Or-y-gun. If you’ve never been there, you probably pronounce it Or-e-gone; which sounds a bit like nails on a chalkboard to any Oregonian. The state, however you pronounce it, is a relatively undiscovered tourist destination—the name Oregon conjures up images of rain, endless green trees, unpolluted air, rain, beavers and more rain. What you probably don’t know about the happy-hippy-hillbilly state is that in addition to the abundantly cleansing rain and gorgeous greenery, it’s also a culinary Mecca, musical Motown, coffee capital and known by locals for some of the finest Microbrews in the nation. On the seedier side, Oregon has the adult entertainment arena cornered. Satisfying virtually any indulgence, the state has more strip clubs per square mile than any other place. But, if your indulgence happens to be wine (like mine) rest assured you’re definitely in the right place, because with nearly 400 wineries in the state, there’s certainly a little something for everyone.
Most recently, my quest has taken me to the most northern tip of the Willamette Valley where I visited the wineries and vineyards of Washington County’s Forest Grove and Gaston. I started the day at Apolloni Vineyards enjoying owner/winemaker Alfredo Apolloni’s Italian-style wines and the picturesque country setting of their location. In the tasting room/barrel room, Toni started me off with a 2008 Pinot Blanc which although had a lovely bouquet of honeysuckle and pears just didn’t have a whole lot going on in the mid-palate or the finish. The 2007 Pinot Grigio by contrast, was 100% stainless-steel fermented and 100% crisp and clean. It had a solid core of pear and melon and I understood the winemaker’s fruit-forward intention, capturing the true fruit flavors. The next wine became my veritable quandary for the day. It was a 2008 Pinot Noir Rose (with five-percent Viognier) that blew me away with an intense nosefull of sweet strawberry and watermelon juxtaposed against a mouth that exploded with tart and zingy grapefruit. With my nose in the glass and my mind spinning in dilemna, I pondered how a wine could smell so drastically differently than it tastes. I brought a bottle of this wine home for my husband Hunter knowing his fear of pink wines—thinking this may just be the one that finally wins him over and makes him think pink.
Alfredo embraces a long tradition in winemaking from his Italian family roots in the Arezzo region of Tuscany. The label was inspired by their original family Coat-of-Arms and features a black eagle as a symbol of strength. Alfredo’s philosophy includes extended barrel aging time for the reds allowing for easier approachability and smooth yet structured tannins; evidenced by the 2007 Laurine Pinot Noir which had a nice, light color typical of the ’07 vintage (and typical of a true Burgundian style). The flavors of dark fruit dominated with black plums and black cherries standing out against the backdrop of moist earth and sandalwood. The 2006 Estate Pinot Noir showed like a typical ’06 with big, bold black fruit, cassis and chocolate; a limited edition and like the ’07 Laurine, an excellent example of both vintage and terrior. The 2007 Soleggio was an interesting and easy-drinking blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot. I tasted bright red cherries, figs and a peppery spice that added a layer of intrigue to this food-friendly any-day wine.
Toni reminded me to go visit her neighbors at Purple Cow, which was just 200 feet or so down the road, so I popped in on winemaker/owner Jon Armstrong, who was ready to pour for me—but not till I first passed the Quincy Test. I pulled up to the house where I was quickly approached by what could be considered a large and intimidating dog to some (but not to someone who owned a 120-pound wolf dog). I opened the door, trying to get a gauge on this dog’s friendly factor. He gave me two barks and a growl, at which I replied, “Too bad, I’m getting out and you’re gonna like it!” Clearly what he needed to hear, and passing his test, he let me exit my vehicle, pet his belly and enter Jon’s tasting area. Having the bonus of the winemaker pouring for me, I took advantage to explore some of his thoughts on varietals, blending, biodynamic farming and even marketing.
Jon has an experimental personality and believes in creating a new perspective of Oregon wines with uncommon combinations. For instance, the 2008 Siegerrebe is a cross of Gewurztraminer and Madeline Angevine, a cool-climate early ripener with an intense aroma reminiscient of Muscat. Another of those puzzling wines of the day for me, its nose was sweet of melon, apricot and sweet lemon, tricking your mind into expecting sweetness, but without a hint of residual sugar, it was bone-dry and caught my palate pleasantly by surprise. Jon makes two Pinot noirs, both named in honor of his daughters. The 2007 Pinot Noir Sophie’s Edition showed a lovely light color with excellent structure, velvety mouth feel, bright yet balanced acids and lots of black fruit and dark chocolate. The 2007 Kelsey’s edition was not yet available to taste but was grown with 100% estate-grown fruit, I look forward to trying it. The 2005 Tempranillo (with fruit sourced from California) spent 27 months in barrel and dreamily tasted of smooth leather, raisins, dried cherries and vanilla.
