When we released our first Underwood Mountain Chardonnay back in 2017, we heard a lot of comments to the effect of, “I don’t like Chardonnay.” This was especially true amongst younger drinkers and considering how diverse and plentiful Chardonnay is around the world, this surprised us. Perhaps Chardonnay was too mainstream to the younger generation, who wanted to explore wines that were more expressive and obscure? There is certainly a trend (or at least more acceptance) toward natural wines and wines that would be considered in more snobby circles, “flawed.”
Over the course of several vintages of our Chardonnay, we began hearing more “I USUALLY don’t like Chardonnay, but I like this one.” We ascertained that American taste buds have been exposed to a very limited style of Chardonnay. In fact, ever since Chateau Montelena won the prestigious Judgement of Paris back in 1973, California has dominated sales of Chardonnay in the US. The particular style of Chardonnay that befits its warm, marine climate was higher alcohol, low acidity, ample use of new barrels, and full completion of the secondary (or malolactic) fermentation that gives the wine a creamy flavor and voluminous mouthfeel. This is what most Americans consider Chardonnay, and so it is no wonder that Millennials and younger drinkers in general have rejected this Chardonnay as “mommy juice.”
Unbeknownst to many of them, there is a whole world of Chardonnay out there to explore, and we are here to set the record straight. In fact, we would argue that, of all the places where Chardonnay is widely planted, California’s climate is LEAST suited to making high quality Chardonnay. Yet that’s what the consumer has been drinking, decade after decade. We believe the tyranny of the buttery Chardonnay is at its end, and we have some mouthwatering alternatives for you to explore.
As we explore this world of Chardonnay, we imagine the grape as a blank canvas, ready to absorb the influences of various regional terroirs, akin to the palette of famous painters, allowing for a vibrant exploration of the diverse expressions found in each wine-growing region.
Burgundy, France: Chardonnay’s Birthplace
When I visited Burgundy in 2015, I was fairly certain that I had no interest in making Chardonnay. By the time I had left Burgundy a week later, my opinion of Chardonnay was completely transformed, and I was determined to make a Chardonnay from Underwood fruit that could compare on some level to what I had been tasting in Burgundy.
Often regarded as the birthplace of Chardonnay, Burgundy epitomizes the grape’s elegance and complexity. Here, Chardonnay thrives in limestone-rich soils, producing wines that are often described as refined, nuanced, and expressive. The cooler climate imparts high acidity, allowing for a balance of flavors ranging from citrus and green apple in youth to richer notes of hazelnut and butter with age. Sub-regions like Chablis offer lean, mineral-driven Chardonnays, while those from Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet showcase greater richness and depth.
The canvas inspired by Burgundy’s terroir portrays a delicate yet intricate masterpiece. Imagine a canvas painted with soft strokes of pale gold and hints of green. The strokes represent the elegant acidity, mineral undertones, and layers of flavors—subtle citrus hues merging seamlessly with whispers of hazelnut and buttery richness. The overall painting exudes refinement and sophistication, akin to a Monet masterpiece.
California: New World Elegance
Alright, enough with the Cali bashing. There are millions of Americans who still love a lush and fruit-forward style Chardonnay. So let’s give Napa and Sonoma their due. And give me a top-notch Russian River Chardonnay any day and I’m happy. It is true that California crafts Chardonnays that embrace a fruit-forward style. The warmer climate results in riper grapes, yielding wines with flavors of tropical fruits like pineapple, mango, and ripe peach. These Chardonnays often undergo malolactic fermentation and oak aging, contributing to a creamy texture and notes of vanilla and toast, adding complexity to the fruit-forward profile.
In painterly terms the Californian canvas is bold and vibrant, swathed in rich golden hues with splashes of tropical colors. Picture a canvas where ripe golden fruits like pineapple, mango, and peach intermingle, creating a vivid and expressive artwork. It’s textured with strokes of creamy vanilla and toasty oak, akin to a vibrant, impressionistic piece by Van Gogh.
Australia: Sunshine in a Glass
Australian Chardonnay, notably from regions like Margaret River and Adelaide Hills, displays a spectrum of styles. Cooler areas emphasize acidity and minerality, showcasing citrus and stone fruit flavors with a crisp, refreshing finish. Meanwhile, warmer regions yield fuller-bodied wines with ripe tropical fruit flavors, balanced by oak influences, creating rich, buttery textures.
