Friday, November 27, 2009

Gas and Wine Fill My Day in Oregon's Wine Country

With over 400 wineries in Oregon alone, when planning a trip, how does one go about deciding which to visit? You could listen to friend’s recommendations, consult wine experts or research travel sources. Marketing professionals spend millions of dollars and countless hours trying to understand this decision-making process. The hidden component they can’t factor into their marketing plan is people’s personal experience. Often times decisions are made purely by instinct… you select a certain winery because the name or label struck you in some way… it was odd, it reminded you of your sweet grandmother, it shared the same name as your favorite song or you were drawn to their icon/mascot/symbol. For some reason (beyond wine), you identify with the brand on some level, and that’s why you visit. For me, Stone Wolf Vineyards was such a place.

I’d seen their bottles on the supermarket shelves… I call them “Value Vino”—wines priced to move and drink fast rather than cellar and savor. One look at the magnificent solitary wolf on Stone Wolf’s label though and I’m lured… those eyes. Frozen mid-stride, my heart is flooded with memories of my beloved wolf-dog Shasta… I could be staring into her bright, golden eyes. The wines could have been expensive water and I probably would have still bought them. My motivation had nothing to do with wine but was all about memory and feelings. I carried that notion of emotion with me as I set out for a big day of tasting.

From the moment I pulled into Stone Wolf’s parking lot in McMinnville’s industrial district, you know I had wolf-dogs on the brain—but Frank the cat had other ideas. Frank popped out, as if he had been waiting all morning for me, and started rolling around provocatively at my feet, purring and demanding my attention. After a thorough rub down, Frank and I walked together to the tasting room where I noticed the sign “Winery Cat on Duty” on the door and asked if he could come in with me (all the while he’s looking at me saying, “as if”).

Naturally, Frank hung out with me at (or should I say on) the bar while I tasted, but you won’t hear me complaining about having such a handsome man hanging all over me either. Other than Frank, the only people serving guests in the tasting room are members of the winemaking team and so you’ll find they possess extensive knowledge about their wines. On the down side however, with the team busy during harvest, Stone Wolf closes their doors to visitors for this time. Arriving just after their season’s harvest wrapped up, the tasting room was ready to greet guests and though the little gas stove was pumping heat, the room still had quite a chill to the air.

Linda and Art Lindsay planted their first vines at the 40-acre Lindsay Estate (situated at the base of the Oregon Coast Range west of McMinnville) and began producing Stonewolf wines in 1996. They produce un-complicated, everyday, food-friendly wines that don’t require a celebration to open. An example of their value-driven wine is the 2006 Chardonnay; priced at $13.00. Slightly oaked, with tart citrus, dried white flowers and impressions of vanilla, the wine (even at eleven a.m.) was a straight shooting sipper… and if the weather were warmer, I probably would have bought a case. The 2006 Pinot Noir Legend Reserve was presented with a lovely wax seal (somewhat of a dying art). Linda taught me an important lesson that you don’t need to try to cut or remove the wax before inserting the corkscrew. She says if the winery has done their job correctly, the cork should pull right through… I look forward to trying that. The wine was a luscious ruby color with black cherries, wild raspberries and though the flavors were pretty well integrated, with no one element particularly jumping out, I could discern some rose petals and autumn leaves as well.

The Lindsay’s produce a luxury tier called, appropriately enough, Lindsay, which displays their family crest as its logo. Having a rare opportunity to taste something from the well-received 2002 vintage, I enjoyed the Lindsay 2002 Angus Pinot Noir and as it filled my whole mouth with ripe black plums and black cherries, it left a lovely peppery spice behind. The tannins were soft, the acids were vivid, and the wine still had a solid fruit presence which was screaming, “Drink me!” All the while, Frank was screaming, “pet me” and though I happily indulged in kitty time, I still had wolf-dogs on the brain when I pulled away.

I revisited Anthony Dell Cellars (who was wide open for business with their neon sign telling me so) in the old granary building also housing R. Stuart’s winemaking facility; where a lively weekend marketplace was also taking place in the parking lot (a good draw for the winery). Douglass Anthony Drawbond and Joy Dell Means are the middle names behind the boutique brand (and everything else behind the bottle as well). Producing less than 1,000 cases, Joys says Anthony Dell’s admittedly nuts to think they can do it all—a true Mom-and-Pop operation striving to make wines they like to drink… and liking variety, they produce six wines with fruit from both their Estate and the Del Rio Vineyards in southern Oregon.

Joy poured me three vintages of Pinot noir, 2005-2007 (a fun little mini-vertical tasting), with each possessing different amounts and varying degrees of black cherry, earth and spice flavors. A delightful treat was the 2005 Rio Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc that was like a tall, dark and handsome stranger—deep, mysterious and exotic. The wine had a pleasing nose of blueberries and mocha that carried through on the palate where a bit of juniper berry hit my tongue.

Anthony Dell has moved away from the whimsical label they originally developed to the more traditional label they are now using; which is quite serious by contrast but apparently better received by the market. The winery has kept their fun tagline—which is actually a derivative of an old saying from The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic—“Wine will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no wine.” Though harking back to my college days, I seem to recall that expression using a different four-letter word starting with the letter “w”… but wine works well too.

I left the hubbub of McMinnville’s “Urban Wine Tour” and ventured out into the wild blue yonder of Yamhill Valley. I drove up the narrow road stretching out past the 21-acres of organic vineyard in the coastal foothills up to the quaint, romantic and picturesque Youngberg Hill Vineyards and Inn. Positioned high atop the hill, Youngberg Hill has views like no other; and with a wrap-around veranda and an expansive lawn overlooking the sweeping vineyard and valley views (with panoramic views of Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson the Cascades and even the Sisters on a clear day… but not today), it’s one of the most beautiful and memorable spots for a special event I’ve ever witnessed.

Youngberg Hill functions both as an Inn with luxuriously appointed rooms and a winery with a tasting room located within the Inn. I felt a bit like an intruder though, it was perfectly quiet and no guests were around—perhaps it was the quiet I felt like I was intruding on. A very nice young woman patiently poured me through the wines, and opening bottles just for me, I was fairly certain they hadn’t seen many tasters coming through that day. Completely booked through the busy summer wedding season and then harvest, I’m certain it was a welcome calm.