To Jon, the Purple Cow has become a symbol for remarkability and an appropriate mascot for the brand. He recounted the tale about when his daughter Sophia was small, she joked about a toy purple cow knowing full well that cows weren’t purple. That moment stuck with Jon and was further driven home by a marketing book of the same name by Seth Godin, promoting business strategies Jon identified with. I admired Jon’s technical savvy about winemaking and vineyard management, but was even more excited about his experimental nature and to see a break from tradition. We should all keep our eyes peeled to see what comes out of Jon’s cellar in vintages to come.
After Quincy escorted me to my car, like the perfect gentleman he was, I set off for Shafer Vineyard Cellars. The 70-acre estate, founded in 1973, is tucked into the Gales Creek Valley and bordered by regal old oak trees. I think Miki Shafer sensed my confusion about her second business attached to the tasting room (a complete Santa, Christmas ornament and Wreath Shop) because when I approached the counter to taste, Miki immediately set the record straight, telling me she had no time for wine snobs. Afraid she could smell my fear and was reading wine snob written across my forehead (though I tried to wipe it off before I went in, but I think my notebook gave me away), I began tasting a very extensive lineup of good, value-driven wines. The stand-out of the wines was the 2008 Shafer’s Cuvee, an impressive, bone-dry sparkling Chardonnay with the perfect balance of citrus and effervescence. Though not really a deal at $38.50, I couldn’t justify the purchase, but with extremely generous case discounts (50% with 2 or more cases), this wine would be a show-stopper for any celebration.
David Hill Winery & Vineyards was next up on the tour and as I descended upon the estate from the dirt road running above, I saw the vineyards still changing colors in the fall season, sweeping views of the Coastal Range and the quietly quixotic and historic farmhouse nestled in the grounds. With over 15 wines to explore, Tasting Room Associate Amy had her pouring work cut out for her. The white wines didn’t appeal to me much as I thought they all had a bit too much residual sugar and a sweet taste I just generally don’t seek out unless it’s a dessert wine. Moving onto the reds, I tasted a 2007 Estate Pinot Noir that seemed slightly out of balance with a soft structure and high acids—I could see why they were trying to move it out at the bargain price of $16.00. Nevertheless, the 2006 Barrel Select Pinot Noir had distinctive aromas of red berries and spice with hints of earth and vanilla, round tannins and detectible acids which made this wine a solid example of a quality Pinot Noir. I fell hard for the Farmhouse Red though—at $10.00 a bottle, the price immediately grabs your attention, but the wine doesn’t let you down one bit either. A clever blend of Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, this easy-drinking, soft and fruity everyday wine is a must have for anyone’s table, add to that a 15% case and it’s practically a steal!
If David Hill is the epitome of serene romance, Montinore Estate is like the grand castle. Drive through Oregon’s largest continuous estate vineyard—230-acres of organic and biodynamically farmed grapevines located on an east-facing slope on the foothills of the Coastal Range Mountains. Peruse the enormous Victorian-era mansion, the view from the deck overlooking the vineyards or grab the croquet set from the Tasting Room and explore the estate in a different and more sporting manner. The large and elegant tasting room had a relaxed feel and knowledgeable friendly staff pouring wines for a decent-sized crowd.
By this point, I was sharing the bar with many of the same guests I had seen at other tasting rooms, forming new friendships along the way. Amy gave me a wine menu, directing me to select five wines to taste and a difficult task even for an experienced taster, I thought it might be a bit daunting for a newbie. I intended to choose wines I thought would best represent the winery, but ended up opting for what looked interesting to me at that particular moment. I began my tour of Montinore wines with their 2007 Reserve Gewurztraminer that beautifully expressed citrus and floral aromatics. With a rich mouth feel, but completely dry, the wine was refreshing with delightfully playful acidity. I loved the 2007 Parsons Ridge with dark fruit flavors and earthy undertones and saw great promise in the arresting 2007 Graham’s Block 7 Pinot Noir. With only 10 months in barrel, I think the wine should have served a bit more time to mellow out the tannins, but if cellared properly, it still may reach its fullest potential. The wine was well-structured, complete and round with fruit flavors that grabbed you right up front. There was a beautiful background of truffles and forest floor and a pleasant, long, balanced finish. The 2007 Syrah “Columbia Valley” was excellent—jammy, smelling and filling the mouth with wild-berry pie. If you don’t know by now, I’m kind of a dessert girl and my favorite way to finish any tasting is to leave with a sweet memory on my palate. So, that said, I thoroughly enjoyed Montinore’s ports and sweet white dessert wines, which left me with that perfectly sweet, not cloying and overly-syrupy memory I was hoping for.
Making Plum Hill Vineyards the next stop on my tour of Forest Grove and Gaston wineries, I learned the tasting room has only been open to guests for one year, as the land had just been purchased two years prior. Originally a dairy farm, the country ranch tasting room is also home to a gift shop featuring work by local artists. A large yellow Labrador named Ghost lounged almost invisibly at my feet. Practically blending in with the wood floors, and quietly sleeping the day away, he was like a ghost in the tasting room. I particularly enjoyed the fact that some details have not been overlooked; such as the labor-intensive, hand-dipped waxed bottles (a process typically reserved for more expensive wines) and their generous hospitality. With mountain views, picnic area, covered deck and gracious staff, the ranch home welcomes you with open arms.
