Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Adventures in the Hood

Hunter, Shayden and I took the scenic but rainy drive through the Gorge this past weekend to visit good friends Ken and Pam, who live in Hood River (HR). Eager to support me in my blogging endeavor, the “dudes” (as Pam’s cute little son Matty refers to the boys) offered to hang out so the ladies could go check out some of the area wineries. Pam and I wasted no time escaping the male energy that had taken over the house (well, I wasted no time, Pam may have been a bit reluctant to leave). She was excited to be my tour guide of Hood River though and off we drove past what must have been dozens of pear orchards, dripping with pears in all tantalizing shades of green and red. Good thing she was driving, I might have been tempted to stop and pick a few (dozen).

Pam took me to one of her favorite HR wineries first, Marchesi Vineyards, which may not have been the best plan in hindsight as they set the bar pretty high (no pun intended). Franco Marchesi stood proudly behind the granite counter bar in his new tasting room and poured Italian varietals you can tell he takes great pride in. He grows and produces a lovely Pinot Grigio, and when I asked about his ability to use the name Pinot Grigio on his label, since I thought Oregon wineries were required to call the varietal by Pinot Gris, he told me that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission recently changed those laws. Tomato, tomato … it tasted great, with flavors of pear, lemon and anise. The Dolcetto had a lush, silky mouth with big berry fruit and hints of almond. But the Barbera, that was clearly Franco’s baby. He described how the area reminds him of his home in Piedmonte Italy where they grow Barbera and then explained how he’s built his vineyard around it. The ‘07 Barbera was simply gorgeous with flavors of fresh plums, ripe red cherries and a mouthful of great acids. Franco and Anya Cristina provide true Italian hospitality—Cristina delivered the next wine in the flight to guests as they lounged comfortably on the patio, while Franco took his place behind the bar slicing delicious proscuitto on his magnificent art-deco red, hand-cranked meat slicer. Every detail has been thought of, from the olive trees flanking the entrance to the books on Italy, fresh sunflowers and Deruta pottery from his homeland on the bar. This winery was a winner on so many levels, they just had it all going on—great wines to start, gracious and friendly hosts and a comfortable yet elegant place to enjoy them, what else could you ask for.

Our next stop felt more or less like a drive-by, as we honestly didn’t spend much time there. If you’re looking to taste a lot of mediocre wine, you must visit Cathedral Ridge Winery. There were two huge bars encompassing the entire area, yet not a free inch of space could be found to squeeze in. I was astonished at the number of people in the tasting room and when I was finally able to push my way through to the bar to take a look at the tasting menu, I was further stunned by the twenty or more wines to choose from and probably looked a bit like a deer in the headlights. Completely overwhelmed, I tried to taste a few wines, but found them as about likeable as the whole experience. The wines have won a multitude of accolades, but to me it all just a felt a bit harried and unfocused. Pam and I left looking at each other quizzically as we watched people walking out, arms loaded down with cases of wine—neither of us got it. Very wisely (like a sage that girl is sometimes), she turned to me and said, “It must be the billboard”, referring to the enormous magnet of a sign on the freeway advertising their 2007 WinePress NW Winery of the Year award. I concurred.

We ventured on to Phelps Creek next, as Pam had never been there and always wanted to try; I was game, as long as it’s a wine tasting room in Oregon, I’m there! With access to the vineyards difficult, the tasting room is currently located at Hood River Golf Course, which is an interesting but quiet and green backdrop. Heather, the General Manager greeted and served us in friendly style. We were pleasantly surprised to discover they had paired their wines with some scrumptious appetizers, (way beyond your typical cheese plate) such as Tuna tartarre on crostini and a delectable salmon chowder.

We enjoyed the wines in the bustling tasting room along with locals and those just passing through town. The ‘07 Chardonnay Reserve was bright with citrus, creamy pears, nutmeg and a hint of ginger. A definite keeper … you know a bottle of that went home with me. For those of you who don’t know me well, I’ll let you in on my secret closet-affair with California Chardonnay. Being in the Oregon wine industry, I try not to share that with too many, but I guess the cat’s out of the bag now. Though unoaked Chardonnay’s have their place, if a Chardonnay’s going in my cellar, it’s mostly likely 100% barrel oak-fermented and then aged long in lots of new French oak, mmmmmm creamy.

Hood River Vineyards’ claimThe last leg of our journey, though not the richest in quality wine, was perhaps the most memorable. Hood River Vineyard's claim to fame is being the oldest winery in the Gorge. I really hate to say it, but that’s the best they really had going for them. After traveling a bumpy and very unimproved road up past scraggly and very sorry looking vineyards with mutated clusters of half-shriveled grapes, we parked and entered the simple, casual and friendly tasting room adjacent to the cellar. You could feel the cool dampness coming off the heavy stone wall and the mouth-watering, heady smell of the barrels and aging wine hit my nasal passages like a freight train—one couldn’t and wouldn’t want to miss that. Unfortunately, I thought their wines were as unruly as their vineyards and since I’m not a real appreciator of ports (which they had a number of and fruity ones at that!), I just couldn’t properly evaluate or appreciate them.

Back in the car, we decided to hit a few of the downtown wineries. Pam was all gung-ho and on the mission with me (perhaps even more than myself at this point, feeling quite comfortable having hit four wineries). Unfortunately, heading downtown also meant heading in the direction of her house where she was inexplicably drawn. Wine tasting adventure over, we returned to the dudes—big boys quite at ease with their own glasses of wine while the little boys played cheerfully on the deck—and then we all sat down together and fervently ate a home-cooked and garden-fresh pasta dinner. A fabulous day! Not only was I was able to spend my afternoon catching up with dear friends, but I also got to discover a whole new wine region I’d always wanted to explore … win, win!

On the way home with my tired but contented child babbling in the backseat, my lesson for this blog hit me over the head like a few hundred wine bottles, so here it is: When your man says he’ll watch the kids, get out and enjoy it while you can. Because they’ll all be there screaming “mama, mama, mama” when you return. And after a little bit of wine, and an afternoon’s adventure, those words somehow sound a bit more magical. Until we sip again…

Cheers!

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