Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Moment on the Lips…

As I headed off again for Wine Country, Oregon, I was feeling incredibly indecisive about where I was actually headed. Having woken up late (again), I was already feeling behind schedule, so my initial thought of touring Carlton seemed more and more like a bad idea. I passed Archery Summit Road and remembered Archery Summit was the only winery in the Dundee Hills I hadn’t visited when I toured that area a few weeks ago. Thinking I may as well complete the region, I took the next turn and headed back to Archery Summit vineyards and winery. Second-guessing myself though along the way, I pulled off the road again, questioning whether or not I should be sticking to a more formal agenda; keeping my tasting confined to specific regions. Reminding myself again of my need to go there anyway, I pulled back on the road (feeling a bit like a knucklehead) and continued along to the winery still pondering where I could go next to keep to some logical tour.

I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you before I arrived at Archery Summit, I was thinking how much I was hoping to not like their wines. Although I had heard great things about them throughout the Valley, I had never actually tasted what all the buzz was about. What I knew of Archery Summit is that they’re very expensive—even more so than already overpriced Oregon Pinot noir which gave me the impression they were trying to maintain an elitist image. I put all those preconceived notions out of my mind as I paused to “take in the view” (as my dad would say), snapped a photo for prosperity and trying in earnest to keep my assumptions to a minimum, opened myself up to experience Archery Summit.

The grounds were awe-inspiring, with elegantly appointed details and obviously no spared expense. As it turned out, and much to my chagrin, the wines were truly exceptional too. Actually, I think they just might be the Princess Diana of Oregon Pinot noir; elegant, graceful and classy yet still somehow strong, warm and approachable. A bottle of their cheapest sells for $48, (almost affordable, that bottle did go home with me) and the prices just went up from there. Luxuriously savoring tastes of $100 and even $150 bottle Pinots that were equal parts of heavenly perfumed aromatics and complex, sensual and compelling flavors. The staff was generous with their knowledge; offering guests technical information, recommendations on where to go next and where to find the best imported cheeses and picnic items (Horseradish Cheese & Wine Shop in downtown Carlton), they were right!

After tasting through the magnificently extravagant wines, Guest Relations Associate Barry Rogge offered me a tour of the famous caves, cellar and wine library. I’m not sure if I was getting some kind of special treatment because I was in the industry, because he overheard me talking about my blog or if I just looked really cute that day—any which way you slice it, I came out the winner. The caves are just as you would imagine, a dark and curved labryinth of tunnels lined end to end with French oak barrels full of lusty, aging wine. At the central core is a chamber used for private events; sufficient to fulfill anyone’s fantasy of celebrating something in an intimate, candle lit wine-lined cave.

Built in 1993 into the hillside of the 115-acre estate vineyard, the five-floor, state-of-the-art, gentle-processing, gravity flow winery is a cunning combination of Old-World aesthetics and New-World savvy. With dazzling patio views overlooking the vineyard hillside and valley below, exceptional Pinot Noirs and an unpretentious staff, Archery Summit is definitely a winery not to be missed. But sorry Cindy Anderson (of the Oregon Wine Country Guidebook), somehow I missed those bathrooms…guess I’ll have to go back, darn!

Feeling almost tipsy, either from the two sips of $100-plus wine I just couldn’t bring myself to spit out, or more likely, the private, head-spinning tour I had just experienced, I took off in the direction of “I still didn’t know where yet”. My car seemingly set on autopilot steered itself right into the gates of Sokol Blosser Winery and their down-to-earth yet up-beat yurt-like tasting room. Sokol Blosser’s wine and crowd was young and vibrant with many locals and lots of big buyers. My old friend (and fellow Ponzi graduate) Jenny Mosbacher was slinging wines that day, making it a bonus visit for me.

Probably most famous for their wine Evolution (a blend of 9 whites and a brilliant way to market the relatively unknown varietal Muller-Thurgeau) with 1% residual sugar, the wine is unique, refreshing and ridiculously simple to pair with food (the winery suggests spicy Asian cuisine or a simple peanut and banana sandwich); clearly a Best-Seller. The 07 Pinot Noir was young but opening up nicely—very fruit-forward with some coffee and earthiness just starting to show through. The 06 Jenny pulled from behind the bar was significantly more foresty, with lush chocolate and something layered underneath, like cured meat (I know it sounds crazy, but that’s what I was tasting). The winery is instantly commanding of respect as the first LEED certified winery in the country, as well as for their dedication to organic farming and sustainabililty. Sit on the large wooden deck nestled in the maple trees overlooking grapevines and solar panels, enjoy the wine and absorb the view or, in the Fall, hang out and watch the maple leaves change color before your eyes.

My day was starting to take some sort of form, as I drove on to Dayton next to familiarize myself with Stoller Winery. Overlooking wheat fields and oak trees, it’s a bit as if you drove onto the set of Little House on the Prairie… then you see the winery and know you’re definitely not in the old West. Far from it’s turkey farm roots, Stoller Winery’s a marvel of contemporary architecture; with a solid steel exterior, huge glass windows to maximize sunlight exposure and museum-quality modern art strategically placed throughout, it’s a visual feast. Their Gold LEED certification is just the icing on the cake. My husband would have loved to play on their nine-hole disc-golf course (next year honey!), but mostly guests were outdoors, soaking up the last of the summer sunshine and ripe vineyard views with a glass of wine in hand.

Stoller’s wines are a tremendous value (all under $40), so you can take home a terrific bottle without feeling like you need to apply for an extra line of credit or put it away for a special occasion. But I was especially fond of the sophisticated yet relaxed feel of the place and felt like I could bring my family for a quick escape to the country and keep everyone entertained.

