Guided by Nature

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Hiyu Wines Farm works in tandem with the seasons

STORY BY MICHAEL ALBERTY
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOSHUA CHANG

Willamette Valley Pinot Noir launched the Oregon wine industry, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is. Other parts of the state make wine, and ignoring those regions risks missing out on gems like Hiyu Wine Farm in the Columbia River Gorge. That’s where Nathaniel Ready and China Tresemer turned an old vineyard in the hills above Hood River into a food and wine oasis. They may also have the most interesting vineyard in the Pacific Northwest.

Nathaniel and China didn’t start out as Oregon farmers. Instead, they began on opposite sides of the country: Ready in California and Tresemer in New England. China was a chef who moved from New York City to work for Peggy Markel’s Culinary Adventures in Boulder, Colorado. Nathaniel was a Master Sommelier who left the French Laundry in Yountville, California, to help fellow sommelier Bobby Stuckey open Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder. The two met in the middle, 10 years ago, at a farmers market, and have been together ever since.

After two years, Nathaniel wondered if he wanted to spend the rest of his life working in restaurants for other people. He suspected his future might be closer to the source, so he left Frasca to work harvest at Ronco del Gnemiz winery in northern Italy. Nathaniel also worked a few days at Edi Simčič, a winery just across the border in Slovenia. “Edi Simčič was magic,” says Nathaniel. “They had animals and gardens, and I was able to work in both the cellar and the vineyard on the same day. That’s where I realized it all fit together somehow.”

Inspired by his experience, Nathaniel returned to Colorado to join China in a farm-to-plate dinner venture called Meadow Lark. Their dinners were successful, but the project lacked one important ingredient: grapes. Nathaniel lined up a job at Antica Terra winery, and the couple headed to Oregon.

China Tresemer

On the way, they stayed with China’s sister in Hood River, which turned out to be fortuitous for them. While combing the state for property, China and Nathaniel couldn’t stop thinking about the potential they saw in the Columbia Gorge. They bought a seven-acre parcel of Pheasant Valley Vineyard from Scott and Gail Hagee in 2010 and partnered with Geoff and Colleen Burke to purchase the remaining 22 acres in 2015.  Now they had 15 acres of grapevines (mostly Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris) and 14 acres for animals, gardens, and a winery.

I drove out to Hiyu Wine Farm, where I found Nathaniel wielding a scythe with Inigo Montoya–like dexterity. During a break, he described how his journey began. “I was looking for a way to farm that resonated with my idea of what is beautiful and what the world should look like. I was also affected by the wines I loved to drink from the likes of Josko Gravner and Edi Simčič. They were unlike anything I had ever tasted, and I knew first-hand that they treated their lands differently. I needed a guide to figure out the farming side of the equation.”

Nathaniel studied widely, from treatises by ancient Roman agronomist Columella to the philosophies of Austrian permaculture guru Sepp Holzer. Holzer’s motto, “Read the book of nature and decide what must be done,” struck a chord with Nathaniel. “It means pay attention to the clues plants and animals are offering, and respond in a thoughtful way.”

Hiyu Wine Farm is not your typical well-manicured winery. Queen Anne’s lace, St. John’s wort, and other “weeds” grow like a cover-crop jungle, improving the soil, limiting erosion, and providing habitat for birds and insects. You also won’t see irrigation lines or manmade chemicals. Instead, you’ll find an organic vineyard where the soil is left untilled so as not to disturb the microorganisms delivering nutrients to the roots of grapevines.

Pigs, however, are allowed to till. Nathaniel and China took a tip from Holzer to let their kunekune pigs live in the vineyard. The kunekune love to eat the dandelions that grow in compacted soil. Their table manners loosen the soil, after which Nathaniel scatters seeds that lead to a better mix of plants for the vines and creatures living in the vineyard.

Nathaniel Ready

Even the grape selection is a rebellion against Oregon wine orthodoxy. Nathaniel and his assistant winemaker, Graham Markel, grafted over eight acres of the original vines with 80 exotic varieties with names like Assyrtiko and Rotgipfler. Nathaniel is particularly excited about all their new Spanish varieties. “I’m amazed more winemakers aren’t using grapes like Xarello and Prieto Picudo. They’re cheaper than Pinot Noir, and the Spanish restaurants in Portland provide a ready-made market.”

Nathaniel also plans on planting two acres of vines in his forest. “We tore out vines to plant a hedgerow, and a few grew back. Now they are snaking their way up through the hedgerow. And guess what? We ignored them, and the grapes are fantastic. So now we’re going to grow vines up trees.”

Animals and vegetables alike are selected for their unique character. For instance, if Nathaniel plants squash, it’s a variety called Rugoso Friulana. Rare hog breeds like American Guinea graze alongside Dexter cows and Copper Maran chickens. Farm produce is used to feed full-time employees and the woofers who work the gardens in exchange for room and board.

In the tasting room kitchen, Nathaniel and Chef Jason Barwikowski (formerly of Clyde Common and The Woodsman Tavern) prepare small plates to accompany Nathaniel’s wine flights. They also host Saturday night wine dinners, where guests enjoy a stunning view of Mt. Hood and food that equals the finest restaurants in Oregon.

Grapes from the estate vineyard are used for the Hiyu label, a Chinook Indian word meaning “abundance” or “big party.” At the time of my visit, the Ramato, Arco, and Iris were for sale at the winery. All are blends of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris (the Ramato also contains Gewürztraminer), and all are excellent.

It was the Hiyu Syrah, however, that sent me looking for the winery in the first place. The Syrah vines grow in a tiny quarter-acre patch, and Nathaniel blended the first three vintages, enough for a mere half barrel. The first sniff from the glass reminded me of wines from Cornas or Côte-Rôtie: not jammy or thick, but lithe and lean, with aromas and flavors of blackberries, dried lavender, and wet sandstone. It’s easily one of the best examples of cool-climate Syrah I have ever tasted.

The winery’s second label is Smockshop Band, a name given by Lewis and Clark to a group of local Indians. These wines are made with grapes from other vineyards in the Gorge, from the cool Atavus Vineyard (1,600–1,800 feet above sea level) near White Salmon, to the aptly named Scorched Earth Vineyard outside Lyle, Washington. These vineyards let Nathaniel work with grapes from diverse climate conditions, illustrating the Columbia Gorge motto: “We offer a world of wine in 40 miles.”

For me, the most compelling is the Atavus, another three solera–style blend, only this time made with Gewürztraminer. The wine is packed with scents of white flowers and roasted walnuts, along with Fino sherry–like flavors and a touch of citrus. If the Hiyu Syrah reminded me of the northern Rhône, the Atavus has France’s Jura region written all over it.

With their creativity and intuition, Nathaniel and China have created a menagerie of animals and unusual grapes to go along with Michelin-caliber food. There is indeed more to Oregon than Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, and as the author Jim Harrison once wrote, “Given free rein, our imagination can get infinite.”


Michael Alberty is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. He has published articles covering wine, international environmental politics, and Major League Baseball. His column, “The Changeup” appears regularly in the Oregon Wine Press.

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