Saturday, October 31, 2009

Eastern Oregon Wine Trip Teaches About Importance of Family

My most recent exploration of Oregon wineries brought me to the eastern side of the state; to a place where arid desert butts up against the fertile farmland of the Walla Walla River valley. Taking advantage of a trip to visit my in-laws in eastern Washington, Hunter and I set off (without child in tow) to conquer Milton-Freewater, a small town this side of the Oregon/Washington state line, just eight miles south of Walla Walla, Washington.

Milton-Freewater was originally two independent, agricultural towns that merged in the mid-1800s. Thriving on water runoff from the Blue Mountains to the mighty Columbia River, the long growing season and the fertile volcanic and sedimentary soil, the small town farms wheat, apples, cherries and wine grapes and now boasts four wonderful wineries to visit. We started our tour at Zerba Cellars, which was founded by Cecil and Marilyn Zerba, who both grew up in Walla Walla and whose local lineage dates back to the 1850s.

Zerba Cellar’s tasting room is located right off the main road in a charming and eco-friendly log cabin made from massive, already-fallen Western Juniper logs, designed appropriately by Storm Carpenter of John Day, Oregon. There was an expansive deck with hewn log benches overlooking the vineyards, which were all still netted to protect the past season’s grapes from bird predation. Zerba recently finished completion of a large cave for underground wine storage and they intend on expanding the outdoor seating with a new patio as well. Zerba owns three vineyards within three separate and distinctive AVAs, allowing for a variety of grapes, character and unique flavors to come through in their wines.

Tasting Room Manager Paul Samson was pouring wines in the cabin, and for but a few precious moments before a large bachelorette party arrived, we had his complete and focused attention. While an adorable Australian shepherd named Ranch Dog sauntered about taking tummy rubs from anyone offering, Paul poured us through his impressive and rather extensive portfolio.

With more than twenty wines in production, we didn’t taste them all, but we still sampled quite a few too many to mention, so I will just taper it down to the highlights, which will be challenging enough. The first was a very memorable 2008 Semillon. Completely dry (though they also make a late-harvest sweet version as well), aromas of Golden Delicious apples, figs and honey wafted up from my glass. In my mouth, I tasted clean, bright citrus and honey, which transformed into lingering aftertastes of white peach and dried apricots. I also loved Zerba’s 2008 Viognier. Blended with 25% Chardonnay, the wine had a beautiful golden hue, a fragrance of citrus, honeysuckle and peach and a creamy mouth full of green apple, citrus and green melon. The next wine that caught my fancy was a 2007 Mourvedre that was blended with ten-percent Syrah and ten-percent Grenache. This was a big, red wine indicative of what this region is able to grow. Rich with plums, currants, raisins and black cherry, the wine had firm tannins that will continue to soften out with time, but was lush, fruity and ridiculously enjoyable. Zerba’s highest production wine is their Wild Z, a Bordeaux and Syrah blend, the 2006 vintage showed strawberries and pomegranate on the nose, while blueberries, blackberries, earth and white pepper showed strong on the palate. A fruit-forward wine, that I call a no-brainer—one that doesn’t require too much thought—it pairs well with a variety of foods and just drinks great on its own. Paul told us about and gave us directions to another Oregon winery that just opened a tasting room nearby, so we added it to our itinerary, said our goodbyes and continued on into downtown Milton-Freewater.

You wouldn’t think it would be difficult finding a street in a town with less than a dozen of them, but somehow with my husband’s keen sense of direction, Hunter and I took the scenic route through town a bit before finally discovering the old Watermill building. Located just in front of the old landmark is the newly built Watermill Winery. Founded by Earl and Lorraine Brown and established in 2005, Watermill is one of the first wineries in Milton-Freewater. Now third-generation farmers, they produce apples, award-winning hard apple cider (which you can also taste in their tasting room), wine grapes and world-class wines crafted by Rich Funk (of Saviah Cellars) and Andrew Brown.

Crystal was slinging wines from behind Watermill’s smooth and ultra-sleek concrete bar with an obvious love of the product and extensive knowledge of both her region and her brand. She started us off with a 2007 Viognier which I thought displayed aromatics of lemon zest and floral notes with flavors of honey, grapefruit and lemon and acids that did a little jig across my tongue.

One of things I love most about wines from this region, aside from the exceptional quality and variety, is the tremendous value. Watermill’s most expensive wine (which earned 93 points from Wine Enthusiast) was only $30.00. That wine, the 2006 Praying Mantis Syrah (named for the jumpy creatures living happily in the vineyard that year) had a deep, dark jammy color, was well structured with medium tannins and was loaded with blackberries, tobacco and spicy anise. I imagined this wine would pair beautiful with barbeque, grilled meat or even with some chocolate at the end of a meal.

I also enjoyed a 2007 Malbec that wasn’t on the tasting menu yet, but showed beautifully with raisins, currants, wild huckleberries, vanilla and white pepper on the silky, long finish. Another standout was the 2006 Estate Midnight Red with 60% Cabernet, and 10% each of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot; a very pleasing blend with a nose full of blueberries, chocolate and oregano, abundant sweet tastes of marionberries with just a hint of smokiness on the finish. (By the way Crystal, Watermill’s Viognier was the first wine I opened when I returned home. And as you saw by my Tweet, it didn’t even last a week! But it was even better than I remembered.)