With visions of late afternoon bike rides teasing my tired brain, I threw off the temptation and instead drove on to Seufert Winery across from City Hall in downtown Dayton. When I opened the doors to a busy bottling line, I was fairly certain I was in the wrong place. I went back outside to confirm my addresses and tried the door again. This time, Jim Seufert met me as I came in and assured me I was indeed in the right place to taste. We stood at a makeshift counter (a piece of glass atop a barrel) and tasted his wines while his friends and family were gobbling up cinnamon candies, bottling the 2008 Woven White. He offered to taste outside, but I honestly was enjoying and feeling a bit nostalgic about being back on a bottling line.

Seufert’s label features a “Wine Snapshot” which offers invaluable information about wine pairing and cellaring in a compact and easy-to-use format. The Pinots were primarily single-vineyard bottlings, (except one blend called Pinotlicious) with higher acids and heavier tannins—requiring quite a bit of cellaring time before really coming into their own. I thought the wines were interesting with a lot of potential to develop and would have liked to have purchased something, but as there were no prices listed anywhere, and my dad always taught me “If you have to ask how much it costs, you probably can’t afford it”, I embarrassingly left without buying anything.

I choose to round out my afternoon at a few downtown Dundee tasting rooms and reluctantly pulled into Daedalus Cellars. I say reluctantly because I have a small list of Oregon wineries I’ve interviewed with who’ve not offered me a position and Daedalus is on that list (which can make visiting a bit awkward). I parked in the practically deserted parking lot to discover at four o’clock, I was the first customer of the day. Though Aron Hess is not my favorite person (and I haven’t said that about anybody here yet, and feel bad about it but he honestly just didn’t make a great first impression on me), admittedly, his wines are good and worthy of tasting. The small, but well-decorated Tasting Room is comfortable, though not particularly memorable and with nothing exceptional or notable, I feel they still need to find that certain je ne sais quoi, that which makes them special and sets them apart.

The most interesting thing about my visit to Daedalus was my conversation with the very part-time tasting room association, Christine (whose day job and primary passion is as a yoga instructor). Completely unprompted, she relayed a story about a student who asked her how she went about planning her yoga class. She musingly replied, “I close my eyes, take a deep breath and go where ever the moment takes me.” With goosebumps at full mast on my arms and my hackles raised, it was as if she knew of my personal struggle that day. I couldn’t help but think how I ultimately let my day unfold, just going with the moment, and that it wasn’t until Christine validated it with her story that I fully felt at peace with my decision. So this week’s lesson is straight from the mouth of Christine (whose yoga class I hope to someday take): Sometimes you just have to close your eyes, take a deep breath and just go where ever the moment takes you. Until we sip again…


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Your Dundee Hills Daycation

With what already felt like a full day of wine tasting behind me and a full day yet in front of me, I pulled out of Bella Vida, crossed the road into Erath Winery’s drive and made my way past acres of nearly ripe grapes surprisingly not used for Erath, but Argyle wines instead.

When I pulled into the packed parking let, feeling blessed to have found a space, I wondered what all the buzz was about. I passed by families enjoying lunches on the busy patio overlooking the vineyards and entered Erath’s tasting room; which was even busier than the parking lot. Slightly intimidated by the large crowd at the small bar, I took a moment to digest the scene before elbowing my way in. Having never visited Erath before, but knowing they were bought out by the giant Chateaux St. Michelle, I admit I had certain and fairly high expectations. The winery, as it turned out, was obviously and thankfully every bit as charmingly rustic as it ever was. The cedar-lined room with dark wood floors felt much like a mountain cabin, blending seamlessly with the landscape. Instead of stuffed game heads mounted on the walls though, I observed wine bottles (probably killed by the power of a good night) and slightly less exciting but ever so useful…marketing information, woohoo!

As I stood there. completely engrossed with my surroundings, trays of delicious food kept passing me by, teasing and tempting me before disappearing into a room marked “Private Party”. By this time, I had realized the private party was Erath’s Wine Society’s pick-up party, which must equate to feeling like family, because they acted as if they owned the place (as cellar club members often do). I’ll tell you what though, I was wishing for the key to that golden door and I wanted to be a part of that cellar club as I was drooling over the trays of appetizing food vanishing before my eyes—you would have too.

Felice was behind the bar pouring me wines and a little bit of history, when she wasn’t tending to the demanding cellar club members. Of the whites, I especially enjoyed the 2008 Rose Pinot Gris from Knights Gambit Vineyard. Strawberry rhubarb and vanilla hit my nose and if I closed my eyes I could have been smelling a hot pie cooling on an open windowsill. The complex mouth was zesty with hints of watermelon, citrus, berry and spice … oh so nice—but remember, it’s only available at the winery! Another palate pleaser (though not very budget-friendly) was the 2006 Leland Vineyards Pinot Noir. Like dark chocolate covered cherries in a glass, the wine was fruity, rich, sensual and exciting. A little put off by the big crowd though, I choose to drink and run—but with good wines, great views and a lovely place to take it all in, I will undoubtedly return (next year).

Back in my car and headed for Lange and Torii Mor, I passed Crumbled Rock Winery (which had been closed on my way up the hill) and quickly pulled in to park. With no wine tasting fees, but only one wine—one vintage to enjoy, it’s most certainly worth a stop on your wine country daycation. A local couple was enjoying some quiet time on the romantic deck with a bottle of their Pinot Noir after attending the Erath wine club pick-up party and I couldn’t help but feel a little bit like I was intruding on their moment. The guests were really taken aback when I inadvertently uttered out loud, “this wine is just too good not to drink” and an explanation of my journey ensued.

The family-owned, eight-acre Pinot Noir vineyard had been selling grapes since the late eighties, but finally decided to go commercial in 2007, built a winery and hopes the rest will be history. I wish them much success on their winemaking adventure. On my way out of the winery, I noticed a cute little brightly painted stand offering free flowers and poems to passersby … as if their wine wasn’t beautiful enough.

