A visit to a vineyard

I like to call the owner of our local wine shop the mayor of St. Johns. He doesn’t know I call him this, I think he’d be embarrassed. He knows all the local business owners and their stories. Thanks to him, we’ve gotten to know the owners of an epic dive bar which now means the bartenders know our drink orders and that we’re officially regulars.

Our mayor of St. Johns passed along word that a winery in Hood River was opening its doors for the first time and would be offering tours of their vineyard. On Sunday we dropped our big floppy poodle off with my wife’s parents and drove out to Hood River.

Just past the freeway exist that leads into downtown Hood River is a second exit which will lead you to a terrifying, skinny, two lane toll bridge. The bridge deck is just a metal grate which feels far too slick to drive on and whirrs loudly under your tires. Once you cross the bridge you come to a small two lane highway. Turn right and you’ll head to Bingen, Washington, left and you’ll head to Underwood. We turned left, then right, then right again and found our way to Loop de Loop Wines.

The small tasting room and cellar sit on a hillside and looks down into the Hood River valley. We arrived about five minutes early and the wine maker, Julia, poured us a small glass of dry riesling while we waited for the rest of the tour group.

We sat on their porch and enjoyed the view. We had a small glass of the deep pink rosé. I started wandering around looking at things.

After 30 minutes we gave up on the rest of the tour group and Julia led us up into the forest behind the cellar. At a small clearing just before the forest she stopped to point out a small patch of grasses with some light blue flowers popping up here and there. Julia revealed that this patch of weeds was in fact very intentional. It was a mix of clover, oats, mustard, and other native species all specifically chosen for the benefits the bring to the soil. This bio-mix was planted all over the vineyard and it’s health (or lack of health) revealed the parts of the earth which had been dealt the most damage over the years.

I asked if the ground cover would be tilled under, to fertilize the soil. This sounded very farmer-ly to me but Julia set me straight. Tilling disrupts and destroys micro cilium which are interlaced through the ground. Healthy soil, I learned, has a healthy balance of fungus, bacteria, and little microorganisms (nematodes, amoeba, etc) which keep away pests and benefit the vines. Julia talked about how they were inoculating the soil with healthy fungus by burying small sacks of rice in the forest, leaving them for about three weeks so the fungus will colonize the rice. The rice is then dug up, ground up, mixed with water and sprayed into the vineyard carrying the fungus with it.

As we tromped up into the forest Julia noted the evidence of former forestry. A pile of young fir trees growing together in a clump indicated that probably logging occurred on the land at some point, and seed was scattered to replace the trees, resulting in tight little groves of young trees.

We arrived at shambling wire fence. Julia peeled back the fencing and we crossed into the vineyard. The hillside hosted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines.

Julia showed us thin parallel lines in the soil where a special, expensive, rented machine cut tiny troughs for planting the seeds for her bio-mix. Sporadic rain and mis-timed planting meant only some scrabbly oats were poking up through the ground. They would try again next year, planting earlier, hoping to catch the rains.

When Julia and her husband bought the property they had intended to work with professional farmers and learn from them along the way. COVID changed their plans and they were forced to learn and do it all themselves.

From the top of the property, you can see down into the valley and across the bridge and right into downtown Hood River.

Julia joked about wanting to build a home up here to enjoy the vines and the view and how her husband will remind her how expensive it will be to build a road up the hillside before you even consider running water and electricity. On the way back down the hill, we snuck through the fence again and Julia told us about her bear encounter in the forest. Elk, deer, and black bears all lurk on the mountainside and all can ruin a crop. The fence doesn’t really keep them out. Elk and deer can leap and bear climb trees. The fence is really a polite suggestion.

Once out of the forest Julia told us of her desire to build out some more picnic areas for people visiting the vineyard and speculated about allowing camping on the property. Even I would go camping in a vineyard. I hate camping.

We were lucky that the rest of our tour group no-showed. We got to spend an hour alone with a wine maker learning about how wine grapes are farmed. We never even talked about the process of actually making wine. Julia told us it’s all about the fruit.

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