The Australian canvas is diverse, capturing a range of styles within its frame. Imagine a canvas with dual personalities: one side showcasing bright, sun-soaked tropical colors—ripe pineapples and lush peaches; the other side featuring cooler, mineral-driven strokes of green apple and citrus. This canvas evokes a sense of duality, reminiscent of an abstract artwork by Picasso.
Chile: Emerging Chardonnay Players
Regions such as Casablanca Valley and Limarí Valley benefit from cooling influences, allowing for slower ripening and preservation of acidity. Chilean Chardonnays often exhibit vibrant acidity, accompanied by flavors of green apple, pear, and citrus. Some producers opt for stainless steel fermentation, resulting in fresher, fruit-focused wines, while others use oak to add layers of complexity and creaminess.
Chile’s Chardonnay canvas mirrors Frida Kahlo’s earthy palette. Imagine warm, terracotta hues representing the rich soils, overlaid with strokes of vibrant greens reflecting the lush vineyards. Subtle tones of azure blue signify the cooling influences from the ocean, while hints of gold and amber represent the sun’s influence on the ripe Chardonnay grapes.
Underwood, Washington | Columbia Gorge AVA: An Under the Radar Hotspot
And what to make of our own backyard? We can say without hesitation that our climate is cooler than any of the regions described above. So our Chardonnay has fruit profiles ranging from green apple to pear and citrus. The high acidity and minerality is similar in character to a Chablis, yet we ferment and age in oak to promote the softening of the acids and add some sweetness and texture to the wine.
Imagine the canvas for Columbia Gorge Chardonnay akin to Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistic fusion. The canvas begins with sandy hues representing the arid landscapes, while strokes of pale greens and blues symbolize the cooling influence of the Columbia River and the higher altitude. The canvas is punctuated by bursts of golden yellows, akin to the sun-kissed Chardonnay grapes thriving in this unique terroir.
Similar to O’Keeffe’s ability to blend simplicity with vividness, Columbia Gorge Chardonnay captures both the elegance of a cooler climate and the vibrancy of ripe fruit. It’s a canvas that marries earthy subtleties with bursts of brightness, crafting wines that harmonize complexity with a crisp, refreshing nature.
Bottom line: Chardonnay exhibits remarkable versatility and adaptability to various terroirs around the world, yielding wines that showcase a spectrum of flavors, textures, and aromas. Its widespread cultivation in diverse regions across the globe has led to an intriguing array of Chardonnay styles, each expressing unique characteristics influenced by climate, soil, winemaking techniques, and regional nuances. Come taste our newly released 2022 Underwood Mountain Chardonnay and see where our wine fits in the broad landscape of Chardonnay.
One of the first to stake a claim on Underwood Mountain in the Columbia Gorge AVA, Hawkins Cellars offers “flights through a world of wine” that include Burgundian-inspired Pinot Noir, tactful Rhônes, and minerally-driven whites
Written by Mark Storer and photographed by Michael Peterson Wine Reviews by editor John Vitale
ONE DOESN’T NEED to ask Thane Hawkins what brought him to Underwood. At 1,400 feet in elevation above the Columbia River Gorge, and with a chamber-of-commerce view of Mt. Hood to the south, our initial greeting included his saying to us, “turn around.” The entire view, on a blue-sky spring day with bright sun, flecks of clouds, light breezes, crisp, fresh air and temperatures hovering near sixty, makes tasting at Hawkins Cellars a trip worth taking.
It’s clear that the property he shares with his life-partner and business partner, Deb Michelson, is a gem on Underwood Mountain. Along with the wines themselves, they pose a strong draw to make the turn off of Highway 14 through the Gorge. The tasting room is cozy inside, with a rustic bar, wooden floors and a few tables. Rolling out the sliding door onto the sloping lawn are picnic tables and Adirondack chairs, all there to provide that inspirational view along with a taste of Hawkins Cellars wines. Thane’s self-starter entrepreneurial step into the wine industry completes the character of this place, with Deb handling the marketing and event side of the winery.
The couple met in 2010, while Thane was living and making wine in the Willamette Valley. “I think I always knew the Willamette Valley probably was not for me,” concedes Hawkins. “I love it—it’s beautiful and bucolic—but this area along the Columbia Gorge always spoke to my heart.”
Together, Hawkins and Michelson “started dreaming” about making wine on the mountain, and by 2013 had planted one-and-a-half acres of Pinot Noir grapes. By 2017, they opened the tasting room, and production has climbed to about 2,000 cases of wine per year now.
