How to Pair Wine with Whitewater Rafting

Whitewater rafting


This was what crossed my mind as I was sitting in the front of, in fact, a large rubber raft, about to plunge into Granite Rapids on the Snake River. Granite is generally a Class IV rapid ("powerful, irregular waves, dangerous rocks, and boiling eddies; take all possible safety precautions"), but occasionally, when the river is high, it reaches Class V ("wild turbulence and extremely congested routes; a danger to your life and near the limits of navigation"). Our guide, Ben, was standing up at the back of the raft, holding his paddle and peering thoughtfully at the churning water ahead. Peering at the water and rocks, I should say. Lots of rocks. "Ah, it's four," he decided. I'd learned already that it's pro forma for white water guides to sound vaguely dismissive about pretty much anything that won't simply kill you dead instantly, like going over Niagara Falls in flippers and a Speedo. Ben sat down and steered us toward the chute. "Hang on!"

I should point out that we weren't drinking wine while shooting the rapids. That would be, as anyone might guess, potentially lethal; plus, when you're down in a hole, a wall of thundering green water on one side, granite on the other, froth curling toward you like ghostly fingertips, pretty much all you want to do is hang on. Or question why you are there in the first place, which in my case was because Andrae Bopp, the owner of Andrae's Kitchen in Walla Walla, Washington, had invited me. Andrae's Kitchen is without any question the best restaurant located in a gas station in the U.S. (That is, a working gas station, in this case the Cenex at the corner of West Rose Street and North Ninth Avenue.) I defy anyone to eat an order of Bopp's Voodoo Fries—hand-cut, Cajun-spiced, then topped with housemade pulled pork, pickled peppers, and a Crystal Hot Sauce aioli—and question that title.

In the past few years, Bopp the chef has also become Bopp the white water guide. The origins of that transformation lie six years back, when he teamed up with Grant Richie, co-owner of white water outfitters Minam Store, for a regular series of "Wine & Food on the River" excursions. The basic idea was that Bopp and Richie would run tours down Hells Canyon, rapids by day and shoreside camping plus top-quality wine and food every night. Why the idea of combining chefs, winemakers, and rivers hasn't exploded, I do not know. Clearly anyone who's been tossed from a rubber boat into thousands of tons of pounding water is going to need a glass of wine later on, if not four of five of them.

Crostini with Grilled Sweet Onions and Blue Cheese Recipe

Get the Recipe: Crostini with Grilled Sweet Onions and Blue Cheese

Several hours after we'd been ejected from the turmoil of Granite into calmer waters, soaking wet but not dislodged from our rafts, we landed at our campsite for the night. It soon became clear that dinner was by no means going to be your average camping meal. Somehow—meaning from a couple of coolers of supplies, a portable burner, a grill, a handheld tortilla press he'd carried home from Oaxaca, and a camp table to prep at—Bopp produced a multicourse riverside meal involving shrimp toasts, beef tenderloin carpaccio with fried capers, a grilled melon salad with pepitas and charred feta, tacos with braised short ribs (he'd braised the ribs back in Walla Walla), pork al pastor (homemade, too), and grilled sea bass, plus several different salsas (his own recipes as well). He unpacked balls of handmade masa in plastic wrap for the tortillas. "I get this Mayan corn that comes from a hillside outside Oaxaca. The same family's been growing it for hundreds of years—same piece of ground, never fertilized. I figure if I'm going to make tortillas, I want to work with the same corn people were using a thousand years ago."

Even in the light rain that had started up, everything was excellent. All of us—guides, guests, one extraneous journalist—ate at folding camp tables, hoods pulled up against the drizzle. Chad Johnson and Corey Braunel of Walla Walla's Dusted Valley were pouring their 2015 V.R. Special Cabernet and 2017 Stained Tooth Syrah, chatting about the wines as they did. We drank from metal Klean Kanteen cups, and forget about hand-blown crystal stemware. No wine has ever tasted better.

As Bopp served dessert—a creamy St. Louis–style cheesecake inspired by his hometown, where he worked as a landscaper before becoming a chef—conversation ranged, as conversation among a group of 20 strangers will. There was discussion about introducing peanut butter and jelly as a concept to people from other countries—one woman's Argentine boyfriend said, "We're eating what?" and an Italian friend someone else stayed with apparently topped that, stating: "Ugh. This is ... disgusting." She toasted the bread next time. "This," he told her, "is double disgusting."

St. Louis Style Cheesecake with Blueberries Recipe

Get the Recipe: St. Louis–Style Cheesecake with Blueberries

A moot point on this particular river: Bopp's lunches were more on the order of house-cured pastrami on rye, covered in Swiss cheese he melted with a propane-powered blowtorch. When we weren't getting hurled around by rapids, the canyon itself dazzled us. It's the deepest river gorge in North America, the mountain walls at their most dramatic rising almost 8,000 feet. One day after lunch, we pulled up and hiked a steep, narrow trail to the appropriately named Suicide Point, where a lovelorn Nimiipuu warrior named Half Moon once hurled himself to his death—or so the story goes. Regardless of that legend's truth, Suicide Point offers a spectacular view. Someone suggested that parachuting off it might be possible, but that suggestion was quickly put to rest by Alex, a Walla Walla–based architect who served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and had trained as a paratrooper. "But I was just a five-jump chump," he said as we hiked back down to the river, explaining the term was used for people who did five jumps in training but then didn't jump in combat. "Just enough to get my wings."

