HOOD RIVER, Ore. – Washington winemaker Rachael Horn made a serious investment in the future of AniChe Cellars this past weekend when she opened her tasting room in downtown Hood River’s historic Butler Banking Co. building.
She’s committed to a five-year lease on the stately showpiece, built in 1924 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. The building is owned by Steffen Lunding of Redtail Holdings, who was renting a small space for AniChe’s first tasting room in Hood River. It was just five weeks ago when he came to Horn with an offer to move.
“I was really reluctant to take it because it is huge and both of my other winemakers just went on maternity leave, so there’s just me now,” said Horn, who recently was appointed to the Washington State Wine Commission. “I have so many balls in the air right now.
“But I talked to our team, and they said, ‘You can’t say no to this.’ It’s an amazing spot.“
Depending upon the number of tourists ambling across the streets, wine lovers can pull off Interstate 84 and within two minutes be holding a glass of AniChe Be Holden Red Wine at the southwest corner of Third and Oak.
Horn won’t be keeping bankers hours, either. After all, she’s taken AniChe beyond 400 cases from her inaugural 2009 vintage at her Underwood Mountain facility to last year’s crushing for 4,800 cases.
“This year, we’ll be about 5,800 cases,” she said. “Our facility over there is so small, we’re just going to be bursting at the seams, but we have a pretty vibrant wine club and there is so much demand.”
So her new Hood River tasting room will be open Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 8 p.m. On Sunday, Monday and Thursday, it will be opened noon to 6 p.m. The original tasting room on her estate across the Columbia River near White Salmon, Wash., will be open only on weekends during harvest.
There’s more in store. Horn and her husband, Todd Mera, recently purchased a 30-acre farm in the nearby community of Mill A, Wash. It will be transformed into a production facility surrounded by 20 acres of vines destined for a new brand that will focus on sparkling wine. Her goal for that bubble program goes beyond 6,000 cases.
Butler Bank building turns 92
Leslie Butler and son Truman founded Butler Banking Co. in 1900 in Hood River. It was a couple of decades before the father-son team hired acclaimed Portland architect A.E. Doyle to design an Egyptian Revival-inspired building to serve as their bank. When the two-story structure opened in September 1924 at a cost of $75,000, the new Butler Bank ribbon-cutting reportedly drew a crowd of more than 2,000 residents.
Alas, Butler Bank didn’t survive the Great Depression, shuttered in 1932. Fortunately, the state transitioned the building into the Hood River County Courthouse from 1937 to 1954. Later, it served as city hall for more than 30 years until Lunding’s purchase.
Two years ago, Lunding, who owns several properties in the area as Redtail Holdings, listed the building on the market for $1.8 million. For a few years, he operated it as The Gallery 301, an art gallery that offered craft beverages and cheese plates.
“We’re still going to have a gallery, and we’re working with local artists right now to make the arrangements,” Horn said. “And we brought in a grand piano. It was just being wasted in our house, but it’s beautiful here. Steffen put in sound bounds all around, so the acoustics in here are wonderful now because they don’t ricochet off the walls.”
Club members and VIP celebrated the private opening Thursday, Aug. 4. Her grand opening Aug. 5 featured flamenco guitarist Toshi Onizuka. On Saturday, Henry Schifter performed French music on the piano and with his guitar.
“This will be big for us because before the space was so small you could only do acoustic – you couldn’t do any amping,” Horn said.
Later this month, there will be performances by the Underwood Jazz Society. Horn’s personal passion for the written word will be on display Aug. 20-21 with her Lord of the Rings weekend, featuring her Rhône white blend Bombadil and Italian red blend Shelob paired with homemade lembas bread.
Going forward, AniChe Cellars will honor Lunding’s desire to promote regional artists. She will rotate paintings, art pieces and jewelry – all of which are available for purchase in the tasting studio. Butler Bank also will be available for rent as an event space.
The arrival of AniChe also will help raise the profile of other Columbia Gorge wineries, especially Stave and Stone Wine Estates, a small brand operated by fourth-generation orchardist Jill House with a tasting room at 210 Oak Street.
“Watching the wine industry grow and mature in the Gorge over time makes me proud to be a part of it,” Horn said. “There’s such a wonderful devotion to the style of wine that I’m making. We’re not all getting 95s and great scores, but I feel like we’re on the way to being recognized for what we do because we’re making high-acid wines with elegance.”
All-female-operated AniChe Cellars
Horn serves as owner/head winemaker at AniChe with daughter Anais Mera and Talia Hammond as her two assistant winemakers, and the graduate of University of California-Riverside takes pride in the fact that women are steering the Columbia Gorge winery.
Thanks in large part to her husband, Todd Mera, a software developer, AniChe is expanding to satiate fans and play a larger role in the Washington State Wine Commission’s export program.
“Our industry has made so many strides in the last five years,” Horn said. “Worldwide, wherever Washington wines are, sommeliers are recommending Washington wines. The growth is 18 percent – which is phenomenal.”
It also will better position her to grow the brand to the point that she hopes will convince both her of children – Anais Mera and Che Horn – into taking over the winery. Ani’s roles already include general manager, but the concept of traveling to support oversea sales might well be the hook for Che to become more involved.
After all, Rachael’s own course came down a road not taken by traditional winemakers.
