Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tasting Wines in the Carlton Countryside

I could hear the siren song beckoning me, trying to lure me from my odyssey as I passed numerous signs for garage sales and several farmers markets along the way to tour the Carlton wineries. Where I once went seeking priceless treasures of cheap, high quality children’s toys and farm-fresh produce for my family, I now find myself spending weekends seeking out treasures of a different sort.

Sticking to my guns and keeping my foot on the accelerator, I eventually arrived at my destination, Anne Amie Vineyards. I drove past the vineyards, poised and ready for picking, and up to the French-style chateaux at Anne Amie, high atop the hill. Anne Amie’s tasting room reflects the classic Old-World style, with gilded mirrors, high ceilings and lots of tapestries—elegant if not just a bit stuffy. Enjoy a picnic on the patio overlooking the beautiful grounds, vineyards and scenic Willamette Valley below.

I was excited to taste at Anne Amie because another of my former Ponzi colleagues and current good friend Thomas Houseman is Anne Amie’s Director of Winemaking (so I know first hand about both his talent and his passion). Thomas’s passion may be for Pinot Noir, but that boy can work magic with the whites too. I tried a heavenly Riesling, which brought thoughts of Thai food and Lobster Thermador to my brain with subsequent pangs of hunger to my belly; two Pinot Gris’, equally refreshing with balanced fruit, spice and minerality; and a delightful Pinot Noir Rose called Cuvee A Midnight Saignee. I think my favorite by far was the 2008 Cuvee A Muller Thurgau, though it’s not the most popular or common white wine, it could be! Thomas’ Muller Thurgau was like a perfectly crisp green apple with additional flavors of Meyer lemon, melon and aromatics of dried flowers. This wine would be simply divine with a bowl of fresh steamer clams and would really knock your socks off with some spicy Mexican pork. Obviously an easy-sipper in the summer, but as cooler weather comes on and I seek out wines that warm the body and soul, it’s good to keep these affordable, easy-pairing and food-friendly whites top of mind.

Thomas Houseman joined Anne Amie in 2007 and quickly recruited former colleague and Vineyard Manager Jason Tosch (yes, another graduate of Ponzi University) to oversee winegrowing at Anne Amie. The two are a force to be reckoned with and have brought Anne Amie’s wine program to new heights. I had the good fortune of tasting the 2007 Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir (Thomas’ first vintage of Pinot Noir with Anne Amie) and found it very approachable, with ripe flavors of black cherries, blackberries and chocolate mingling happily with leather, violets and sweet maple. I haven’t been too crazy about the 2007 vintage till lately, but with wines like these quickly changing my mind, I’m realizing with a little more time in the bottle, the 2007’s are developing quite a distinctive personality.

With the 2009 Harvest in full play, I knew Thomas would practically be living at the winery so I asked the tasting room associate to see if he would see me. She took my card and said she would check but that he was really busy and probably knee-deep in a tank somewhere. I watched him breezing in and out of the kitchen; lithe and graceful, just like his wines, and when he finally had a moment to catch his breath, he took mine away with a big, hearty, lift-me-off-the-floor kind of hug. My timing impeccable, he graciously invited me to join the Harvest crew for lunch of food straight from the winery’s garden at picnic tables nested snugly in a blanket of grapevines. I sat down with Thomas, Jason and the rest of the bunch, but I’ve seen how hungry those Harvest workers get and I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking food off their precious plates. Speaking of food… I do have to mention how fun it was catching up with my old hungry and sexy Australian friend Todd Harvey. For some crazy reason, Todd has returned to Oregon to be a part of Thomas’ Harvest crew year after year (first meeting at… drum roll please… Ponzi Vineyards!). And though he’s certainly capable of eating everything on the table, he brings plenty to the table as well, cheers mate!

I left Anne Amie feeling full and content in my soul after a visit with friends and some great wines (stomach still rumbling though) and went on deeper into the countryside to tour the remaining outlying wineries of Carlton—starting with Lemelson Vineyards (who just opened their brand new tasting room 4th of July weekend). Combining traditional methods with current technology, the cedar-sided winery is a modern marvel of aesthetics and function. Built with sustainability in mind, every detail was considered… right down to the white oak floors harvested from trees on the estate property and milled locally. Walk in past the outdoor patio with full fireplace and get a bulls-eye view of the Crush Pad. Luckily, I got to observe some Harvest activity and better yet, Lemelson's highly acclaimed, one-of-a-kind, fully mobile sorting platform… in action! The crew was carefully selecting ripe clusters, which then dropped to fill temperature-controlled, stainless steel fermentation tanks located on the level below. The barrel room (which I did not see) is located on the lowest level of the gravity-flow winery, fully underground and complete with radiant heated and cooled concrete floors for optimum temperature control. I should probably mention, the photo of two I’ve captured here in full Harvest mode joked about their attire— specifically his, saying he looked like Chris Farley in Saturday Night Live’s “Fat Man Little Coat” skit. Okay, I can see the resemblance!

