by Sheri Boggs

If the terrain around Washington's Route 14 on the north bank of the Columbia River were a theme park, it would be Rock-and-Sagebrush-Land. The only ride, of course, would be in a car with no air conditioning and a Tom Petty tape that was great fun about 150 miles ago. While the Columbia River on your left is an amazing expanse of water, the landscape rising up from its banks is nothing so much as arid. The thought occurs to you, "What the hell am I doing out here?"

But just when you're seriously thinking about turning around and heading back to civilization (either back to Spokane or pressing on toward Portland about 100 miles downstream and across the river), you come around the bend and see Stonehenge (a full-size replica, anyway), perched high on a bluff above the Columbia River. And if that little bit of trompe l'oeil prehistoric England isn't enough, straight ahead are poplars and a thick carpet of lawn, amazingly vibrant in this desert landscape. As you drive past, a building straight out of a Jane Austen film emerges. It's enough to make you start laughing. You can see where the expression "What in the Sam Hill" came from.

Maryhill's builder Sam Hill literally created a European chateau out here in the middle of nowhere. Nothing, not even a gas station or anything bright green for literally miles, and suddenly this transplanted English countryside, seemingly dropped at the side of a highway in the Columbia Gorge. You keep driving, and it gets even better.

Three miles down the road is the newest addition to the oasis that is Sam Hill's hill -- the Maryhill Winery.

The winery, which opens this weekend, is lined with poplars (a sturdy windbreak that calls to mind the cypress groves of Van Gogh) and surrounded by vines of merlot, sangiovese, syrah, cabernet, zinfandel and barbera. Cherry and peach orchards bordering the various grape plots add to the general feeling of being momentarily transplanted to Tuscany or Provence. Like the museum, the winery sits atop a bluff with an unparalleled view of Mt. Hood to the west and the river below. On the day of our visit, the 175,000-square-foot winery building was still very much under construction.

"We've got a crew of about 74 people working today," says Craig Leuthold, co-owner with his wife, Vicki. "And we're working 12 hours a day, seven days a week during this last phase of construction."

Craig and Vicki Leuthold came to the realization of their present dream via a long and circuitous path. Most recently, they were shareholders and managers at the Fort Spokane Brewery in Spokane. When Fort Spokane closed in December, the Leutholds were free to devote themselves entirely to the winery, which had its groundbreaking in November.

"Do you remember that beautiful Brunswick bar from the Fort Spokane?" asks Leuthold, walking through the winery's tasting room. It turns out that the hand-carved, turn-of-the-century Tiger Oak bar that once greeted patrons of the brewery will be installed in the new winery. "We made sure our names were the first ones on the list for the bar," laughs Vicki.

During the time that they were partners in the Fort Spokane Brewery, they also became partners in Cascade Cliffs in 1997, a winery eight miles from Maryhill, where they got hands-on training without, as Vicki puts it, "having to leave our day jobs." But before that, the Leutholds had already had persistent visions of vineyards.

"You could say it started ages and ages ago with our love of fine wines. We started to see the direction in which the Washington wine business was going, and we wanted to be a part of that," says Leuthold, who was working in a Fortune 500 company when the Cascade Cliffs opportunity first came up.

While the Columbia River Gorge is a part of the much larger Columbia Valley appellation, the microclimate of the immediate Maryhill region lends itself especially well to the production of fine red wines.

"When we first found this spot, I thought, 'Why aren't more wineries here?' " says Leuthold. "The weather, the climate, the soil are all perfect."

The hot summers and miniscule rainfall of the Columbia Valley lend themselves well to healthy grapes and vines, and the winery's proximity to the river offers protection from early and late winter frosts that can sometimes devastate grape harvests 15 miles away.

"Sangiovese, in particular, is an Italian grape and it's a little tricky to grow in this area," explains Leuthold. "But planting it here, where it's so close to the river gorge, is good because it reduces the risk of winter damage."

Of course, high winds can still be a significant concern along the weathered banks of the Columbia, but fortunately by the time they get to Maryhill, they're dry.