Two wines stood out for me; the 2006 Natasha Block Pinot Noir was like a dessert of cherry-rhubarb pie. There were lovely highlights of white pepper, leather and tobacco. The 2006 Jordan Block Pinot Noir was more fruit-forward pouring forth with blackberries and plums. Look deeper for accents of flowers, truffles, baking chocolate and peppercorns and understand what makes Pinot noir so beautifully captivating and hypnotic. The wines and the setting truly make Youngberg Hill Vineyards a place to enjoy—but to properly experience the whole package, I was thinking perhaps a longer stay was in order. But it wouldn’t be now, because I had both other wineries to visit and like Anthony Bourdain… no reservation.

Don’t expect a drive through McMinnville’s countryside seeking out adventures in wine tasting to be anything like Napa. There aren’t miles of sprawling vineyards; instead, the wineries are miles apart dotting the hillsides with occasional stretches of grapevines and sharing the land with sheep, cows and alpaca farms, like the one directly across from Maysara Winery.

In 1997, the Momtazi family purchased 532 acres of abandoned wheat farm and transformed it into the splendor it is today. Momtazi Vineyard is the largest organic and biodynamically farmed vineyard in the Northwest, with over 200 acres planted in the McMinnville AVA. Maysara means “House of Wine” in Farsi, honoring the family’s Persian heritage. The winery is tucked away in a nest of enormous trees and looks out over the beginning of the steep sloping vineyard estate and a pristine eight-acre reservoir fed by natural springs and irrigation that is healthy and clean enough to provide a home for even fussy rainbow trout. Being environmentally conscious, Maysara has moved away from traditional cork closures using the Stelvin (or screwcap) closure on all their wines instead.

The upstairs tasting area is informal and personal, with guests seated at the round table amidst Persian art and tapestries, alongside a family member who introduces the wines. It was very comfortable with an additional cozy seating area offering a view of the barrel room. I felt like a welcome guest in their home while Naseem poured the family’s wine, which were all so impressive, how do I narrow down my recommendations? Final decision: Two wines with two very distinct personalities. The Jamsheed 2007 is Maysara’s most widely produced wine, named for the Persian king of the same name. It’s a blend of every section of every block of the vineyard and is extremely fruit-forward with a palette of flavor… sweet raspberries, red cherries, tart cranberries, black plums and currants, beyond which lay an oasis of sweet cocoa, smoke and pepper providing interest and intrigue. The Delara 2006 was a profound wine with a lot to say. One sip and it was able to communicate a poem of dark ruby color, a symphony of fruit flavors: blueberry, blackberry, black plum and cherry and a Broadway production where Act 1 is the dark chocolate, followed by Act 2, coriander and anise spice and Act 3 finishing strong with an espresso finale. Delara is another Farsi word meaning “To capture one’s heart”, which couldn’t be a better descriptor for this complex and captivating wine.

Driving out of Maysara, with the needle of my gas tank hovering dangerously around the E, I realized I had forgotten to fill my gas tank before setting off for the long and winding back roads of McMinnville and could just picture myself running out of gas in the middle of no where. Heading back towards town, and the nearest gas station, I passed Yamhill Valley Vineyards along the way, and being located right off the road, I knew I just had to stop.

Yamhill Valley Vineyards was founded in 1983 by the Burger family and is producing 100% estate-grown wines from their 100 acres of vineyards nestled in the rolling foothills of Oregon’s Coast Range. Their label features the colorful Western Meadowlark, which I embarrassingly learned is the state’s official bird. Their wines are made by Stephen Cary; but the Burger family is running the rest of the show. One of the children, Laura, who works in the tasting room, was home from college and had just worked her first Crush. Many of the area wineries partner with wineries in other countries bringing harvest workers across international lines to help bring in the vintage but Yamhill Valley Vineyards has taken that one step further. Laura told me about Kami, a Sherpa who has been coming to them for years from Mt. Everest to work harvest. Oh the stories he must be brimming with… can you imagine sharing a bottle of wine with him?

Laura shared her wines with me in the country-casual tasting room and though the whites were of interest, at $20 a bottle, the 2007 Pinot Noir Estate was a drinker. The wine showed quite a bit of oak up front with a solid smokiness and was somewhat alcoholic with cassis, black cherries and light pepper. It was easy to drink, had attractive features and good structure—I think I enjoyed it because it told me a story I could follow… from beginning to end. It was a quiet day in the Valley that day, and I think I may have been the first guest, at the end of the day. I really wanted to taste the 2006 Tall Poppy Pinot Noir ($80 retail), but the bottle was closed and I couldn’t ask Laura to open it up just so I could have a taste. It’s just a great reason to go back.

Heading towards Portland, I came upon the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum campus. The Boeing 747 parked out front was a glimmering beacon in the setting sun, and as if Ground Control was guiding my private jet to the gate, I turned in at the vineyards and followed the runway to the Museum housing the famous Spruce Goose and the Evergreen Vineyards tasting room. A fascinating scene for sipping wine, next to civilian and military aircraft on display and suspended mid-air, the tasting room was like a central hub for guests. The tasting room also sells snacks and gifts, some of which have been produced by one of the company’s side ventures. Founded by Captain Michael Smith of Evergreen Aviation, the extremely diversified company also owns Evergreen Agricultural Enterprises; consisting of Evergreen Vineyards, Evergreen Orchards (the largest grower of hazelnuts in the state), Evergreen Nursery and Evergreen Farms and Livestock.

The wines were surprisingly good for a tasting room located in a… gulp… (trying to say in my most un-offensive voice) tourist trap, but not so surprising when I found out they’re made by Laurent Montalieu (of Solena Cellars) at the NW Wine Company in McMinnville. The 2005 Spruce Goose Pinot Gris had quite a flashy personality for an older girl (many of the area wineries are showing their 2008 whites). Still bright and clean, the beautiful soothing nose of honey and chamomile was delightful and when I sipped it, the wine was lively and playful in my mouth tasting of Now and Later green apple candy, Anjou pear and muskmelon. Another wine that didn’t fly under my radar was the 2006 Spruce Goose Reserve Pinot Noir. With flavors of sweet blackberry jam and Rainier cherries and streaks of nutmeg, vanilla and pepper running through; the wine definitely possessed some intrigue.

