Sunday, December 13, 2009

Is Your Glass Always Half-Full?

When one thinks of Salem, Oregon, wineries and vineyards are probably not some of the first images that come to mind. But, at the southern end of the Willamette Valley, just beyond the boundaries of Oregon’s capital city of Salem, lies the Eola-Amity AVA (American Viticultural Area) that includes a vast array of wineries both unique in taste and experience.

Visit Redhawk Vineyard and Winery, but be prepared, you might feel like staying a while… heck, you might just even move in. At least that’s how it went for Jude, who popped into Redhawk while on vacation from California three years ago and has since been “adopted” by the family, working in the winery and pouring in the tasting room. As it turns out, she’s also my mystery fire-starting goddess, lighting fires and rescuing her neighboring winery’s guests from the unfriendly cold (I ran into her on a previous day’s adventure at Mystic—click to read the post).

In 2005 John and Betty Pataccoli purchased Redhawk Vineyard and Winery lock, stock and wine barrel. Though the place was pretty rundown, the Pataccolis made significant upgrades to the winery, cellar/tasting room and vineyards and Redhawk is now producing quality wine they aim to sell at reasonable prices. John and Betty created a place for guests to sip wine while regarding the mountain and valley views from the huge floor-to-ceiling windows.

While Max the Dog gravitated between lounging like a king on this throne and roaming the cellar in search of sausage handouts, I enjoyed the wines in the entertaining company of Jude and John. Redhawk crafts a lighter style Pinot noir called “Grateful Red,” which was originally conceived by the ex-hippies who founded the place. The wine had such a cult following that John kept it around—which turned out to be a smart decision, as that wine now accounts for half of his production. When John bought the farm (so to speak), with it, he inherited 14 barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Pinot noir. In a lucky twist of fate (and almost by accident), he expertly blended them to create a big, flavorful and affordable table wine (which he’s also kept around) called Redhawk Red ($12).

My favorite wines however, were the 2007 Pataccoli Family Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2008 Syrah Columbia Valley; the Pinot was loaded down with red cherries and raspberries striking a sweet spot on my tongue while the toasty Syrah warmed me up from the inside out with blackberries, cassis, spicy peppercorn and hints of anise. The finish on the Syrah lingered long and heavy, like an old fogies’ stogie, I still had a full itinerary, so I bid my farewells and headed off for Evasham Wood.

On the way to my car, I paused to absorb the views of the vineyards and scenic valley below where I met a Redhawk employee who told me about a secret trail through the strand of tall fir trees adjacent to the residence which led directly to Evasham Wood, right next door. He mentioned that it’s quicker to walk there then to drive but the drive up through their vineyards is lovely, so sold on the notion of that experience, I returned to my car.

Funny thing about timing—while driving up past the fields of flowing golden grasses lined with stately old Oregon white oak trees, stretches of blackberry bramble and on through Evasham Wood’s 13-acres of organically farmed vineyards, I paused a few minutes to snap a photo. Almost immediately as I resumed driving however, I passed my old boss Jason Ludlow (from Cooper Mountain Vineyards) coming down. Had I walked what was probably a very lovely trail through that cluster of fir trees between the wineries, I would have arrived just in time to bump right into him, which may have been a bit awkward for both of us. Sadly, our professional relationship fell apart when I started this project and discovered he didn’t think regular, uncredentialed people such as myself (non sommeliers) should be writing about wine and didn’t support “wine blogging” in general (not that he ever even bothered to look at my blog). So, apparently with the timing fairy sitting pretty on my shoulder that day, I found myself able to enjoy the wines at Evasham Wood Vineyard in their cozy, sub-terreanian wine cellar after all.

Evasham Wood Vineyard is only open for guests to taste two times per year, and as luck (or good planning) would have it, I happened in for their Fall Open House. The packed cellar was brimming and bustling like an evening cocktail party with guests mingling over wine and platters of catered food (which also made it difficult for owner and winemaker Russ Raney to answer my questions).

