The Godfather of Grapes

Midwesterner Makes His Name in Columbia Gorge Wines

By Rodger Nichols

Lonnie Wright demonstrates the thickness of the trunk of an old-growth zinfandel more than 100 years old. Photo by Rodger Nichols

Lonnie Wright did not plant the first vineyard in the Columbia River Gorge, nor establish the first winery, but his efforts throughout the years helped turn a few scattered plots of grapes into a thriving industry.

Today, more than 40 wineries and 90 vineyards in the Gorge are growing 45 different grape varieties. Many of them are there because of Lonnie.

In 2014, the Oregon Wine Board gave Lonnie the Lifetime Achievement Award for being a pioneer in the Oregon wine industry. Only five others have won the award: Dick Ponzi, Susan Sokol, Bill Blosser, Dick Erath, and David Lett, all Willamette Valley growers.

Lonnie didn’t start out to be a wine guru. Raised in Plymouth, Indiana, he has been a teacher, a long-haul truck driver, and a pivot irrigation worker who twice went to Libya to help irrigate the Sahara Desert.

One adventure right after graduation from Butler University in Indianapolis led him to the West Coast.

“My good friend and I left Indianapolis with $70 apiece in my ‘65 Ford,” Lonnie says. “We worked our way around the west. We hoed beans in South Dakota, stacked hay in Montana, and picked cherries in Flathead Lake. We started to pick pears in the Yakima Valley, but that was not a good scene. I lasted about two days on that one.”
The pair worked their way down the West Coast before returning to Indiana, where Lonnie took a teaching job. He was licensed for seventh and eighth-grade social studies and physical education but was hired to teach special education.

Lonnie quit teaching to take a long road trip. His friend had met an exchange student from Colombia who told him that if he were to buy a new car in the United States and drive it to Colombia, he could sell it for a huge profit. Lonnie agreed to go with him, and they split the cost of buying a demonstration model 1973 Chevy Vega hatchback.

Ultimately, they ran out of money in Guatemala and sold the car for a profit,
but the Guatemalan government taxed
the transaction in an amount equaling the profit.

“It didn’t turn out all bad,” Lonnie says. “We lived in that car for 6 months, put 40,000 miles on it, and got our money back.”

Lonnie headed back west and worked several more jobs, including seasonal hauling produce up and down the West Coast for three years.

A photo from the early 1900s shows zinfandel vines sprawled on the ground at a vineyard on Mill Creek, as was the fashion at the time. Photo courtesy of the Dalles Chronicle.

Then he got a lucky phone call.

“Paul Champoux, a well-known grower in Washington state, called and said, ‘Hey, some outfit named Chateau St. Michelle just bought a farm near Paterson. They’re going to plant 2,000 acres of grapes in the next three years and could use another
foreman.’ That’s how I got into the grape business.”

2 years into what would be a three- year stint in those fields, Lonnie met his wife-to-be, Linda, who was from Hood River. They had what he calls a whirlwind romance. She agreed to live in Paterson for one year, during which he supervised the first harvest of the fields.

To build up a nest egg, Lonnie worked in Libya for a time but left following increased tension in the country.

Fortunately, he returned home safely and started a vineyard management company. The best way to do that was to manage his own vineyard. For that, he needed something to plant. He went to Celilo Vineyard and offered to prune their vines for two weeks for free if he could take all the prunings.

“I had a ’62 GMC pickup,” Lonnie says. “16 loads later, I had a pile of chardonnay, a pile of riesling, and a pile of gewürztraminer. I sat on the front porch, cut them up into 15,000 cuttings, and put them in a bunch of sawdust. Next spring, I rented a walk-behind rototiller. A friend of my wife’s had a little barnyard in Hood River, and he allowed me to plant his barnyard. His next-door neighbor grew pears, and I made a deal with him
to extend his sprinkler system into the nursery.”

Just as that was getting going, Lonnie heard about a cherry grower on Mill
Creek who wanted to revive an old, abandoned vineyard. The vines had been planted sometime near the turn of the 20th century, as a photo from 1911 shows them sprawled on the hillside. The cuttings were placed by Louie Comini, an Italian stonemason who worked on the locks at Cascade Locks and the historic Columbia River Highway.

When Lonnie arrived in 1982, the vineyard had been abandoned since 1964. There was no water. The vines were nearly dead, with only some tiny shoots. Lonnie told the farmer he could help restore them and was hired for $4 an hour.

In 2002, Lonnie bought the vineyard and a complex of houses and barns known as The Pines. It was named after The Pines Dairy, which operated from 1926 to 1941.

In the meantime, he advised local residents on where to plant grapes, what varieties are appropriate for different regions in the Gorge, and how to care for them. Lonnie actively managed a number of vineyards, including marketing the grapes to wineries. There have been four wineries named after vineyards Lonnie planted for them: Phelps Creek, Wy’East, Stave and Stone, and Dry Hollow.

Lonnie advised other early growers, including Terry McDuffee, former Northern Wasco PUD manager Harold Haake, and former judge Bernie Smith.

Today, Lonnie has retired from advising others to concentrate on his own winery, The Pines 1852. He expanded the vineyard, adding a new block of zinfandel by taking grafts from the old-growth vines and putting in blocks of merlot and syrah in 1989, 1990, and 1992.

Lonnie is proud of his legacy, and it’s likely to continue. His daughter, Sierra, is actively part of the business, managing the company’s tasting room in Hood River. Their old-growth zinfandel wine is popular in the Northwest and beyond.

For more information on The Pines 1852, visit the Oregon Vineyard and Winery website.