On to Torii Mor, which I had somehow passed by a dozen times without ever stopping before. Driving onto the property was something like driving into a Japanese garden in the shade. I walked up to the pagoda-feeling Haiku House and though definitely original (as far as tasting rooms go), and certainly peaceful and serene, I have to admit that once inside, I felt a bit like I was in an acupuncturist’s waiting room. The clever three-sided bar delivered good wine to happy guests though. And a lover of a good Pinot Blanc, Torii Mor’s was quite a pleasure with fragrances of white flowers and pineapple and a wide mouthful of baked apples, lemon curd and spice. The finish layed on my tongue like a spoonful of crème brulee, but with a little more kick.  I enjoyed my Pinots outside in the zen-like garden and on the way back in laughed at the sign on the door from Sasquatch Books denoting it as one of “The Best Places to Kiss in the Northwest”— I could see that.

My last stop on a long and wine-filled day in the Dundee Hills, was the prestigious Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards. The grounds were thoroughly maintained, though the grasses were growing so high, they obscured the what-would-have-been magnificent views from the patio. The welcoming tasting room boasted two large wood bars to disperse the masses and the simple yet attractive space was large enough for a crowd but still provided a homey and cozy feel in an old-world meets modern kind of way (ie: cool concrete floors trimmed in warm, weathered wood accents). Jesse and his father Don Lange make the wines, and apparently avid fly fishermen; many of the labels are decorated with intricately detailed flies.

The 2007 Chardonnay from Freedom Hill Vineyard immediately demanded my attention with vibrant tastes, rich textures and balanced acid—a single-vineyard wine that brilliantly reflected both the vintage and the terrior.

Pulling out of my seventh winery of the day, with my internal compass needle finally pointing in the direction of home, my lesson was staring me down like a dirty, western gunfighter. If you’re not on a mission like me, and are really just out to enjoy the wineries, limit your number of tasting room visits to just three. More than that and it just all starts to blend together and a cuvee of a day is not the goal. Take your time, savor the wine and drink in your surroundings…what you’ll produce is a lasting memory. Until we sip again…


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Vacation in Your Own Backyard!

Another weekend…another wine tasting trip. Follow me along as I begin my tour of the Dundee Hills, which is known for its rich, red volcanic Jory soils and wines of distinction. Having heard rumors of a chic, ultra-hip and uber-modern tasting room in Dundee, I was eagerly anticipating checking out the new kid on the block.

Winderlea, I quickly learned, was everything it was rumored to be, and then some. Perched high atop the 20-acre estate, Winderlea acts as a sleek and state-of-the-art vineyard watchtower. Designed by architect Ernie Munch (also designer of Domaine Drouhin, Domain Serene, Stoller and WillaKenzie), the building is a masterpiece of sustainable structure. Made of steel and glass, gleaming bright in the sunlight with cool concrete floors and solar power energy—the well-planned out facility even features a parking space with an electric car charger (my older son Devon will be thrilled to know he can now drive his electric scooter to wine country!). When Proprietor Bill Sweat threw open the garage-style doors (imagine the restaurants in Portland’s Pearl District), the tasting room practically became part of the view…utterly magnificent!

A friendly Labradoodle named Monty was keeping Shayden entertained racing back and forth across the room while Hunter and I sipped the lush and elegant wines. Co-proprietor Donna Morris was pouring me through the wines while she told me all about the winery and the history of the vineyards, but what was truly like a breath of fresh air, was when she told me about how Winderlea donates 100% of the tasting fees to the Salud! program, which provides medical care for migrant farm workers and their families. Lovely hosts, wines of character and a unique establishment will certainly keep the crowds coming…and coming back!

As my tasting companions were lured towards the Evergreen Aviation Museum (which actually has a tasting room so expect I will visit and report on it soon), I resumed on a now solo tour of the Dundee Hills, continuing up Worden Hill Road to Maresh Red Barn. Maresh prides itself on its country, homey feel and wines that are only available for sale in the tasting room (meaning you won’t find them at the grocery store or Costco). I ponied up to the fabulously thick Myrtle wood bar and listened to Sam (all decked out in his denim overalls) relay the gruesome story of how Jim Maresh had to cut that beautiful slab of wood in order to fit it into his Volkswagen bug to drive it back from Coos Bay. After my own silent moment in tribute to the Myrtle wood who made the ultimate sacrifice for greater good, I then told him about my personal quest and he, in turn, enlightened by regaling the tales of a similar quest he started back in 1998. According to Sam, there were 97 wineries in 1998 and like me; he planned to visit all of them in one year. He made it 25 of them before he realized the number was growing quicker than he could keep up. I know what you mean Sam; I’m on number 24 out of 395…only 371 to go! I was hoping to have bested his number by the end of the day, but Sam’s still got me beat. It’s only temporary though, so look out Sam, I’m coming up behind you and I’m not stopping till I get to 395!! Maresh is a great stop on any adventure; I highly recommend the farmhouse feel and casual, country hospitality.

Back in my car I decided to try to visit some of the smaller tasting rooms, which would be closing their doors soon for the season. I drove up the steep and switch backed dirt road past some of the longest vineyard rows I’ve think I’ve ever seen in my life and finally arrived at the beautiful life, Bella Vida Vineyards. Before I could hear the sound of my own door closing, I heard the recorded distress calls of starlings and robins being broadcast into the vineyards. Apparently when the birds hear the sound of other birds in distress, they stay away from the tempting and deliciously ripening fruit.