Russ produces 5500 cases a year, aspiring to craft wines that are true to both their varietal and the location… terrior. Russ poured a 2008 Blanc du Puit Sec that was 80% Pinot Gris and 20% Gewurztraminer which I thought showed interesting notes of Meyer lemon and candied ginger. The 2007 Pinot Noir Le Puits Sec, all from estate fruit, was his golden child though—well structured, with great balance and good acids. More complex than a cocktail wine, it was clearly built for food pairing (as classic Burgundies are). I hung onto my glass of wine for a while… swirling it, sniffing it, letting it open up so I could explore the many layers which kept unfolding to expose plums, raspberries, earthy truffles and leather, floral rose petals and a spicy white pepper finish. After tasting through the wines, I left the Evasham Wood’s country estate cellar and escaped to the nearby cultural retreat of Cubanisimo.

Step into Cubanisimo Vineyards and you might think you’ve landed in a Cuban cafĂ©. The tasting room is rich in Cuban flavor with bright art contrasted by dark wood overhead, banana-leaf ceiling fans, plantain chips on the bar, tropically-inspired patio and of course, Fidel Castro toilet paper. The owner and founder, Maurice Collado Jr., who was born in Havana and lived with a winemaking family while in college, has ultimately combined his pride in his heritage with a passion for great Pinots. He commissioned Robert Stuart (of R. Stuart wines) to craft his portfolio, which included a charming 2008 Rosado de Pinot Noir that at first sniff was bright and floral with essences of green melon and apricot breaking through and an appealing mouth of succulent white peaches. I was intrigued by Cubanisimo’s 2008 Pinot Gris, which grabbed my attention with its combination of subtle honey and white flowers that stood up against the strong backbone of zesty citrus, Anjou pear and tart green apple.

In my research, I learned the meaning of the word Cuba roughly translates to “where fertile land is abundant” or “a great place” from the indigenous Taino language. With 12-acres of vineyards just planted in 2003, I’m sure Maurice is just beginning to understand how fitting his name choice probably is.

The Eola-Amity region is a far different experience than the crowded and oft-visited Dundee Hills. The wineries are very unpretentious, and if you’re a first time taster, wineries like these provide a less intimidating atmosphere. While at Cubanisimo, I got to enjoy witnessing a gentleman’s first foray into wine tasting. Tasting Room Associate Heather masterly handled him, and though the guest was somewhat resistant, she was gently persuasive and even had him drinking pink wine—I might add that he appeared to be enjoying it too! Well done Heather.

Every once in a while, my experiences on this journey take me beyond wine and I discover something different and truly special. Pop ‘round to the unassuming Orchard Heights Winery on a Sunday for brunch and be prepared for a feast! Start the day with made-to-order omlettes and pasta bar, Belgium waffles, biscuits and gravy or eggs benedict. If the weather’s nice, take advantage of a choice of scenic vistas from either the front deck or back patio. Even if you miss brunch, like I did, Orchard Heights features a large gift shop with an extensive selection of snacks to make lunch from, including macadamia nuts and chocolate from the owners Michael and Gwen Purdy’s farm and factory in Hawaii (where they live half-time).

Orchard Heights was offering a selection of 15 wines to choose from—that’s a lot of tasting and spitting. While I was doing this, a brunch staff member happened through and was astonished I was spitting the wines out, as she had never seen that done before. Really? She works at a winery and has never seen someone who tastes but doesn’t drink? I might have looked as astonished as she did. Keeping with the island theme—and in addition to the winery’s Pinot gris, Pinot noir, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah—Orchard Heights makes their specialty Island Princess wines, which is their dry white wine base with Hawaiian tropical fruit purees added that were unique, exotic and distinctive, especially in this Valley of Pinot noir.

While I was considering how many glasses of wine I have poured for me in a day of tasting, it occurred to me what a lucky woman I really am. But to be honest, I was having one of those days, which is probably hard to imagine when my job is to be out touring Oregon’s amazing wine country, right? Contrary to popular belief though, purposeful wine tasting, as I’m doing it, is more work at this point than it is a good time. So, feeling perhaps a bit philosophical too, I began thinking about how others view my world as well as their own. And at the end of a long day, I wonder how many been have looking at their glass throughout the day with the good fortune of having it always be half full. So what ‘s the lesson here? You tell me. Until we sip again…


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