“We wanted to source grapes here and we’re committed to sub-Alpine, cool climate wines,” says Hawkins. “We were one of the first wineries to stake our claim on Underwood and focus on Underwood Mountain wines.” There were other vineyards, most prominently Celilo Vineyard, long famous for its Chardonnay and other cool climate varietals. AniChe Cellars’ vineyards were there as well. “They also had a tasting room in Hood River and were sourcing grapes from elsewhere, too,” Hawkins says.
The Mountains Are Calling
Hawkins’ path to Underwood Mountain, however, is not a traditional winemaking path. A California refugee who worked with Dreamworks and then Pixar animation studios, Hawkins developed the visual portion of films; things like shading, coloring and lighting of scenes. He worked on the films “Antz” and “Shrek” for Dreamworks and “Monsters, Inc.” for Pixar. He also was in charge of assembling the final shots of the films into a finished product. “It was a lot of responsibility, but I really did love the work,” Hawkins says. “Film making is a real blend of art and technology, and in that way not terribly different from winemaking.”
Hawkins took a break from his animation career and headed north to Portland, establishing roots there in 2001. He landed a job teaching graphics, animation and multimedia, but it wasn’t as satisfying as he’d hoped. Having explored Napa and Sonoma wines, Hawkins said he turned his attention toward Oregon wine.
It was in the Willamette Valley that he realized there was something more to it for him. “I started diving into the nuances of Pinot Noir and talking to farmers and it piqued my interest,” he says. “I found that the taste and aesthetic side really fueled my curiosity and creativity. It captured my imagination for sure, but I never imagined I could make a living at it.
“I really started falling in love with the Pinot scene. It was much different back then than it is now, and through meeting people I was able to get a harvest internship in the Willamette Valley in 2006.” In addition, Hawkins made wine in his own garage with mixed results. “I knew I needed to get more training, and I needed to do another harvest.” Luckily, he met Chris Lubberstedt of Methven Family Vineyards in the Willamette Valley and became an assistant for the harvest. “He became a mentor for me,” said Hawkins. “I learned a lot with him.”
Methven leased out a portion of its winery as a custom-crush facility and, surrounded by other winemakers, Hawkins was able to glean a lot of information. “I would taste their wine and think, Okay, I see what’s happening here. I’m a bit of a sponge and it might be one of my better qualities. You have to develop your own style within light of what has already been done,” he says.
500 Cases of Wine And A Full-Time Job
Although Pinot is king in the Willamette Valley, Thane began to explore the idea of producing some of the varietals that he had loved while living in the Bay Area. An avid outdoorsman, his explorations had taken him around the Yakima Valley in Washington, where he quickly discovered that there were excellent wines being grown there, specifically Rhône varietals such as Syrah. “I love the complexity and versatility of Washington Syrah. I decided, why limit myself to just Pinot Noir?” For the next five years Hawkins would make small quantities of Pinot Noir and Syrah, while also working full-time at an animation studio in Portland.
By 2011, Hawkins had 500 cases of wine and a dilemma. The economy was in recession and his wholesale accounts had dried up. But he persevered. “I got a lead on a tasting room in downtown Dundee. The rent was cheap and people really responded to the fact that we were offering more than just Pinot Noir. We signed up a bunch of wine club members and were off and running.” By the following year he was able to quit his job in animation and make wine full-time.
Wandering From The Willamette to the Columbia Gorge
While the Willamette Valley had been fertile soil for learning and falling in love with Pinot Noir, Hawkins knew it probably wasn’t the ultimate destination for him. It was the previous year he’d met Michelson, and the pair thought about what they could do with the property Deb originally owned on Underwood Mountain. He’d spent time enjoying recreational activities in the Columbia Gorge and developed a love for the place, crossing the Washington border and feeling right about the possibility of grape-growing here. “People said, ‘yeah, but you’re doing Willamette Valley wines,’ and I replied, ‘not for long.’”
Hawkins began exploring cool climate white wines on the mountain, paying attention to the concerns about high acidity and other characteristics. “We were finding fun things to do with these cool climate varietals.” One offering is called TruNorth, a blend of Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris, grown in Underwood that has floral aromatics with off-dry notes and structured acidity. A distinct minerality wraps the core of the wine, and is a beginning to understanding the European wine characteristics that Hawkins focuses on in his winemaking.
