While in Lyle...
By Stuart Watson
It’s difficult enough starting your own winery. When someone else shows up in the same nook of the Columbia River Gorge, starts pressing grapes, pushes out bottles of wine that might slice a piece off the market you thought you’d cornered, it would be easy to cop a competitive ’tude.
Not so with the four Washington state winemaking families of the Lyle bench, a group that self-deprecatingly calls itself the “young guns of the old highway.”
Competition may be the rule in some wine-producing regions, but in this tiny corner of the Columbia Gorge AVA, collaboration and cooperation hold greater sway.
The four wineries — Syncline Winery, Memaloose Wines, Domaine Pouillon and COR Cellars — are bunched like grape clusters up and down the north slope of the Columbia River, north of old Highway 8 and staring across the Big River at Oregon midway between Hood River and The Dalles.
They share, and share alike.
They share equipment. They share suppliers. They share labor. They refer customers to one another. They support a website featuring the four of them (www.wineriesoflyle.com). And, they share their collective wisdom during monthly tastings.
“The four of us are isolated,” says Alexis Pouillon. “We’re in Lyle, but for some people, it’s light-years away from Hood River. So we realize that the wise thing to do is work together. The success of one is the success of all.”
James Mantone and his wife, Poppie, were the first to settle in the area, starting Syncline in 2001. Their friend, Luke Bradford of COR Cellars, followed closely behind.
Pouillon says Mantone “has helped a lot of people get started. We’re so close together, if I needed to borrow a truck, I can call one of them. We’re constantly trying to help each other.”
Mantone says he and Bradford bought a screw-capping machine and loaned it to Domaine Pouillon and Memaloose. He paused before adding, with a chuckle, “before we made them buy their own.”
In addition to location, Mantone says the four share a similar love of old-school winemaking. They don’t use much oak. They emphasize different varieties, however, so they aren’t stepping on those toes when bottles go to market.
They all, interestingly enough, have embraced alternative closures: glass stoppers or screw caps. That attraction for emerging technology has them now working together to test 11 different caps that control oxygen transmission. They taste wine every three months, to compare how the flavor matures with each closure.
“We’re finding that wines taste radically different,” Mantone says. “Sometimes it’s like it’s not even the same wine. We have to find out what each wine needs. We’ll find out in a couple years.”
Because they respect the experience and training that each brings to the area from their early years working in other regions — Mantone in the Willamette Valley, Bradford in France, and Pouillon and Brian McCormick of Memaloose from France by way of California — they organize monthly meetings to taste and discuss wine.
“We use different grapes, but our wines ultimately represent Old World style,” Pouillon says. “By having that philosophy, it’s easy coming from different backgrounds to get together.”
One of them agrees to host the tasting and buys a bunch of wine, which they taste from cloaked bottles to let the wines speak louder than the labels. They’ve been doing it for about eight years.
“We try to taste benchmark wines,” Mantone says. “We need to taste the world’s best wines on a regular basis, so we know what to shoot for. One of the characteristics in great winemakers is that they taste a lot of wines from all over the world. Our tastings are a way for us to taste thousands of dollars in wine, and split the cost among all of us.”
Mantone says winemakers taste for different traits than consumers. He says it’s important to surround himself with good tasters, so they can help him see things he wouldn’t otherwise notice.
“When we winemakers taste, we go through a list and look for the faults,” he says. “We try to eliminate cork taint, excess oak, volatile acidity — the beginnings of spoilage, when oxidation occurs — which is rampant in a lot of young wine regions without technically trained staff.”
McCormick says the monthly meetings allow each winemaker to lead the exploration, drawing on his own travels and work history. He says it’s valuable to hear the behind-the-scenes perspectives from close friends who have worked in some of the world’s top wine regions.
“For me, there’s a lot of insecurity in making wine,” McCormick says. “There are so many chances to screw it up. I tend to be more reclusive. I didn’t want to be laughed at and kept to myself.
“It took me awhile to embrace the group. For me, it’s gotten richer over time. I let down my guard and became the better for it.”
He says the Lyle group’s affinities make for a more interesting story than some regions full of corporate players cranking out similar wines. He says they’ve got a tight history, tracing gradual maturation back to their arrival in the early to middle part of the last decade.
“It’s almost like a craft collective,” McCormick says. “We aren’t going after the same dollar.”
Three have on-site tasting rooms. Memaloose runs its tasting room on Washington State Route 14, in the town of Lyle.
“You can go and visit four wineries in an afternoon,” McCormick says of visitors. “We’re all serious, young and attuned to international wines. That makes us all more interesting than if, say, we were all from Walla Walla and making Walla Walla wines.”
Or, as Bradford puts it, they’re “where the new school meets the old school on the old highway.”
151 Old Hwy, Lyle, WA
Thurs.–Sun., 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
170 Lyle Snowden Road, Lyle, WA
Thurs.–Sun., noon–5:30 p.m.
34 State Street, Lyle, WA
Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Syncline Wine Cellars
111 Balch Road Lyle, WA
Thurs.–Sun., 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
A veteran Northwest newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, Stu Watson owns Watsonx2 Communications in Hood River.