Special holiday weekends provide amazing opportunities for wine tasters. In Oregon’s wine country, it can mean a chance to taste some rare and well-kept secrets. Many small producers that don’t keep regular tasting room hours throw open their cellar doors just a few times a year welcoming new and old fans alike. Thanksgiving weekend is traditionally one of those special weekends, and I was feeling grateful for my opportunity to explore some of these hidden wonders.
Every time I see my friend Thomas (Winemaker for Anne Amie Vineyards), he always asks if I’ve visited Alloro Vineyards yet, and I always reply, “No, not yet.” Well, this weekend I finally took Thomas’s recommendation to visit Alloro Vineyards for one of their twice-a-year celebrations, and am truly thankful I did. Alloro Vineyards is an enviable 70-acre Mediterranean-inspired estate located in the Chehalem Mountains in the Northern Willamette Valley. It’s practically a stone’s throw from downtown Portland, but set in the midst of sprawling agriculture, instead of cookie-cutter houses. The name Alloro is Italian for laurel… and seeing how the vineyard is located on Laurelwood soil, on Laurel Ridge with laurel growing all over the property, the name is obviously a good fit. Historically, laurel symbolized immortality; today it is a symbol of both peace and victory… I can drink to that.
Friends, family and neighbors came from near and far to support founder David Nemarnik and enjoy Alloro’s wines which are an example of Oregon’s finest Pinots… well balanced, elegant and complex. Though Alloro was showing some of their 2008 Pinots, which had recently been bottled, the wine I thought was hogging the spotlight was the 2007 Church Block Estate Pinot Noir. This wine is named for the block’s location—directly across from a pioneer church whose bells can be heard chiming throughout the vineyard every Sunday morning at 10:30. The wine had a touch of sweet strawberry, black cherries and tart raspberry with a hint of smokiness offering intrigue and a spicy finish that added that extra something, something. The tannins were fine and silky but the firm structure would indicate this stunning wine could still benefit from additional cellar time.
Alloro also produces a late-harvest dessert wine called Vino Netarre, which rivals Canada’s best ice wines. A late-harvest blend of Riesling and the gorgeously aromatic Muscat, the wine was dazzling and stood very well on its own, but I couldn’t help but imagine what it would taste like reduced and drizzled over French toast… it could very well be the star of my Sunday brunch! After chatting with a limo driver about our mutual appreciation of the Church Block Pinot Noir and the tasting opportunities weekends like this present, he recommended I visit Styring Vineyards on Ribbon Ridge. Curiosity piqued, I left the Tuscan splendor and bocce courts of Alloro Vineyard and headed off for Styring Vineyards; a boutique winery located atop the Ribbon Ridge AVA (American Viticultural Area) in Oregon’s Northern Willamette Valley.
Founded by Steve and Kelly Styring in 2003, Steve is producing artisan wines but Molly the Wine Dog is perhaps upstaging Steve ever so slightly as the their face and handle on Twitter… she even has her own blog. Styring has a subterranean cave for wine storage (which I didn’t see), but the wine production area was well dressed for their semi-annual occasion with wine, snacks, live music and twinkling lights overhead. There was quite a large gathering and the party crowd was soaking it all in.
The Styrings, whose farming history dates back to early England in the 1100’s, purport that Pinot Noir is their passion, Riesling is their whimsy and Port and dessert wines are their bliss. They were showing a preview of their 2008 Pinot Gris, which was tart and racy with a simple nose of apple and pear. Their 2006 Signature Pinot Noir (with fruit sourced from the Dundee and Carlton Hills) was barrel-aged for one and a half years and then bottle-aged for another year. Aging the wine in barrel for longer than 12 months is a major commitment for a winery because they will have two vintages in barrel at the same time (requiring lots of extra space and additional expensive barrels). The extra time paid off and the wine showed well with plum, black cherries, tobacco complemented by a white peppery finish. Also worth mentioning is Styring’s first vintage of Pinot Noir from their estate fruit. The 2006 Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir was interesting and very earthy, with mushrooms, ripe raspberries and delicate violets. As I drove into the 40-acre farm and vineyard, I noticed a familiar cluster of white boxes and the sign for the bees. I was delighted to find Styring sells their farm-fresh local honey in attractive dessert wine bottles and when I got home later, I was disappointed I didn’t buy a case… I’ll have to remember that for the next holiday weekend!
