Working in a special vineyard a fringe benefit
By DAN WHEAT
GEORGE, Wash. -- Gabriel Valverde says it's his favorite block in the vineyard and one glance tells you why.
Sun glistens off fresh green foliage of Sangiovese vines just beginning to bloom. Leaves hide the prize -- those still tiny clusters of wine grapes. Downslope, some 900 feet lower in elevation and beyond sage brush, lies the flat, mirror-like Columbia River. The water reflects basalt cliffs and a sand dune, a popular boating destination on the opposite shore.
This is Cave B Inn & Estate Winery next door to The Gorge Amphitheater, commonly called the Gorge at George. It's a 20,000-plus seat natural amphitheater rated as one of the top outdoor concert venues in the world and owned by Live Nation Entertainment of Beverly Hills, Calif.
Performers have included Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan, The Who, David Bowie, Coldplay, Janet Jackson, Aerosmith, Britney Spears, Van Halen and Rush.
One might think the music would shake wine grapes from their vines and apples and cherries from their trees, but Valverde says they all seem to get along.
The roots of the Gorge and Cave B intertwine.
In 1980, Seattle neurosurgeon Vincent Bryan II and his wife, Carol, bought several hundred acres of what had been a cattle ranch and alfalfa fields. They had spent a year looking for the right location to build a vineyard at near the same latitude as those in France. They planted wine grapes and started their first winery, Champs de Brionne. In a gorge, they discovered a natural bowl with great acoustics that became the site of the Champs de Brionne Summer Music Theater and then The Gorge Amphitheater.
Some 15 years ago, shortly before Valverde hired on as a worker, the Bryans sold the amphitheater and winery and the winery was closed. On their remaining property, adjacent to the south, they began a new vineyard, orchard and winery -- what is today Cave B.
There are suites in the Inn, guest houses in the cliffs and desert yurts for a total of 55 guest rooms.
Valverde, 35, was 16 when he crossed the border from Mexico and spent two years working in Quincy, Wash., onion fields. He then joined Cave B as an orchard and vineyard worker. Aided by viticulture classes at Wenatchee Valley College, Valverde became vineyard, orchard and landscape foreman 10 years ago. For the last two years, he's taken cuttings from vines and propagated about 30,000 new vines each year, enough to plant 25 acres both years.
There's 170 acres of vineyard, 50 acres of apples and 10 acres of cherries.
Valverde checks each block of the vineyard and orchard two days a week on a four-wheeler. It helps him know how to direct four year-round workers and an additional 40 to 50 during harvests.
"He's great. He's really more a manager than a foreman except that he doesn't sell the grapes," said Freddy Arredondo, winemaker.
Quality is emphasized over tonnage in the vineyard.
"We want good clusters, flavor and quality," Valverde said. "My focus is more on the grapes than apples. The plants tell me what they need. The condition of leaves tells me what insect or mildew is there. We want no more than 38 buds in a vine for the right growth."
But Valverde knows he works in a setting others would envy.
There are other gorgeous spots in the vineyard, but the one most people see is the terraced rows of vines from the patio facing the river on the west side of the Inn.
"This is my favorite block, right here," Valverde said. "We have to keep it clean and looking nice. Guests take their breakfast here on the patio. It's quiet and they look at the river."