With an unprecedented number of wineries in 50 of the United States (and more popping up like dandelions in a once grassy field), grabbing a friend and hitting the wine trail for the day could be much easier than you might think. For me, that meant grabbing my friend Krista and making a quick trek to explore the wineries of McMinnville, Oregon.
Too busy being typical gabby girls, we cruised right by our first scheduled stop (Stonewolf—in next blog post) but promptly located Walnut City WineWorks in a quiet residential part of town situated oddly enough, directly across the street from a high school. WineWorks, founded in 2000, is housed in an old walnut processing plant from the 1950’s. It’s currently operating as a wine production facility with four separate brands vinifying and showing their wines on site. In addition to Walnut City WineWorks, you’ll be able to taste Bernard Machado, Z’IVO, Robinson Reserve and Carlton Hill Vineyard. What sets WineWorks apart from facilities like the Carlton Winemaker’s Studio? WineWorks maintains a hand tending the grapes with their sister company that manages over 200 acres of vineyards. Rumor has it; WineWorks’ sister company has grown, grafted and planted over one million vines in the Willamette Valley… and unlike over one billion Big Macs served, that’s a legacy WineWorks can be proud of.
Walnut City WineWorks’ Tasting Room Manager Jennifer Kadell greeted us warmly, poured her wines with clear confidence, presented some factual history of McMinnville I didn’t know (for instance that it was nicknamed Walnut City because of all the area’s orchards and nut processing plants) and then way above and beyond. She made tantalizing recipe recommendations, promoted local dining establishments and told us funny stories (like the one about the high school student who very unsuccessfully tried to pass himself off as a mature wine taster while his friends likely waited outside snickering).
The wines were all very different styles, which Jennifer referred to as one-stop-shopping—offering a wine to please all taste buds. Walnut City WineWorks was showing two vintages of their Pinot noir. The 2006 Reserve was from older vines with a lightly fruity, dried black cherry presence, filled out nicely with spicy pepper, cinnamon and a bit of earth, whereas the 2007 was all bright, zingy, sweet red cherry fruit with some dusty mint—not very complicated but a perfect everyday wine. I particularly enjoyed the 2006 Bernard-Machado Pinot Noir, which I felt was classic Oregon… light, round, fruity and earthy but unfiltered with a fair amount of sediment. Jennifer teased me with a brilliant recipe pairing for their dessert wine (a cracker topped with a piece of honeycomb, goat cheese and chipotle sauce—salty, sweet, spicy, tangy, crunchy, smooth… mmmmmm); which felt a bit like drooling over but not actually ordering anything off a restaurant’s desert menu. To top off a practically flawless performance, Jennifer unknowingly triggered my delicate memory helping me recall the idea I previously had for my next blog post. Thanks Jennifer, you were a blog saver—I had been unproductively staring at my blank computer screen the night before for hours!
Sometimes the best way to plan a wine trip is to pick one winery you’d like to visit and then see what else is nearby. On that day, for Krista and I, Panther Creek Cellars was the one winery we built our day around. Initially founded by Ken Wright in 1996 (who magically turns everything he touches into gold), and then passed around a few times before finally ending up in Liz Chambers’ possession, the winery operates out of McMinnville’s former municipal building and original power plant built in 1923. The building sat vacant for 30 years before Ken Wright purchased it, and with the city’s help, brought it up to code for its current starring role. The winemaker was visibly busy, hard at work with the current vintage still in tank and his mellow dog Zoe at his side, while Krista and I tasted through his stylistically consistent lineup.
Following Ken Wright’s well-trodden path, Panther Creek primarily focuses on single-vineyard Pinot noirs but their cuvees and the 2008 Chardonnay were not to go un-noticed… well not by me anyway. Though 100% stainless-steel fermented, the Dijon-clone Chardonnay possessed a nose full of Granny Smith apples and filled my mouth with lush pear and toasted nuts mysteriously hinting at oak. Since beginning this project, I am now starting to recognize specific vineyards and enjoy seeing what the different winemakers are able to produce with the same fruit. Panther Creek crafted a 2006 Pinot noir from the distinguished and popular Shea Vineyard that was practically erupting with black plum and blackberries, oozing earthy flavors of cocoa and licorice, finishing smoothly with soothing vanilla and sassy white pepper. The 2007 Winemaker’s Cuvee, by contrast, was the more typical cool-climate wine with red cherries, feisty cranberries, a silky mouth and baking spices—I could easily picture this wine alongside my Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Such a revelation reminded me it was time for lunch, so Krista and I headed off indecisively for… somewhere.
We ultimately settled on Bistro Maison on McMinnville’s lively Third Street and lunch was good, nothing to write home about (well nothing to blog about anyway) until the final moment. And had the restaurant handled things differently, I most likely wouldn’t have mentioned it here, but they didn’t and so I will.
So there we were, having enjoyed a satisfying meal, when out comes our check accompanied by a lovely bowl of hazelnuts. Though I was actually rather full, I decided “Oh hell, one nut… here’s this gorgeous bowl full of nuts, who am I to not celebrate in this bounty?” I cracked my first nut and instantly noticed a little white worm wiggling back at me. Surprised (shocked I guess), I kind of threw the nut onto my plate and jumped back several feet. Krista was looking at me with intense curiosity, at which my only reply was to point at the worm… now squirming its way up my plate, waving in my direction (I almost went out to my car to get my camera to snap his photo, and now wish I had). When I brought this to our server’s attention (with the same wordless gesture I used to show Krista and an added nose crinkle for P.U. effect), she laughed and said, “Oh, that’s never happened before” and took our money and walked away—taking with her my plate the worm was doing laps on—and that was the end of that. Now, I wasn’t expecting a free lunch or anything, but come on, is the final thought they want me leaving their restaurant with (to tell all my friends and anyone who reads my blog) is that of worm inching its way across my dinner plate? Really, not even an offer of dessert to wipe that very unappetizing memory from my mind… what ever happened to customer service?