The large tasting room was simple with a lot of potential for growth. The grounds and view are breathtaking, but what Steven and Allison Whiteside are doing with their Pinots is so interesting and exciting, I think it’s the piece-de-resistance and definitely worth sharing. Before I get into those reds though, let me tell you about this striking little white they produce which they’ve cleverly called and coined Gris-Ling (yes, it’s copyrighted). Primarily Pinot Gris, with 20% Riesling, the wine had a big green apple nose, followed by a mouthful of minerality, it was crisp with good acids and had a very pleasant lingering finish. The Gris-Ling was ridiculously enjoyable but I was saving myself for their Pinots because Bella Vida brilliantly created a line-up of three very individual Pinots called the Winemaker Series—featuring three Pinot Noirs of the same vintage, same vineyards with three different winemakers’ interpretation of style. Steven wittily remarked that the series is like the Iron Chef of winemaking with grapes as the secret ingredient. Though each of the wines was wonderful, complex and elegant, and I would have loved to take them all home (only $80 for the three and what a fun tasting party that would be!), the 2007 J Christopher is ultimately what went home with me. Ripe wild blackberries were practically jumping out of the glass and the silky mouth had the perfect balance of earth and fruit with subtle floral and spice undertones. Though the flavors danced in my mouth and it slid down my throat with the greatest of ease, Steven tells me that several years in the bottle will only reward me, and (if done properly) it could be cellared till 2018. It certainly had the tannins and acids to hold up, but I’m fairly certain it won’t last 10 years in my house!

Steven gushed about projects he has in the making. I mentioned earlier about Bella Vida’s ridiculously long rows. I found out they’re planning to take two of those rows (which consist of several different clones of Pinot Noir) from top to bottom and make a bottling out of that fruit. The name has not been completely decided yet (perhaps Two-Row Cuvee or Two-Row Reserve, who knows? I prefer the former as Reserve doesn’t mean much except a higher price tag, but why don’t you email them your opinion.). On the way back to my car, I could hear the recorded distress calls again and remembered another of Steven’s stories. Seemingly quite the storyteller, he told the crowd how lately, when he goes out back to clean the Bocce ball court, he finds that the ornery little birds have left him a gift of the skins of the grapes after they’ve eaten the pulp and seeds out. I smiled as I noticed the white splat of a gift the birds had left for me on my windshield; I think I’d prefer grape skins.

On my way back down the steep winding road, I couldn’t stop thinking about how lucky I am to live in this region. I don’t have to take a big, expensive vacation to France or even Napa-Sonoma for that matter. A quick shot down Highway 99 lies some of the most awe-inspiring territory, with majestic views of Mount Hood and a fertile countryside with a blanket of color unfolding along the way. Drive off the road to one of the more quaint and quiet establishments, buy a bottle of wine, pull up a comfy seat on the deck and like a mini-vacation, you’ll instantly forget about stress, find your mind more at ease and your body more relaxed. So, the big lesson here? Go explore the world, but don’t forget to discover the vacation that’s right in your own backyard. Next up: More of the Dundee Hills—Erath, Crumbled Rock, Torii Mor and Lange. Until we sip again…


Friday, September 11, 2009

Chasing Pinot and Pickles

Thoughts gathered; Chehalem wine adventure resumes.

After visiting with Keith Lawton, I was seriously pondering the state of the industry, thinking the obvious I guess. Is this just a symptom of an industry that’s perhaps become a bit bloated? Can 400 or more wineries in one state truly thrive or better yet survive or are some going to just fade away?

The magnificent landscape, with rolling green vineyards in contrast to the golden grasses quickly captured my attention again as I pulled into Arborbrook Vineyards. Set in a remodeled old red barn, with a small playground out back, Arborbrook has a very casual, country-like and family-friendly feel.

A cordial cat was in the entrance basking in the sun and I couldn’t help but pet her as I went in. The crowded tasting room had a cheerful atmosphere, with Proprietor Mary Hanson behind the bar telling funny stories about a tasting room regular. Her story was about a guest who made such a mess with the wine one day, the next time he came in, she had a sippy cup for him with his name on it. He was actually there and produced said sippy for the roaring crowd to see. The tasting room walls were adorned with vivid paintings by local artists and Fanucchi Oils was there featuring special tastings of their oils, vinegars, tapenades and sauces (super fun).

Arborbrook was showing two Pinot Gris, a stainless steel 2008 from Croft Vineyard, and my preferred, the ’08 ANA Vineyard Pinot Gris—Alsatian-style, barrel-aged in French oak with a soft mouth, pretty straw color and vivid fruit and spice. There were several nice Pinot Noirs, but I was especially fond of the ’07 Vintner’s Select Pinot Noir. With firm tannins, I’d expect to lay this wine down for at least a couple of years, but the flavors of dark mountain berries (think blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries), cola and something else I couldn’t quite wrap my nose around (was it incense?) were already coming through with both strength and finesse. It will be interesting to watch this winery develop.

Back in my car, but only for a moment, I drove down the road, past meticulously maintained vineyard rows and into Adelsheim Vineyards. One of Oregon’s founding wineries, visiting here helps shape your sense and understanding of the state’s winemaking history. After walking through the grand foyer, reminiscent of a castle lighthouse or guard tower, I was greeted by the large and impressive tasting room with an enormous bar that seemed to flow through the room like a gentle wave and could comfortably accommodate a substantial number of guests.

Adelsheim’s tasting room is classy without being stuffy, large with plenty of room to move, yet still somehow cozy—an almost impossible combination of sophisticated and relaxed at the same time. The staff was terrific; this adorable little cellar hand named Alex (who impressed me with his ability to recall names and technical information about the wines, things I struggle with) poured for me. The whites were very acid-driven and clean (no oak) and would pair beautifully with food, while the Pinots were very fruit-driven and balanced. I ran into the guests I had seen earlier at Ponzi, and since one was a builder and he noticed I was admiring the cherry wood floors, our conversations turned from food and wine to architecture. I had to laugh out loud when he told me “If you like the floors, you have to see the bathrooms!” If he was that excited about them, I figured I’d better check them out. They were nice, with stone walls and cool, modern concrete countertops, but I was a bit confused. Adelsheim has an absolutely amazing patio overlooking acres of vineyards, a majestic tasting room with even lovelier wines, and this guy’s telling me to check out the john. I guess one never knows what’s going to strike someone else’s fancy.