Back to the business at hand, and my main purpose. Wine tasting was taking place in the foyer, as the tasting room was actually closed to guests (apparently it also doubles as the Harvest kitchen and dining room and Harvest always takes precedent at a winery… as it should). I did peak in though, and saw it easily makes a lovely setting for sipping; large with vineyard views framed in oversized windows flanking a cozy wood-burning stove.

I liked Lemelson’s 2007 Dry Riesling, and though the label said “dry”, there was clearly a touch of residual sugar that softened the austerity but also perhaps masked that traditional diesel smell you get off a Riesling. I got more excited when Pamela, who was pouring wines that day and clearly up on her technical information, allowed me to taste a 2006 Chardonnay she happened to have open. Aged in 40% new French oak, the wine had a nice weight in the mouth, without being overly creamy and pleasing notes of lemon-lime, honeysuckle and pear (did I buy a bottle, what do you think?). There was a good selection of ’06 and ’07 vintage Pinot noirs; both single vineyard and cuvees. The highlights for me were the 2007 Meyer Vineyard Pinot Noir, an unusually complex wine, rich with essences of red cherries, strawberries, black tea, warm, white pepper and violets; and the 2006 Jerome Reserve Pinot Noir. A blend of their three vineyard sites with a lush, earthy and smoky nose and full, round mouth of black fruit, dark chocolate, minerals and spice, this wine is exotic and sensual and should be savored over a long evening as it continues to develop in the glass (a perfect candidate for a decanter). Lemelson’s commitment to organics and sustainability (from vineyard to winery) made quite an impact on me and I wish them continued growth and success.

With Laurel Ridge Winery now in my sightline, I zipped past old barns, weathered silos and fertile farmland. After parking, I was greeting and led directly to the door by the perfect little doorman, a very friendly resident pooch named Keizer. The tasting room displayed the cleverest use of recycled wine materials I’d ever seen. Woodworker and Grant High School teacher Dan Brown ingeniously crafted a unique canopy for over the bar made completely out of used barrel staves with lights that dangle through the bungholes. Aside from its beauty, the barrel stave canopy provided a wonderful and surprising sense of intimacy in the bar area amidst the very large tasting room. The front of the bar was also its own work of art, decorated with vintage Champagne riddling racks (used in wine cellars for aging Champagne bottles).

Distracted by the adorable dog who had taken up residence on my feet, I disengaged my hand from his fur long enough to taste the wines. Laurel Ridge is one of a handful of Oregon wineries that produces sparkling wines in the classic French Methode Champenoise. Susan, the winery’s president, poured me a 1992 Brut Grand; a harmonious blend of Pinot noir and Pinot blanc with almost no residual sugar which made me think of crab cakes, fried oysters and mushrooms in cream sauce on toast. I tasted some good Pinots and then was tickled by a 2007 Tempranillo with bold, dramatic flavors of berries, currants and cinnamon that was just screaming to be drank along side a dish of Moroccan Lamb Tagine over cous cous.

Food obviously weighing heavily on my mind, I decided to revolt against my hunger and headed to Lenne where I found winemaker and proprietor Steve Lutz personally pouring his wines. There’s really nothing better than getting to taste with the winemaker, you get a greater understanding of the wine—its history, by which I mean what exactly those grapes have gone through on their journey from vine to glass. Drive up the steep, narrow dirt road to the tasting room at Lenne and you feel like you’re driving to a little old Tuscan villa, with field stone walls the color of Piedmonte.

