Thursday, May 23, 2024

Pop the Cork

Gather at one of the region’s lush vineyards and refined wineries for good conversation and flavorful vino

By Amanda Christensen

Analemma Wines in Mosier, Oregon || Photo by Michael Hanson Photography

With endless stunning landscapes of rolling hills, mountain ranges, major rivers, and the Great Plains of Wyoming and Montana, uniquely diverse opportunities for wine growing are abundant in the Northwest. Environmental features like these create ecosystems that lend a hand in creating a diverse array of American Viticultural Areas (AVA) in each state.

And the region’s climate—which boasts a special mix of temperate oceanic in western Washington and Oregon, and arid, high desert to the east into Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana—makes for an ecological medley of landscapes that produce varietals you won’t find anywhere else.

“We were really interested in this climate, and the drier conditions that [are] a little bit easier for organic farming,” says Kris Fade, co-founder of Analemma Wines in Mosier, Oregon, just east of Hood River in the Columbia River Gorge. “It adds a lot of interest to what we do by having this sort of agriculture [in the area],” she says.

Organic in Oregon

Fade first got involved in the wine industry while working with her college professor on contract projects he had with local vineyards. “It really opened my eyes to how wine and winegrowing can be a lens to see the world—the geology, the climate, the cultural aspects of farming, and making a land-based product, [were all] really exciting to me.” Alongside its 17-acre vineyard, Analemma has an 8-acre cherry tree orchard, all naturally pollinated by three species of bees raised on-site.

With a goal of leaving the land better than they found it, Fade and co-founder Steven Thompson prioritize eco-friendly initiatives through their farming practices, from composting to making their own fertilizer. The vineyards were Biodynamic certified by Demeter in 2017—recognizing its substantial organic farming techniques—and offer ample opportunities for visitors to get involved in their regenerative agriculture process with activities like planting native species, laying out compost tea on the vineyards (a solution of “brewed” compost with microorganisms that boost vine growth), and more.

Analemma can comfortably host groups of 12 to 25 and can customize events and other group activities to a planner’s agenda. Take a walk out to the vineyards and have a conversation about the site’s farming practices, or arrange a lecture session on topics like sustainability or diversity, equity, and inclusion—all while sipping on some of its biodynamically grown wines, including a crisp albariño, a fruity blanco, or a fresh rosé.

Over in Hood River, the boutique Phelps Creek Vineyards also has a thing for going green and encourages groups to sit back and relax at its tasting room along the Columbia River. The property is salmon-safe certified, as well as Live certified. Live is a Pacific Northwest nonprofit that certifies vineyards in the region for sustainable farming and production practices. The venue offers an on-site Wine Library Room that works well for educational sessions, tastings, and lunches for groups of up to 14. With vineyards on both the Washington and Oregon sides of the Columbia River, Phelps Creek is best known for its cool-climate varietals of pinot noir, chardonnay, and Riesling.

“We’re so fortunate because we can get grapes from the Washington side [of the Columbia River] without any implications of taxes or laws because of the bi-state AVA,” says Lynette Barss-Morus, general manager of the property, referring to the Columbia Gorge AVA that straddles the river and encompasses areas in both states. The property offers catering from its on-site kitchen, with light menu items like French baguettes and Irish butter, marinated olives, and cheese plates.

“The nice thing about being a boutique winery is you kind of just rock ’n’ roll with it, go with the flow, and you learn from every vintage,” Barss-Morus adds. And if you want a more casual get-together with colleagues, join the Phelps Creek team for its Thursday night jazz performances and Taco Tuesdays every week.

Over to the west in the Willamette Valley is Lemelson Vineyards in Carlton, Oregon, a gravity-flow facility that opened in 1999. The property is favored for its Thea’s Selection Pinot Noir, a blend of grapes from all five of its vineyards managed throughout the Willamette Valley AVA.

“We are all organic-certified out in our vineyards,” explains Josie Hubbard, hospitality manager for Lemelson. “Organic is the trend in Oregon in general, but that definitely helps us to stand out.” While she notes  the vineyard is ideal for hosting small groups of around 12, there is flexibility to organize larger groups and meetings in coordination with the Lemelson team. The venue has three separate patios on-site and offers seated tastings and behind-the-scenes tours where guests can dine on a cheese plate with paired wines and explore the winery and its cellars.

“It’s a really beautiful space. We back right up to some beautifully forested areas [that] guests can enjoy and have a picnic if they choose,” she adds. “It’s just a very Oregon-type setting. … It’s very one with the land.”