Estate Pinot Noir
Still passionate about Pinot Noir, Hawkins brought that Burgundian sensibility to his estate grown Pinot. It may seem counterintuitive bringing Pinot Noir to higher elevations on the Washington-side of the Columbia, but Hawkins believes the climate and soils are perfect for the varietal. “It’s an interesting challenge growing Pinot Noir up here. I always think there will be too much acidity, but it ends up rounding out nicely in fermentation.”
Calling it his viticulture education, Hawkins said he learns more with each vintage of the Pinot Noir he makes. “It’s a matter of working with the vintage,” he explains. “2019 was cool and a sort of Burgundian and Willamette Valley kind of vintage. The temperatures weren’t as extreme. It is tough to grow world class wine grapes and I’ve developed a lot of respect for grape growers, that’s for sure.” That constant love of experimentation allows Hawkins to make his wine with attention to each vintage’s detail. “When I envision this business, I envision having a flight through a world of wine,” he says.
With a growing wine club and increased attention to wines from the Columbia Gorge AVA, Hawkins feels comfortable in Underwood. “There’s a clear story for us here. We’re a Washington winery making Underwood and Yakima Valley wines, and we are part of an up-and-coming region. This is a very good place to grow grapes.”
Editor’s Top Picks
Wine reviews by editor John Vitale
Hawkins Cellars 2021 Rosé of Pinot Noir, 92 pts. Refreshing and zestful, brimming with ripe strawberry and white peach flavors cloaked with racy acidity, lime and mineral details. Slightly unctuous, resulting in a stylish combination of having an almost creamy feel that finishes with mouthwatering juiciness. Sourced from Celilo Vineyard. $26
Hawkins Cellars 2019 Estate Pinot Noir, 95 pts. Elegant throughout, with a refined, ethereal feel buoying the structure backed by a spine of supportive tannins and assertive acidity. Aromas of cherry and floral rose petal mingle seamlessly on the palate with raspberry and red plum flavors that show purity. Finishes gracefully, with underlying minerality and a dusting of chalk. Sourced from Cloud Cap Vineyard, Columbia Gorge AVA. 100 cases produced. $50
Hawkins Cellars 2019 Underwood Mountain Chardonnay, 93 pts. Made with grapes from White Salmon Vineyard, this clean Burgundian-style white offers vibrant mineral and chalk details that flirt with appealing peach and lemon citrus, backed by crisp D’anjou pear and fresh apple. Notable structure throughout the lengthy finish, the minerality shows fine persistence, trailing with lime zest notes. $32
Hawkins Cellars 2018 Caldera Red, 93 pts. Robust, with floral and earthen scents, teeming with classic Rhône-style garrigue, black and red berries, licorice and cardamon notes. Leather and violet accentuate the lively finish, offering medium-bodied weight backlit by a nice swath of acidity. Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache, Viognier. 150 cases produced. $36
Hawkins Cellars 2018 Reserve Syrah, 94 pts. A lush, velvety texture sets the stage for this Yakima Valley red with alluring aromas and flavors of blackberry and dark blue fruit. Red currant, white peppercorn, bay leaf, dried thyme and hints of black tea are edged in between the earth-infused flavors that resonate with length and concentration on the rich finish. Sourced from Chandler Reach Vineyard. 150 cases produced. $42
Hawkins Cellars 2021 TruNorth White, 91 pts. A fragrant blend of Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, abundant with honeysuckle, white fruit and spice aromatics. Lightly juicy with pleasing flavors of honeydew, Bartlett pear, lychee and hints of quince. Stony minerality flickers across the zesty finish. Sourced from the Columbia Gorge AVA. $24
Hawkins Cellars 2020 Barrel Select Viognier, 93 pts. A supple yet vibrant version, with floral and nutty aromatics and multi-layered flavors of dried apricot, nectarine, mango, macadamia nuts and orange blossom. Full-flavored, finishing with brisk acidity and lingering spice notes. Sourced from Lonesome Spring Ranch Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. Try pairing with grilled seafood or creamy cheeses. $28
The Columbia River Gorge area is a treasure in America’s landscape. The point where the mighty south- running Columbia River turns west towards the Pacific Ocean, the magic is seen. The Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area encompasses views of Mount Hood, the Columbia River Gorge where sail boaters and windsurfers abound, and hikers check out the evergreen terrain. At this location at the edges of Washington State and Oregon, winemakers make wines from both states, a huge advantage for the avid wine connoisseur. We visited the highly acclaimed Hawkins Cellars during this visit as part of my “Wines of Washington tour.” Yet, the active vacationer will not be disappointed. Zip-lines, obstacle courses, golf resorts, and boating are flourishing once again, post-Pandemic. For newsletter #1, “Wines of Washington,” seeWashington State’s Gilbert Cellars: Unique Wine Blends Made in a Vineyard/Orchard Setting.