Wishing I could just fly home, I returned to my car, and the still empty gas tank. Realizing I was still quite far from civilization, I hoped I would reach the gas station before my lesson of the day became all too painful. Yes, I learned that being un-necessarily stressed out about running out of gas is not the way to tour wine country. Like the view from your car’s side-view mirrors, things are often farther than they appear and it’s actually quite easy to get turned around. So, start out with a full tank and feel good about getting lost in wine country. Until we sip again…


Friday, November 20, 2009

Friends Let Friends Drink Pinot

With an unprecedented number of wineries in 50 of the United States (and more popping up like dandelions in a once grassy field), grabbing a friend and hitting the wine trail for the day could be much easier than you might think. For me, that meant grabbing my friend Krista and making a quick trek to explore the wineries of McMinnville, Oregon.

Too busy being typical gabby girls, we cruised right by our first scheduled stop (Stonewolf—in next blog post) but promptly located Walnut City WineWorks in a quiet residential part of town situated oddly enough, directly across the street from a high school. WineWorks, founded in 2000, is housed in an old walnut processing plant from the 1950’s. It’s currently operating as a wine production facility with four separate brands vinifying and showing their wines on site. In addition to Walnut City WineWorks, you’ll be able to taste Bernard Machado, Z’IVO, Robinson Reserve and Carlton Hill Vineyard. What sets WineWorks apart from facilities like the Carlton Winemaker’s Studio? WineWorks maintains a hand tending the grapes with their sister company that manages over 200 acres of vineyards. Rumor has it; WineWorks’ sister company has grown, grafted and planted over one million vines in the Willamette Valley… and unlike over one billion Big Macs served, that’s a legacy WineWorks can be proud of.

Walnut City WineWorks’ Tasting Room Manager Jennifer Kadell greeted us warmly, poured her wines with clear confidence, presented some factual history of McMinnville I didn’t know (for instance that it was nicknamed Walnut City because of all the area’s orchards and nut processing plants) and then way above and beyond. She made tantalizing recipe recommendations, promoted local dining establishments and told us funny stories (like the one about the high school student who very unsuccessfully tried to pass himself off as a mature wine taster while his friends likely waited outside snickering).

The wines were all very different styles, which Jennifer referred to as one-stop-shopping—offering a wine to please all taste buds. Walnut City WineWorks was showing two vintages of their Pinot noir. The 2006 Reserve was from older vines with a lightly fruity, dried black cherry presence, filled out nicely with spicy pepper, cinnamon and a bit of earth, whereas the 2007 was all bright, zingy, sweet red cherry fruit with some dusty mint—not very complicated but a perfect everyday wine. I particularly enjoyed the 2006 Bernard-Machado Pinot Noir, which I felt was classic Oregon… light, round, fruity and earthy but unfiltered with a fair amount of sediment. Jennifer teased me with a brilliant recipe pairing for their dessert wine (a cracker topped with a piece of honeycomb, goat cheese and chipotle sauce—salty, sweet, spicy, tangy, crunchy, smooth… mmmmmm); which felt a bit like drooling over but not actually ordering anything off a restaurant’s desert menu. To top off a practically flawless performance, Jennifer unknowingly triggered my delicate memory helping me recall the idea I previously had for my next blog post. Thanks Jennifer, you were a blog saver—I had been unproductively staring at my blank computer screen the night before for hours!

Sometimes the best way to plan a wine trip is to pick one winery you’d like to visit and then see what else is nearby. On that day, for Krista and I, Panther Creek Cellars was the one winery we built our day around. Initially founded by Ken Wright in 1996 (who magically turns everything he touches into gold), and then passed around a few times before finally ending up in Liz Chambers’ possession, the winery operates out of McMinnville’s former municipal building and original power plant built in 1923. The building sat vacant for 30 years before Ken Wright purchased it, and with the city’s help, brought it up to code for its current starring role. The winemaker was visibly busy, hard at work with the current vintage still in tank and his mellow dog Zoe at his side, while Krista and I tasted through his stylistically consistent lineup.

Following Ken Wright’s well-trodden path, Panther Creek primarily focuses on single-vineyard Pinot noirs but their cuvees and the 2008 Chardonnay were not to go un-noticed… well not by me anyway. Though 100% stainless-steel fermented, the Dijon-clone Chardonnay possessed a nose full of Granny Smith apples and filled my mouth with lush pear and toasted nuts mysteriously hinting at oak. Since beginning this project, I am now starting to recognize specific vineyards and enjoy seeing what the different winemakers are able to produce with the same fruit. Panther Creek crafted a 2006 Pinot noir from the distinguished and popular Shea Vineyard that was practically erupting with black plum and blackberries, oozing earthy flavors of cocoa and licorice, finishing smoothly with soothing vanilla and sassy white pepper. The 2007 Winemaker’s Cuvee, by contrast, was the more typical cool-climate wine with red cherries, feisty cranberries, a silky mouth and baking spices—I could easily picture this wine alongside my Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Such a revelation reminded me it was time for lunch, so Krista and I headed off indecisively for… somewhere.

We ultimately settled on Bistro Maison on McMinnville’s lively Third Street and lunch was good, nothing to write home about (well nothing to blog about anyway) until the final moment. And had the restaurant handled things differently, I most likely wouldn’t have mentioned it here, but they didn’t and so I will.

So there we were, having enjoyed a satisfying meal, when out comes our check accompanied by a lovely bowl of hazelnuts. Though I was actually rather full, I decided “Oh hell, one nut… here’s this gorgeous bowl full of nuts, who am I to not celebrate in this bounty?” I cracked my first nut and instantly noticed a little white worm wiggling back at me. Surprised (shocked I guess), I kind of threw the nut onto my plate and jumped back several feet. Krista was looking at me with intense curiosity, at which my only reply was to point at the worm… now squirming its way up my plate, waving in my direction (I almost went out to my car to get my camera to snap his photo, and now wish I had). When I brought this to our server’s attention (with the same wordless gesture I used to show Krista and an added nose crinkle for P.U. effect), she laughed and said, “Oh, that’s never happened before” and took our money and walked away—taking with her my plate the worm was doing laps on—and that was the end of that. Now, I wasn’t expecting a free lunch or anything, but come on, is the final thought they want me leaving their restaurant with (to tell all my friends and anyone who reads my blog) is that of worm inching its way across my dinner plate? Really, not even an offer of dessert to wipe that very unappetizing memory from my mind… what ever happened to customer service?

