Cascade Cliffs winemaker Bob Lorkowski is proud of his Polish heritage, but when he's checking up on his Italian varietals growing on the banks of the Columbia River, he's apt...

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WISHRAM, Klickitat County — Cascade Cliffs winemaker Bob Lorkowski is proud of his Polish heritage, but when he’s checking up on his Italian varietals growing on the banks of the Columbia River, he’s apt to do an Enrico Caruso impression.

“O solo mio,” he warbles as he cradles a ripening cluster of nebbiolo grapes.

When harvest and fermentation is in full swing, his small rustic winery resonates with classical music. But, he adds, “by the time we’re bottling, we’ve got rock ‘n’ roll going on.”

Such is life for the 38-year-old Pennsylvanian who said he gave up blueberry wines after his first taste of merlot, and moved west in the late 1980s with the thought of one day running his own vineyards and winery.

His dream became reality in 1997 when he bought this remote winery and estate vineyard below a broad, 400-foot-high basaltic cliff within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

When he tasted the first wines he made from the barbera and nebbiolo vines that the previous owner had planted in 1986, Lorkowski changed his focus beyond France’s Bordeaux to northwest Italy’s Piemonte — or Piedmont.

Lorkowski is not the first nor is he the only Washington vintner making varietals with lineages rooted in the Italian Piedmont. But he goes at it with more varieties and with greater passion in his voice than when he talks about the zinfandel and French varietals he also makes at his 3,700-case winery.

“They’re more or less full of flavor, full of acidity,” he said of his Italians. “They’re not for the faint of heart. They are as full a mouthful of wine as there is.”

Another grape he inherited when he bought Cascade Cliffs is the symphony, a rare California hybrid that owes half of its genes to a muscat strain that imperial Roman legions brought back from Egypt to their homeland. It makes a white wine not unlike a slightly sweet riesling.

In 2001, Lorkowski began making dolcetto, a fruity, deep-ruby wine he makes with grapes he’s buying from a Walla Walla Valley grower until he plants his own on his 20 acres of organically farmed vineyards.

He’s not stopping there.

Next year, he will plant three types of olive trees — California mission, Italian leccino and Spanish arbequina — to buffer frequent winds that blow through the gorge. When they mature, he intends to add home-pressed olive oils to his repertoire.

Sangiovese takes center stage

Still other Washington vintners have a renewed interest in sangiovese, the main grape in Chianti blends, widely grown in Italy’s Tuscany province south of the Piedmont along the Mediterranean Sea.

Bob Lorkowski checks the ripening clusters of nebbiolo grapes he grows organically in his vineyard along the Columbia River.

“There has been a lot of planting and more going on recently,” says Woodinville’s Columbia Winery vintner David Lake, one of fewer than 300 certified masters of wine in the world. “For a long time, people were loath to plant them.”

What’s changed is that Italy’s wine industry over the past decade or so has cleaned up a reputation damaged by poor quality and fraud stemming back to the 1960s. Indeed, a common dig at Italian wines for years was that people bought them mostly because their traditional wicker-wrapped flasks made romantic dinner-table candleholders.

But with a renewed focus on quality in Italy’s vineyards and the cellars, U.S. consumers and the world wine press are taking notice.

In Washington, vintner interest in what they can do with the grapes is rising as more become “bolder and see there are a lot more opportunities” in the state’s emerging wine industry, Lake says.

“They are a kind of Holy Grail for winemakers to make them really well,” he says. “Washington seems to have the potential for it.”

The most recognizable differences between Italian and French wines are that the Italian reds tend to be lighter in color, with a fresher, generally softer fruit and aromatic elements.

“In a way, I think in Washington they can fulfill a role that pinot noir fills in Oregon,” says Lake, who last year made about 1,200 cases of sangiovese and 550 cases of barbera at his Woodinville winery. “They work nicely with lighter meats and grilled fish.”

However, Lake advises growers to go slowly in devoting acreage to Italian varietals.

“We must create a market first before we jump too hard into this,” he said. “All of these varietals — nebbiolo and sangiovese — have really not succeeded with any great regularity in the New World.”

Going against the grain

Of the Italian varietals growing in Washington, perhaps the riskiest to cultivate and turn into wine is nebbiolo.

“I’m not that tempted to undertake it,” Lake says.

But the brick-red grape is Lorkowski’s pet, one he talks about as if it were a waif needing his protection to grow into something grander.

“There’s no more beautiful cluster than a nebbiolo,” he says. “But it’s the neediest child. It’s the loudest child.”

The grapes are the first to bud and require the longest time to ripen, and are thus the most susceptible to Washington’s late spring and early fall frosts, he says. Yet such frosts are rare and much less severe in the Columbia Gorge than they are elsewhere in Eastern Washington, he adds.

Still, says Lorkowski, “they’re the hardest to grow. But that’s why I like them; I’m always for the underdog.”

And the wine they make, he adds, is worth the risk and effort.

“I’m a big comparer,” he says, sampling a splash of a yet-to-be released 2002 nebbiolo he drew from a barrel. “When I compare this to the barbera, it doesn’t have all that big fruit. It’s subtler, with a beautiful balance of earthiness and fruit.

“It’s (the favorite of) everybody who works here, and from a customer standpoint, they like the fruit,” he adds. “But when you get a nebbiolo freak, gosh, it’s got just everything.”

Thomas P. Skeen: 509-525-3300 or