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Bryan had vision for Ancient Lakes

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Dr. Vince Bryan and his wife Carol bought land in Central Washington in 1980 to plant pinot noir grapes and make wine as good as the famed vintages of Burgundy, France.

Everyone thought they were crazy. Maybe they were right. The grand plan to grow pinot noir on the rocky cliffs above the Columbia River near George didn't work out so well.

The Bryans did open Champs de Brionne Winery, the area's first commercial winery. But it was better known for its riesling and chardonnay than for its pinot.

The Bryans also started The Gorge Amphitheater on their property, in 1985. That worked out pretty well. They sold that venture off in the 1990s. It's now considered the nation's top outdoor rock music venue.

Champs de Brionne closed after awhile, but the Bryans kept tending the vineyard, convinced they had found wonderful grape growing land. Around 2000, the Bryans revived their winery plans and began planning a new venture for the property they still owned surrounding The Gorge.

Cave B Estate Winery now produces wines from more than a dozen different grapes growing on the property around their luxurious and environmentally-friendly Cave B Inn, its gourmet Tendrils restaurant and a full service spa.

The land has never produced the pinot noir Vince Bryan had in mind, but the wines it does produce — fragrant whites and luscious, full-bodied reds — have won many awards. Bryan believes they're equal to some of the great wines of France.

"It's very unique here," said Bryan, a retired neurosurgeon, during a recent tour of the property. "We're on the edge of a cliff, a 1,000-foot chunk of basalt."

The convoluted ridges along the Columbia between George and Quincy offer a huge change in soils, climate and altitude within a distance of only about 1.5 miles. Average temperature change between high and low plateaus is two degrees, a great span during the long Columbia Basin growing season.

"You would have to travel 600 miles to find a similar degree of change in France," said Bryan, who spent years researching the area before his purchase. As it turns out, the area is more like the Rhone Valley than Burgundy. The climate variation is suitable for many grape varieties, he said.

In many ways Bryan is largely responsible for development of what is now the Ancient Lakes American Viticultural Area. The 163,000-acre region between the Frenchman Hills and Beezley Hills near Quincy received the designation as the state's 13th AVA last November.

Three individuals worked on the complicated application to show the unique character of the area that individualizes wines made from grapes grown there. All are or were winemakers for Bryan.

Cameron Fries, who now owns White Heron Cellars, was the area's first winemaker, crafting wines for Champs de Brionne before starting his own winery a few miles away. Rusty Figgins, a member of the famed family that owns Leonetti Cellars in Walla Walla, was Cave B's first winemaker. Freddy Arredondo, Cave B's current winemaker, is Vince and Carol's son-in-law.

Cave B is very much a boutique winery, producing only about 900 cases a year, sold almost entirely from its tasting room.

Two much larger growers, Milbrandt Brothers and Jones of Washington, have since the mid-1990s planted close to 1,700 acres in the Ancient Lakes area. Besides their own wineries, the grapes are sold to dozens of others, including Chateau Ste. Michelle, the state's largest winery. Gallo purchased a small amount this year as a trial.

"What I love is that we have some of the smallest wineries in the state right here working side by side to some of the largest," Bryan said.