variation in vintage conditions than most sites in Washington.

“Every year is different,” says Ensminger; “we can’t hardly remember what normal is.”

Apart from the weather, a perennial wild card, it is critters that have made Ensminger’s job especially interesting. “Our biggest enemies are gophers and birds,” he notes. When the lower vineyard was first planted, “I went hand-to-hand with the gophers. They kicked our butt!”

Even after 30 years, new challenges come along from time to time. The phone call from his 92-year-old neighbor, for example.

“Phone rings and it’s the neighbor,” Ensminger tells me. “He raises turkeys. I ask him what’s up. He says he’s got good news and bad news.

“The good news is, he’s got the best crop of turkeys he’s ever raised. The bad news, he tells me, is they’re all down in my vineyard!”

On that occasion, Ensminger rushed down to find dozens of turkeys going one-on-one with his vines. Conveniently for the birds, the trellised grapes have low-hanging bunches just about eyeball-high to a turkey.

“I think they preferred the merlot,” he says ruefully.

Gophers, turkeys and other problems notwithstanding, new dreamers and doers are catching on to the potential of Underwood Mountain and the area surrounding it. Tidy new vineyards are clustered all around Celilo.

Last year, the area received long-overdue recognition when it was included in a new federally approved appellation, the Columbia Gorge AVA. Like the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley AVAs, this one crosses the border and incorporates vineyards in Oregon also.

In Ensminger’s view, the whole south slope of Underwood Mountain should be vineyard. And who wouldn’t agree, once they taste some of the exceptional wines being made from Celilo grapes?

Winemaker Peter Rosback of Sineann calls Celilo gewürz “the best marriage of site and varietal in the state.” His 2002, 2003 and 2004 vineyard-designated bottlings prove the point. Although they strike a consistent note of grapefruit, pear skin and grassy spice, they also show significant vintage variation and a pleasing evolution in the bottle, from tart and herbal to round and fleshy.

Other recommended, recently released Celilo wines include gewürztraminers from Viento and especially Latitude 46; chardonnays from Pheasant Valley, Woodward Canyon, Harlequin and Ken Wright Cellars; and a lovely pinot gris made by nearby Wind River Cellars.

Paul Gregutt is the author of “Northwest Wines.” His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.