Preferring to think of my worm in its final resting place of someone’s treasured tequila bottle instead of the garbage disposal, our next stop (though unsuccessful on this trip) is worth mentioning. We attempted to visit Anthony Dell, who was actually closed for tasting that day. Anthony Dell is located immediately adjacent to R. Stuart’s winery, whose door was wide open, so we thought we’d poke our heads in and see if they knew about Anthony Dell’s tasting hours and if we were even in the right place. We heard voices and activity, but we never actually saw any people—so we left abruptly, realizing we were on our own, but not without coming up with a whole new blog mission. Though it would be highly illegal, we troublemakers playfully thought it could be funny to take a wine thief and then sneak in, photograph and publish pictures of pirate barrel tastings at various wineries. Does anyone remember the college students who stole some women’s garden gnome, then road-tripped with it, photographing it all over the country and ultimately returned it to the original owner with a photo album documenting its journey? Putting silliness aside (temporarily), we set off for more serious wine tasting.

A visit to McMinnville (and Oregon’s wine country for that matter) isn’t really complete without a stop at The Eyrie Vineyard—Oregon’s very first commercial winery, the first to plant Pinot noir and Chardonnay in the Willamette Valley and the first producers of Pinot gris in this country. Founded by wine pioneers David and Diana Lett in 1966, the winery and tasting room (celebrating its 40th harvest this year) can be found in a refurbished poultry processing plant, which they formerly shared with the Nestle Company, on the outskirts of town. The vineyards are actually located in the Red Hills of Dundee, but when Eyrie was unable to secure funding to build their dream winery on the vineyard estate, they settled the winery in McMinnville and have happily been there since. The Eyrie Vineyard was founded with 3,000 cuttings brought up by car from California and a notion that Oregon’s Willamette Valley had the same latitude as Burgundy, France, and Lett (nicknamed Papa Pinot as the groundbreaker of Oregon Pinot noir) gambled big and won, proving that the region could produce Pinot noir capable not only of standing up to but even rivaling those of France. David’s son Jason is now Winemaker, producing 10,000 cases a year of estate-grown wines with over 50 acres planted of 100% organic vineyards that continue his father’s philosophy of true varietal expression.

Eyrie (pronounced the same but unlike in meaning from the Jamaican “irie”), is actually an old English word meaning “bird of prey’s nest,” named for a red-tail hawk’s nest located in a giant fir tree at the head of the vineyard when it was first planted (images distinctly preserved on the winery’s classically simple label). Jacques was delightfully pouring wines in the tasting room and an example of his French charm and obvious match for Eyrie’s tasting room was his reply to a customer who called asking what time they close—he invitingly said “I’ll be waiting for you till 5:00 pm”.

Inviting me to tasting the most current vintage, the 2007 Chardonnay Reserve showed magnificent with pear, citrus, peach, white flowers and a minerality that laid across my tongue which was enveloped by a cozy blanket of cream. I specifically took pleasure in Eyrie’s 2007 Pinot Meunier, a rustic country cousin of Pinot noir; it was easy to see the relation while retaining its own distinctive personality. The 2006 Pinot Noir Reserve, from original 40-year-old vines and aged two years in neutral barrels then 1.5 years in bottle, was alluring with a perfumed nose of black raspberry, sweet strawberry jam and white orchard flowers. In my mouth, the velvety texture was enhanced by spicy, black cherry pie, wet forest floor and smoke that also packed enough structure to guarantee several more years of quality development (as Pinot noir ages in bottle, the fruit forwardness tends to settle down giving a chance for some of the other flavors to shine). Having sampled a bit of history, we left the simple and understated old tasting room and headed off for some of the new.

R. Stuart & Company (founded in 2001) may produce their wine in a converted old granary but their swanky and modern tasting room and wine bar is actually a few blocks away, downtown on Third Avenue. Krista and I took a load off, enjoying actual bar stools for a change, while Public Relations Associate Nicole Kaseberg immediately set us up with glasses and a chilled glass bottle of water—sweet touch. The wine bar offers R. Stuart wines, local draught beer, creative small bites and ample comfortable seating to enhance and prolong your experience.

Producing the exciting Big Fire brand, R. Stuart was inspired by themes of hearth, home and a passion for wine; which comes through loud and clear with their easy-to-drink wines intended to pair well with just about anything. Another fun side-project for Winemaker Rob Stuart is a non-vintage Rose D’or—a bodacious and bubbly blend of Pinot noir and Chardonnay that was in full possession of apples, honey, herbs and spice. Obviously a complement to any celebration, the versatility of this wine makes it fun for brunch or with anything crusty and savory. The 2007 Autograph Pinot Noir was a lovely blend from a typically difficult and unpopular vintage displaying well-rounded flavors of raspberries, blueberries, mushrooms and rosehips.

On the way out, I noticed the seven “House Rules” printed large on the wall that speak to being true and showing respect for the grower, grapes, wine, customers and friends. I identified strongly with their philosophy, wondering what our world could be if others ascribed to it as well. Rule #7 stood out in my mind, “Good food, good friends, good wine—period,” and on that particular day, I think that Krista and I served that rule well. Until we sip again…


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Do You Know Where to Get Cozy in Oregon’s Wine Country?

The rain’s pouring down in soggy wet sheets, but don’t let that keep you from exploring Oregon’s wine country. Granted, you won’t enjoy the same scenic and mountain views, and you certainly won’t be playing Bocce or picnicking alongside ripening grapevines—but with less crowds and other options, off-season is a prime opportunity to taste wine and explore new wine regions. So on one exceptionally rainy autumn day, I took a very different route to wine country. I drove my car onto the Wheatland Ferry; which carried me across the rain-swollen Willamette River where I located Arcane Cellars at Wheatland Winery along the river’s banks.