I continued up the road to Patton Valley Vineyards, driving up the steep winding road through the longest blackberry bramble I’ve ever seen. I played with the winery’s dogs, pushing Gracie around, getting her excited until she pounced on Lucie—probably enjoying it a bit too much before I even began tasting the wines. It was Christina’s first day pouring behind the bar, but clearly a natural, you never would have known it. Patton Valley focuses on Pinot noir and was showing only four wines from estate-grown fruit. The wines were exceptional, each a beautiful expression of vineyard location. The 2007 de-Classified Pinot Noir was not at all serious with bright cherry flavors, zippy acids and a light color and body. The flagship wine is their signature Patton Valley Pinot Noir. The ’07 vintage exhibited smoke, cherry pie, damp earth and some baking spice. The finish was long with blackberries, sweet vanilla and cocoa. The 2007 10-Acre Block Pinot Noir (from the coolest parts of the vineyard) had lots of forest berries and dry earth on the nose which when hit your palate, burst with red fruit like cherries, plum and tart cranberries. Underneath all that fruit, lies a solid layer of caramel and hazelnuts adding further complexity to the wine. The 2007 West Block Pinot Noir was elegant, with aromas of white flowers, truffle and spice that opened up to a mouth of crushed black fruit, cinnamon with hints of black tea and vanilla that kept you coming back for more. I drove back down the road, paying close attention to the stunning views as thankfully recommended by my friend Cindy Anderson in her Wine Country Oregon Guidebook.
When I pulled out of Patton Valley, I realized it was getting rather late and it was unlikely for me to make it to Elk Cove Vineyards, my planned last stop of the day. With agenda in mind, I made the drive anyway, figuring I only had a few gallons of gas to lose. I pulled into Elk Cove, driving down through the bowl of vineyards surrounded by oak trees whose leaves were burning shades of bright red, rust and orange. I waltzed into the tasting room at 4:55 pm prepared for sneers and frowns to be met instead by welcoming arms and smiles. The staff of two genuinely offered exceptional service, even in the minutes leading up to and then after their official closing time—while old Cosmo slept by the door, oblivious to all. I certainly wasn’t a VIP, but the staff treated me like somebody special and never made me feel rushed… now that’s service. The tasting room was light and bright, with enormous windows to take in the view, an open, teepee-style roof and a Colorado elk guarding the bar.
Winemaker Adam Campbell crafts wines that are simply exquisite, apparent even at the end of the day when I thought my palate was fried. The 2008 Pinot Blanc was feminine and slightly austere, with essences of flowers and citrus. The 2008 Pinot Gris was 100% stainless-steel fermented, with clean, straightforward flavors of green apple and lime. The 2007 Viognier (from Del Rio Vineyards in Southern Oregon and only available for purchase in the tasting room) had a lot going on—super ripe flavors of apricot, honeysuckle, ginger, and white peach with flavors of honey and apricots that really hung around. The 2007 Pinot Noir was classic-French in style, with a light ruby red color, and a heavily nuanced balance of fruit, spice and earth; another shining example of true Willamette Valley Pinot noir. Adam makes a Syrah from Del Rio fruit as well, that was as masculine as the Pinot Blanc was feminine. The 2007 Syrah had big berry flavors with chocolate, toast and some herbal accents I just couldn’t quite pin down. The wine was pungent and exciting, like a spice rack in a bottle! I was happy to finish the day’s tasting off with a 2008 Late Harvest Riesling that had a captivating perfumed nose of tropical fruit, honey orange blossom and jasmine. With high acids to balance the sugar, the wine was light, satisfying and the perfect close to the day. After rescuing me from an eager yellow-jacket making a beeline for my neck, the tasting room staff then took the time to give me written directions for a lovely scenic shortcut home (thanks ladies!). I was impressed by Elk Cove to say the least—the staff repeatedly went above and beyond to provide the highest level of service without a hint of attitude, the grounds were magnificent with 180 acres of vineyard views stretching out before your eyes, and both a large deck and quaint gazebo to soak it up from and the wines were first-rate—truly a winning combination.
A quarter-way into my journey visiting every one of Oregon’s nearly 400 winery tasting rooms in one year’s time, the big lesson I want to share with you is a reminder to anyone who has read my blog in the past or any new readers joining us—what this blog is about is simply sharing the experiences of my crazy journey with you. Sometimes those experiences are about the wine, perhaps it’s just one wine that really struck me hard. Sometimes I talk about the people (the family, the winemaker or the staff), or the history, the philosophy, the scene… sometimes I just write about the dog. I’m not a wine expert and I don’t pretend to be—I wouldn’t presume to know what you like or tell you what to buy. What I do present is my honest impressions from my visits and I hope you’ll take those impressions into consideration when planning your trip to Oregon’s wine country. If you’re not planning on visiting anytime soon, there is still something for you to get out of my blog—perhaps you’ll learn something about wine, hospitality, Oregon, travel, adventure, commitment, me or even about yourself. Until we sip again…