Vines with a view

Drive the Columbia Gorge for fine wines and scenery
Kate Chynoweth`

Golden sunlight floods the sloping vineyards at Wind River Cellars, off State 14 in the hills north of the Columbia River in Washington's Klickitat County. The vines are laden with fruit this month, and the sweet smell of ripe grapes hangs in the air. In the distance, the white peak of Mt. Hood glistens.

"There's not another wine region that looks like this one," says winemaker Joel Goodwillie. It's true: The views here make for a stunningly beautiful road trip, especially if you travel along Washington's scenic State 14. This narrow, winding roadway passes through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and leads to a handful of Washington wineries worth a stop ― especially now that it's harvesttime.

"We have nearly every type of growing region around here," Goodwillie says, referring to the microclimates that account for much of the region's success in the wine world. Recently granted its own appellation, the Columbia Gorge AVA (American Viticultural Area) straddles the Columbia River and extends into four counties in Washington and Oregon, including western Klickitat County, where cooler-climate grapes like Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir thrive. In contrast, the desertlike eastern part of the county butts up against a valley that gets as little as 3 inches of rain per year ― perfect for Zinfandel grapes.

Equally dramatic are the changes in scenery. In the 10 miles from Wind River Cellars south to State 14, moss and fir trees give way to golden hills around the town of Bingen, set against the Columbia River. At Syncline Wine Cellars in Bingen, co-owner Poppie Mantone says, "We wanted to work with Washington fruit, so we knew this was the place. We love to snowboard too, so it helps to have Mt. Hood just across the river."

The area's proximity to Mt. Hood as well as to Hood River, Oregon, and nearby scenic wonders like 620-foot Multnomah Falls are part of Klickitat County's appeal. But there's plenty to keep you on the Washington side for days, especially once you reach Maryhill Winery, where a tasting room lined with windows overlooks the river and the cliffs of the gorge, and an outdoor terrace invites you to listen to live music every weekend afternoon through September.

Because it's at the eastern edge of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Maryhill makes a good turnaround point. From here, return west on State 14, saving the best ― Cascade Cliffs ― for last. This small, rustic winery set below towering basalt cliffs embodies the folksy, small-town feel of the area. Winemaker Bob Lorkowski says, "I hand-press the grapes, I make the wine, and I drive up to Seattle to sell it. It's pretty much a one-man show around here."

Well, almost. In the yard behind the winery, a long-horned goat wanders around. Lorkowski says it's a descendant of the four-legged namesake of Cascade Cliffs's Goat Head Red. It's a fitting bit of quirkiness for a place where winemakers double as snowboarders, on their days off at least.

Wine country tour

Klickitat County is approximately 4 hours south of Seattle by car and 1 hour east of Portland. From Portland, drive north approximately 10 miles to Vancouver, Washington, and head east at State 14. From Seattle, drive I-5 south to Vancouver, then take I-205 to State 14. For the return trip, double back on State 14, or take in new sights by crossing into Oregon via the Bridge of the Gods (near Stevenson; $1 toll) and traveling on I-84, which parallels the Columbia River and passes by waterfalls and other scenic attractions.

The Klickitat Wine Alliance Harvest Festival (Sep 25-26; free) features grape tastings, crush-pad demonstrations of juice extraction, and vineyard tours. For details contact Klickitat County Tourism (www.klickitatcounty.org or 509/773-7060).

WINERIES

1 Wind River Cellars. Hillside winery with views of Mt. Hood. The Port is a winner. 10-6 daily. 196 Spring Creek Rd., Husum; www.windrivercellars.com or 509/493-2324.

2 Syncline Wine Cellars. Owners James and Poppie Mantone are often found in the small tasting room. Don't miss the Syrah. Open by appointment Sep-May. 307 W. Humboldt St., Bingen; www.synclinewine.com or 509/493-4705.

3 Maryhill Winery. Largest winery in the region has a huge tasting room and deck with sweeping river views; the Zinfandel and Viognier are standouts. 10-6 daily. 9774 State 14, Goldendale; www.maryhillwinery.com or 877/627-9445.

4 Cascade Cliffs Vineyard and Winery. Small working winery in a rustic setting. Try the Barbera or Cabernet Sauvignon. 10-6 daily. Mile marker 88.5 on State 14, Wishram; www.cascadecliffs.com or 509/767-1100.

DINING

Food options are limited on the Washington side of the river; you'll find more restaurants in Hood River, Oregon.

The Creamery. Espresso and ice cream. $. 121 E. Jewett Blvd., White Salmon; 509/493-4007.

The Lyle Hotel Restaurant. Local food and wines are showcased at the dining room of this historic hotel. Special harvest-themed dinners Sep 25-26 (from $14; book in advance). $$; closed Mon-Tue. 100 Seventh St., Lyle; www.lylehotel.com or 800/447-6310.

LODGING

Husum's Riverside B&B. Quiet 4-room B&B just 2 miles from Wind River Cellars. 866 State 141, Husum; www.gorge-rooms.com or 509/493-8900.

Inn of the White Salmon. The lavish gourmet breakfast is a highlight at this 16-room brick inn. 172 W. Jewett Blvd., White Salmon; www.innofthewhitesalmon.com, 800/972-5226, or 509/493-2335.