I headed off towards downtown Carlton again for what quickly was becoming my routine weekly wine tasting sojourn and found myself awestruck and emotionally moved by the powerful colors of Fall beginning to strangle out the last life of Summer. The hazelnut trees were shedding their fruit into a veritable carpet of brown nuts in the orchards and the excitement of Harvest was buzzing all around.
My first stop of the day was the six-acre vineyard estate of Carlo & Julian located just on the edge of town. With roosters squawking, an abundance of cats roaming the grounds, a certain wild feeling and a virtually unmarked tasting room in the wine cellar, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place until winemaker and proprietor, Felix Madrid quickly and quietly assured me I was.
Felix invited me into the tasting area located in the cool and dark barrel room whose focal point (besides the oak barrels full of aging wine) was an antique stained glass window recovered from a church in Nova Scotia appropriately decorated with the words “Go work a day in my vineyard”. That window got me thinking: Winemaking seems like such a romantic gig, but until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, or worked a day in their vineyard, you really could never understand the blood, sweat and tears that goes into each bottle.
Felix of course grows Pinot Noir, however he is the only vineyard in downtown Carlton growing sophisticated and distinctive Tempranillo, Merlot, Carmeniere and Malbec (in line with his Argentinean heritage); and in this vast sea of Pinot Noir, it was most interesting to explore some other varietals grown in the region. I wondered if thoughts of global warming were motivating Felix to grow some warmer climate varietals, but I’ve heard that Carlton is its own little micro-climate with a pocket of warmer air and I’ve noticed several of the wineries in the area experimenting with red wine varietals other than Pinot noir. One of the things I really liked, and admired, about Carlo & Julian was the simplicity of everything. There was no pretense, no fancy, shmancy granite counters and cherry cabinets… instead it was raw and beautiful and purely about the wine (probably much like the pioneering days of Oregon winemaking when many of the producers tasted out of their garages).
I left Carlo & Julian with a bottle of 2005 Estate Tempranillo and instructions to lay it down for five years, dreaming of the dishes I could pair with it that night… paella, a big bowl of cioppino or a mouth-watering appetizer of figs and goat cheese wrapped in prosciutto.
I went to the opposite side of the quaint little town that seems to revolve around the wine industry (with more wineries per square foot than probably anywhere else, i.e. more tasting rooms than Starbucks and churches, combined!) where I found Cana’s Feast Winery, formerly Cuneo Cellar. Cana’s Feast, though practically in town, has a real country-esque feel with an expansive outdoor patio, well-tended Bocce ball courts, a relaxing view of the Coastal range and the scents of olive and lemon trees, stone pines, and Italian cypresses lingering in the air.
The pièce de résistance is Cana’s Italian Cucina, an indoor/outdoor restaurant serving a seasonally inspired Mediterranean menu. I highly recommend working this restaurant into your tasting schedule. The chef uses all seasonal and local ingredients (mostly from their Estate garden, preparing everything by hand… from bread, pastas and sausages to stocks, chutneys and jams—and it’s all ridiculously reasonably priced. If you plan to visit, dinner is served on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays and lunch on Friday, Saturday and Sundays.
The wines were rich and bold, pairing well with their hearty Italian food. I had a 2006 Bricco Pinot Noir with nice, bright red fruit, a good strong backbone and nice supple tannins and five other Bricco wines (also good), all sourced from eastern Washington and southern Oregon. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I even tasted the Canas Feast wines. The name Canas Feast refers to the biblical story of the wedding feast where Jesus turns water into wine. A point I tried to look past as I’ve never really been particularly fond of having religion poured down my throat in any capacity, especially not in the form of wine. There seems to be a bit of confusion on what to call the wines. They used to be Cuneo, then they switched to Canas Feast with a lower-priced tier called Bricco, which they are also now dropping and putting all their wines under the Canas Feast label. Did you follow that? Yes, I agree, one label sounds a lot less confusing.
Located adjacent to Canas Feast is the Carlton Winemakers Studio, so off I went. The sign on the door to the Studio said they were open and to ring the bell, which I did repeatedly, but with no answer. I was about to leave when a lovely young girl finally let me, and the other guests who were also waiting, in. One of the guests (a buyer for Stumptown Coffee) tried to bribe her with a couple of bags of beans making me slightly jealous—nobody’s ever brought me gifts in trade for wine tastings (hint, hint). She offered us a tour of the winery (piggybacking on another guests’ scheduled tour I believe) and showed us around the winery and cellar—which oddly enough featured a climbing wall. The facility is built with sustainability in mind, incorporating many recycled and reused materials and is an ingenious concept providing ten winemakers a state-of-the-art production operation to vinify and then showcase their wines.