"Last fall we were here breaking ground, and we watched this storm come up from the west," says Vicki. "And we thought, 'Uh oh, here it comes,' and someone we were with said, 'No, it won't come down this far.' And sure enough, it stopped about five miles away. You could just see the rain pouring down and these ominous dark clouds, but it stopped right there."

That day wasn't the only fortuitous circumstance in the turning of a hillside into a destination winery. The Leutholds initially planned to open their winery not three miles from the Maryhill Museum, but on the actual museum grounds.

"We started negotiations with the Maryhill Museum in May of 1999 and worked on it with their board of directors for one year, but we could never come to an agreement," says Leuthold. "We contacted the people who own this land here, the Gunkels, and within 48 hours we were good to go."

While the Gunkels still own the land the winery sits on, the Leutholds are in charge of how the vines are cultivated and harvested. To that end, they hired winemaker John Haw, who has been working in wineries all of his adult life, and who returned most recently from California's Sonoma Valley.

"I do everything, from the time the grapes are planted to when they're bottled. It's incredibly physically demanding, the hours are really long, but I wouldn't give it up for anything," says Haw. "We could have one person working out here every day from now through October, removing extra grapes and leaves, thinning out the vines so the plants get stronger."

When the Maryhill Winery opens this Friday, its handsomely labeled (designed by Spokane's Klundt Hosmer Design) releases will include a 1999 pinot gris, chardonnay, merlot and syrah, bottled through an arrangement with Hogue Cellars. The tasting room, managed by Linda Derrickson, will offer self-service deli fare like cheese, bread and packaged salads to enjoy with their wine out on the covered decks and arbor areas. In the summer, Vicki says it's not uncommon to see windsurfers down on the Columbia, trying their luck a little farther down from the Dalles. And next year, if all goes according to plan, the Leutholds will open their outdoor amphitheater, which will hold seating for an estimated 2,500 people.

"I believe in providence," says Leuthold. "I think building this winery here, and being neighbors with the Maryhill Museum is the best of both worlds. I see an amazing synergy in turning this into a great destination area."

The Maryhill Winery, 9774 W. Route 14, opens Friday, May 25, at 2 pm. Call: 1-877-Maryhill.

Sam's Hill

As unlikely as it is to find a grand Georgian manor and a replica of Stonehenge on the austere bluffs overlooking the Columbia River, it's even stranger to consider that the grounds were originally set aside to be a Quaker farming community. In 1907, wealthy land baron Sam Hill -- himself a Quaker -- purchased the 6,000-acre bluff high above the Columbia River with dreams of establishing a peaceful agricultural community in southern Washington state. In 1914, he began construction on his own mansion, a poured concrete structure named after his own young daughter, Mary.

A family friend, a Folies Bergere dancer named Loie Fuller, came up with the idea of turning the mansion into an art museum, and through her influence among the art circles of Paris, Hill -- one of the richest men of his time -- came to own an incredible number of sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Needless to say, the farming community idea took a back burner. Hill invited Queen Marie of Romania to dedicate his museum in 1926, and the queen, grateful to Hill for his aid to her country after World War I, happily obliged.

The full-scale replica of Stonehenge four miles east of the museum is also a monument to war's devastating power. Being a pacifist, Hill wanted to honor the men of Klickitat County who had lost their lives in World War I by alluding to the real Stonehenge's mythical past as a place of human sacrifice.

The museum grounds are now home to peacocks and trees that seem oddly comfortable against the backdrop of undulating rock. In addition to more than 75 Rodin sculptures and watercolors, the museum also has in its permanent collection Native American artifacts, the royal regalia of Queen Marie of Romania, a collection of Russian icons, galleries dedicated to Sam Hill and Loie Fuller and 100 antique chess sets.

The Maryhill Museum, 35 Maryhill Museum Drive, at the east entrance of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area on Route 14, is open from 9 am-5 pm daily from May 12-Nov. 15. Admission: $7; $6, seniors; $2 for children ages 6-16. Call: (509) 773-3733.

American Inheritance: Unpacking World War II @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through May 23
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