The long and windy road to Viento wines

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Oregon wine fans trek to Hood River to suck up Viento wines like anteaters armed with straws. This is why it is challenging to locate winemaker Rich Cushman’s wines on store shelves. Trust me on this one. It is well worth the drive to find out what all the fuss is about.

History: Cushman’s career began in the late 1970s, working at wineries in Napa, California, and Pfalz, Germany, while studying winemaking at the University of California, Davis.

Cushman returned to his native Oregon to work the 1981 vintage for Knudsen Erath Winery upon completing his degree. Cushman became the head winemaker at Chateau Benoit in Carlton the following year. The winery was later re-named Anne Amie Vineyards.

In 1986, Cushman launched his own Viento label while making wine for Laurel Ridge Winery in Forest Grove. The first Viento wine was made with riesling grapes from his very own vineyard in Hood River. Cushman planted the vineyard named Columbia Gorge in 1981.

Cushman would make his Viento wines wherever he happened to be head winemaker at the time. In 2007 he settled in at Mt. Hood Winery in Hood River, where he makes his Viento wines to this day. An A-framed tasting room was built next to Viento’s Columbia Gorge Vineyard in 2014.

Viento is the Spanish word for “wind.” Given the cyclonic nature of the Columbia River Gorge, this is an appropriate moniker.

What is Viento best known for?: Riesling, pinot noir and being one of the first to make sparkling wines in the Willamette Valley. Cushman made his first méthode champenoise wine for Chateau Benoit in 1982.

Biggest success or failure: Cushman said his biggest success was standing behind riesling for four decades.

What you don’t know: Cushman helped start more than 24 different Oregon wineries.

He was also way ahead of his time in using carbonic maceration to make a nouveau-style pinot noir named Vin de Primeur at Chateau Benoit in 1982 and 1983. Vin de Primeur was a “bag-in-a-box” wine distributed in Portland by Mike McMenamin of beer brewing fame.

“Biggest inspiration”: Books. Cushman cites British wine writer Hugh Johnson and the late Angelo Pellegrini, a literature professor at the University of Washington, as significant influences on his wine career. Calling it a “must-read,” Cushman said that Pellegrini’s “Wine and the Good Life” taught him the essential things in life are being with your family and making your own bread and wine.

Johnson literally guided Cushman on his wine journey.

“When I went to work for a winery in Germany, I tore the pages out of his ‘Oxford Companion to Wine’ so I could locate wineries and vineyards while traveling in Europe. It was much easier than lugging that giant book around,” Cushman said.

Last book read: “Falling: A Novel” by T.J. Newman. “It involves an airliner hijacking, so of course I read it while flying to Mexico,” Cushman said.

Innovation: Cushman is making wines with as few additions as possible. “If a wine is out of line, I try to correct it by blending instead of adding things like enzymes or deacidifiers,” Cushman said.

For the sake of transparency, Viento is one of only five American wineries placing ingredient labels on its bottles.

Key insight: Cushman will argue until the German Holsteins come home that riesling is the greatest white wine in the world.

A “must-try” current release: 2019 Viento Wines “Retro” Riesling ($24). This off-dry combination of boisterous acidity and scents and flavors of Meyer lemon and Golden Delicious apples is a mouth-watering joy to drink. “More of my heart is in that wine than any other,” Cushman said.

Where to buy: Cushman produces approximately 800 cases of wine each year, most of which he sells online or at his tasting room.

The limited retail availability of Viento Wines is the perfect excuse to take a day trip to Hood River. Winter or summer, you can almost always enjoy the sunshine in Viento’s outdoor tasting area. The view of the 40-year-old riesling vines in Cushman’s Columbia Gorge Vineyard is a bonus.

While visiting the Columbia River Gorge, you will find Viento wines served at Thunder Island Brewing Co. in Cascade Locks and Riverside and Common House in Hood River. Cushman’s wines are located just across the river at Henni’s Kitchen & Bar in White Salmon, Washington.

There are a number of great wines available at Viento’s tasting room, from a dry sherry-style aperitif to a stunning riesling ice wine from the 2009 vintage. Your only worry will be figuring out which ones to take home.

vientowines.com or info@vientowines.com.

— Michael Alberty writes about wine for The Oregonian/OregonLive. He can be reached at malberty0@gmail.com. To read more of his coverage, go to oregonlive.com/wine.

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