Though a bit spendy, it’s definitely a worthwhile stop to become exposed to some of Oregon’s newest and most interesting artisanal producers. Unfortunately, my pourer seemed more interested in schmoozing two special guests and she disappeared to the outdoor patio leaving me alone. After waiting around to purchase a bottle of wine, for what seemed way too much time, I finally left empty-handed, impressed with the wines, the building and the philosophy… just wishing they had the service to match.
I parked on West Main and walked the remainder of my wine tour. Carlton’s an amazing destination like that, you don’t have the vineyards and the views, but if you’re looking to taste a lot of different Oregon limited production wineries, with 20 different tasting rooms, it’s your town. Though it’s obviously great to have such a variety of choices, I couldn’t help but be vividly reminded of the Boulder Mall Crawl from my college days at University of Colorado. Always an observer and never a participant, every Halloween, the pedestrian mall turned into a frenzy of drunks trying to visit as many bars as they could, literally crawling to the next by the end of the evening. Having that much alcohol accessible in such a short amount of time just can’t be good… be it Colorado or Carlton.
Off my soapbox and back to wine tasting at Zena’s, where surprisingly, they don’t produce any Pinot noir (yes, you heard me correct). A family-owned winery producing four wines, mostly from the Del Rio Vineyard in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon. Their dry Riesling, actually using local fruit from Montinore was expressive with lots of tropical fruit, a touch of apricots and citrus zing with subtle spice, nice minerality and lively acidity. I also enjoyed their Cabernet Franc’s full body and flavor profile, including dark fruit, currants, spice and toasted nuts.
Next door, at Hawkins Cellar, which just opened its doors in April of this year, I enjoyed a memorable 2007 Syrah from the Columbia Valley. At $20, it was an amazing value, and though the bottle has sadly been long finished, I keep thinking I should go back and get another. Woody was pouring that day, and a musician at heart; I could definitely see the performer in him. I enjoyed our conversation and looking at newspaper clippings of him and his 200-pound rescue Saint Bernard. Yeah, I’m a sucker for the dog.
Continue your walk down Main and stop in at Terra Vina, formerly Dalla Vina where you’ll find a variety of well-crafted wines from very select Oregon and Washington vineyards. Producing just over 1800 cases at Owen Roe, Terra Vina’s wines have won numerous awards—with low tannins (using no seeds and stems in the fermentation process) they’re easy to drink when young. The stand-out wine for me was the 2007 Terra Vina Malbec from the Columbia Valley with a deep, dark, alluring color, a base of sweet, ripe, dark fruit, with underlying flavors of cassis, cocoa, tobacco and sweet molasses. It was plush and lush with good strength and balance. Emily, who was pouring wines that day, was joking that their Malbec would make a fantastic crayon color and she should send the color into Crayola—I think she’s onto something, the color was spectacular.
Apparently, Carlton does “hospitality”. Cliff Creek Cellars was also serving Honest Chocolate’s truffles made from their wine along with some creamy Rogue blue cheese and crackers as well. Cliff Creek’s wines are all crafted by Joe Dobbes using only Estate-grown fruit from Sam’s Valley Vineyard in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley. I was greeted (and I say that loosely because it was more like being chased away) by the tasting room mascot, a Yorkshire Terrier named Joey who was very threatening dressed in her cute, fuzzy, pink sweater. Bethany (the tasting room manager), poured wine, while Joey contentedly lounged on a kind guest’s lap as if she was royalty. I chatted with a guy who was out with his wife celebrating his 40th birthday with a visit to wine country. We had both tasted at seven wineries so far and I was surprised he could match my stamina. But since he wasn’t spitting, I wonder how long his birthday celebration continued. Happy 40th Matt, hope it was a great one! Of the wines at Cliff Creek, I especially enjoyed their 2004 Syrah. Its nose was like a box of chocolate covered cherries, sweet and rich… I could smell it all day long. In the mouth, it was smooth, full-bodied and tasted of blackberries and toasted almonds. Some of these wines taste so good now; when I hear they’ll only improve with age, it’s almost incomprehensible. But I bow to the expert and have my bottles lying down, as instructed… for now.
A few doors down I easily located Barking Frog. With an interesting name and frogs all around the tasting room, one just has to ask. So, what’s with the frogs? Actually, it turned out to be an interesting story: Native American legend tells that the barking frog is a symbol for prosperity and a sign to mankind that the environment is in harmony. This philosophy sits well with a winery that only purchases grapes from vineyards practicing sustainable farming and also uses the Vinoseal glass seal closure instead of cork. Winemaker and principal Ron Helbig produces his wines at August Cellars in Newberg with fruit from both Washington and Oregon. Like many of the wineries in the area, they paired their wines with truffles whose ganache was made from their own wines. A large group pre-funking between wedding ceremony and reception was joking about how no one ever takes the last piece of food. While I was contemplating this theory, heavily eyeing a single dark chocolate truffle sitting oh so lonely on the plate, the next guest who walked in quickly and eagerly snatched that last morsel of chocolaty goodness up. I guess the theory doesn’t apply to chocolate.