Preferring to think of my worm in its final resting place of someone’s treasured tequila bottle instead of the garbage disposal, our next stop (though unsuccessful on this trip) is worth mentioning. We attempted to visit Anthony Dell, who was actually closed for tasting that day. Anthony Dell is located immediately adjacent to R. Stuart’s winery, whose door was wide open, so we thought we’d poke our heads in and see if they knew about Anthony Dell’s tasting hours and if we were even in the right place. We heard voices and activity, but we never actually saw any people—so we left abruptly, realizing we were on our own, but not without coming up with a whole new blog mission. Though it would be highly illegal, we troublemakers playfully thought it could be funny to take a wine thief and then sneak in, photograph and publish pictures of pirate barrel tastings at various wineries. Does anyone remember the college students who stole some women’s garden gnome, then road-tripped with it, photographing it all over the country and ultimately returned it to the original owner with a photo album documenting its journey? Putting silliness aside (temporarily), we set off for more serious wine tasting.
A visit to McMinnville (and Oregon’s wine country for that matter) isn’t really complete without a stop at The Eyrie Vineyard—Oregon’s very first commercial winery, the first to plant Pinot noir and Chardonnay in the Willamette Valley and the first producers of Pinot gris in this country. Founded by wine pioneers David and Diana Lett in 1966, the winery and tasting room (celebrating its 40th harvest this year) can be found in a refurbished poultry processing plant, which they formerly shared with the Nestle Company, on the outskirts of town. The vineyards are actually located in the Red Hills of Dundee, but when Eyrie was unable to secure funding to build their dream winery on the vineyard estate, they settled the winery in McMinnville and have happily been there since. The Eyrie Vineyard was founded with 3,000 cuttings brought up by car from California and a notion that Oregon’s Willamette Valley had the same latitude as Burgundy, France, and Lett (nicknamed Papa Pinot as the groundbreaker of Oregon Pinot noir) gambled big and won, proving that the region could produce Pinot noir capable not only of standing up to but even rivaling those of France. David’s son Jason is now Winemaker, producing 10,000 cases a year of estate-grown wines with over 50 acres planted of 100% organic vineyards that continue his father’s philosophy of true varietal expression.
Eyrie (pronounced the same but unlike in meaning from the Jamaican “irie”), is actually an old English word meaning “bird of prey’s nest,” named for a red-tail hawk’s nest located in a giant fir tree at the head of the vineyard when it was first planted (images distinctly preserved on the winery’s classically simple label). Jacques was delightfully pouring wines in the tasting room and an example of his French charm and obvious match for Eyrie’s tasting room was his reply to a customer who called asking what time they close—he invitingly said “I’ll be waiting for you till 5:00 pm”.
Inviting me to tasting the most current vintage, the 2007 Chardonnay Reserve showed magnificent with pear, citrus, peach, white flowers and a minerality that laid across my tongue which was enveloped by a cozy blanket of cream. I specifically took pleasure in Eyrie’s 2007 Pinot Meunier, a rustic country cousin of Pinot noir; it was easy to see the relation while retaining its own distinctive personality. The 2006 Pinot Noir Reserve, from original 40-year-old vines and aged two years in neutral barrels then 1.5 years in bottle, was alluring with a perfumed nose of black raspberry, sweet strawberry jam and white orchard flowers. In my mouth, the velvety texture was enhanced by spicy, black cherry pie, wet forest floor and smoke that also packed enough structure to guarantee several more years of quality development (as Pinot noir ages in bottle, the fruit forwardness tends to settle down giving a chance for some of the other flavors to shine). Having sampled a bit of history, we left the simple and understated old tasting room and headed off for some of the new.
R. Stuart & Company (founded in 2001) may produce their wine in a converted old granary but their swanky and modern tasting room and wine bar is actually a few blocks away, downtown on Third Avenue. Krista and I took a load off, enjoying actual bar stools for a change, while Public Relations Associate Nicole Kaseberg immediately set us up with glasses and a chilled glass bottle of water—sweet touch. The wine bar offers R. Stuart wines, local draught beer, creative small bites and ample comfortable seating to enhance and prolong your experience.
Producing the exciting Big Fire brand, R. Stuart was inspired by themes of hearth, home and a passion for wine; which comes through loud and clear with their easy-to-drink wines intended to pair well with just about anything. Another fun side-project for Winemaker Rob Stuart is a non-vintage Rose D’or—a bodacious and bubbly blend of Pinot noir and Chardonnay that was in full possession of apples, honey, herbs and spice. Obviously a complement to any celebration, the versatility of this wine makes it fun for brunch or with anything crusty and savory. The 2007 Autograph Pinot Noir was a lovely blend from a typically difficult and unpopular vintage displaying well-rounded flavors of raspberries, blueberries, mushrooms and rosehips.
On the way out, I noticed the seven “House Rules” printed large on the wall that speak to being true and showing respect for the grower, grapes, wine, customers and friends. I identified strongly with their philosophy, wondering what our world could be if others ascribed to it as well. Rule #7 stood out in my mind, “Good food, good friends, good wine—period,” and on that particular day, I think that Krista and I served that rule well. Until we sip again…