Saturday, October 17, 2009

Living La Dolce Vita… in Carlton

Driving along the back-country roads past farmhouses where livestock aplenty roam sprawling acreage, I couldn’t help but reminisce about my years living in the remote countryside of southwestern Colorado where my daily commute was more like a scenic route along similar roads, past similar farmhouses with similar sprawling acreage.

I pulled into the quaint little town of Carlton with one blinking stoplight and a quiet demeanor. I immediately noticed the Tyrus Evan tasting room in the old train Depot and since traditionally train stations would be the first impression visitors had of a town, I figured it would be an appropriate first stop for me as well.

Built in 1923, the notable historic Depot is experiencing a new revival as a tasting room for Tyrus Evan’s wines. But once upon a time, it was Carlton’s “Red Electric Car Station,” established as a way station along the Southern Pacific Railroad between Portland and St. Joseph to help farmers get their produce to the nearby cities without having to travel such great distances. The Old-West feeling has been beautifully and authentically preserved and is seen throughout the Victorian-era building, from structural features to western-themed décor which also vividly and almost painfully reminded me of the establishments in the old-western town of Durango, Colorado where I lived before landing in Oregon.

Legendary Oregon Pinot noir winemaker Ken Wright crafts Tyrus Evan wines and the label is named for his two sons (their middle names actually) who may one day take the helm. In the meantime, Ken has a chance to work with some warmer-climate varietals specializing in big, juicy, expressive and mouth-watering Syrahs and Clarets (varietal blends also known as Bordeaux) using fruit from friends with some of the best vineyard sites in the Pacific Northwest. Depending on the vintage, Ken also makes Viognier, Chardonnay and individual bottlings of Cabernet Franc or Malbec.

The inviting and comfortable tasting room features a traditional parlor area with plush seating which was occupied by a group amusing themselves on a perfectly lazy Sunday afternoon with a variety of board games, wine and a lovely cheese plate complete with pepper jelly and dried pears (available for purchase). The wines were presented in individual glasses on a clever tasting placemat printed with each of the wine’s vintage, varietal (or blend), vineyards and price. Tyrus Evan has given new meaning to the marketing term “branding” as their label itself ingeniously looks like a cattle brand. Ken plans on keeping production small, but as the secret gets out, I’m not sure how possible that will be.

The real beauty of downtown Carlton, besides the obvious and external visual beauty, is that it’s a destination in and of itself. With tasting rooms, restaurants and shops all within a few-block’s walk, I just parked my car and wandered the town for the day. I found my way into Scott Paul Wines, where in striking contrast to the soothing, “days of yore” feeling of Tyrus Evan, the more contemporary bustling bar was offering up a Scott Paul Pinot noir as well as a variety of French Burgundy imports to taste.

Founders and proprietors Martha and Scott Wright were both behind the bar sharing their passion, their story and their wines. Founded first in 1999, they built their current winery and tasting room in 2005 (complete for the 2006 vintage which is on their current tasting menu) in two buildings dating back to 1915 when they were used as a granary and creamery. The original granary roof was recycled and used for both the tasting room ceiling and bar front—serving its purpose decoratively, artistically and functionally.

Because Scott Paul is a direct national importer for small family producers in Burgundy France, what they do special, (in addition to their elegant Pinot noir which is true to both location and the classic French style) is offer guests the experience of tasting Old World and New World Pinot noir side by side. The French Pinots were lovely, but I’m not going to remark on them because they’re not part of my Oregon tour of wine. The 2006 Scott Paul La Paulee Pinot Noir was inviting and somewhat mysterious. The ‘06 vintage produced wines that were concentrated, big and fruity, as was this one. Though lacking any real earthy characteristics, there was a beautiful, soft under-layer of roses, strawberries and pepper that made the wine bold while maintaining its finesse; a good example of balance. The wine was a blend of four different vineyards sites from all over the Willamette Valley including the prized Shea, Ribbon Ridge, Momtazzi and Stoller Vineyards. I left Scott Paul thinking about how everyone has their own unique story; and like all stories, some are better than others.