I decided to end the day at Utopia Vineyards, a very small and virtually unknown producer. With just over 10 acres planted to 11 different clones of Pinot Noir, Daniel Warnshuis grows, produces and bottles a mere 550 cases per vintage. The cannons were firing regularly in the vineyards that afternoon as the previous day’s rain had brought with it tons of grape-grubbing starlings.

Daniel was busy talking with another young couple about scheduling them for a private tasting and tour of the vineyard with their friends while William the dog lounged comfortably at my feet. Daniel was tasting me through two vintages of his estate Pinot Noir (2006 and 2007 — which I think would have been more interesting to taste side by side), as well as a Malbec and Cab Franc he produced under a former label in California. Both Pinots were big and well structured, with lots of mingling fruit and oak. Later on at home, I told my husband about my new boyfriend, a really cute boy who was following me around at Utopia who lured in with his big brown eyes for some heavy petting. Good boy William!

Since embarking on this incredible journey, some interesting thoughts have started brewing in my mind. I’ve been wondering what it is that makes one tasting room stand out against the other? Because to me, even though it probably should be primarily about the wine, there’s really so much more to the big picture. All day long, I kept thinking about the Freudian expression “Sometimes a pickle is more than just a pickle” and applying the expression to tasting rooms. Sometimes a tasting room is more than just a tasting room … it can be so much deeper, so much more than just a place to sip wine. Every so often, there’s a winery that goes the extra mile or offers you an experience beyond just tasting their wines—some that are memorable and will stick with you for a lifetime; let’s call it the x-factor; the specific thing which makes that winery unique. At Marchesi, it was the true Italian hospitality and proscuitto machine, at De Ponte it’s the view and homey feel, at Cooper Mountain it’s the organic and biodynamic element, at Ponzi it’s the history and bocce ball, at Adelsheim it's the technical information and at Utopia, it was William the dog. What I’ve discovered, my big lesson for the day, is that every once in a while, in addition to an amazing bottle of wine, you can also bring home an uncommon and one-of-a-kind memory, and in a sea of tasting rooms, perhaps it’s the places providing the memories that are the ones we can expect to stick around. Until we sip again…


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Chasing Pinot

Labor Day weekend proved to be a wonderful opportunity to visit many wineries that don’t keep regular tasting room hours in the Willamette Valley. I took advantage of the holiday weekend (and the generous offer from Hunter to take Shayden for the day) and began my tour at Ponzi Vineyards. Even though I worked there for nearly two and a half years as their Marketing Communications Manager (and still have dreams about perfectly spacing out and hanging all those historic family photos, press mentions and White House menus featuring Ponzi at various president’s tables on the tasting room walls), I still felt I needed to visit again; firstly, for a fresh, objective impression, but also to keep everything official here.

I stood at the familiar travertine bar admiring the remarkably fresh sunflowers in the large bouquet at the opposite end. Krista graciously poured wines for the guests as we all chatted about where we might be going next, Portland restaurants and then oddly enough, the downtown foodcarts. The wines showed beautifully as always; winemaker Luisa Ponzi’s wines (whites and reds) are consistently stunning and well-balanced. Ponzi makes a delightful and slightly floral Pinot Blanc and one of the few Oregon Chardonnays I truly enjoy… the 2006 Chardonnay Reserve, by the way, didn’t disappoint. Aged on its lees in French oak for 18 months, the wine developed complex notes of toasted almonds, burnt sugar and hints of ginger. Flavors of green apple, citrus, honey and cream filled my mouth and I couldn’t help but take a swallow or two, enjoying the long finish for some time as I walked around looking at the local honeys and jams and wine-related products for sale.

David, the Tasting Room Manager then poured me through the three Pinots, but not till I made him fetch me some crackers to clean my palate (Did I mention that long Chardonnay finish? Oh my, it just kept on going like the energizer bunny!) The Pinots personalities were each so different from the other; the Tavola was more fruit-forward while the Willamette Valley and Reserve were more earthy and smoky—but all mouth-wateringly irresistible. Being one of Portland’s closest (and oldest) wineries, Ponzi’s just a quick jaunt from downtown, but it feels like you’re far from it. Buy a bottle of your favorite wine, bring along a lunch and enjoy the Bocce ball courts with picnic-side tables or just relax and watch the grapes ripen on the well-tended vineyards—all the makings for a perfect family afternoon. I grabbed a map of the Chehalem Mountain wineries offering special hours for the weekend and set off for my next destination, but not before making plans with Krista to go tasting soon.

With my old-school GPS (a map and my brain) programmed for the scenic route to Vidon Vineyard in Newberg, I drove up the Chehalem Mountain Range past vineyards, hazelnut orchards, Christmas tree farms, horses, alpacas and sheep wondering if I was actually going the right way. As I approached the summit of Bald Peak winding my way up on Highway 219, it was if entering a rain forest; dense with pine trees, ferns and other native vegetation … you could smell the rich, loamy soil wafting up and feel the heavy dampness in the air weighing down. Immediately after turning off Highway 219, I was greeted by a doe and her two little fawns hastily eating as much as they could before being scared off by me and my big, fat camera.

Drive up off the beaten path, past the enviable residence and chicken coop to the crush pad/tasting room out back where you’ll find Vidon Vineyards’ owner and winemaker Don Hagge waiting right there at the door to greet you with a warm handshake. The holiday weekend brought live music and an array of cheeses, nuts and chocolates to pair with the wines, which certainly created a very festive experience. Darla was behind the bar serving up wines while generously sharing her knowledge of the brand. She told me the story of how Vidon is named for the owners Vicki and Don and is a combination of their names. And then quite eloquently, she explained how the three single clone Pinot Noirs are named for the three grandkids, each individual clone representing specific characteristics of the child it’s named for — the 2007 Brigita is from clone 777, which shows as soft, silky delicate, just as she is; 2007 Hans, the burly of the three, is Pommard clone which gives the structure and firm tannins; and the 2007 Mirabelle, from clone 115, is elegant and pretty, giving complexity to the nose.

