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…