Sunday, January 24, 2010

Finding the Balance in Oregon Wine

With the current state of the economy, my former hobby of seeking out value-driven wines has now become more of a necessity. With that thought weighing as heavily upon me as a teenager’s backpack, I located Firesteed Cellars, who to me epitomizes both quality and value.

Though Firesteed Pinot Noir has graced my table many times with their consistently good, fruit-forward $10.00 wines, I’d never actually visited their facility—and until 2003, nobody else had either (with no vineyards and no winery, Firesteed was what was called a virtual winery). Owner Howard Rossbach had the forethought to produce reliably good yet affordable Oregon wines over 15 years ago, sourcing fruit from the state’s most renowned growing regions and utilizing a custom-crush facility before purchasing the existing vineyard and winery. Located a mere ten minutes from downtown Salem, this accessible winery is a relative newcomer on the scene but fully ready to play ball with the big boys. While expansive views of the 74-acres of vineyards greet you (with 200 more slated for planting), the quiet and windowless tasting room overlooks the winery facility, keeping the focus on the wine, not the vine.

For a facility that produces 80,000 cases per year, it was like a ghost town the day I visited. Winters are generally quiet around most cellars; wines from the past harvest have all been bottled or put in barrel to age, the vines have been pruned back and lie dormant for months. I relish in the extra attention I get in an uncrowded tasting room, so a lack of people didn’t phase me (though I do love a good party atmosphere). Byron poured me through Firesteed’s line-up, which actually had a few surprises. The 2005 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir was expressive with black cherry, raspberry, cedar, cocoa and spicy notes. It was earthy and smoky and good, but wait… it’s $30 a bottle. Next, Byron’s pouring $35 and even $50 wines. Really? $50 Pinot noir? From Firesteed? Well, as it turns out, Firesteed created a entirely different label for this wine, called Citation, which they age and hold back until it’s truly ready for release. I tasted a 2000 Citation Pinot Noir, which is primarily only available in the tasting room. It tasted of cranberry with firm yet silky tannins—a solid wine. I totally get the concept; chosen select barrels, aged years before release. But with all due respect to Mr. Rossbach, I do have to question producing a wine that seems to violate the One-Two-Punch quality AND value theme Firesteed has built their reputation and success on. Just sayin’!

Travel just a bit further down the road and discover Johan Vineyards and their boutique winery which produces less than 1,000 cases of wine each year. Located on 85 acres of organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards in the Van Duzer corridor, Johan sells 85% of their fruit to lucky local wineries. The winery produced its first vintage of estate wine in 2005 and recently celebrated the grand opening of their winery and inviting tasting room just a short couple of months ago.

While winery cats Fox and Leopard twirled at my feet, I enjoyed wines that were focused, elegant and told a beautiful story. The 2007 Estate Pinot Noir was a bit showy with a lovely balance of cherry, pomegranate, cassis, a bit of dust and just the right of amount of spice to make the finish bold and memorable. The 2007 Pinot Noir Nils Reserve (named for Johan’s father) was deep and mysterious, with a bit of dark side; black cherry, currants and blackberries dominated the fruit spectrum while hints of forest floor and spice added pizzazz. Leaving the company of Dag’s charming wife Alison, I ventured back down the windy road, past open meadows, spring-fed lakes for irrigation and runoff, solar panels and of course, rows and rows of grapevines. Left of center, and right back up the other side of the bowl, I discovered Johan’s next-door neighbors, Left Coast Cellars, and their country-contemporary tasting room.

Left Coast Cellars is situated on a 306-acre estate that’s so much like a nature preserve it’s easy to forget it’s a vineyard. In addition to the 125 acres of meticulously maintained organic and biodynamic vineyards, there’s Italian Cyprus and Oregon White Oak trees, as well as fruit orchards and lakes and streams that attract migrating birds and larger birds of prey. Left Coast owners, the Plaff family, also planted four acres of hazelnut trees, shrub roses and holly oak to encourage growth of their European truffles. I wonder (and didn’t ask) if those truffles will be available for sale in the tasting room?

Annabelle, the winery mascot, was there to greet me and shepherded me to the bar for tasting. She knew it was getting close to the dinner hour and I sensed she was wishing I would wrap things up already instead of making her pose for a picture. But Annabelle sat pretty and patiently while Judy and Jean made no hurries at all, making me feel right at home while poured me through the extended portfolio. As with other wines from this AVA (American Viticultural Area), the Pinot noirs showed a similarity with their expressions of dark fruit and earthiness. Left Coast was pouring three Pinots from the 2006 vintage, which were all pretty bold, jammy and intense (like many Pinot noirs of that vintage). My favorite, and the wine I thought the most elegant, was their 2006 Cali’s Cuvee Pinot Noir (named for owner Suzanne’s daughter). Its generous nose tempted me with ripe Bing cherries, blackberry pie, orange zest and pine while the taste revealed a mixed bowl of wild berries which gave way to an interesting herbaceous quality. The finish was long and lovely with sweet maple and baking spice that would be perfect to sip on its own or to pair with a hearty and meaty meal. Though I seem to have skipped straight to the reds, I actually really enjoyed the whites from Left Coast Cellars, where winemaker Luke McCollum takes the mundane and makes it interesting. Definitely worth mentioning, is Left Coast Cellars 2006 Chardonnay… complex and vivacious with flavors of lemon meringue pie, white peach, green apple, quince and vanilla skipping about my mouth. They may be a bunch of lefties out there, but they’re certainly doing something right.

While I was tasting at Left Coast, I was intrigued by a couple of women I met named Nichole Taylor and Ivy Hover of Vino & Vinyasa. Nichole and Ivy run yoga retreats at wineries and vineyards, bringing the revitalizing practice of yoga to the expansive views of Oregon’s vineyards… relaxing and stretching while surrounded by nature’s beauty and bounty. The sound of it alone sounds relaxing, no? Back on the road, but with my mind still doing Tree Pose in the vineyard, I passed by Firesteed again and thoughts of money and value invaded my formerly peaceful place, jolting me back to reality. A few deep cleansing breaths and it occurred to me that like the yin and yang, I guess ultimately, wineries must find their balance too. Perhaps Firesteed’s luxury tier provides some kind of balance for their value-priced wines, perhaps even adding value to the less expensive wines. Does the $50 wine make their $16 bottle taste even better? I guess some wineries make decisions to introduce a top-shelf wine based on marketing principals and some just have a passion to make a better wine. The wineries that do this best strike a precarious balance between the two. Here’s to balance. Until we sip again…



@nectarwine said...

Yet another post that has made me salivate for tasting in Yamhill County! I don't think we'll be down there until summer time, but I'll be sure to let you know when we're coming.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tamara,

I recently visited the exact same wineries you did, but we stopped in at one other. It was Van Duzer which If I can recall correctly is just between Firesteed and Left Coast. Out of all the wineries I've been to I have to say that there tasting room is one of the most elegant. The wines were awesome too and very reasonably priced. I recommend checking them out if you haven't already done so.

Sip with Me! said...

Sounds like a great day touring Oregon wine country! I have visited Van Duzer and totally concur with your assessment. Stay tuned for the next blog post; I wonder who I'll be writing about?

6512 and growing said...

Love the writing, thinking there's an Oregon guide to wine book in you at the end of this project.

Nichole said...

Thank you so much for the shout out! We'd love to host you @ one of our Vino and Vinyasa events this summer! Let's keep in touch!