Friday, September 11, 2009

Chasing Pinot and Pickles

Thoughts gathered; Chehalem wine adventure resumes.

After visiting with Keith Lawton, I was seriously pondering the state of the industry, thinking the obvious I guess. Is this just a symptom of an industry that’s perhaps become a bit bloated? Can 400 or more wineries in one state truly thrive or better yet survive or are some going to just fade away?

The magnificent landscape, with rolling green vineyards in contrast to the golden grasses quickly captured my attention again as I pulled into Arborbrook Vineyards. Set in a remodeled old red barn, with a small playground out back, Arborbrook has a very casual, country-like and family-friendly feel.

A cordial cat was in the entrance basking in the sun and I couldn’t help but pet her as I went in. The crowded tasting room had a cheerful atmosphere, with Proprietor Mary Hanson behind the bar telling funny stories about a tasting room regular. Her story was about a guest who made such a mess with the wine one day, the next time he came in, she had a sippy cup for him with his name on it. He was actually there and produced said sippy for the roaring crowd to see. The tasting room walls were adorned with vivid paintings by local artists and Fanucchi Oils was there featuring special tastings of their oils, vinegars, tapenades and sauces (super fun).

Arborbrook was showing two Pinot Gris, a stainless steel 2008 from Croft Vineyard, and my preferred, the ’08 ANA Vineyard Pinot Gris—Alsatian-style, barrel-aged in French oak with a soft mouth, pretty straw color and vivid fruit and spice. There were several nice Pinot Noirs, but I was especially fond of the ’07 Vintner’s Select Pinot Noir. With firm tannins, I’d expect to lay this wine down for at least a couple of years, but the flavors of dark mountain berries (think blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries), cola and something else I couldn’t quite wrap my nose around (was it incense?) were already coming through with both strength and finesse. It will be interesting to watch this winery develop.

Back in my car, but only for a moment, I drove down the road, past meticulously maintained vineyard rows and into Adelsheim Vineyards. One of Oregon’s founding wineries, visiting here helps shape your sense and understanding of the state’s winemaking history. After walking through the grand foyer, reminiscent of a castle lighthouse or guard tower, I was greeted by the large and impressive tasting room with an enormous bar that seemed to flow through the room like a gentle wave and could comfortably accommodate a substantial number of guests.

Adelsheim’s tasting room is classy without being stuffy, large with plenty of room to move, yet still somehow cozy—an almost impossible combination of sophisticated and relaxed at the same time. The staff was terrific; this adorable little cellar hand named Alex (who impressed me with his ability to recall names and technical information about the wines, things I struggle with) poured for me. The whites were very acid-driven and clean (no oak) and would pair beautifully with food, while the Pinots were very fruit-driven and balanced. I ran into the guests I had seen earlier at Ponzi, and since one was a builder and he noticed I was admiring the cherry wood floors, our conversations turned from food and wine to architecture. I had to laugh out loud when he told me “If you like the floors, you have to see the bathrooms!” If he was that excited about them, I figured I’d better check them out. They were nice, with stone walls and cool, modern concrete countertops, but I was a bit confused. Adelsheim has an absolutely amazing patio overlooking acres of vineyards, a majestic tasting room with even lovelier wines, and this guy’s telling me to check out the john. I guess one never knows what’s going to strike someone else’s fancy.

I decided to end the day at Utopia Vineyards, a very small and virtually unknown producer. With just over 10 acres planted to 11 different clones of Pinot Noir, Daniel Warnshuis grows, produces and bottles a mere 550 cases per vintage. The cannons were firing regularly in the vineyards that afternoon as the previous day’s rain had brought with it tons of grape-grubbing starlings.

Daniel was busy talking with another young couple about scheduling them for a private tasting and tour of the vineyard with their friends while William the dog lounged comfortably at my feet. Daniel was tasting me through two vintages of his estate Pinot Noir (2006 and 2007 — which I think would have been more interesting to taste side by side), as well as a Malbec and Cab Franc he produced under a former label in California. Both Pinots were big and well structured, with lots of mingling fruit and oak. Later on at home, I told my husband about my new boyfriend, a really cute boy who was following me around at Utopia who lured in with his big brown eyes for some heavy petting. Good boy William!

Since embarking on this incredible journey, some interesting thoughts have started brewing in my mind. I’ve been wondering what it is that makes one tasting room stand out against the other? Because to me, even though it probably should be primarily about the wine, there’s really so much more to the big picture. All day long, I kept thinking about the Freudian expression “Sometimes a pickle is more than just a pickle” and applying the expression to tasting rooms. Sometimes a tasting room is more than just a tasting room … it can be so much deeper, so much more than just a place to sip wine. Every so often, there’s a winery that goes the extra mile or offers you an experience beyond just tasting their wines—some that are memorable and will stick with you for a lifetime; let’s call it the x-factor; the specific thing which makes that winery unique. At Marchesi, it was the true Italian hospitality and proscuitto machine, at De Ponte it’s the view and homey feel, at Cooper Mountain it’s the organic and biodynamic element, at Ponzi it’s the history and bocce ball, at Adelsheim it's the technical information and at Utopia, it was William the dog. What I’ve discovered, my big lesson for the day, is that every once in a while, in addition to an amazing bottle of wine, you can also bring home an uncommon and one-of-a-kind memory, and in a sea of tasting rooms, perhaps it’s the places providing the memories that are the ones we can expect to stick around. Until we sip again…


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