As a native Washingtonian, I thought I knew all about the cities and towns and rural areas of the state. I knew that the Columbia River (now the official border between the Pacific Northwest’s Oregon and Washington states) was Lewis and Clark’s watery road to the Pacific Ocean. I knew Woody Guthrie wrote a song about it, Roll On, Columbia.

Cork allows the wine bottle to breathe.

I didn’t know anything about this stretch of the Columbia River, locally referred to now as, “The Gorge.” I didn’t know that this southern tip of the Columbia Valley appellation has just the right warm climate, silt loam soil, and steady breezes that wine grapes love, and I didn’t know it had become a wine-touring destination. I was ready for “Wine 101—Columbia Gorge Style.”

A scenic three hours’ drive from Seattle—one hour’s drive from Portland, Oregon—we discovered the Maryhill Winery. On a bluff overlooking cherry orchards and the historic Gunkel Family Vineyards and the Columbia River Gorge, this delightful destination also boasts a stunning view of Mt. Hood. We discovered this area’s not as crowded as other Washington wine-growing areas.

Relax on Maryhill’s arbor-covered patio.

A grape-covered arbor covering an expansive deck of tables and chairs welcomes you to relax and think about wine and lunch and, of course, that view. And for a friendly greeting—before you even meet the Maryhill Winery owners—you get a sniff-welcome from Potter, Maryhill’s 130-pound Great Pyrenees “wine dog”.

Inside, a 3,000 square-foot tasting room with a fine fireplace for cooler weather is dominated by a massive antique English Brunswick Bar, elaborately carved from Tiger Oak in the late 1800s and inset with mirrors. The tasting bar, facing this 12-foot-high backdrop stretches 20 feet in length, plenty of room to “belly up”, sample Maryhill’s best, and chat up dog and winery owners Craig and Vicki Leuthold.

The Maryhill Winery Tasting Room and shop.

We were soon to get a delightful introduction into their world of wine. Spokane, Washington natives, the Leutholds will tell you they were just corporate types with a passion for wine.

They dipped their toes into the wine business by purchasing in 1997 a share in a small winery, Cascade Cliffs, while still maintaining their day jobs. It took two years of exploring Washington state’s many wine destinations before they settled in the Columbia Gorge, attracted by post card scenery and a perfect microclimate for grape growing.

“We opened this tasting room Memorial Day week-end 2001,” Craig says, “and just celebrated our 10th anniversary.” When the Leutholds opened the Maryhill Winery there were only about 130 wineries in the state; today Craig says there are nearly 700.

Maryhill produces 24 varietals and 30 total wines, showcasing the full breadth of wines Washington state offers. The winery has grown from a modest 4,300 case production in 1999 to more than 80,000 cases today, making it the 15th largest winery in the state. Craig says, “Maryhill's tasting room draws 75,000 guests annually from around the world.”

The Columbia River Valley is a young grape growing region.

It was such a beautiful day we enjoyed a jaunty drive to check out the sourcing vineyards, where most of the good grapes that make Maryhill wine come from.  This part of Washington state has been dubbed the “Mediterranean of the Northwest” because of its hot summer days, cool nights, moderate winters and gentle maritime breezes.

Our first stop is Lonnie Wright’s vineyards in The Dalles, Oregon overlooking this Columbia Gorge wine growing region. Called The Pines, the vineyard is family-owned and operated. The main house is vintage 1930 and the barn is circa 1926.

Grow tubes are a recent innovation.

Lonnie sells his grapes to six or seven vintners, one of which is Maryhill. He introduces us to the science of “viticulture” (that’s how to grow grapes).

He shows us new plantings in “grow tubes”, which have only been used in the last decade. They’re planted five feet apart in 10-foot rows on the hillside, surrounded by a seven foot deer fence. He thins growing tendrils by hand so that the remaining grapes get more energy and open up to the sun. “But they can’t get sun-burned,” he says. Also, “If you want to protect your grapes you got to put up bird nets.”

Sunburn? Deer fences? Bird nets? It sounds like grapes need a lot of protection!

Actually Lonnie says, “Powdery mildew is the scourge of the grape growing business, but we’ve never sprayed here to control anything—our winters kill everything.”

He goes on to explain that it’s all “about maximizing your yield.” Which way the slope faces can affect the growing season. Planting a vineyard is labor intensive. “We hand harvest here,” he says, “while all of Columbia Crest, Hogue and St. Michelle use a bulk receiver harvester machine.”

We learn that “mog” means “material other than grape” and that’s what you can sort out when you harvest by hand—no leaves or weeds. You can’t harvest in the middle of the day because “vintners don’t want hot grapes”, but machines can work all night to deliver cold grapes.

Entranced by the expansive views of rows upon rows of curling grapevines, with the gorge wind whistling up the hillside, we’re startled to hear Lonnie’s cell phone ring. A quick conversation and he returns to tell us that harvesting is pretty much done by the middle of October.

From The Pines we move on to visit the historic Gunkel Family Vineyards, one of the state’s oldest and most established vineyard sites. As Maryhill’s “estate” vineyard, the Gunkel Family Vineyards produce more than a dozen varietals including Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Merlot, Sangiovese, Syrah, Voigner and Zinfandel. Four generations of the Gunkel family has farmed these fertile lands.