Experiencing the wines as single clone bottlings and then tasting the blend of the three was truly a unique and lovely progression. Darla offered me a dark chocolate and blueberry truffle made by Honest Chocolates from her secret stash behind the bar to pair with that 2007 Three Clones which brought out lively peppery notes on the wine. Wondering if I was getting special treatment, Darla then poured me a barrel sample of the 2008 Pinot Noir with explosive big black fruit taste and a touch of anise coming through, wow! With my eyes on the next vintage, I forced myself to turn my focus back to the vintage currently for sale and remembered the 2006 Reserve Pinot Noir — lush and fruity, with a full, silky mouth and lots of smoke and earth —so I grabbed a bottle for the cellar.

With the sun finally out and shining strong, I drove to Lawton Winery, which I won’t say too much about other than I’m sorry to hear that Keith won’t be producing another vintage but I look forward to tasting his fruit in other wines. Good luck Keith!

Though I didn’t end my day at Lawton, I will end this post here as it’s getting long (six wineries total!!) and I need to gather my thoughts. I will resume the Chehalem Mountain adventure next time with Arborbrook, Adelshiem and Utopia and of course, my lesson for the day. Until we sip again…


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Adventures in the Hood

Hunter, Shayden and I took the scenic but rainy drive through the Gorge this past weekend to visit good friends Ken and Pam, who live in Hood River (HR). Eager to support me in my blogging endeavor, the “dudes” (as Pam’s cute little son Matty refers to the boys) offered to hang out so the ladies could go check out some of the area wineries. Pam and I wasted no time escaping the male energy that had taken over the house (well, I wasted no time, Pam may have been a bit reluctant to leave). She was excited to be my tour guide of Hood River though and off we drove past what must have been dozens of pear orchards, dripping with pears in all tantalizing shades of green and red. Good thing she was driving, I might have been tempted to stop and pick a few (dozen).

Pam took me to one of her favorite HR wineries first, Marchesi Vineyards, which may not have been the best plan in hindsight as they set the bar pretty high (no pun intended). Franco Marchesi stood proudly behind the granite counter bar in his new tasting room and poured Italian varietals you can tell he takes great pride in. He grows and produces a lovely Pinot Grigio, and when I asked about his ability to use the name Pinot Grigio on his label, since I thought Oregon wineries were required to call the varietal by Pinot Gris, he told me that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission recently changed those laws. Tomato, tomato … it tasted great, with flavors of pear, lemon and anise. The Dolcetto had a lush, silky mouth with big berry fruit and hints of almond. But the Barbera, that was clearly Franco’s baby. He described how the area reminds him of his home in Piedmonte Italy where they grow Barbera and then explained how he’s built his vineyard around it. The ‘07 Barbera was simply gorgeous with flavors of fresh plums, ripe red cherries and a mouthful of great acids. Franco and Anya Cristina provide true Italian hospitality—Cristina delivered the next wine in the flight to guests as they lounged comfortably on the patio, while Franco took his place behind the bar slicing delicious proscuitto on his magnificent art-deco red, hand-cranked meat slicer. Every detail has been thought of, from the olive trees flanking the entrance to the books on Italy, fresh sunflowers and Deruta pottery from his homeland on the bar. This winery was a winner on so many levels, they just had it all going on—great wines to start, gracious and friendly hosts and a comfortable yet elegant place to enjoy them, what else could you ask for.

Our next stop felt more or less like a drive-by, as we honestly didn’t spend much time there. If you’re looking to taste a lot of mediocre wine, you must visit Cathedral Ridge Winery. There were two huge bars encompassing the entire area, yet not a free inch of space could be found to squeeze in. I was astonished at the number of people in the tasting room and when I was finally able to push my way through to the bar to take a look at the tasting menu, I was further stunned by the twenty or more wines to choose from and probably looked a bit like a deer in the headlights. Completely overwhelmed, I tried to taste a few wines, but found them as about likeable as the whole experience. The wines have won a multitude of accolades, but to me it all just a felt a bit harried and unfocused. Pam and I left looking at each other quizzically as we watched people walking out, arms loaded down with cases of wine—neither of us got it. Very wisely (like a sage that girl is sometimes), she turned to me and said, “It must be the billboard”, referring to the enormous magnet of a sign on the freeway advertising their 2007 WinePress NW Winery of the Year award. I concurred.

We ventured on to Phelps Creek next, as Pam had never been there and always wanted to try; I was game, as long as it’s a wine tasting room in Oregon, I’m there! With access to the vineyards difficult, the tasting room is currently located at Hood River Golf Course, which is an interesting but quiet and green backdrop. Heather, the General Manager greeted and served us in friendly style. We were pleasantly surprised to discover they had paired their wines with some scrumptious appetizers, (way beyond your typical cheese plate) such as Tuna tartarre on crostini and a delectable salmon chowder.

We enjoyed the wines in the bustling tasting room along with locals and those just passing through town. The ‘07 Chardonnay Reserve was bright with citrus, creamy pears, nutmeg and a hint of ginger. A definite keeper … you know a bottle of that went home with me. For those of you who don’t know me well, I’ll let you in on my secret closet-affair with California Chardonnay. Being in the Oregon wine industry, I try not to share that with too many, but I guess the cat’s out of the bag now. Though unoaked Chardonnay’s have their place, if a Chardonnay’s going in my cellar, it’s mostly likely 100% barrel oak-fermented and then aged long in lots of new French oak, mmmmmm creamy.

