I was at a bakery in White Salmon, Washington to have breakfast with Nate Ready, the co-owner of Hiyu Wine Farm in Hood River, Oregon. Out of the blue, Ready whispers, “You see the guy behind the counter? That’s Josko Gravner’s nephew.”
What the heck was the nephew of one of the world’s most revered winemakers doing baking bread in a tiny town in the Columbia Gorge? Once I had my answer, there was no going back to yesterday.
Josko Gravner is my wine geek king. His family has been making wine in northern Italy for three generations and his wines, with nothing taken away and only a pinch of sulfur added before bottling, are thought-provoking and highly sought after, especially the whites. These wines rest on their skins in beeswax-lined amphorae and the resulting amber liquids have helped push phrases like “extended skin contact” and “orange wine” into everyday wine conversations, earning him the title “father of natural wine” in Italy. I love his wines and I was gobsmacked to discover a family connection in my own backyard.
There’s a reason I first ran into Gravner’s nephew at White Salmon Baking Company. This small bakery—in a town of just 2,264 people—punches firmly above its weight class in the wine list department, offering gems from the Pacific Northwest and northern Italy. It even has a section for orange wines. Who does this kind of thing in a small town bakery best known for, well, albino salmon?
The person responsible for this rural wine oasis is Jure Poberaj, who was born 30 years ago in Solkan, Slovenia, just across the Italian border from his uncle’s winery. When Poberaj was six years old his family moved to Maryland; his father had been hired to coach the US kayak and canoe slalom racing team. Poberaj himself grew up to be an outstanding racer and almost made the 2012 US Olympic team. After the Olympic trials, Poberaj moved west to study finance at Portland State University. He also explored his interest in cooking, working in the kitchens of two Portland restaurants, Petisco and Tasty n Alder. Upon graduation Poberaj moved to Hood River to master wind surfing, naturally. He supported this adventure by working at Celilo Restaurant & Bar, where he met fellow employee Nina Jimenez.
Jimenez had a background in baking and the town she lived in, White Salmon, didn’t have a bakery. So Jimenez and Poberaj decided to join forces in both life and business on her side of the river. “We approach baking like my uncle does with his wine,” Poberaj said. “We could have brought in an electric oven but we wanted to do it the old-fashioned way, with wood and fire. Just like Josko, we try to use a few quality ingredients and keep it simple.”
Their White Salmon Baking Company opened in April of 2015 and it has been a great success. Customers come from all over SW Washington and Oregon for breakfast and lunch and their Monday pizza nights have lines around the block. Not bad for the nephew of a cult winemaker on the other side of the planet.
This would be an interesting enough story as is, but not long after I was introduced to Jimenez and Poberaj, the three of us sat down over a bottle of Gravner’s 2008 Ribolla Gialla, and the story got better. “We are closing today on 10 acres of land a few miles from here. It’s our first house,” Jimenez exclaimed. Poberaj was quick to point out six of those acres have already been cleared for a vineyard that will soon be the newest member of the Columbia Gorge American Viticultural Area.
That means Josko Gravner’s nephew is the next Pacific Northwest winemaker.
The couple’s new property has a house, two garages, and a barn, giving them plenty of room to produce 1,000 cases of wine each year, most of which will be Ribolla Giallla. “I tried Josko’s wines for the first time when I was 14 and they left quite an impression, so I definitely want to make a Ribolla Gialla like he does,” Poberaj told me. There are also plans for a wine cellar so they can bury the amphorae to make their wines. The vineyard will be planted in the spring of 2018 and along with Ribolla Gialla, there will be tiny amounts of Pinot Noir, Friulano, and Teroldego. When I asked Poberaj where he was getting the Ribolla Gialla cuttings, his answer revved me up all over again.
Poberaj will be sourcing plant material from a few sources, but it’s the cuttings he plans to retrieve from a tiny vineyard in California that caught my attention. The vineyard was planted 17 years ago with Ribolla Gialla vines that had been made possible by a gift from none other than Josko Gravner himself. George Vare, the founder of Luna Vineyards, visited Gravner in the late 1990s and was able to smuggle a few sticks of Ribolla Gialla budwood home to California. The budwood was grafted onto other rootstock, enough to eventually plant three acres.
Vare died in 2013 and his vineyard was sold and renamed Bengier Family Vineyards. His Ribolla Gialla grapes live on, however, used by winemakers like Steve Matthiasson (Matthiasson Wines), Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts (Arnot-Roberts), and Dan Petroski (Massican Winery) to make acid-packed white wines that are some of my favorites in all of California. Which is why I’m so excited to see what Poberaj and Jimenez can do with Ribolla Gialla grapes growing in the western end of the Columbia Gorge with its cooler temperatures and favorable amounts of both sunshine and rainfall.
For now I wait. There are no wines to taste and the vineyard doesn’t have a name. But I’m not worried as I have a feeling Poberaj and Jimenez are going to succeed. Why? Because they are smart, passionate, and they already know something some winemakers take years to figure out: work with the best ingredients and keep it simple. And perhaps after a few years, between the lineage and the grapes, there will be a little bit of Gravner magic in store for us all.
Michael Alberty is a wine writer based in Portland, Oregon, writing for the Oregon Wine Press, Wine & Spirits Magazine, and JancisRobinson.com. Read more Michael Alberty on Sprudge Wine.
Photos by Joshua Chang.
Michael Alberty is a wine writer based in Portland, Oregon, writing for the Oregon Wine Press, Edible Portland, and JancisRobinson.com. He is the Senior Editor of the Oregon section for Slow Wine’s Annual Guide.