Being located immediately adjacent to the Wheatland Ferry, Arcane Cellar’s Vineyard and Facilities Manager Jeff Silva naturally was a library of information about it. While he poured me through his line-up in the chilly winery, he charmed me with history: I learned that there used to be over 150 ferries crossing the Willamette River—but today, the Wheatland Ferry is one of only three remaining, and is the only full-time ferry operating. Two years ago, a new three-million-dollar, dual-cable ferry was installed to handle the quarter-million cars that cross every year. In favorable weather, Arcane offers vineyard-side Bocce, picnic grounds and outdoor tasting from their mobile bar. Watching the torrential downpour from inside was a bit different experience, but Jeff was in high spirits and his energy was infectious.

Jeff’s son Jason Silva is Arcane Cellar’s winemaker and the two have a long history in winemaking together beginning with their own Pilgrim Vineyards; the first winery in Massachusetts. Jason went to graduate school for Medieval English Literature (before studying oenology), where he found much of his inspiration for Arcane’s logo, label design and branding elements—featuring alchemic symbols and philosophy. Arcane means mysterious, secret and obscure—which the wines may be now, but winning awards like they are, they’re unlikely to remain that way for long.

Driving through a torrential downpour to the next winery along the Amity tour, I noticed the farm workers wrapping up Christmas trees for export and both felt bad for them working in that miserable weather and tried to deny that the holiday season is springing into full bloom.

I pulled into Hauer of the Dauen (pronounced Hour of the Dawn) where I disrupted Carl Dauenhauer from his afternoon newspaper on a day when the quiet is only broken by sound of the smattering rain, a periodic clap of thunder… and the occasional pesky wine taster. Hauer of the Dauen (from the family name), I’d come to learn, means “Striking of the Sunrise” in German. Carl biodyamically farms 140 acres of vineyards outside Dayton, produces only Estate-grown wines, and specializes in pouring older vintages of seven varietals in the quirky but relaxed tasting room. Clearly memorable, was a 2002 Oregon Lemberger that tasted of prunes, black currants and leather—standing out in my mind as Hauer of Dauen is the only grower/producer of this German varietal in Oregon—and a 2000 Pinot Noir Reserve (because frankly, how many nine-year-old Pinots do you get to taste? It’s usually the most current vintage) with lovely tinged-brown slightly oxidized color from age and earthy elements carrying the black fruit on its back. Carl sent me along with my bottle of Lemberger and a smile and off I set out into the mystic.

Well, on to Mystic Wines that is. Owner and winemaker Rick Mafit is surprisingly producing brilliant “Big Reds” in the west hills of Salem. With only nine acres planted, Rick gets most of his fruit from The Dalles, Oregon (in the Columbia Gorge) and has produced Oregon’s first commercial bottling of Barbera (fruit from Hood River, Oregon). Mystic’s label is a bit confusing, but when you hear it was designed by Rick’s son (when he was just a teenager), it makes sense. Using cork paper, the labels look creative and stand apart from many of the more traditional wine labels you see on the shelves.

With the wineries mostly deserted everywhere else, Mystic Wines was like a festive party. A group from Salem had rented a limousine and was out tasting and when I asked them what they were out celebrating, they simply replied, “Saturday.” Ahhh…, a group after my own heart.

Rick was telling dirty jokes behind the bar and pouring his magnificent and expressive wines while a visiting guest started up a fire to cozy up the old house. Actually, the woman who started the fire seemed like a local and regular and I later found out she worked at nearby winery called Red Hawk, but I was impressed with how Rick was able to get this beautiful lady to start a fire for him. Rick produces a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Barbera and Pinot noir. Though I loved the 2006 Syrah with lots of black—black plum, black licorice and black pepper, my hands down favorite was the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was gorgeous with blackberries, blueberries, vanilla, cocoa and some herbal notes drifting in the background. With the rain slowing down, but all the views still obscured, I left Mystic without seeing all the mountain peaks usually on display and went to visit Methven Family Vineyards.

Get past the images of seedy drug vehicles the name Methven brings to mind and embrace their traditional Scottish history instead. Dr. Alan & Jill Methvn take pride in their heritage (and their name) and provide a warm and elegant tasting room to experience their wines. Methven Family Vineyards has only 30 acres planted to grapes on their 100-acre estate, but with wine growing neighbors, the vines look like they go on for miles.

Dave, who had poured for me at Zena’s in Carlton, was tending the old honey maple bar; originally from Lincoln City, Oregon and being the only ones there, we were probably having a bit too much fun. I told Dave I heard an entire bottle of wine fits in one Riedel Oregon Pinot Noir glass and he showed me how, as a bartender, he could win big money with that trick. He took an empty bottle of wine, filled it up with water and then proceeded to pour it all into one glass—but Officer, I just had one glass of wine!

Getting back to the business at hand, I must mention Methven’s wines, because they are quite worth the mention. The 2007 Pinot Gris, crafted by winemaker Chris Lubberstedt, was exceptional… even on a cold, rainy day. Far beyond a summer sipper, this wine had complex layers of sweet green melon, tart green apples and floral jasmine. I also loved the 2007 Citizen’s Cuvee Pinot Noir, which had a light and lithe body, bright red acidic fruit, soft dried rose petals and a touch of cool mint running through. I valued Methven’s non-pretentious style (especially keeping a sense of humor), which showed when Dave presented the Pinot noir “Reserves” and told me they were reserved for someone with $45.

With an outdoor patio to soak up the breathtaking valley and mountain views, and a bocce ball court for added recreation, the winery could easily be an all-day affair (especially with weekend concerts throughout the summer months). But for me, my tasting had come to an end, and it was time to bid Dave adieux and return to my life in the suburbs.

