Friday, November 27, 2009

Gas and Wine Fill My Day in Oregon's Wine Country

With over 400 wineries in Oregon alone, when planning a trip, how does one go about deciding which to visit? You could listen to friend’s recommendations, consult wine experts or research travel sources. Marketing professionals spend millions of dollars and countless hours trying to understand this decision-making process. The hidden component they can’t factor into their marketing plan is people’s personal experience. Often times decisions are made purely by instinct… you select a certain winery because the name or label struck you in some way… it was odd, it reminded you of your sweet grandmother, it shared the same name as your favorite song or you were drawn to their icon/mascot/symbol. For some reason (beyond wine), you identify with the brand on some level, and that’s why you visit. For me, Stone Wolf Vineyards was such a place.

I’d seen their bottles on the supermarket shelves… I call them “Value Vino”—wines priced to move and drink fast rather than cellar and savor. One look at the magnificent solitary wolf on Stone Wolf’s label though and I’m lured… those eyes. Frozen mid-stride, my heart is flooded with memories of my beloved wolf-dog Shasta… I could be staring into her bright, golden eyes. The wines could have been expensive water and I probably would have still bought them. My motivation had nothing to do with wine but was all about memory and feelings. I carried that notion of emotion with me as I set out for a big day of tasting.

From the moment I pulled into Stone Wolf’s parking lot in McMinnville’s industrial district, you know I had wolf-dogs on the brain—but Frank the cat had other ideas. Frank popped out, as if he had been waiting all morning for me, and started rolling around provocatively at my feet, purring and demanding my attention. After a thorough rub down, Frank and I walked together to the tasting room where I noticed the sign “Winery Cat on Duty” on the door and asked if he could come in with me (all the while he’s looking at me saying, “as if”).

Naturally, Frank hung out with me at (or should I say on) the bar while I tasted, but you won’t hear me complaining about having such a handsome man hanging all over me either. Other than Frank, the only people serving guests in the tasting room are members of the winemaking team and so you’ll find they possess extensive knowledge about their wines. On the down side however, with the team busy during harvest, Stone Wolf closes their doors to visitors for this time. Arriving just after their season’s harvest wrapped up, the tasting room was ready to greet guests and though the little gas stove was pumping heat, the room still had quite a chill to the air.

Linda and Art Lindsay planted their first vines at the 40-acre Lindsay Estate (situated at the base of the Oregon Coast Range west of McMinnville) and began producing Stonewolf wines in 1996. They produce un-complicated, everyday, food-friendly wines that don’t require a celebration to open. An example of their value-driven wine is the 2006 Chardonnay; priced at $13.00. Slightly oaked, with tart citrus, dried white flowers and impressions of vanilla, the wine (even at eleven a.m.) was a straight shooting sipper… and if the weather were warmer, I probably would have bought a case. The 2006 Pinot Noir Legend Reserve was presented with a lovely wax seal (somewhat of a dying art). Linda taught me an important lesson that you don’t need to try to cut or remove the wax before inserting the corkscrew. She says if the winery has done their job correctly, the cork should pull right through… I look forward to trying that. The wine was a luscious ruby color with black cherries, wild raspberries and though the flavors were pretty well integrated, with no one element particularly jumping out, I could discern some rose petals and autumn leaves as well.

The Lindsay’s produce a luxury tier called, appropriately enough, Lindsay, which displays their family crest as its logo. Having a rare opportunity to taste something from the well-received 2002 vintage, I enjoyed the Lindsay 2002 Angus Pinot Noir and as it filled my whole mouth with ripe black plums and black cherries, it left a lovely peppery spice behind. The tannins were soft, the acids were vivid, and the wine still had a solid fruit presence which was screaming, “Drink me!” All the while, Frank was screaming, “pet me” and though I happily indulged in kitty time, I still had wolf-dogs on the brain when I pulled away.

I revisited Anthony Dell Cellars (who was wide open for business with their neon sign telling me so) in the old granary building also housing R. Stuart’s winemaking facility; where a lively weekend marketplace was also taking place in the parking lot (a good draw for the winery). Douglass Anthony Drawbond and Joy Dell Means are the middle names behind the boutique brand (and everything else behind the bottle as well). Producing less than 1,000 cases, Joys says Anthony Dell’s admittedly nuts to think they can do it all—a true Mom-and-Pop operation striving to make wines they like to drink… and liking variety, they produce six wines with fruit from both their Estate and the Del Rio Vineyards in southern Oregon.

