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…