Driving home it occurred to me that historically, it was often imperfect weather that kept me from wine tasting during the wetter months. Yes, it’s true, lingering romantic wine-filled lunches don’t have to disappear just because the sun and the view do—today’s lesson teaches that in the off-season, you just have to be a bit more creative. Mystic near Salem, Tyrus Evans and Anne Amie in Carlton, Coelho in Amity and Maysara in McMinnville are all examples of fantastic winter wineries… they each have comfortable seating areas, with fireplaces, food and some even have games to while away the day. So, next time the rain comes beating down your door, escape to wine country—find a nice cozy spot to snuggle up with a glass of wine and let it warm you from the inside out. Until we sip again…


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Getting Lost in Oregon's Wine Country

If you’re longing to visit wine country but the thought of traffic and crowds are deterring you, consider Amity, Oregon. Off the beaten path, with long, winding and empty country roads, scenic valley views and exceptional wine—Amity could just very well be the wine chaser’s dream tour. Located one hour south of Portland, or 20 minutes northwest of Salem, this tour begins at Bethel Heights Vineyards.

Family owned and operated since 1977 by two families, Bethel Heights produces only estate-grown wines (meaning they don’t bring in fruit from anywhere else). Though there was a slight chill to the air, the sun was beginning to warm up the view from the expansive deck overlooking the vineyards, cities of Salem and Keizer, and even Mt. Jefferson was making a grand appearance. The name Bethel Heights pays tribute to the history of the land, going back to 1909 when it was originally known as Bethel Heights Walnut Grove. A few of the original walnut trees remain dotting the edges of the vineyard.

An adorable kitty named Jellybean was making a rare appearance in the tasting room, which was open and airy yet warm and woody, with vaulted ceilings and a large fireplace making it feel like more an Aspen cabin—except for the vineyard view of course. The wines were luxurious and rather remarkable. One wine I found delightful was the 2007 Pinot Noir Rosé. This wine was seductive and alluring with essences of strawberries, raspberries and rose petals followed by a suggestion of cream and spice. The acids were bright and food friendly, making the wine a simple food complement… really, what wouldn’t it pair with? The 2006 Pinot Noir Justice Vineyard was quite bold and very fruit forward (typical of that vintage), lush and full of Bing cherries, wild raspberries and sweet strawberries. The racy acids in most Pinot noirs, which this wine had as well, are what make it possible to hold its own against many different foods and is a good part of what make this varietal so popular.

The French have centuries of experience pairing wine and food and at this point intuitively know how eating salmon, game, pork, turkey, fruit, mushrooms, breads, cheese and even chocolate can all be enhanced by serving it with Pinot noir. The 2007 Pinot Noir Casteel Reserve had lots of black fruit on the nose, as well as a little blackberry cordial, spice cake and smatterings of some pine and crushed leaves in the background. It was all black cherries and spice through the mouth, with soft tannins that left a silky texture and balanced acids to give it added structure and ageability. Though I could have stayed all day soaking in the sun from their deck, I was on a quest, so off I went to St. Innocent.

Drive up to St. Innocent Winery and you might wonder if you’re in Oregon anymore. The European-style chateau is so massive and grand; it looks just a bit out of place against the farm-rich agricultural area. St. Innocent Winery is located on the Zenith Vineyard, which offers one of the finest wedding event facilities I’ve seen in Oregon, accommodating as many as 500 guests. St. Innocent founder and winemaker Mark Vlossak produces seven single-vineyards Pinot noirs, a cuvee, and a handful of whites with the intent on preserving higher acid levels to complement and extend the pleasure of a meal. The winery is named for Mark’s father (whose middle name was Innocent after being born on All Innocents Day) who gave him an instinctual feel for what wine was about. With gorgeous copper bars, an outdoor patio and huge fountain; the grounds are romantic and make a lasting impression.

With eleven gorgeous wines (nine of which were Pinot noirs), I’m only going to mention my hands-down favorite, which was the 2007 Winemakers Cuvee, one of their only blends. While single-vineyard designates can be lovely and uniquely expressive of location, there is real art in blending that only certain winemakers understand and can fully achieve. This wine was a show-stopper, both elegant and strong, aromas of dark cherries, wild flowers, mushrooms and creamy chocolate rose from the glass like a snake-charmer’s cobra rising to the sound of his magic flute. At first taste, my mouth was practically assaulted by delicious flavors of sweet brambleberries, nutmeg, white pepper and toasted hazelnuts that lingered long and pleasantly in my mouth. I felt a bit sorry for the tasting room associate who was doing his best to handle the busy and docile crowd, but wasn’t very efficient and was frustratingly slow. Finally getting some back-up relief as I was on my way out the door, I imagined it was much different for the next guests and I marveled at how the experience is completely unique to each and every guest that walks through the door. I heard St. Innocent offers a buffet over the Thanksgiving weekend that’s not to be missed and with that big holiday looming around the corner, and special winery events, it’s not too early to start making those wine country plans.

Speaking of not to be missed is Cristom Vineyards, located on a 65-acre estate overlooking the seven distinct vineyards named for the matriarchs of the family and Mt. Jefferson. The name Cristom honors owners Paul and Eileen Gerrie children—Christine and Tom. The winery is an intriguing combination of old- and new-world utilizing many architecturally restored components; including the bar, marble, chandeliers and the immense wooden antique doors that welcome you (which are more than 250 years old, having been salvaged from a French chateaux).

Cristom founder Paul Gerrie and Winemaker Steve Doerner are advocates of tradition and yet still challenge themselves by experimenting both in the cellar and vineyards. In fact, they were the first vineyard to plant Viognier in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Viognier is typically found in warmer climates, but Cristom has been ripening up several acres for the last few vintages and producing a very pretty wine. The 2007 Estate Viognier smelled of juicy peaches, orange zest and honeysuckle. I loved the texture—it was slightly viscous and tasted rich of pears, apples, apricots and some subtle Hawaiian pineapple on the lovely finish.

I also was quite taken with the 2006 Louise Vineyard Pinot Noir that showed dark color and lots of black plum and currants initially, but when I paid close attention, I picked up vanilla, cola, chocolate and pepper that seemed to take a mini-vacation on my tongue. When I was returning to my car, I saw the most amazing avian display—thousands of starlings were swooping and soaring in frenzy over what I assume was the rotting fruit left on the vines post-harvest. Wishing for my own mini-vacay, I drove off down the road. I wish I could say it was into the sunset of the wild blue yonder—close, it was actually to Witness Tree Vineyard.