Grilled Rack of Lamb with Demi Glace Butter Recipe

Get the Recipe: Grilled Rack of Lamb with Demi-Glace Butter

"If you're a five-jump chump, then what are we?" I asked.

"Legs. You're all just legs," he said cheerfully.

I was glad mine were working, and that they seemed to be keeping me from pitching over the edge.

At the last significant rapid we would run, Sheep Creek, we pulled over to scout the course on foot from above before running it. Or at least we started to pull over, but there was a bear at the landing spot. We sort of floated there, 10 feet offshore, looking at him, while he sort of stood there, looking at us. He wasn't a very big bear, but still. Ben, true to guide form, grinned and said, "Hey, it's just a bear—you aren't scared of bears, are you?"

General consensus: Yes, strangely enough, we were scared of bears.

The bear gave the whole matter bearlike consideration, then sort of lumped off into the bushes, heading upriver. Even so, it was generally felt that perhaps another landing, a bit farther down, might be wisest.

Whitewater Rafting Wine

Our final night featured wines from another Walla Walla winery, Sleight of Hand Cellars, with co-owner and winemaker Trey Busch pouring his 2016 The Funkadelic Syrah and 2017 The Conjurer Red Blend, among others, to go with Bopp's rack of lamb with demi-glace butter and a balsamic glaze. Dessert was s'mores, albeit s'mores with astonishingly good homemade graham crackers, Valrhona chocolate, and imposingly big marshmallows flamed into gooey edibility by Bopp's industrial-size blowtorch. "I think I'm probably the only French classically trained chef who's worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Manhattan and now guides white water rafting trips and cooks on them," he said, happily blasting away. "Yep. Pretty sure I'm the only one."

Salted Caramel S'mores Recipe

Get the Recipe: Salted Caramel S'mores

Just before we'd landed, we'd seen a herd of bighorn sheep on the far side of the river. First a couple, then 10 or 12, slowly but assuredly picking their way along a rocky slope. One of the things that's always bothered me, and that I had given some thought to again on the river, is the old idea that wine is pretentious. Now, after dinner, I saw the bighorns again, across the river by the water's edge. I was standing in the cool shallows on our side, a camp cup of Cabernet in hand. Behind me people were talking casually; someone was hauling up a piñata. It was shaped like a star. We were going to blindfold one another and, laughing, batter it to bits. I took another sip of my wine. I could hear the river chuckling, eddying against a rock. The air smelled sweet and clean. The bighorns kept walking into the dusk. "Well," I thought. "Pretentiousness: 0. Transcendence: 100."

Bottles on the Rapids

Whitewater Rafting Wine

On the trip I took, both Dusted Valley and Sleight of Hand Cellars were pouring. You don't have to drink their wines only on a river, though—they're equally good right at home. —R.I.

2017 Sleight of Hand Cellars the Conjurer Red Blend ($28)

Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot come together in this robust red blend, made mostly with fruit from Sleight of Hand's estate vineyards. It's full of dark cassis fruit and satiny tannins.

2017 Sleight of Hand Cellars the Enchantress Chardonnay ($28)

Winemaker Trey Busch sources Chardonnay from 40-year-old vines at French Creek Vineyard in Washington's Yakima Valley for this impressively complex, minerally white.

2018 Dusted Valley Olsen Vineyard Chardonnay ($36)

A cool vineyard site and restrained use of new oak (17%) keep this Washington Chardonnay crisp and focused. It would be a refreshing partner for shrimp off the grill—or for river rafting. Take your pick.

2017 Dusted Valley Stained Tooth Syrah ($36)

A touch of Viognier (2%) helps lift the peppery, floral aromas of this purple-black Syrah from Washington's Columbia Valley. That black-pepper character carries through on the palate, mingling with plenty of rich blackberry and mocha notes.

2016 Sleight of Hand Cellars the Psychedelic Syrah ($60)

Intensely savory and rich with dark fruit at the same time, this powerful red could last for years in a cellar, but it's hard to resist right now. Think black olives, espresso, and ripe purple plum fruit in a delectably tongue-coating way.

2016 Dusted Valley V.R. Special Cabernet Sauvignon ($62)

Dusted Valley's top Cabernet comes both from the winery's estate vineyards and the Dionysus vineyard, one of Washington's oldest. Powerful and structured, with deep black-cherry flavors and a hint of wild herbs, it deserves a big rib eye (or Andrae Bopp's braised short rib tacos).