Abeja Winery & Inn in Walla Walla, Washington || Courtesy of Abeja Winery & Inn

Rooted in Family

To the east, just north of the Washington-Oregon border in Walla Walla, Washington, sits Abeja Winery & Inn, a 38-acre site that is home to an active winery, eight-suite inn, tasting room, and estate vineyard. Abeja offers several options for planners to arrange a relaxing gathering for groups on the property, including The Small Barn & Patio, composed of a dining room and tasting room and best suited for tastings or receptions of up to 120; The Big Barn, which can host up to 150, and the Great Lawn, which can host up to 300; the Vineyard Garden, an elegant outdoor space for cocktail receptions and small dinners of up to 36; and the Carriage House Foyer, well-suited for a reception of up to 40. The inn can sleep up to 28, and the Abeja team can arrange custom incentive packages for memorable events.

Abeja was founded by Ken and Ginger Harrison, who came to the Walla Walla Valley in the late 1990s in search of suitable land to plant some cabernet sauvignon, purchasing the property in 2000. “Having the inn and the winery makes us special,” says Ana Smolinsky, event manager for the property. “We really kept a lot of the historic aspects of the farm and turned it into something great. … We have an inn suite called the Chicken Coop, which was originally the old chicken coop that we’ve converted.”

With a goal of maintaining the property’s rich past, the Abeja team also values being eco-friendly and ensuring each visitor feels at home during their visit. The name Abeja is Spanish for “bee,” and was chosen to honor a deep-rooted respect for the environment. “I think we also have a big family feel on property, so [when] you come in, our staff makes you feel like you’re part of the family,” Smolinsky adds.

Situated between the high desert of southeastern Oregon and the Salmon River Mountains of central Idaho, Telaya Wine Co. is a family-owned winery in Garden City, Idaho, established by Earl and Carrie Sullivan in 2008. “Earl and Carrie had previously been embarking on independent careers when they turned to wine as a way to converge their career paths,” explains Emily Balluff, Telaya’s private event coordinator. “With a strong focus on family, hospitality, and producing old-world style Idaho and Washington wines, Telaya has continued to grow ever since.”

Telaya sources about 60% of its grapes from Idaho’s Snake River Valley AVA and about 40% from Washington’s Yakima Valley and Red Mountain AVAs. “We’re best known for big, bold reds like shiraz [also known as ‘syrah’] and cabernet sauvignon,” says Balluff. “Our shiraz-based red blend, Turas (meaning ‘journey’ in Irish Gaelic), is our flagship wine.” The venue is located next to the Riverside Hotel just minutes from downtown Boise. It can be rented in various configurations to accommodate up to 150 guests with options including the second-floor Teton Room for up to 50 standing; the 1,600-square-foot outdoor deck for up to 75; and the tasting room and patio, which can host up to 150 on a seasonal basis.

“We love to customize wine experiences based on the group’s interests and schedule,” says Balluff. “We can offer anything from a quick introduction to the winery, to a more in-depth and educational tasting and tour experience—we’ve even created blind-tasting team-building activities in the past.” And the options don’t end at just wine—Balluff notes that groups should get creative when it comes to using the different spaces on-site alongside nearby amenities, like yoga in the Teton Room or an afternoon spent paddleboarding
on the nearby pond.

Picnic at Mustang Mountain Vineyard in Lovell, Wyoming || Photo by Nicolle Laffin

In northern Wyoming, the 18-acre Mustang Mountain Vineyard offers a warm, welcoming environment as a family-owned and -operated venue in Lovell, about an hour and a half south of Billings, Montana. “We have an absolutely stunning view of the Big Horn Mountains, and it’s just a very quiet and relaxing place,” describes Nicolle Laffin, managing partner of Mustang, alongside her parents, Nancey and Larry Blair. The property was originally an abandoned apple orchard, and the Blairs planted their first round of vineyard grapes in 2010 after retiring from their jobs in Seattle, Washington, and moving to Wyoming.

“We get a lot of that apple [flavor] that comes through our wine grapes, and we really appreciate that,” Laffin says. The winery can host groups of 15 to 20 for tastings with either light bites or full catering to pair. When it comes to what makes a small-town vineyard like Mustang stand out, Laffin says it’s twofold. “I do love that it’s family [owned]; we seem to all be on the same page … [and] have the same vision for the vineyard and winery. [And] the best part about this [job] is when people come in and we get to visit with them. We love talking with people.”

Whichever vineyard you choose to explore with your group, the region is flourishing with eco-friendly wineries and locally owned venues that’ll keep the wine flowing and encourage engaging conversation among attendees