Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Getting Lost in Oregon's Wine Country

If you’re longing to visit wine country but the thought of traffic and crowds are deterring you, consider Amity, Oregon. Off the beaten path, with long, winding and empty country roads, scenic valley views and exceptional wine—Amity could just very well be the wine chaser’s dream tour. Located one hour south of Portland, or 20 minutes northwest of Salem, this tour begins at Bethel Heights Vineyards.

Family owned and operated since 1977 by two families, Bethel Heights produces only estate-grown wines (meaning they don’t bring in fruit from anywhere else). Though there was a slight chill to the air, the sun was beginning to warm up the view from the expansive deck overlooking the vineyards, cities of Salem and Keizer, and even Mt. Jefferson was making a grand appearance. The name Bethel Heights pays tribute to the history of the land, going back to 1909 when it was originally known as Bethel Heights Walnut Grove. A few of the original walnut trees remain dotting the edges of the vineyard.

An adorable kitty named Jellybean was making a rare appearance in the tasting room, which was open and airy yet warm and woody, with vaulted ceilings and a large fireplace making it feel like more an Aspen cabin—except for the vineyard view of course. The wines were luxurious and rather remarkable. One wine I found delightful was the 2007 Pinot Noir Rosé. This wine was seductive and alluring with essences of strawberries, raspberries and rose petals followed by a suggestion of cream and spice. The acids were bright and food friendly, making the wine a simple food complement… really, what wouldn’t it pair with? The 2006 Pinot Noir Justice Vineyard was quite bold and very fruit forward (typical of that vintage), lush and full of Bing cherries, wild raspberries and sweet strawberries. The racy acids in most Pinot noirs, which this wine had as well, are what make it possible to hold its own against many different foods and is a good part of what make this varietal so popular.

The French have centuries of experience pairing wine and food and at this point intuitively know how eating salmon, game, pork, turkey, fruit, mushrooms, breads, cheese and even chocolate can all be enhanced by serving it with Pinot noir. The 2007 Pinot Noir Casteel Reserve had lots of black fruit on the nose, as well as a little blackberry cordial, spice cake and smatterings of some pine and crushed leaves in the background. It was all black cherries and spice through the mouth, with soft tannins that left a silky texture and balanced acids to give it added structure and ageability. Though I could have stayed all day soaking in the sun from their deck, I was on a quest, so off I went to St. Innocent.

Drive up to St. Innocent Winery and you might wonder if you’re in Oregon anymore. The European-style chateau is so massive and grand; it looks just a bit out of place against the farm-rich agricultural area. St. Innocent Winery is located on the Zenith Vineyard, which offers one of the finest wedding event facilities I’ve seen in Oregon, accommodating as many as 500 guests. St. Innocent founder and winemaker Mark Vlossak produces seven single-vineyards Pinot noirs, a cuvee, and a handful of whites with the intent on preserving higher acid levels to complement and extend the pleasure of a meal. The winery is named for Mark’s father (whose middle name was Innocent after being born on All Innocents Day) who gave him an instinctual feel for what wine was about. With gorgeous copper bars, an outdoor patio and huge fountain; the grounds are romantic and make a lasting impression.

With eleven gorgeous wines (nine of which were Pinot noirs), I’m only going to mention my hands-down favorite, which was the 2007 Winemakers Cuvee, one of their only blends. While single-vineyard designates can be lovely and uniquely expressive of location, there is real art in blending that only certain winemakers understand and can fully achieve. This wine was a show-stopper, both elegant and strong, aromas of dark cherries, wild flowers, mushrooms and creamy chocolate rose from the glass like a snake-charmer’s cobra rising to the sound of his magic flute. At first taste, my mouth was practically assaulted by delicious flavors of sweet brambleberries, nutmeg, white pepper and toasted hazelnuts that lingered long and pleasantly in my mouth. I felt a bit sorry for the tasting room associate who was doing his best to handle the busy and docile crowd, but wasn’t very efficient and was frustratingly slow. Finally getting some back-up relief as I was on my way out the door, I imagined it was much different for the next guests and I marveled at how the experience is completely unique to each and every guest that walks through the door. I heard St. Innocent offers a buffet over the Thanksgiving weekend that’s not to be missed and with that big holiday looming around the corner, and special winery events, it’s not too early to start making those wine country plans.

Speaking of not to be missed is Cristom Vineyards, located on a 65-acre estate overlooking the seven distinct vineyards named for the matriarchs of the family and Mt. Jefferson. The name Cristom honors owners Paul and Eileen Gerrie children—Christine and Tom. The winery is an intriguing combination of old- and new-world utilizing many architecturally restored components; including the bar, marble, chandeliers and the immense wooden antique doors that welcome you (which are more than 250 years old, having been salvaged from a French chateaux).

Cristom founder Paul Gerrie and Winemaker Steve Doerner are advocates of tradition and yet still challenge themselves by experimenting both in the cellar and vineyards. In fact, they were the first vineyard to plant Viognier in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Viognier is typically found in warmer climates, but Cristom has been ripening up several acres for the last few vintages and producing a very pretty wine. The 2007 Estate Viognier smelled of juicy peaches, orange zest and honeysuckle. I loved the texture—it was slightly viscous and tasted rich of pears, apples, apricots and some subtle Hawaiian pineapple on the lovely finish.