Solena has one of the most romantic stories by far. In 2000, Laurant and Danielle Andrus Montalieu purchased an eighty-acre estate as a wedding gift to each other. The story goes that instead of registering for traditional gifts like china, crystal and silver, the couple registered for clones of Pinot noir to plant their vineyard. Ultimately, I guess all the love of their family and friends can be found in each of the vines and each individual cluster of grapes. Solena, named for the couple’s daughter, is a combination of two names meaning “sun” and “moon”, and to the Montalieus it represents the celebration of life. They also own and operate NW Wine Company which is a custom winemaking facility located in McMinnville where small producers can use state of the art equipment to vinify their wines. The Montalieus are also preparing to open a brand new winery and tasting room in Yamhill (as to whether they’ll continue with their downtown location, has still yet to be decided).

Lynnette was pouring the wine in the tasting room that day, and though she slyly confessed to me it was only her third day, her understanding of the brand and the wines was that of a seasoned professional. Solena makes an estate Pinot noir and sources the rest of the fruit for a full portfolio of wines making for a new tasting experience every time you visit. While I really enjoyed all the wines, the one that struck me the most was the 2007 Grand Cuvee. At only $25, this value-driven wine didn’t lack in quality one bit. The deep, ruby color was enhanced with the aromas of pie cherries and sweet strawberries with nuances of floral and spice. The bright acids in this lively wine reminded me of how good Pinots are enhanced by lighter foods like fish, pork and chicken, and I thought the ’07 Grand Cuvee would be the perfect food complement, so I bought a bottle for the collection.

Located in the old bank building, circa 1910, you’ll find The Tasting Room and EIEIO, named by owner and winemaker Jay “Old” McDonald that is the oldest tasting room in Carlton. I really enjoyed the use of the original bank vault as a wine cellar holding nearly 50 different Northwest varietals.  I was confused and slightly put off when the manager explained to me she didn’t honor industry discounts because she was a retail outlet. If they’re the tasting room for EIEIO and sell other wine too, how was that different from any other tasting room in the Valley?

I left pondering this dilemma but quickly forgot when I arrived at Troon Vineyard’s tasting room located on N. Kutch, just off the main drag. The organically grown vineyards are located in the Applegate Valley near Grants Pass, Oregon and they just completed a brand new winery facility with tasting room and full kitchen where you can taste at the source. The Carlton tasting room allows the winery to reach an even larger audience though and they will continue their Carlton presence.

Troon’s tasting room was large and interesting with unfinished cement walls and enormous cement bins holding at least a pallet of wine in each. Karissa kindly poured me through the current flight; which started with a classic 2008 Viognier smelling of pear and green apple with lingering tastes of apricot and lemon grass. I also enjoyed the 2005 Blossom Fire Cabernet Reserve; which if I closed my eyes, it very well could have been a bowlful of plums, black cherries, licorice and toffee-covered hazelnuts. The 2007 Druids Fluid is the winery’s bestseller. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet, Zinfandel and Syrah, this fruit-forward wine was pleasing with a mouthful of sweet, chocolate covered cherries and red raspberries. Hunter and I enjoyed a bottle on that early fall evening with a hearty chili con carne which warmed us to the bone. You know I’m not the biggest fan of stickies (sweet wines), so I was somewhat reluctant when I saw a Tempranillo Port on the tasting horizon. Troon removed all doubt from my mind with their lovely and distinguished 2007 Insomnia Port. Paired with Honest Chocolate’s truffles, the wine was ripe with flavors of dates, currants, candied apples and amaretto and was the perfect end to the perfect day. My lesson for the day was simple. Never question or never turn down a little dolce. Until we sip again…



Anonymous said...

HMMMM? Carlton for wine and chocolate or Durango for beer and rocky mountain oysters.

6512 and growing said...

Nice to see you venturing into the one part of Oregon I know! I'd love to see a map on your website showing where in Oregon your forays take place.

Tamara Belgard said...

Rachel - great suggestion and something I'm working on. It's just been a matter of too much project, too little time and money!

Anonymous - Sorry, but think I'll stick to wine & chocolate! Taking a big pass on the RM oysters, I'm adventurous, but not that adventurous.