Sunday, November 15, 2009

Do You Know Where to Get Cozy in Oregon’s Wine Country?

The rain’s pouring down in soggy wet sheets, but don’t let that keep you from exploring Oregon’s wine country. Granted, you won’t enjoy the same scenic and mountain views, and you certainly won’t be playing Bocce or picnicking alongside ripening grapevines—but with less crowds and other options, off-season is a prime opportunity to taste wine and explore new wine regions. So on one exceptionally rainy autumn day, I took a very different route to wine country. I drove my car onto the Wheatland Ferry; which carried me across the rain-swollen Willamette River where I located Arcane Cellars at Wheatland Winery along the river’s banks.

Being located immediately adjacent to the Wheatland Ferry, Arcane Cellar’s Vineyard and Facilities Manager Jeff Silva naturally was a library of information about it. While he poured me through his line-up in the chilly winery, he charmed me with history: I learned that there used to be over 150 ferries crossing the Willamette River—but today, the Wheatland Ferry is one of only three remaining, and is the only full-time ferry operating. Two years ago, a new three-million-dollar, dual-cable ferry was installed to handle the quarter-million cars that cross every year. In favorable weather, Arcane offers vineyard-side Bocce, picnic grounds and outdoor tasting from their mobile bar. Watching the torrential downpour from inside was a bit different experience, but Jeff was in high spirits and his energy was infectious.

Jeff’s son Jason Silva is Arcane Cellar’s winemaker and the two have a long history in winemaking together beginning with their own Pilgrim Vineyards; the first winery in Massachusetts. Jason went to graduate school for Medieval English Literature (before studying oenology), where he found much of his inspiration for Arcane’s logo, label design and branding elements—featuring alchemic symbols and philosophy. Arcane means mysterious, secret and obscure—which the wines may be now, but winning awards like they are, they’re unlikely to remain that way for long.

Driving through a torrential downpour to the next winery along the Amity tour, I noticed the farm workers wrapping up Christmas trees for export and both felt bad for them working in that miserable weather and tried to deny that the holiday season is springing into full bloom.

I pulled into Hauer of the Dauen (pronounced Hour of the Dawn) where I disrupted Carl Dauenhauer from his afternoon newspaper on a day when the quiet is only broken by sound of the smattering rain, a periodic clap of thunder… and the occasional pesky wine taster. Hauer of the Dauen (from the family name), I’d come to learn, means “Striking of the Sunrise” in German. Carl biodyamically farms 140 acres of vineyards outside Dayton, produces only Estate-grown wines, and specializes in pouring older vintages of seven varietals in the quirky but relaxed tasting room. Clearly memorable, was a 2002 Oregon Lemberger that tasted of prunes, black currants and leather—standing out in my mind as Hauer of Dauen is the only grower/producer of this German varietal in Oregon—and a 2000 Pinot Noir Reserve (because frankly, how many nine-year-old Pinots do you get to taste? It’s usually the most current vintage) with lovely tinged-brown slightly oxidized color from age and earthy elements carrying the black fruit on its back. Carl sent me along with my bottle of Lemberger and a smile and off I set out into the mystic.

Well, on to Mystic Wines that is. Owner and winemaker Rick Mafit is surprisingly producing brilliant “Big Reds” in the west hills of Salem. With only nine acres planted, Rick gets most of his fruit from The Dalles, Oregon (in the Columbia Gorge) and has produced Oregon’s first commercial bottling of Barbera (fruit from Hood River, Oregon). Mystic’s label is a bit confusing, but when you hear it was designed by Rick’s son (when he was just a teenager), it makes sense. Using cork paper, the labels look creative and stand apart from many of the more traditional wine labels you see on the shelves.

With the wineries mostly deserted everywhere else, Mystic Wines was like a festive party. A group from Salem had rented a limousine and was out tasting and when I asked them what they were out celebrating, they simply replied, “Saturday.” Ahhh…, a group after my own heart.

Rick was telling dirty jokes behind the bar and pouring his magnificent and expressive wines while a visiting guest started up a fire to cozy up the old house. Actually, the woman who started the fire seemed like a local and regular and I later found out she worked at nearby winery called Red Hawk, but I was impressed with how Rick was able to get this beautiful lady to start a fire for him. Rick produces a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Barbera and Pinot noir. Though I loved the 2006 Syrah with lots of black—black plum, black licorice and black pepper, my hands down favorite was the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was gorgeous with blackberries, blueberries, vanilla, cocoa and some herbal notes drifting in the background. With the rain slowing down, but all the views still obscured, I left Mystic without seeing all the mountain peaks usually on display and went to visit Methven Family Vineyards.

Get past the images of seedy drug vehicles the name Methven brings to mind and embrace their traditional Scottish history instead. Dr. Alan & Jill Methvn take pride in their heritage (and their name) and provide a warm and elegant tasting room to experience their wines. Methven Family Vineyards has only 30 acres planted to grapes on their 100-acre estate, but with wine growing neighbors, the vines look like they go on for miles.

Dave, who had poured for me at Zena’s in Carlton, was tending the old honey maple bar; originally from Lincoln City, Oregon and being the only ones there, we were probably having a bit too much fun. I told Dave I heard an entire bottle of wine fits in one Riedel Oregon Pinot Noir glass and he showed me how, as a bartender, he could win big money with that trick. He took an empty bottle of wine, filled it up with water and then proceeded to pour it all into one glass—but Officer, I just had one glass of wine!

Getting back to the business at hand, I must mention Methven’s wines, because they are quite worth the mention. The 2007 Pinot Gris, crafted by winemaker Chris Lubberstedt, was exceptional… even on a cold, rainy day. Far beyond a summer sipper, this wine had complex layers of sweet green melon, tart green apples and floral jasmine. I also loved the 2007 Citizen’s Cuvee Pinot Noir, which had a light and lithe body, bright red acidic fruit, soft dried rose petals and a touch of cool mint running through. I valued Methven’s non-pretentious style (especially keeping a sense of humor), which showed when Dave presented the Pinot noir “Reserves” and told me they were reserved for someone with $45.

With an outdoor patio to soak up the breathtaking valley and mountain views, and a bocce ball court for added recreation, the winery could easily be an all-day affair (especially with weekend concerts throughout the summer months). But for me, my tasting had come to an end, and it was time to bid Dave adieux and return to my life in the suburbs.

Driving home it occurred to me that historically, it was often imperfect weather that kept me from wine tasting during the wetter months. Yes, it’s true, lingering romantic wine-filled lunches don’t have to disappear just because the sun and the view do—today’s lesson teaches that in the off-season, you just have to be a bit more creative. Mystic near Salem, Tyrus Evans and Anne Amie in Carlton, Coelho in Amity and Maysara in McMinnville are all examples of fantastic winter wineries… they each have comfortable seating areas, with fireplaces, food and some even have games to while away the day. So, next time the rain comes beating down your door, escape to wine country—find a nice cozy spot to snuggle up with a glass of wine and let it warm you from the inside out. Until we sip again…

Cheers!

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