I also was quite taken with the 2006 Louise Vineyard Pinot Noir that showed dark color and lots of black plum and currants initially, but when I paid close attention, I picked up vanilla, cola, chocolate and pepper that seemed to take a mini-vacation on my tongue. When I was returning to my car, I saw the most amazing avian display—thousands of starlings were swooping and soaring in frenzy over what I assume was the rotting fruit left on the vines post-harvest. Wishing for my own mini-vacay, I drove off down the road. I wish I could say it was into the sunset of the wild blue yonder—close, it was actually to Witness Tree Vineyard.

Drive up to Witness Tree Vineyard and look straight up to the top of the hill. There, presiding over the vineyard, stands the ancient and lacy white oak tree for which the 52-acre vineyard and winery are named. Legend has it; the 250-year-old heritage tree predates the arrival of the first white settlers in the area and is also one of the few trees that survived the annual and traditional burning of the land by the Calapooya Indian Tribe in the mid 1800’s. Though it was pretty, and I was far away, for a 250-year-old tree, it honestly didn’t look all that big or impressive to me, but apparently it was a designated surveyors landmark in 1854.

Witness Tree Vineyard , founded by Dennis and Carolyn Devine, is nestled in the Eola Hills and produces only 100% estate wines, not purchasing any fruit from any other growers. Offering ten different wines, I had my tasting work cut out for me. I was a bit concerned when I tasted the 2007 Pinot Blanc and thought it was a Riesling… perhaps my palate was getting a bit fried (this was actually winery number eight that day), but I was getting hard petroleum instead of subtle fragrant white flowers when I put my nose to the glass. The 2007 Witness Tree Estate Pinot Noir set my mind at ease, with an intense ruby color; it showed tremendous grace and style. It seems vineyards in this area produces a lot of black fruit and chocolate characters, and this wine was just following suit with seductive vanilla and spice for added complexity. The nose on this wine was as divine as the owner’s name, but at $28, it was a good price point for Oregon Pinot noir—and though it’s their most widely distributed wine and easily accessible at the retail level and I usually try to select wine you can only purchase at the winery, I bought a bottle anyway. My thought was: It’s still straight from the source—never having seen warm trucks, bright lights or supermarket shelves. Witness Tree also make estate Viognier, Chardonnay, Single-vineyard designate Pinot noir, Dolcetto and a very sweet but interesting ice-style dessert wine. All I needed was some Oregonzolla and I could have called it a day—but not without a visit to Stangeland Winery and Vineyards first.

Stangeland Winery and Vineyards was a very interesting experience for me, but I’ll share more about that in a bit. First off, let’s make sure we’re all pronouncing it correctly, because at first glance, it might look like Strangeland, but it’s definitely not strange at all. Stangeland is actually named for a Norwegian region and you’ll find Norway’s flag flying in the tasting room that was located directly next to French and Bulgarian oak barrels whose bellies were swollen full with the current vintage. Owner Larry Miller told me how he was the only Oregon winery to receive three gold and three silver medals out of over 1,000 entries from 22 different countries at the World Pinot Noir competition in Switzerland… good on you Larry, that is quite an accomplishment.

I tasted a 2005 Chardonnay that was displaying some interesting and unusual banana notes and several different vintage Pinot noirs—but I must confess, I sadly took horrible notes. I did purchase (and already enjoyed) a 2005 Pinot Noir Estate which was actually a very big wine for a Pinot, but gorgeous and luscious with sweet black cherries, leather, truffles, herb and spice notes… wow.

So, the interesting part of the experience and probably the reason for my horrible notes was this: There I am drinking wine, doing my thing when I turn around and see this young, hot, blonde Adonis standing there (actually his name was Roby). He really looks like Smith Jarret, Samantha’s boy toy from Sex and the City, if you were a fan. Distracting me from what I really should be doing there, and probably against my better judgment, I spoke with Roby and came to find out that he leads one of those romantic and totally unrealistic lifestyles. Living vicariously through him for just a moment, I hung on baited breath as he told me how he flits back and forth between wine country and ski country… depending on the season, never putting down any real roots. Oh to be young again and without responsibilities. He’s worked this past season in Stangeland’s winery and tasting room but was off that day and just in for Harvest dinner, which ultimately was probably a good thing for me, because he could have easily talked me into a case (or more)! Clever direct sales strategy grasshopper.

On the way home from a very full day, I was enjoying the serene, back-country roads opening up in front of me, getting lost first in my thoughts and then directionally as well. Trying to find my way on a small map not drawn to scale with no clearly marked roads wasn’t the best idea, driving around a new region. Okay, lesson learned. Suck it up and buy a GPS already or get a better map—though I can think of so many worse things than getting lost in the Eola-Amity Hills. Until we sip again…


Jack Colby said...

This is the perfect day! Your blog is great going to all the wineries and writing about all the interesting characters and wines. This one though, takes the cake! The area the location the wineries is sounds perfect... this is the one I want to reproduce exactly.

Anonymous said...

Next time you are in the area, come over to the McMinnville AVA and expereince the wines and views of Youngberg Hill Vineyards & Inn, Maysara, Coleman, Yamhill Valley and Coere de Terre.