Hood River Vineyards’ claimThe last leg of our journey, though not the richest in quality wine, was perhaps the most memorable. Hood River Vineyard's claim to fame is being the oldest winery in the Gorge. I really hate to say it, but that’s the best they really had going for them. After traveling a bumpy and very unimproved road up past scraggly and very sorry looking vineyards with mutated clusters of half-shriveled grapes, we parked and entered the simple, casual and friendly tasting room adjacent to the cellar. You could feel the cool dampness coming off the heavy stone wall and the mouth-watering, heady smell of the barrels and aging wine hit my nasal passages like a freight train—one couldn’t and wouldn’t want to miss that. Unfortunately, I thought their wines were as unruly as their vineyards and since I’m not a real appreciator of ports (which they had a number of and fruity ones at that!), I just couldn’t properly evaluate or appreciate them.

Back in the car, we decided to hit a few of the downtown wineries. Pam was all gung-ho and on the mission with me (perhaps even more than myself at this point, feeling quite comfortable having hit four wineries). Unfortunately, heading downtown also meant heading in the direction of her house where she was inexplicably drawn. Wine tasting adventure over, we returned to the dudes—big boys quite at ease with their own glasses of wine while the little boys played cheerfully on the deck—and then we all sat down together and fervently ate a home-cooked and garden-fresh pasta dinner. A fabulous day! Not only was I was able to spend my afternoon catching up with dear friends, but I also got to discover a whole new wine region I’d always wanted to explore … win, win!

On the way home with my tired but contented child babbling in the backseat, my lesson for this blog hit me over the head like a few hundred wine bottles, so here it is: When your man says he’ll watch the kids, get out and enjoy it while you can. Because they’ll all be there screaming “mama, mama, mama” when you return. And after a little bit of wine, and an afternoon’s adventure, those words somehow sound a bit more magical. Until we sip again…


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Cold Feet and Cold Wine

Ok, I knew going into this what a huge undertaking it was. At the time I started my quest, there were 395 wineries in Oregon that I knew of and I’m sure there are more now. Yes, I did the math. That’s roughly 8 wineries a week … every week … for a whole year. That’s an awful lot of wine to drink. I’m not complaining mind you, but I’d be liar if I didn’t admit to having some doubts about whether or not I’ll be able to achieve my objective.

I had my first real bout of cold feet today when I realized I’m already short of my weekly goal … and it’s only my first week! I tried to get up early enough to visit Ponzi Vineyards on my way to work, but I just couldn’t seem to move fast enough and barely made it to work on time as it was. My first week, and I’m already behind. Thank goodness my job is pouring wine in a tasting room, my report from work today will put me almost to goal and maybe I can sleep tonight a little bit easier. Maybe.

Being Labor Day weekend, and a rainy one at that, I expected huge crowds today. People are often either making Cooper Mountain Vineyards (CMV) their first stop out or their last stop on their way home – so certain times of the day can get busy, but today was just steady traffic. CMV, one of the closest wineries to Portland is located atop an extinct volcano and offers stunning views of the Tualatin Valley and Chehalem Mountain Range with an array of tables to sit at and soak it all up. The countrified tasting room has come a long way from its original state as a horse barn. I’ve heard stories of people who remember coming in to taste when there were still dirt floors.

Cooper Mountain is definitely a unique personality in such a vast sea of Pinot producers. Being 100% organic gives their wines a definite appeal, but the biodynamic element is quirky enough to make them even more interesting. The winery has a real down-to-earth environment, with old wine barrels scattered throughout the grounds, and seems to attract like-minded guests (though it is still wine country, you might still see plenty of bling). The star of the show today was a cold glass of Tokai Fruliano—a lovely and bright little white, quite special and perfect for summer sipping but so delightful, you could drink it anytime. CMV’s the only producer of Tokai in the Willamette Valley (as far as I know and correct me if I’m wrong), so it’s not something you come across everyday in the Willamette Valley and, like most of CMV’s wines, it’s very reasonably priced. The winemaker Gilles makes a variety of Pinots from light, elegant and fruit-forward to the more complex and silky. They even produce a sulfite-free Pinot for those with sensitivities to sulfites.

A seemingly permanent fixture in the tasting room is my colleague Dave who is always armed with a really bad joke or pun. Apparently, he has quite a fan club though and guests come in on Sundays specifically to see him (if you don’t believe me, read the guest book – I’ve wondered if he bribes people with free drinks to write such good stuff about him)!

At the end of my shift, I enjoyed my glass of wine while walking the vineyard, observing the grape clusters ripening and changing color (veraison) and reflected on my day. My big take-home lesson was this: “Drink less the night before in order to get up early enough to drink more the next day.” Until we sip again…


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Note to Self: Next time spit and/or dump

I set out on my inaugural wine tasting adventure with an open mind, an open heart and a big fat picnic lunch. My friend Kati was supposed to be my date, but sadly she wasn’t feeling up for it. My husband Hunter (always ready to enjoy my industry perks) and soon-to-be-winemaker son Shayden were eager to step in and accompany me though, and off we drove down the busy and heavily trafficked Highway 99 corridor towards the land of Pinot.

I had already decided I wanted to visit De Ponte Cellars (an old favorite), the two Domaines and then follow my divining rod to where ever else it led me.After somehow missing the turn-off to the Dundee Hills, and fending off the evil stares from Hunter, we got back on track and soon pulled into the rustic and beautiful De Ponte Cellars. I like De Ponte because they don’t take themselves too seriously. You’re greeted by a humorous doggy metal sculpture and if you’re lucky, sometimes the winery’s real dogs will come around to give you a lick hello.

The place was an immediate hit for Shayden, as he was thrilled by the old wine barrel wagon he found he could climb in and play on. Did I mention Shayden’s two-and-a-half years old? Not exactly an age that enjoys hanging around in tasting rooms, but I’m working on it.

