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Exploring region's Vinicultural Areas

A small section stretches from The Dalles to Milton-Freewater

Lonnie Wright points out his Old Vine ZInfandel. These roots are more than 110 years old and are located at The Pines 1852 Vineyards. Photo credit: Marguerite Cleveland

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American Vinicultural Areas (AVAs) are unique geographic locations with the right climate, soil and topography for growing grapes. The Columbia Valley AVA is mostly in Washington, but the small section in Oregon contains some of the oldest vines in both states. The high desert climate allows for slow growth, and the dry temperatures and wind prevent rot. Grapes retain their acidity due to the cool nights.

You can't talk about grapes in The Dalles and surrounding areas without mentioning Lonnie Wright, owner of The Pines 1852 Vineyards, who is considered the grandfather of viniculture in the area. The history of wine at The Pines dates back to the early Italian settler Louie Comini, who planted zinfandel grapes on a southward sloping hill. Wright estimates it was planted between 1890 and 1900 with cuttings from California, making the vines well more than 100 years old. He learned about the vineyard in the early 1980s after it had been abandoned for almost 20 years.  Wright became involved in restoring the vines, then leased the property and finally purchased it.  

Bringing the vines back to life was a challenge.

"The old ways had the vines head trained on the ground with no trunks," he said. "They felt the vines had to be covered by snow to survive the winter."

Early photos of the vineyard show round bushes sitting on the ground, very unlike the orderly rows of trellises you see today.

Wright has served as a mentor to several in the area, and many of the local vineyards' zinfandel comes from cuttings of his old vine zinfandel. In 2001, he contracted with an Oregon winery to begin producing his own label of wine. The Oregon Wine Board recognized Wright's contribution to the Oregon Wine Industry in 2014 with its Lifetime Achievement Award, which "is given to a person whose work was pioneering and spans not only a personal lifetime but the lifetime of the Oregon Wine Industry."

The Pines 1852 Vineyard has grown during the years and now offers a variety of different wine types.  The tasting room is located in Hood River, and the staff is very knowledgeable about the wines and history of The Pines 1852.  Tours of the vineyards are available for parties of four or more if scheduled at least three days in advance.

The Pines 1852 Tasting Room, open daily at noon, closing times vary, 202 Cascade Ave., Hood River, Oregon, 541.993.8301,

The only tasting room for the Oregon Columbia Valley AVA is the Sunshine Mills Winery, and it is one of the most unique tasting rooms I have ever visited. It's housed in the old Sunshine Mill, which sat abandoned since the 1970s until James and Molli Martin brought it back to life. It now houses the Quenett and Copa Di Vino wineries tasting room as well as production facilities.  The tasting room is fun, with spaces for large groups as well as intimate corners with comfy furniture for smaller groups. The facility is filled with items found in the mill and repurposed for use in the tasting room. Eclectic paint colors enhance the space and make it feel less industrial while not taking away from the historical vibe of the building. You can still see the original Thomas Edison Motor, which powered electricity to the first building in The Dalles to utilize the new technology.  The outside patio offers a grassy area and bocce ball, and in warmer months movies are shown on the silo.  The site is very family friendly, and children are welcome.

Copa Di Vino means "wine by the glass." The Martins have patented a process in which premium wine is sealed in a plastic cup and topped with a splash cap; it remains fresh for one year. The brand especially took off after James' two appearances on the TV show Shark Tank.

"The Copa Di Vino brand helps make us the number two wine producers in Oregon, and we are distributed to forty-two states," said Vicki Byrd, sales and hospitality manager.

The Martins have contributed to revitalizing the area, and between production, the sales staff and the tasting room, have created more than 75 jobs.

Sunshine Mill Artesian Plaza and Winery, open daily at noon, closing times vary, 901 E. Second St., The Dalles, Oregon, 541.298.8900,

When exploring the Columbia Valley AVA, consider crossing the bridge to The Dalles to see what the Oregon side has to offer.

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