“I was an aspiring novelist for a long time, and as most novelists do, I was drinking a little bit of wine while I was trying to get the editor out of my head and just have flow to my writing,” Horn chuckled. “I slowly became more enamored with the wine than the writing. It came a little easier to me because I have a background in being a wine steward and fine dining.”
Her ah-hah moment came in a roundabout way – working the floor at the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River. Horn suggested a bottle of a McCrea Cellars Roussanne to a female guest who ordered rabbit.
“I really loved that wine, and if she didn’t like it, then I was going to have to buy that bottle and take it home with me,” Horn said.
However, the pairing worked. The woman complimented Horn on the selection and her obvious knowledge of wine. She then wondered why Horn hadn’t tried to make wine herself.
“I wish that I caught her name because I’d like to thank her for suggesting that I go down this path,” Horn said.
AniChe approach focuses on blends
Her creative background begins to explain why the AniChe program is dominated by blended wines, red and white, primarily from cooler sites in the Horse Heaven Hills and Yakima Valley.
“We make food-friendly wines,” she said. “I don’t know if those are ‘winemaker wines,’ but sommeliers tend to really like our wines rather than critics because we’re not making hedonistic, crowd-pleasing wines.
“We always serve food in the tasting room with our wines for that reason because I want people to understand food pairing,” she added. “I tell people, ‘Wine is the supporting actor.’ It’s not a cocktail. The meal that you are spending all of your time preparing is what everyone at the table should be focusing on.”
The exception to the blending program is Come & Go, her 100 percent Albariño from the Yakima Valley.
“We do a lot of education here,” she said. “You may be having this Albariño with Manchego right now, but it’s also wonderful with oysters, great with quince paste and even sardines. What you are pairing is minerality and acid, as well. I get people coming back to me all the time and saying that I paired this wine with that, and it was good,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes!’ because they are going out on an adventure.”
And she’s thankful that more wine lovers in the Pacific Northwest appreciate blended wines.
“Six years ago, I was talking to a retail buyer about my Rioja-style wine, and he said to me, ‘I can’t charge $25 for just a blend,’ Horn recalled. “I was taken aback and offended, and I asked if he’d tried the wine. ‘Was this of the same quality or better than your other $25 wines?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’
“That made me step back and realize that the American ethos about blended wines is totally different than how we perceive blended wines from Europe,” she continued. “You can have a beautiful Rioja and spend a lot of money on that, and obviously Barolos, and Rhônes, Chianti, Bordeaux – most of the famous wine regions – they are all blends.”
Judges at competitions in the United States are doing a better job of spotlighting red and white blends. At this summer’s International Women’s Wine Competition in Sonoma, the AniChe Cellars 2012 Goat Boy ($44) earned a double gold medal in the Bordeaux-style blend category and the 2013 Moth Love ($48) from Elephant Mountain Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills grabbed a gold for Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre blends.
“When it comes to American-made wines being only varietal wines, we need to massage that away over time,” she said. “We find that with millennials who come in here, they like what they like. They don’t care that it is a varietal, and they aren’t walking in the door with the idea that a varietal wine is better than a blend. But we do have to work with some of the older generations on understanding.”
Be Holden, a Malbec-led Bordeaux blend, is the flagship wine for AniChe at about 400 cases. It’s quite approachable and perhaps the most easily explained bottling in her portfolio.
“People walk in the door and say, ‘I’d like a Cabernet’ or ‘I’d like a Chardonnay,’ and I tell them, ‘I don’t have one of those, but there are neighbors who have great Chardonnay or great Cabernet,’ ” Horn said. “And if there’s someone geeky going into somebody else’s winery who wants a Picpoul-Grenache Blanc blend, they can send that person to me. It’s a collegial thing.”
Trading horses for winemaking
Horn credits her husband with much of the success and support for the winery. This year, they celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, and the Southern California native got her first introduction to Washington state when she and Todd attended Western Washington University. After he graduated, they both returned to Southern California where he entered the technology world and she became an educator. Within a decade, they were ready to move north.
“We had to get out of there,” she said. “The Pac Northwest always felt like home to us.”
In 2002, she was visiting friends from their days at WWU and discovered the Columbia Gorge.
“I was just floored,” she said. “It’s just an amazing place.”
A year later, the Californians purchased their Underwood Mountain property land, and Horn began by operating a horse stable.
“I say that I traded in one highly money-losing venture for another,” she chuckled. “Next thing I’m going to do is buy a yacht – just throw $100 bills in the toilet.”
The certificate program in winemaking at Washington State University continues to serve Horn well. As a couple, they are developing AniChe Cellars together for their children and their team, several of which have migrated from other wineries in the Gorge to hop on the bandwagon steered by Horn and primed by Mera’s success as a Windows management systems engineer for Dell.
“He’s kind of our sugar daddy,” she chuckled. “He’s the reason we’re able to grow as fast as we have. I’m interested in building a legacy and having employees paid well and taken care of. He’s not going to quit his day job for a few more years, for sure.”
Despite the years of wedded bliss and support, however, Rachael didn’t hide her disappointment with Todd toward the end of Thursday’s VIP party.
“I did get so mad at him after the musicians left because he turned off the best song all night,” Horn said. “It was a good party, and everyone was dancing, and then he turns it off. So we got in a food fight. That’s the only way you can do it when you are married 25 years. Humor is the only way to do it!”