Joy poured me three vintages of Pinot noir, 2005-2007 (a fun little mini-vertical tasting), with each possessing different amounts and varying degrees of black cherry, earth and spice flavors. A delightful treat was the 2005 Rio Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc that was like a tall, dark and handsome stranger—deep, mysterious and exotic. The wine had a pleasing nose of blueberries and mocha that carried through on the palate where a bit of juniper berry hit my tongue.

Anthony Dell has moved away from the whimsical label they originally developed to the more traditional label they are now using; which is quite serious by contrast but apparently better received by the market. The winery has kept their fun tagline—which is actually a derivative of an old saying from The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic—“Wine will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no wine.” Though harking back to my college days, I seem to recall that expression using a different four-letter word starting with the letter “w”… but wine works well too.

I left the hubbub of McMinnville’s “Urban Wine Tour” and ventured out into the wild blue yonder of Yamhill Valley. I drove up the narrow road stretching out past the 21-acres of organic vineyard in the coastal foothills up to the quaint, romantic and picturesque Youngberg Hill Vineyards and Inn. Positioned high atop the hill, Youngberg Hill has views like no other; and with a wrap-around veranda and an expansive lawn overlooking the sweeping vineyard and valley views (with panoramic views of Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson the Cascades and even the Sisters on a clear day… but not today), it’s one of the most beautiful and memorable spots for a special event I’ve ever witnessed.

Youngberg Hill functions both as an Inn with luxuriously appointed rooms and a winery with a tasting room located within the Inn. I felt a bit like an intruder though, it was perfectly quiet and no guests were around—perhaps it was the quiet I felt like I was intruding on. A very nice young woman patiently poured me through the wines, and opening bottles just for me, I was fairly certain they hadn’t seen many tasters coming through that day. Completely booked through the busy summer wedding season and then harvest, I’m certain it was a welcome calm.

Two wines stood out for me; the 2006 Natasha Block Pinot Noir was like a dessert of cherry-rhubarb pie. There were lovely highlights of white pepper, leather and tobacco. The 2006 Jordan Block Pinot Noir was more fruit-forward pouring forth with blackberries and plums. Look deeper for accents of flowers, truffles, baking chocolate and peppercorns and understand what makes Pinot noir so beautifully captivating and hypnotic. The wines and the setting truly make Youngberg Hill Vineyards a place to enjoy—but to properly experience the whole package, I was thinking perhaps a longer stay was in order. But it wouldn’t be now, because I had both other wineries to visit and like Anthony Bourdain… no reservation.

Don’t expect a drive through McMinnville’s countryside seeking out adventures in wine tasting to be anything like Napa. There aren’t miles of sprawling vineyards; instead, the wineries are miles apart dotting the hillsides with occasional stretches of grapevines and sharing the land with sheep, cows and alpaca farms, like the one directly across from Maysara Winery.

In 1997, the Momtazi family purchased 532 acres of abandoned wheat farm and transformed it into the splendor it is today. Momtazi Vineyard is the largest organic and biodynamically farmed vineyard in the Northwest, with over 200 acres planted in the McMinnville AVA. Maysara means “House of Wine” in Farsi, honoring the family’s Persian heritage. The winery is tucked away in a nest of enormous trees and looks out over the beginning of the steep sloping vineyard estate and a pristine eight-acre reservoir fed by natural springs and irrigation that is healthy and clean enough to provide a home for even fussy rainbow trout. Being environmentally conscious, Maysara has moved away from traditional cork closures using the Stelvin (or screwcap) closure on all their wines instead.

The upstairs tasting area is informal and personal, with guests seated at the round table amidst Persian art and tapestries, alongside a family member who introduces the wines. It was very comfortable with an additional cozy seating area offering a view of the barrel room. I felt like a welcome guest in their home while Naseem poured the family’s wine, which were all so impressive, how do I narrow down my recommendations? Final decision: Two wines with two very distinct personalities. The Jamsheed 2007 is Maysara’s most widely produced wine, named for the Persian king of the same name. It’s a blend of every section of every block of the vineyard and is extremely fruit-forward with a palette of flavor… sweet raspberries, red cherries, tart cranberries, black plums and currants, beyond which lay an oasis of sweet cocoa, smoke and pepper providing interest and intrigue. The Delara 2006 was a profound wine with a lot to say. One sip and it was able to communicate a poem of dark ruby color, a symphony of fruit flavors: blueberry, blackberry, black plum and cherry and a Broadway production where Act 1 is the dark chocolate, followed by Act 2, coriander and anise spice and Act 3 finishing strong with an espresso finale. Delara is another Farsi word meaning “To capture one’s heart”, which couldn’t be a better descriptor for this complex and captivating wine.