Practically dragging him away from the cute car with the promise of more wagon playtime in a bit, we finally entered the large tasting room and were immediately struck by the expanse of the long oak bar practically running the length of the building. Though crowded it wasn’t, the room can certainly accommodate one, and while it was big, perhaps the low ceilings lent a more comfortable feel (much like being in someone’s home basement party room). The few guests there were impeccably dressed with expensive logo purses placed prominently on the bar. With classic rock tunes playing on the hi-fi, Shayden swirled his water while Hunter and I tasted the 2008 Estate Melon (not my favorite white and not a real good representation of the winery, IMHO) and then four gorgeous Pinot noirs, each one surprisingly more luscious and delicious than the last. Time seemed to melt away with each sip of our wines while we ate our lunch at their relatively secluded picnic spot complete with picturesque views of the vineyards and Willamette Valley. De Ponte never fails to satisfy.

Our bellies full, we set out for the first of the big Domaines; Domaine Serene (DS). Walking the sprawling yet meticulously planted grounds, I felt as if I’d stepped into an Old World Mediterranean scene. Though I had visited many nearby wineries, I actually had never been to DS before (if you really want to know, I think their wines are greatly overpriced and overvalued). The word opulent doesn’t even describe the details of the tasting room. The marble floors are gorgeous, the massive oak ceilings with iron chandeliers suspended from them are impressive to say the least, the huge windows draped with rich, heavy brocade curtains and the smooth slab granite bar were all a part of a very carefully appointed room, but I found it a bit overwhelming. I was starting to feel like Dorothy in Oz – “Hunter, I don’t think we’re in Oregon anymore”, more like Napa Valley, CA. We moved around the room to the three pouring stations in an interesting and almost choreographed fashion, and were met at each by friendly and knowledgeable staff. The pretentious, well-dressed crowd included a few suit jackets and again, lots of logo flashing reminiscent of a ritzy gang I was obviously not a part of. I enjoyed a glass of 2006 Cote Sud Chardonnay that had nice citrus notes and great acids, but once again felt the Pinot Noirs lacked a certain amount of integrity, trying to be something they’re not.

Next stop, Domaine Drouhin (DDO). By this time, I lost my companions to naptime, so I was on my own for the remainder of the day. DDO was very busy, it took a long time to be greeted and the service continued to be slow and spotty. There was a large party of fancy-dressed girls out for a bachelorette party, another private party tasting downstairs, people hanging on the deck and a large gathering at the oak and travertine bar. The large, elegant room had high ceilings and stone floors with fairly unadorned walls that made sounds and voices carry. At one point it got very quiet (except the soft jazz piping through) and when I looked around, I saw everyone sniffing wine in unison, their noses rooting around the Riedel glasses — it looked like a bad wine tasting movie and I thought it was so very humorous (but I had already drank a good deal of wine, so it was probably just me). I’m always impressed by DDO’s pioneering gravity winemaking facility and how it’s visible from the tasting room. Since the staff wasn’t very informative, I did my part to share this information with the other guests that seemed to be following me around from tasting room to tasting room, interested both in what I was doing and where I was going next. I loved the 2007 Chardonnay Arthur, but the highlight had to be their ‘99 Pinot Noir. I really appreciate when a winery shows older wines, most average people don’t regularly get the chance to experience them and their beauty. This ‘99 was showing very well with a smoky, yet perfumey nose, mushrooms and chocolate on the palate and lots of black fruit still very present. The long, silky finish stayed with me well after I left.

With the two biggies down, it was time to relax and let my hair down. I went to White Rose next, where I knew I'd be comfortable — partly because I know the GM (I used to work with him at Ponzi Vineyards) but more so because White Rose, in all its splendor, is actually very unassuming.

The grounds and view are spectacular, as is the cellar—but the star is their wines, handcrafted and very limited production (that’s where they put their focus). The winemaker’s brother speaks passionately about the wines from behind a meager table (as opposed to the immense bars at their more affluent neighbors), with the wine bottles for sale placed casually beside him. Each bottling is named after the owner’s children and the creative dragon label I learned is from The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch (a great story and so not-your-typical-fairytale-ending-princess-story that I love and recommend reading it even if you don’t have kids). The party girls I saw at DDO were hanging out on the patio … so busy fussing with themselves, did they even notice the panoramic vistas unfolding as the fog slowly burned off? I came away with a bottle of their signature Pinot, the 2007 Quiotee’s Lair, but was ever so tempted by the $75 bottle of 2006 Soverae Pinot Noir, which was very special, but beyond my budget for the day.

Somehow, I found my way to the Treehouse tasting room at Vista Hills Vineyard & Winery. Exceptional and unique, the tasting room is nestled in the canopy of old Douglas fir and White Oak trees overlooking the vineyards and countryside. The cabin-like building with large deck is cozy and comfortable with a mountainesque feel; yet there’s a simple, clean elegance at the same time. The highly knowledgeable and extremely friendly staff poured me a lovely and lively Pinot Gris and some well balanced, good structured Pinots (of which I selected the 2006 Treehouse to take home). The winery is family-owned and generous philanthropists, donating 10% of their wine sales to the Clint Foundation, which provides grants to students working their way through college.

My last stop, which was brief, was at Winter’s Hill Vineyard’s tasting room. Located in a small and unpretentious garage, the wines were gorgeous, but as it was late in the day and I was a bit burned out, I unfortunately didn’t take very extensive notes on them. I must confess however, the notes I did take on the 2005 Pinot Noir Reserve were quite poetic … one word actually, "Yummo" (the bitter irony is that I hate that expression and I’m not the biggest fan of Rachel Ray either, but that’s another story and another topic)! Six wineries left me practically speechless; actually speechless would have been better than “yummo”. Hopefully I didn’t say it out loud!!

All in all, the experience was great, the wineries were splendid, I brought home a few memorable bottles to add to the cellar and I learned a very valuable lesson. Spit and/or dump to avoid slipping into my embarrassing Rachel Ray persona. I want to thank all my hosts for their generous hospitality! Until we sip again…