Drive up to Witness Tree Vineyard and look straight up to the top of the hill. There, presiding over the vineyard, stands the ancient and lacy white oak tree for which the 52-acre vineyard and winery are named. Legend has it; the 250-year-old heritage tree predates the arrival of the first white settlers in the area and is also one of the few trees that survived the annual and traditional burning of the land by the Calapooya Indian Tribe in the mid 1800’s. Though it was pretty, and I was far away, for a 250-year-old tree, it honestly didn’t look all that big or impressive to me, but apparently it was a designated surveyors landmark in 1854.

Witness Tree Vineyard , founded by Dennis and Carolyn Devine, is nestled in the Eola Hills and produces only 100% estate wines, not purchasing any fruit from any other growers. Offering ten different wines, I had my tasting work cut out for me. I was a bit concerned when I tasted the 2007 Pinot Blanc and thought it was a Riesling… perhaps my palate was getting a bit fried (this was actually winery number eight that day), but I was getting hard petroleum instead of subtle fragrant white flowers when I put my nose to the glass. The 2007 Witness Tree Estate Pinot Noir set my mind at ease, with an intense ruby color; it showed tremendous grace and style. It seems vineyards in this area produces a lot of black fruit and chocolate characters, and this wine was just following suit with seductive vanilla and spice for added complexity. The nose on this wine was as divine as the owner’s name, but at $28, it was a good price point for Oregon Pinot noir—and though it’s their most widely distributed wine and easily accessible at the retail level and I usually try to select wine you can only purchase at the winery, I bought a bottle anyway. My thought was: It’s still straight from the source—never having seen warm trucks, bright lights or supermarket shelves. Witness Tree also make estate Viognier, Chardonnay, Single-vineyard designate Pinot noir, Dolcetto and a very sweet but interesting ice-style dessert wine. All I needed was some Oregonzolla and I could have called it a day—but not without a visit to Stangeland Winery and Vineyards first.

Stangeland Winery and Vineyards was a very interesting experience for me, but I’ll share more about that in a bit. First off, let’s make sure we’re all pronouncing it correctly, because at first glance, it might look like Strangeland, but it’s definitely not strange at all. Stangeland is actually named for a Norwegian region and you’ll find Norway’s flag flying in the tasting room that was located directly next to French and Bulgarian oak barrels whose bellies were swollen full with the current vintage. Owner Larry Miller told me how he was the only Oregon winery to receive three gold and three silver medals out of over 1,000 entries from 22 different countries at the World Pinot Noir competition in Switzerland… good on you Larry, that is quite an accomplishment.

I tasted a 2005 Chardonnay that was displaying some interesting and unusual banana notes and several different vintage Pinot noirs—but I must confess, I sadly took horrible notes. I did purchase (and already enjoyed) a 2005 Pinot Noir Estate which was actually a very big wine for a Pinot, but gorgeous and luscious with sweet black cherries, leather, truffles, herb and spice notes… wow.

So, the interesting part of the experience and probably the reason for my horrible notes was this: There I am drinking wine, doing my thing when I turn around and see this young, hot, blonde Adonis standing there (actually his name was Roby). He really looks like Smith Jarret, Samantha’s boy toy from Sex and the City, if you were a fan. Distracting me from what I really should be doing there, and probably against my better judgment, I spoke with Roby and came to find out that he leads one of those romantic and totally unrealistic lifestyles. Living vicariously through him for just a moment, I hung on baited breath as he told me how he flits back and forth between wine country and ski country… depending on the season, never putting down any real roots. Oh to be young again and without responsibilities. He’s worked this past season in Stangeland’s winery and tasting room but was off that day and just in for Harvest dinner, which ultimately was probably a good thing for me, because he could have easily talked me into a case (or more)! Clever direct sales strategy grasshopper.

On the way home from a very full day, I was enjoying the serene, back-country roads opening up in front of me, getting lost first in my thoughts and then directionally as well. Trying to find my way on a small map not drawn to scale with no clearly marked roads wasn’t the best idea, driving around a new region. Okay, lesson learned. Suck it up and buy a GPS already or get a better map—though I can think of so many worse things than getting lost in the Eola-Amity Hills. Until we sip again…

Friday, November 6, 2009

Get Off Your Phone Before You Miss Oregon's Wine Country!

Call me Scrooge; I’ve just never been much of a holiday girl (my birthday’s another story, now that’s a reason to break out the bubbly!). Nativity scenes, glutinous feasts and the thoughtless wasted energy on lights, trees, useless gifts and packaging just tugs at my heartstrings in a not-so-sentimental way. But I guess it’s officially November—wineries have begun winter hours, tasting room associates have already begun their “Pinot Pairs Perfect with Turkey” preach and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that dreadful, I mean cheerful, Christmas music and festive decorations lie just around the corner. But yes, it is true Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir Roses are the perfect complement to holiday meals—they’re light and pair well with a variety of foods, especially turkey.

I chose to explore the town of Amity this week (Amity means “The City of Friendship” and you will undoubtedly feel welcomed wherever you go in this small town) and made Kristen Hill Winery my first stop. Impossible not to notice the 100+-year-old, non-native Camperdown Elm tree which looked kind of like an umbrella but more like something out of an Alice in Wonderland tale. The friendly family-owned vineyard welcomes you to “Weinstube Aberg”, which is German for the Aberg Wine Room and was originally built as a second guesthouse.

Winemaker Eric Aberg and his wife Linda lived in Germany; traveled Europe and developed a deep passion for wine. They started Kristen Hill in 1985 with only three acres and now have over 24 acres planted to vine. The winery is named for one of the four daughters, who with a wicked twist of fate, is the only daughter who doesn’t actually drink wine. Kristen Hill specializes in a wine called Fizzie Lizzie; which was a sparkling blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay with a splash of cherry for color and sweetness. Linda described it as “A party in every bottle!” I concur!

I took the party to Amity Vineyards next, located within the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, due east of Salem. Founded in 1974 by one of Oregon’s early wine pioneers, Myron Redford. Amity has won numerous accolades and in 1991 produced Oregon ‘s first sulfite-free wine. With long, commanding views of the Oregon Coastal Range, Amity Vineyards had a laid-back feeling offering a comfortable picnic area and casual tasting room.

