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Gordon Brothers Winery

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"Our goals at Gordon Brothers are ever-changing; once we achieve certain goals, we reset them. We're now establishing a track record for making fine wine, working to improve both the quality of the fruit in the vineyard and our techniques in the cellar, and growing case production entirely with our estate grapes."

In 1980, brothers Jeff and Bill Gordon decided to plant wine grapes on a sagebrush-covered slope overlooking the Snake River in southeastern Washington's Columbia Valley. Since their first harvest in 1983, the Gordons' Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay grapes have been highly sought-after by Washington state ultra-premium wineries. In 1985, Jeff and Bill released their first small lot of Chardonnay wine produced from their estate vines, and today the Gordon Brothers brand is growing in both production and acclaim.

When Jeff and Bill planned their 95-acre vineyard, the locals advised them against planting red grape varieties. 

"All we heard about was Riesling, but despite the warnings, we thought red grapes would work so we took a chance," says Jeff, whose family also grows organic cherries and apples.  "It took us a while to get a handle on how to manage the vineyard, but it was the right thing to do."

The south-facing vineyard site is perched some 620 feet above the Snake River, with a 60-foot slope. The vineyard has excellent air drainage, and benefits from the river's moderating influence. The vines are blanketed by snow in the winter (when they’re dormant), but spring and summer offer sunshine and warmth, allowing the grapes to ripen completely.

Temperatures during the growing season can drop from 95 degrees in the day to 55 at night, enabling the grapes to develop high acids and high sugar levels.

"In Europe, the typical wine grape profile is high acid/low sugar, while California grapes usually have low acid and high sugar," Jeff says. "Our location creates high acids and high sugars in the fruit. That gives us balance, refinement, and flavors unique to eastern Washington wines, such as the 'sweet/tart' characteristic we get in our Chardonnay."

Gordon Brothers Chardonnay is full-bodied and fruity, tasting "fresh like the grape," says Jeff.  Oak serves as a complement rather than a focal point of the wine.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are soft in tannins and intense in flavor, with black cherry and currant the common flavor notes.

While the demand for the Gordons' grapes exceeds supply, the family has placed a priority on making its own wines.

"We believe when people discover a new wine region, they begin to isolate different areas of the region.  They will then look for individual vineyards of the area to identify the unique characteristics and flavors the wines produce from that vineyard.  Because we only use fruit from our own vineyards, one can be assured the uniqueness of the wine will be preserved from one vintage to the next."

In January 1997, French-trained winemaker Marie-Eve Gilla joined the Gordon family to bring production in-house to a higher level of quality.  In 1998, Bill Gordon sold his holdings to brother Jeff and his family, who currently manage the vineyard and winery.  While wine sales currently stand at over 8,000 cases annually, Gordon Brothers expects to increase sales to 10,000 cases by 2002.

Underscoring their commitment, the Gordons introduced a new wine label in 1997. The label, based on an oil painting by Laguna Beach, Calif., artist Sandra Jones Campbell, depicts the harvest in the Gordon Brothers vineyard, and illustrates the Gordons' belief that location and viticultural expertise are the foundations for successful winemaking.

Here's what NY Times' Wine Today had to say about Gordon Brothers:

Gordon Brothers
Farming, fermentation and the French touch

Wine Today
Monday, January 08, 2001

Jeff Gordon: “If you can grow apples there, you can also grow wine grapes.”

That’s what farmers in Washington have been told since the late 1970s, when the state’s premium wine industry was beginning to blossom. One by one, vinifera vineyards were planted on the eastern side of the Cascades, going in next to - and sometimes replacing - the apple orchards for which Washington state had become famous.

Jeff and Bill Gordon were among the first of Washington’s farming families to add wine grapes to their acreage, in 1980. Like most farmers, their decision was based on market conditions and the practice of agricultural diversification – planting several different crops as a hedge against having a bad year with a single crop. So into the ground went Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon vines, next to the Gordons’ cherries, potatoes, onions and English walnuts.

The Gordons’ first grape harvest was in 1983, and their first wine, a small amount of custom-made Chardonnay, was released in 1985. They also began selling their grapes to some of Washington’s best wineries, including Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and Hogue. Business was good, and there was a bonus: the Gordons developed a passion for wine and the desire to see their grapes go into their own brand.

Today the Gordon family has its own winery facility and has grown production to 10,000 cases a year. And while the wines have always been good, they took a big leap in complexity and finesse when Burgundy-trained winemaker Marie-Eve Gilla-Nicault arrived in 1997. The wines - estate Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon - continue to improve, making Gordon Brothers one of our Upcoming Stars for 2001. The current releases of those three varietals all scored 4 stars or better on WineToday’s 5-star scale.

Gilla-Nicault, who cut her American winemaking teeth at Argyle/Dundee Wine Co. in Oregon and Covey Run in Washington, brought to Gordon winemaking experience gained in France and the States, and quickly developed an affinity for the 95-acre Gordon vineyard, which sits on a sagebrush-covered bluff overlooking the Snake River near Pasco.

“I spend a lot of time in the vineyard during pruning season, flowering and the ripening period for the grapes,” she says, “in order to assess the quality, pinpoint difficult areas and address them before they become a problem. If you know what's going on in the vineyard, you'll know what to expect at harvest.”

Jeff Gordon, who now manages the vineyard and winery operations while Bill oversees other parts of the farming business, says he realized early on that the grapes grown in eastern Washington's Columbia Valley offered something that most California and European vineyards could not – an ideal sugar and acid balance.

“In Europe, the typical wine grape profile is high acid/low sugar, while California grapes usually have low acid and high sugar,” Jeff says. “Our location creates high acids and high sugars in the fruit. That gives us balance, refinement and flavors unique to eastern Washington wines, like the 'sweet-tart' character we get in our Chardonnay.”

Gilla-Nicault says experimentation with barrels has had a dramatic impact on the wines.

“We use three different coopers each for American and French oak, and we keep experimenting with different coopers each year,” she says. “Our Merlot seems to benefit from American oak, while our Cabernet thrives in French. Our Chardonnay is usually 100 percent barrel fermented in French oak from Burgundy, using only the very light Burgundian toast; this is where speaking French with our coopers really comes in handy.”

Gilla-Nicault has found winemaking freedom in Washington that she says is not possible in her native France.

“I enjoy this country very much because the possibilities are endless,” says Gilla-Nicault, whose husband, Gilles Nicault, is the assistant winemaker at Woodward Canyon. “We can use any canopy system we want, any type of oak and any winemaking style in the cellar. There are, unfortunately, many restricting rules in France that were created to protect the integrity and typicity of the wines, but have become too limiting.”

Gordon Brothers will continue to focus on estate-grown wines, and has produced a handful of small-lot specialty bottlings, including Riesling and Gewurztraminer. In 1997 Jeff planted 15 acres of Syrah - an emerging superstar variety in Washington – and Gilla-Nicault says her 2000 bottling of Syrah should be “great.” One more reason to keep an eye on Gordon Brothers.

- Linda Murphy
reprinted with permission


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