I drove along the ridge a ways, past groups of wine tasters walking from winery to winery with glasses in hand, and located Redman Vineyards and Winery just down the road. Redman was barrel tasting their 2008 Pinot Noirs which was quite memorable; absolutely nothing beats watching the wine as it’s drawn out directly from the barrel, up into the glass shaft of the wine thief and then released into your waiting glass.
Redman had a tantalizing spread set out for their guests of foods that paired well with their lovely wines but it was owner Cathy Redman and her brother who regaled me with stories that would keep me coming back. Her and her husband Bill realized their dream and purchased the 30-acre parcel in 2004, pulling out the established hazelnut orchard and planting 22 acres to vineyards. Sadly, Bill passed away this past year, but Cathy has released a wine honoring his memory and good nature… Bill’s Blend. The story is, as typical for a winemaker and their family, that Bill and Cathy would often entertain guests. Typically, Bill would go down to the wine cellar and make a blend to pair with that evening’s meal. Their guests, who always loved the wine, usually took leftovers home in a bottle they coined Bill’s Blend. Bill’s last combination was a Pinot Noir-Barbera blend that Cathy has since produced in a very limited bottling. Bill’s Blend 2007 is now available to anyone who’d like to drink a really good hearty red wine and toast to Bill’s memory… here’s to you Bill.
My last stop of the day was Soter Vineyards. I had initially planned to arrive in time for owner Tony Soter’s demonstration of sparkling wine production, but as often happens, I was running on a different clock that day and instead arrived in time to watch the magnificent sunset and colorful view of the vineyards and the Yamhill-Carlton District stretching out in the distance (a great reason for a second visit).
Soter Vineyards is a 240-acre ranch, with 32-acres planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and a choice new winery facility situated high atop a natural mesa. Winemaker James Cahill produces single vineyard Pinot noirs and Oregon’s most elite sparkling wines made in the traditional French Methode Champenois.
Though disappointed to have missed Tony’s Champagne presentation, I was excited to finally be able to taste his wines. Greeted by an evervessant glass of 2005 Brut Rose the color of King salmon, the wine was refreshing, elegant, complex and truly exceptional—it was full of wild raspberries, strawberries with cream, honeysuckle and subtle suggestions of ginger and vanilla—and I longed for the luxury of being able to enjoy my glass. (Though I taste a lot of wine, since I’m working and driving, I primarily spit the wine out. But every so often, I come across something really extraordinary, and a sip must slip by.) With a heavy heart, I poured out the luminous and luscious liquid and filled my glass with Pinot noir. The most outstanding of the brilliant Pinot line-up was the 2006 Mineral Springs Pinot Noir (the second vintage from their estate vineyard). This high-caliber wine was shooting off rounds of red plum, blackberry, cranberry and moist earth with great precision, hitting its mark with a kick of clove and pepper only slightly muzzled by the long, smooth and velvety finish that stayed with me even as I drove away.
Thanksgiving weekend proved to be a wonderful time in wine country… it only took me six years and a personal quest to finally make it happen. I sometimes forget how fortunate I am to have opportunities like these to taste such premium and highly sought after wines so readily available. But that is after all part of the reason I started this journey, to visit these wineries I had heard so much about, to truly experience the gamut of Oregon wine—and at 104 wineries, I am just beginning to understand that scope. But my lesson today has been well learned. It’s an old lesson, but one worth reminding. Carpe Diem—Seize the Day. Don’t let the years (much less a moment) pass you by without embracing all the experiences this wide world offers, especially not overlooking what may lie in your own backyard. Until we sip again…