The tasting room’s bartop was like a time capsule featuring a collection of the winery’s old labels under glass with Tasting Room Manager Jo Powell behind the bar pouring wine. She poured a fantastic and perfectly balanced 2007 Dry Gewürztraminer with aromatics of lime, pear and cardamom and some minerals that lent for a hint of texture in my mouth. Amity Vineyards is one of the few producers of Gamay noir, and it was interesting to taste a cousin of my favorite varietal Pinot noir, of which there were several. The 2007 Sunnyside Vineyard Pinot Noir unfolded like a book—revealing bright red raspberry and pomegranate at the beginning, cherries and vanilla in the middle and finishing strong and memorable with some lovely floral notes and baking spice. We finished the tasting off with their 2007 Wedding Dance Riesling, which was about as sweet as the name implies. With 4.5% residual sugar, the wine still showed citrus zest, honeysuckle and the classic petroleum aromas of aged Riesling.

On my way out, I visited with Mae Mae the dog and then took my exit to visit some of the downtown wineries.

Be careful not to blink or you might miss downtown Amity and you certainly wouldn’t want to miss Coelho Winery. Founded in 2004 by Dave and Deolinda Coelho, both of Portuguese decent, the wines reflect both the region and their heritage. Their 30-acres of vineyards are located 3.5 miles from their winery’s facility that is housed in a remodeled 1930’s building utilizing many restored original timbers giving architectural appeal. Saddle up to the large bar supported by wine barrels or relax on the sofas by the fire and soak in the warm country comfort.

Teresa Wright, Wine Server and Outside Sales Associate set out a tasting map for each flight with all the wines in separate glasses, instead of using the same glass for tasting one wine after the other. Multiple glasses can be complicated on a busy tasting room’s bar, but it was a nice touch and a great way to taste different vintages side-by-side and have the option of revisiting certain wines. A homey touch, Teresa brought out a plate of fresh bread and dried Jack cheese from Rubiano in California. Called “Pour man’s Parmesan”, the story goes that during the war, this cheese was made for the Italians who couldn’t get their imported Parmesano Regianno. It tasted plenty rich to me.

Teresa kept referring to the wines as “him or guy”, as in “I just love him” or “this little guy….” At first it really threw me, I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about (for some reason the Seinfeld episode where Elaine starts up a conversation with Jimmy who refers to himself in the third person and she thinks he’s talking about someone else comes to mind—you should probably know, unfortunately, I’m able to boil all life’s moments down to either Seinfeld or Simpson episodes). A little slow on the uptake sometimes, the light bulb finally lit and then I just went with it, letting Teresa show me a different side to the wines. To me wine has always been very feminine (except Cab Franc which is too smoky and leathery to ever be feminine). Like boats or cars and certainly the fruit-providing plants—they’re just primarily female. But I think Teresa may have it all figured out, because truth be known, I guess I wouldn’t mind being surrounded all day by a bunch of sexy men known by sexy Portuguese names either.

Coelho means rabbit in their owner’s native Portuguese tongue, which they have cleverly and abstractly depicted in their logo. The wines have all been given Portuguese names such as Renovacao (Renewal), Apreciacao (Appreciation) and appropriately, Paciencia (Patience) for the fickle Pinot noirs. With Winemaker Brian Marcy at the helm, the wines are all very expressive of both the terrior and his style. I particularly enjoyed the 2007 Apreciacao Chardonnay which was fragrant with Meyer lemon, white peach and white flowers, layered with the taste and feel of custard with subtle accents of nuts and vanilla. The wine was perky, crisp and clean making my mind spin with thoughts of magical food pairings (did someone say crab cakes?). They had a lovely estate Pinot Noir Rose that would indeed be marvelous for Thanksgiving, especially early in the day, prior to the big meal. And three vintages of Paciencia Pinot Noir to savor, of which the 2007 was my favorite (I’m finding this vintage though labeled by critics as a poor vintage, to be more true to the varietal—lighter and elegant as opposed to the big fruity wines of 2006), with red cherry, pomegranate and cola notes, the wine was elegant with a finish of dry earth and spice. In the Portuguese fashion, of course Coelho makes Ports, and they had a 2006 “port style” dessert wine made from the Marechale Foch grape which had a gorgeous, rich, deep dark plum color and would be absolutely decadent with a variety of blue cheeses, dark chocolates and roasted nuts for dessert. I left Coelho, but not without first getting a tip on a port-reduction sauce from Teresa I which can’t wait to make, thanks Teresa!

Practically across the street, but with some current construction going on, somehow not so easy to find is Mia Sonatina. In need of some better signage, Mia Sonatina had a very casual tasting room area set up in the winery. Sales and Marketing Manager Jo Spencer claims they have something for everyone who walks in the door, and I believe she may be right. Mia Sonatina strives to make affordable wine that is region-specific but different than others because of yeast selection, varietal or blending techniques. The Pinot Noir of unknown vintage (only because I took poor notes) was still pretty tight with firm tannins, but I picked up a lot of black fruit and smoky character. The Cabernet Franc was actually my favorite, with black cherry, roasted coffee beans and a peppery finish that made it an easy food pairing – think beef (mmmmmmm, maybe with Teresa’s port reduction sauce).

Jo gave me a quick tour of the winery, introducing me to the winemaker, her husband Vern Spencer, and then treated me to a barrel tasting of Gewürztraminer that tasted like rich, thick and yummy apple/pear cider.

Though these wineries are presented in a logical order, as if I was following an organized tour, I must confess I really didn’t visit them that way. You see, when I was driving to Amity, I was trying to multi-task, talking to my mom on the phone at the same time. After blowing past the first two wineries on my scheduled tour, I actually began my tasting downtown and went backwards to the other two. So, my lesson for the day, and probably pretty obvious, is get off the damn phone! Especially while driving but definitely when touring wine country. Aside from the obvious distraction from the road and the amazing scenic beauty, cell phone calls are a bad idea when traveling in wine country, Oregon or elsewhere. It may not only derail you from your intended destination, you will probably be cut off due to a bad connection anyway. So just wait until your back in the city, sit back and enjoy the country’s lack of technology… after all, how many chances do you have to escape and just enjoy it all? Until we sip again…