Meet the Winemaker: Thane Hawkins
Hawkins Cellars, Underwood, Washington, brings the best of the nearby Oregon Willamette Valley AVA grapes, the Columbia Gorge AVA (American Viticultural Area) and the Hawkins Cellars estate grapes to his winemaking portfolio. The 2010 Hawkins Pinot Gris won “Best of Show” at the Bite of Oregon Wine Competition. His 2014 Caldera Red won Double Gold -94 Points-at the San Francisco International Wine Competition (SFIWC.) The winemaker, Thane Hawkins, originally had a successful career in the animations industry working on groundbreaking films like Shrek, Monster’s Inc, and ANTZ. When he felt it was time for a change, Thane studied viticulture, worked as an assistant winemaker for Methven Family Vineyards, and the had the opportunity to start his own winery. What a location he found for his winery on the cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge and in view of Mt. Hood! Join the team for weekend live music events complete with food pairings.
Many of the grapes Thane Hawkins sources, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, come from warmer AVA’s in Washington, like Yakima Valley. His estate grapes are grown high on the cliffs of the Columbia River, however. These grapes are growing in an Alsace-like climate, almost sub-alpine. The Riesling and the dry TruNorth White blend (Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer) show the aromatic characteristics of alpine white flowers and orange peel along with the flavors of peaches, apricots, and smoke. The 2017 Caldera Red blend is considered their signature wine and is created in the Rhone River-style of a GSM – Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre – blend, but in reverse order with the Mourvedre taking the star position. The Hawkins wine portfolio even includes and “Pet-Nat” sparkling Riesling, a truly thoughtful, well-curated menu.
Hawkins Cellars is only ten minutes from the Hood River, and a stone’s throw from the quaint town of White Salmon on the Washington side of the Columbia River. Travel and Leisure Magazine rated Hawkins Cellars one of the Top-Rated wineries in Pacific Northwest, and #17 in the United States. Hiking, ziplines, obstacle courses, and boating activities surround the winery. Nearby Skamania Lodge, Stevenson, Washington, offers these outdoor activities, and the choice of traditional lodging or treehouse cabin accommodations. Don’t forget to try the 900 ft. zip-line, an exhilarating experience.
We are open for wine tastings! Both Indoor and Outdoor seating available. Reservations strongly recommended.
Open Friday – Sunday, 12-5pm (Pending Weather)
Please review prior to your visit
We’re thrilled to be uncorking bottles and sharing our wine with our guests!
Tasting Room Policies Seating is limited and we recommend making a reservation to guarantee your spot for tastings. Children are allowed but must remain seated as much as possible and count towards your total group count. You can reserve online for groups of 6 or less, and for groups larger than 6 please call or email to reserve your spot. Friendly leashed dogs are also welcome anytime.
Please note that at this time there is no wheelchair access to the tasting room or for restroom use. We are a small, family owned tasting room serving at a mountainous location and unfortunately unable to provide wheelchair access. The pathway is hard packed gravel, but may be hard for a wheelchair to roll down. Sorry for any inconvenience.
Wine and Flight Details
Our current tasting menu is a flight of 5 wines, 1.5oz each, for $20.00 (tasting fee waived with 2 bottle purchase). Tastings are complimentary for club members and up to 3 additional guests. Sip wine by the glass or purchase a bottle of your favorite wine and enjoy onsite.
We offer picnic baskets of pre-packaged savory goods that can be purchased during your tasting. Our picnic basket includes 2 cheeses, 1 salami, crackers, and chocolate. We will provide a cutting board, knife, and paper plates and napkins. Bring in your own picnic if you prefer; however, we ask that whatever you pack in, you pack out.
Time Allotted for Each Reservation
We ask that you keep your time at Hawkins to about 1.5 hours so we can allow for other groups to come in and experience our wines. However, if there are no reservations coming in after you, you are welcome to stay as long as you like until closing at 5pm.
Make a reservation if you want to guarantee a seat for tasting, especially on Saturdays.
Wear appropriate clothing for the weather as most of our tables are outside. We have fire pits and a few propane heaters available for cold days, and shady spots for hot days.
If bringing your own picnic, please bring all your own utensils and other items you may need, and please pack out everything you pack in to ensure the health and safety of our staff and customers.
Thank you and we look forward to hosting you soon!