In addition to Lenne wines, Steve also pours some of his friend’s wines as well. That day, I got to enjoy a 2007 Viogner from Fausse Piste, which was almost golden in color with pretty aromas of orange blossom and apricots and a nice full body as well as a 2008 Sineann Old Vine Zinfandel (off 100 year-old vines) and a 2007 Owen Roe Cabernet Franc with lots of Spanish pepper on the nose. Steve tasted me through three of his 2007 Pinots, each of which leaned towards a light and delicate style and each of which seemed to contain the same red cherry, coffee and spice (in varying combinations and intensities). They all had good ripeness, good acidity and an indicative terrior (French word meaning earth referring to specific flavors which identify a sense of place), making it very difficult to decide what to purchase. What to serve it with, an easy decision… my most favorite blackened seared salmon. Again, I’m a visual gal and a sucker for a good label. Steve’s label kindly pays tribute to his father-in-law Lenny and features his profile prominently. In a cunning and punning sort of way, one of the Pinots is called Le Nez (French for the nose), and displays and even larger silhouette of Lenny’s very un-petite nose. Lenne is open Thursday through Sunday, and Steve says anytime the gate is open, feel free to stop on by.

With WillaKenzie practically across the street, it was easy to blow off my insatiable appetite knowing it would be my last stop of the day and suck up one more tasting (so to speak). Upstairs, I found the grand tasting room with lofty vaulted wood ceilings, bistro-style seating and a magnificent antique French bar inlaid with mother-of-pearl. In a strange twist-of-fate, I was being served by Sherry, Hospitality Manager, who didn’t really feel all that hospitable (maybe it was just a bad day). In fact, I was starting to feel slightly uncomfortable until her associate, Erik swooped and and like a superhero behind the bar, saved the day with his playful nature and great sense of humor. One of the guys from the group standing next to me at the bar started joking about how Erik looked a bit too much like Erik Estrada (talking about a funny commercial with Estrada sunglasses), which finally seemed to break the ice where Erik responded by swiftly removing the guest’s glass, refusing him service for making such a bad and offensive joke. It was obvious Erik had heard this reference before… he might have been just a bit too sensitive about it. He returned the glass to the guest, who as it turns out was also named Eric and was very brave and tried to stand his ground, but didn’t really have a leg to stand on teasing someone else, considering he was wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt!

Of the wines, I tasted a 2008 Pinot Blanc, a classic 2007 Pinot Gris, and four vineyard-select 2006 Pinot Noirs that all had a sweetness which hit your lips immediately, but that was where the similarities ended. The Pierre Leon suggested blackberries and plum, it was complex, with great structure but its long finish didn’t quite sit right with me at that particular space and time. Wine is really so personal, it could have very well just been me (I think it was that cured meat thing again). The Kiana, in contrast, was full of juicy red fruit and blueberries with a fluttering of violets and white pepper. The Emery, probably my favorite, had a dark ruby color, deep black cherry flavor with hints of anise and fig, while the Terres Basses, also rich with red fruit, tasted of pomegranates, Bing cherries, roses, black licorice on a bed of fertile earth. After tasting through the Pinot noirs, I couldn’t get that first Pinot Blanc out of my mind. The nose and palate both exploded with pear, melon, kefir lime and honey. When I took a sip of this wine, I was immediately reminded of a memorable wine dinner I did with Ponzi Vineyards at Genoa Restaurant where the chef paired Ponzi’s Pinot blanc with a dish called Pasta al Melone. This was one of those electrifying food pairings where I felt like I was in some sort of food heaven… the wine brought out the richness and sweetness in the pasta dish and the food enhanced the fruit flavors and acidity in the wine. I begged the chef for the recipe and have since made this easy dish several times. I picked up a beautiful Tuscan cantaloupe today and look forward to recreating that food pairing with WillaKenzie’s 2008 Pinot Blanc.

Obviously hungry, I set off for home (my refrigerator) with my daily lesson rumbling loudly at me. The best and simplest way to keep your focus on the wine, the tasting room and the experience instead of on your next bite: Make sure you’ve eaten a satisfying and well-rounded meal before you set out on any wine tasting adventure—wine touring and tasting is hard work.

Next up on the Carlton wine tour: we’re hitting downtown! Until we sip again…



6512 and growing said...

Lovely lovely words! Your stamina is impressive. Maybe Mama needs to pack a stash of power bars in the car. (easy to pack a steamer trunk's worth of "necessities" for the kids, but our own needs?)

The Northwest Hominid said...

Very funny exerpt about Erik Estrada and Wonder Woman! Great to meet you that day. We are enjoying your blog. Best wishes on your endeavour.

-Eric & Gang

Sip with Me! said...

Yay! Eric and gang! Great to see you again, thanks for following me!! So, I thought the Erik Estrada bit was great too, but I don't think Willakenzie was quite as amused. Hope you're all well and maybe we'll bump into each other in another tasting room sometime!