Just steps away is Folin Cellars who just built a brand new winery in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley and also strategically takes advantage of Carlton’s captive audience with a tasting room on Main. Folin produces 500-1100 cases annually of Estate-grown, warmer-climate Rhone varietals and a Tempranillo. And like some of their environmentally conscious neighbors, instead of cork (or screw caps), they’re also using the Vinoseal glass seal closure. It’s kind of like a glass cork, there’s still a bit of ritual involved in presentation and opening, but it’s even better because it’s new and modern… it’s just plain cool. The wines that won my heart were a 2007 Viogner, smelling of melon, peach, citrus and white flowers. The wine was exotic with lingering flavors of tropical fruit, melon and cream. The 2008 Tempranillo Rose was like no Rose I’ve ever tasted, it was almost red in color (for those men afraid of pink wine) with surprising aromas of earth and smoke (I assume by the earth and smoke flavor that it was either aged or fermented in oak, but I honestly forgot to ask). I also enjoyed their 2006 Syrah—sweet and spicy with strong flavors of dark cherries, cola and coffee.
Seven of Hearts was my final stop of the day and after tasting so many Rogue Valley wines; it was almost oddly refreshing to taste cool climate Willamette Valley varietals again. The name Seven of Hearts holds a number of different meanings. Originally inspired by a medieval-style, Burgundian playing card winemaker/principal Byron Dooley picked up while vacationing in France, and also as a tribute to his remarkable cat Seven. The wines are classic French-style—pure, elegant and complex. I started with a 2008 Chardonnay that was crisp and citrusy, with subtle minerality and excellent structure from neutral French oak. The 2008 Chatte d’Avignon (a blend of Viognier and Roussanne) was just as Byron described, friendly, approachable and full of personality, like the cat it was named for. The Willamette Valley is making great white blends worthy of exploration. Byron’s Pinot noir’s are sourced from prized vineyard sites and his portfolio includes a few single-vineyard bottlings and a few cuvees. My favorite was the 2007 Pinot Noir The Cost Vineyard from the Eola-Amita region. This wine had a nice light color with bright red raspberries, moist earth, cracked black pepper and just a kiss of some fragrant violets. I enjoyed how Byron’s wines let the expression of the terrior show through, it’s a perfect example of how Pinot Noir tells you where it’s from, if you pay attention.
Also sharing space with the Seven of Hearts Carlton tasting room is the candy-making kitchen for Honest Chocolates. Byron’s wife Dana is the genius chocolatier who developed a line of wine tasting chocolates designed to complement Pinot noir and other favorite Pacific Northwest varietals and has since personally created truffles for many of the area tasting rooms using those wineries’ wines as the foundation. Very special, very unique—and if you ever thought wine and chocolate weren’t a match made in heaven, you obviously haven’t tried Honest Chocolates.
As I drove home along Hwy 240 after a very full day of tasting (enjoying the scenery and avoiding the Dundee traffic jam), I passed Carlo & Julian and remembered the stained-glass window, adorned with the expression “Work a day in my vineyard”. This saying seemed to be haunting me throughout the day as I was thinking about in the terms of “Walk a mile in my shoes”. I realized I’ve been exploring this very topic recently. I’ve noticed when I’ve spoken with winemakers and winery owners about my project; some of them have told me they’d prefer my job (they must realize I don’t get paid for this—in fact there’s a negative cash flow effect taking place). When I’m at work at Cooper Mountain Vineyards, I’ve had guests look at me with fluttering eyelashes, romantically asking how one goes about getting a job in a tasting room, because it would be so fun. Is it simply a case of the grass is always greener? When it comes down to it, if someone’s good at what they do, they make it look easy and their title might sound romantic, but if we could only work a day in their vineyard, we’d soon realize everyone goes through the same stress, expectation, disappointment, rejection, failures and day-to-day dull drum as anyone else. Since writing this blog post however, I’ve starting to think about that expression at greater length and see it through a different and brighter light. Perhaps the saying is an invitation to all who see: Work a day in my vineyard… and you’ll see life blossoming and flourishing. See hard work come to fruition with wine that’s like poetry in a glass. Like the poetry in Felix Madrid’s stained glass.
Still more Carlton to come (very soon). Until we sip again…