Driving out of Maysara, with the needle of my gas tank hovering dangerously around the E, I realized I had forgotten to fill my gas tank before setting off for the long and winding back roads of McMinnville and could just picture myself running out of gas in the middle of no where. Heading back towards town, and the nearest gas station, I passed Yamhill Valley Vineyards along the way, and being located right off the road, I knew I just had to stop.

Yamhill Valley Vineyards was founded in 1983 by the Burger family and is producing 100% estate-grown wines from their 100 acres of vineyards nestled in the rolling foothills of Oregon’s Coast Range. Their label features the colorful Western Meadowlark, which I embarrassingly learned is the state’s official bird. Their wines are made by Stephen Cary; but the Burger family is running the rest of the show. One of the children, Laura, who works in the tasting room, was home from college and had just worked her first Crush. Many of the area wineries partner with wineries in other countries bringing harvest workers across international lines to help bring in the vintage but Yamhill Valley Vineyards has taken that one step further. Laura told me about Kami, a Sherpa who has been coming to them for years from Mt. Everest to work harvest. Oh the stories he must be brimming with… can you imagine sharing a bottle of wine with him?

Laura shared her wines with me in the country-casual tasting room and though the whites were of interest, at $20 a bottle, the 2007 Pinot Noir Estate was a drinker. The wine showed quite a bit of oak up front with a solid smokiness and was somewhat alcoholic with cassis, black cherries and light pepper. It was easy to drink, had attractive features and good structure—I think I enjoyed it because it told me a story I could follow… from beginning to end. It was a quiet day in the Valley that day, and I think I may have been the first guest, at the end of the day. I really wanted to taste the 2006 Tall Poppy Pinot Noir ($80 retail), but the bottle was closed and I couldn’t ask Laura to open it up just so I could have a taste. It’s just a great reason to go back.

Heading towards Portland, I came upon the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum campus. The Boeing 747 parked out front was a glimmering beacon in the setting sun, and as if Ground Control was guiding my private jet to the gate, I turned in at the vineyards and followed the runway to the Museum housing the famous Spruce Goose and the Evergreen Vineyards tasting room. A fascinating scene for sipping wine, next to civilian and military aircraft on display and suspended mid-air, the tasting room was like a central hub for guests. The tasting room also sells snacks and gifts, some of which have been produced by one of the company’s side ventures. Founded by Captain Michael Smith of Evergreen Aviation, the extremely diversified company also owns Evergreen Agricultural Enterprises; consisting of Evergreen Vineyards, Evergreen Orchards (the largest grower of hazelnuts in the state), Evergreen Nursery and Evergreen Farms and Livestock.

The wines were surprisingly good for a tasting room located in a… gulp… (trying to say in my most un-offensive voice) tourist trap, but not so surprising when I found out they’re made by Laurent Montalieu (of Solena Cellars) at the NW Wine Company in McMinnville. The 2005 Spruce Goose Pinot Gris had quite a flashy personality for an older girl (many of the area wineries are showing their 2008 whites). Still bright and clean, the beautiful soothing nose of honey and chamomile was delightful and when I sipped it, the wine was lively and playful in my mouth tasting of Now and Later green apple candy, Anjou pear and muskmelon. Another wine that didn’t fly under my radar was the 2006 Spruce Goose Reserve Pinot Noir. With flavors of sweet blackberry jam and Rainier cherries and streaks of nutmeg, vanilla and pepper running through; the wine definitely possessed some intrigue.

Wishing I could just fly home, I returned to my car, and the still empty gas tank. Realizing I was still quite far from civilization, I hoped I would reach the gas station before my lesson of the day became all too painful. Yes, I learned that being un-necessarily stressed out about running out of gas is not the way to tour wine country. Like the view from your car’s side-view mirrors, things are often farther than they appear and it’s actually quite easy to get turned around. So, start out with a full tank and feel good about getting lost in wine country. Until we sip again…



Youngberg Hill said...

It was great to have you down to experience our wonderfull Hill. Thanks for you accolades and coming down to visit. Hopefully, next time you can stay and experience more of Youngberg Hill.


rachel said...

Love Oregon wine, so the blog is great.You might be interested to know that at our new wine bar in Santa Monica, CA we doing a theme called "Oregon by Alsace", by having wines from both regions featured the whole month of December. If you're in Southern Cali over the next by, you should swing

Anonymous said...

must be great having so many quality wineries and tasting rooms in your backyard. In Spokane we have 14, about 1/2 of which are upstarts. We haven't done tasting in Oregon yet, but plan to. My brother and sister in-law live in Lake Oswego.