On the day I set out to meet newlywed friends Becky and Zack at Willamette Valley Vineyards, the countryside was both covered and quieted with fog thick as a shroud. Becky arrived ready for Oregon rain fully decked out in her trendy yellow galoshes free to splash in puddles as her heart so desired (missed photo opp number one).
Willamette Valley Vineyards is all about location, location, location. Just south of Salem, and ideally situated directly off I5, its sloping vineyards and watchtower facility regularly lure travelers from their destinations. Founded by visionary Jim Bernau in 1983, Willamette Valley Vineyards lies on a 50-acre estate of red Jory soil, where originally a plum orchard, blackberry bramble and scotch broom blanketing the land. The winery was built in 1989—that and the underground cellar were carved into an ancient volcanic flow (also part of what makes the soil so rich). Now owning more than 300 acres, Willamette Valley Vineyards has grown to become one of Oregon’s largest and most recognizable brands.
The winery offers public tours every day at 1:00 pm, but we were a bit early so we passed on the tour and stayed to taste—though I bet the tour would have been great and really feel like I missed something (if you plan to visit, keep this in mind)! Willamette Valley Vineyards is extremely focused on wine education and they’ve also built a new Wine Center in McMinnville complete with maps and information about the regional soils.
Katie, one of the friendly tasting room staff, greeted us with a pour of their 2006 Griffin Creek Viognier first and then their Chardonnay along with the classic story about how guests always say they don’t like Chardonnay until they try this Chardonnay… hmmmm, haven’t heard that one before. One thing about tasting with friends is you get honest feedback. I was tasting something unpalatable and indefinable in their Chardonnay which my friend Becky accurately termed “funk.” This is why I love tasting with friends. They not only tell you like it is, they even give you the words to accurately describe it—thank you Becky! Clearly not my favorite (or Katie’s, as she actually honestly admitted to us before our tasting – go Katie!!). My preferred wine was their 2007 Tualatin Estate Pinot Noir, smooth yet luscious, beginning with a huge nose of black cherry, blackberries and vanilla and following with a mouthful of strawberries, cranberries, smoke, graham and spice.
When it was time to leave, I followed my friends for a change, as they were endowed/armed with internet and GPS. Driving along washboard dirt roads, my Jeep was smiling as she was getting splattered with mud, feeling at home again after years of city driving. Zack was enjoying his German automobile a bit too much and I was struggling to keep up with him, but he eventually led us directly to Ankeny Cellars and the all the glorious surprises in store for us there, thanks Zack.
Ankeny Cellars. This time of year (winterish), the outdoor ambiance is more imagined, but located next to Ankeny Wildlife Refuge, one could envision sitting on their deck sipping wine while watching predatory and migratory birds flying overhead. In the dead of winter and pre-dawn of spring, it was still just a graveyard of trellis and vine beholding all the promise of the coming season.
Kathy “The Wine Duchess,” as she’s been nicknamed by Ankeny’s winemaker Andy Thomas, graciously poured for us. Planted in 1982 by Joe Olexa (who has four college degrees, none of which have anything to do with growing wine), the vineyard is located on the southernmost slopes of the Salem hills producing roughly 2,000 cases annually all from estate fruit (they also sell grapes to Kings Estate, Redhawk and Brooks). As Kathy poured us the 2006 Hershey’s Red Pinot Noir, she told us how Hershey the dog has sadly been missing since November 2009. A beautiful tribute to Hershey though, and at $15/bottle, this wine with cherry and tobacco flavors was a tremendous value.
Another wine easy on the wallet and of particular interest was the 2006 Ankeny Crimson. With its strong Port nose, this Marechal Foch-Pinot Noir blend was inky and heavy with dark fruit. It was truly an unexpected combination, and in the words of Kathy our host, “it’s like two wines in one” … fascinating, and at $12.00 bottle, not a real risky investment either. I didn’t particularly care for it, but my companions thought it was good. We all have different palates.
Kathy told us we could take a hike—up the hill that is, past the grapevines, goats, cows, llamas and emus, to a one-acre clearing of 85 marked and 12 unmarked graves comprising Cox Pioneer Cemetery. I later learned that the cemetery was founded by Thomas Cox, Salem’s first storekeeper, and that his wife Martha was the first person buried there in 1949. An old barn from 1851 still stands on the property today, which I didn’t see and am still remiss about that lost photo opp too… another time, perhaps when the weather is fairer.
My friends and I parted ways as they continued to explore some regional favorites while I had the sweet wines of Honeywood Winery on my radar. I ventured back into the Salem hills once again GPS-free and flying by my own instincts and the seat of my pants. Quite miraculously, and without so much as a wrong turn, I arrived at Honeywood’s Salem winery.
Honeywood Winery officially opened the day after prohibition ended making it the oldest continually operating winery in Oregon. Founded in 1933 by Ron Honeyman and John Wood, it was originally called Columbia Distilleries (producing brandies, cordials and liquors), and though they objected to the merging of their names, somehow—and naturally—Honeywood stuck.
The winery offered an enormous selection of wines (18 different varietals!), above and beyond the mead and 34 fruit wines they’re famous for. When you’re handed a list with over 50 wines and told to select five, even the experienced taster is overwhelmed. I had no idea what I wanted to taste, I’ve never been there before—I really wanted to taste it all… or most of it. Well, actually I really don’t want to taste 34 different fruit wines (how many ways can you spell berry, ugh?), but five wines really didn’t give me enough of a chance to taste what the winery has to offer either. Of what I did taste, I enjoyed a non-vintage Muller Thurgau tart with lime and a touch of warm anise. As I drove away, I started thinking about those fruit wines and how I bet they’d be great for cooking—sauces, syrups, dressings and marinades of the most memorable kind! Hmmm, great thought… too bad it was moments too late.
I also thought more on tasting in the southern Willamette Valley. In addition to enjoying some great Oregon wines, you won’t break the bank and you’ll also find educational tours, history, hikes and beautiful settings to enjoy it all. I always treasure my drives through wine country; the roads are open and long and even with the windows closed, there’s this sense of having the wind in your hair—I guess it’s a feeling of freedom. I saw a huge Red Tail Hawk on a fence post right off the road, so I pulled over to try and capture his magnificent image on digital film. He sat still while I changed lenses on my camera and he sat still while I slowly and casually approached him. And as soon as I got close enough and brought my camera up towards my face, he was off with the swiftness of a glider, the grace of a ballerina and the sheer power of an airplane. I pouted a bit thinking the day’s theme seemed to be about missed opportunities, but as I saw the hawk flying off into the distance, I realized it was really about the glorious gift of freedom instead. Until we sip again…