Pendleton is definitely in cowboy country, but the town’s only winery would like to remind you that wine country isn’t too far away.
Cerebella Winery was founded by Robb Zimmel, an Army Reserve veteran and former flight paramedic. About 15 years ago, he was in the middle of a tour in Afghanistan and thinking about a career change.
“I’m on a satellite phone out in the middle of the desert talking to professors at WSU going, ‘Hey, what about this wine making?’” he said.
Zimmel returned to Portland as a paramedic, then got sent to Iraq nine months later. But after his second tour ended in 2010, he enrolled in school. Four years later, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in enology and viticulture from Washington State University.
His wine journey took him to WSU’s Richland, Washington, campus and then to Pendleton, where he opened his first tasting room in January of this year.
Cerebella Winery is in a 1936-built former Hudson car dealership and gas station. Zimmel and Carol and Bill Code, his business partners and owners of Rooster’s Country Kitchen restaurant, had big plans to renovate the space and create a large outdoor seating area. But environmental testing is taking longer than expected, and the work has yet to begin. For now, visitors can still enjoy wine and food inside the former car showroom.
Pendleton might not have the reputation of a wine town, but it’s across the river from some of the world’s most coveted grapes.
“Walla Walla is 45 minutes north of us,” Zimmel said. Red Mountain, which he called “one of the greatest grape growing regions in the world,” is just an hour’s drive away.
Zimmel buys grapes from growers throughout the region and has a production facility in Benton City, Washington. He chose the name Cerebella because he wanted something to reflect his background in the medical field. It’s the feminine form of the word “cerebellum,” a part of the brain.
After his final military deployment as a combat medic, “I thought I could just jump back on moving medical transport and take over,” Zimmel said. “No, no. I couldn’t do that anymore.”
Zimmel, now 52, said he was “chips all in” on a career change. He’d loved wine and had always been intrigued by the wine his relatives made at home.
“We’re about fourth generation off the boat from Germany, and the matriarchs in my family would make wine out of anything they could put their hands on,” Zimmel said. “We’re talking beets, dandelions, you name it.”
Zimmel still likes experimenting with more unusual wines, such as his blueberry port. His award-winning wine portfolio also includes cabernet sauvignon, malbec, syrah and cabernet franc.
In a nod to Pendleton’s Old West history, Cerebella makes a Stella Darby Riesling, named after the longtime proprietor of the Cozy Rooms, one of Pendleton’s former bordellos.
And there’s also the Jackson Sundown red blend, named for the legendary rodeo rider and member of the Nez Perce tribe who won the all-around title at the 1916 Pendleton Round-Up. The National Cowboy Museum lists Sundown as the first Native American to win a major rodeo championship.
The 2017 Jackson Sundown blend is described as being “medium-bodied with cherry, blackberry and spice, a lingering finish with notes of coffee, dark chocolate and pepper.” And if that sounds confusing to a wine tasting newcomer, Zimmel doesn’t want customers to be intimidated.
“All you need to know is what you like and you don’t like,” he said. “Let’s start the journey together. Let’s find something you like.”
If you go: Cerebella Winery’s tasting room is open from noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 30 S.W. Emigrant Ave. in downtown Pendleton. Cerebella serves charcuterie, hors d’oeuvre and some salads, but visitors can also order food from Great Pacific restaurant through the winery and have it delivered to the tasting room.
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