Gorgeous Grapes along the Columbia River Gorge.

Craig and Vicki contract with growers throughout the lower Columbia Gorge, working closely with select premier vineyards like Gunkel to produce wine showcasing the rich and pleasurable flavors of this unique growing region.

The afternoon sun is warm, the breeze is warm, and apparently this makes grapes happy. Almost all grape varieties require heat. Chardonnays particularly like heat. “We need heat,” says Craig, “but we don’t want over 100 degrees because they go into respiratory failure.” Mid to high 80s is perfect grape-growing temperature, but 90 is normal here in July and August. “Vognier in this region is much more floral because of the heat.”

Grape vines also like cold winters and rough terrain. Here the ground is full of big rocks, interspersed with dry grasses. Rocks are okay. “Grape vines like stress. They like to struggle—it builds character. Yet they’re only hardy to about five to 10 degrees below zero,” he warns.

We return to Maryhill for pre-dinner snacks and wine-tasting, The patio can seat 120 people. With expansive vistas of Mt. Hood, the Columbia River Gorge, and what seem like endless hillsides of orchards and vineyards, I think: what a wonderful place to get married!

Picnic on the grass & catch star entertainment.

Or to attend a concert. Below the patio is a 4,000 seat outdoor amphitheatre that slopes down the grassy hillside to a state-of-the-art concert stage. Maryhill’s annual concert series features A acts such as The Gipsy Kings, Styx, Joe Cocker, Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs. On the Maryhill website you can sign up for their free newsletter with regular updates for musical entertainment and special events. What a combo: great wine and winning entertainment!

The Celilo Inn overlooks the Gorge.

There are a variety of accommodations near the winery to suit your overnight needs, whether you like a full-service resort or a waterfront campground. We stayed at the Celilo Inn, a preferred lodging partner 20 miles west of the Maryhill Winery. Owner Zar Sheikh has created a blend of modern boutique amenities and relaxing roadside comfort. Each of the Inn’s 46 guest rooms and suites feature pillow-top mattresses, flat screen TVs, high-speed internet, and en-suite refrigerator and microwave. Add to that wide-screen views of the Dalles dam, (where Lewis & Clark had to portage around Celilo Falls), rolling hills of vineyards beyond, and endless sky where no two clouds are ever alike.

Celilo Inn also boasts a seasonal outdoor swimming pool, private boardroom/conference facilities, and a communal patio complete with fire pit and binoculars. Every Saturday Celilo hosts a live jazz band, and there are frequent tasting events on the patio. A shuttle takes guests to Maryhill concerts.

So, ready to start your own wine business? Craig says, “You start with a big fortune and then you make a small one out of it. This is farming, folks.”

Lonnie says, “If mother nature helps, you get a crop the third year that pays for itself in the fourth year.”

Right now, permanent trends in the wine business are being set. “Our wines are so affordable we’ve seen an increase in sales,” Craig says. “Between $10 and $20 is where all the consumers are spending their money. They may be saving, but they’re drinking more wine.”

Premium Washington state wines.

The top 25 wineries in Washington produce 90 percent of all the wine in the state. Craig says three major grocery chains just redid their shelves and 90 percent of wines over $30 were eliminated. Washington state is also considering changing the law to make it legal for liquor to be sold outside of the historically state-controlled liquor stores. (Costco is a major supporter of new legislation.) “Liquor in grocery stores will take away the chance for the small winery to be seen because there will be less shelf space.”

Today Craig and Vicki oversee all of Maryhill’s operations, from planting to public relations. Together they are living their passion for creating fine wine. They have won literally hundreds of wine awards from the American Wine Society to Pacific Rim International Wine Competition to the Grand Harvest Awards to Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

“We focus on producing premium red wines, with special attention to Syrah and Sangiovese,” Craig says. “Our larger vineyards include blocks of Zinfandel, Viognier, Merlot, Syrah and vines, as well as smaller sections for Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Grenache.” Maryhill Winery was named “2009 Washington Winery of the Year” by Wine Press Northwest. Craig’s favorite wine? Maryhill’s Proprietors Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon; Vicki’s favorite wine? Maryhill’s Reserve Grenache.

When you go, give Potter a pat on the head for us.

Maryhill wines are winners.

Maryhill Winery
9774 Highway 14
Goldendale, WA  98620
Open Daily 10-6

Celilo Inn
3550 East 2nd Street
The Dalles, Oregon 97058

Other relevent websites:


From Portland:

Take I-84 east to take Exit 104, Biggs Junction, OR. Head North on Route 97 across the River to the int. of 97 and Route 14. Take Route 14 west to Maryhill Winery, just past the Maryhill museum.

Alternate Route from Portland:

Take I-84 east to The Dalles, OR. Take Exit 87 Dufur/Bend. Turn left heading North 3.4 miles on US 197 across the river to the intersection of US 197 and Hwy 14. Turn right on Hwy 14 heading east 14.7 miles to Maryhill Winery, on your right.

From Seattle:

Take I-90 East to Ellensburg and then I-82 to Yakima. Just past Yakima take 97 South to Goldendale. Just before the river take Route 14 west to the Winery, just past the Maryhill museum.

— Feature by Carolyn V. Hamilton, Jetsetters Magazine Adventure Editor; photos by the author and courtesy of Duo Public Relations.