Leaving the downtown area and passing vineyards whose reddish-brown leaves had given up every drop of life and were hanging there, as if in suspense, waiting their turn to float gracefully to the cemetery of leaves on the ground below, we followed Paul’s directions and pulled into Milton-Freewater’s newest winery (opened for just their third weekend). Located just off the State-line, we found the breathtaking Castillo de Feliciana Vineyard and Winery. The estate vineyard was in its infantile stages and won’t be productive for a few more years, but the open expanse and magnificent view of Oregon’s Blue Mountains made the outdoor patio an oasis in the desert, literally.

Greeted by Spanish music and a brand new and majestic tasting room that somehow exuded an Old-world quiet beauty, winemaker Ryan Raber told us the beautiful story behind the wine. I hope I do it justice in my retelling. Owners Sam and Deb Castillo wanted the winery’s design to capture the ambiance of Andalucía, a region in southern Spain, where the brilliant blue ocean waters meet the stark white buildings with aging terracotta roofs.

The wines are inspired by their Spanish ancestry but also pay attention to what does well in this region. Castillo de Feliciana, whose name translates to “Castle of Happiness”, is named for the family and as a tribute to Deb’s great Aunt Feliciana who never had children of her own. When Deb was a small girl visiting her great Aunt, she would always get some gum from her Aunt's old black leather purse. One day, over a glass of red wine, memories of her Aunt and that purse flooded her. She smelled the fruit from the gum, roses like the floral face powder, mustiness from age, tobacco and leather. To Deb, these smells together evoked memories of her childhood and she began referring to that smell as “an old lady purse” smell—but not just any old lady’s purse smell, the smell of her Aunt Feliciana’s purse. That black purse has become an icon for the brand and is located prominently above the logo like a crest.

The wines were simply lovely. The 2008 Pinot Grigio was 100% stainless-steel fermented and bright with pear, lychee fruit and white flowers. There was an interesting minerality in the mouth and bright acids that carried this wine well. The 2008 Viognier, aged partially in neutral oak, at first smelled of fresh brioche and then opened up with nectarines and cream and a suggestion of lasting tropical fruit (kind of like an Ever-lasting Gobstopper!). The 2007 Semillon exploded with a bouquet of honeysuckle, apricots and rip figs. The 2007 Tempranillo was superb, with black fruit flavors of plum, cherry and currants. The flavor, spice, acidity and tannins were brilliantly integrated and left me longing for a bottle and a big bowl of paella. Ryan finished us off with the 2007 Miercoles, an everyday red and blend of Cabernet Sauvignon an Syrah with fruity tastes of red raspberry, cassis as well as lots of pepper, chocolate, smoke and sweet herbs. I admire the Castillo’s vision and see how they have courageously made their dream into reality. Buena suerte.

Our final scheduled stop was at the Otis Kenyon tasting room located on Main Street in Walla Walla (Otis Kenyon’s vineyards and winery are in Oregon, so I figured it counted). The old-west town was crowded for Parents Weekend at Whitman College, and if you looked down the street with the original brick structures dating back the late 1800s to the early 1900s, it was easy to imagine the once dusty streets, horse-drawn carriages, saloons and even the occasional shoot-out. With deep historical ties to the Walla Walla Valley, the Otis-Kenyon family is no stranger to the ghost stories of this region.

Legend has it, in the early 1900s, James Otis Kenyon was a struggling dentist in Milton-Freewater who literally burned his competition to the ground. Ostracized and ashamed, his wife told their two sons their father was dead and moved to Walla Walla. Nearly 50 years later, James Otis Kenyon’s grandson Steve unearthed the truth and discovered his grandfather was alive and living on the Oregon coast. James Otis Kenyon was later reunited with his two sons, witnessed the birth of his first great-grandchild Muriel (who told us this fantastic story) and happily lived to the ripe old age of 101. The label is a tribute to James Otis Kenyon; and with burned edges and bearing his silhouette; his story and memory truly live on.

Muriel mentioned some startling statistic about how much Oregon fruit is in the Washington wines and I realized it’s all six of one, a half dozen of the other. How many Oregon wineries buy their fruit from Washington? What it comes down to is a very simple premise: premium fruit knows no boundaries; state lines are figments of our own creation.

Muriel poured a 2006 Merlot that was the perfect combination of robust, sweet cherries, tart cranberries with added layers of smoke, caramel and spice on the finish. The 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon was aged for 19 months in new and neutral oak and showed off plums, pomegranate, cinnamon and clove that warmed your mouth and conjured up images of snuggling by a cozy fire on a cold winter’s night. The 2006 Syrah was a delight with complex elements of blackberry, cassis, cocoa, pepper and baked earth coming through in every sip and smell. Lastly was the 2006 Malbec (destined to be for their wine club members only), which had an intense deep purple, inky color, complementary dark flavors of dark plum, black cherry and raspberry and interesting notes of peppery spice and cured meat.

World-class wines and small-town hospitality, another winning combination. After we had a conversation about Wine Wipes (a product that removes purple wine stains from your teeth) wondering if it would work for Wine Horns as well (the Welch’s grape-juice looking extended smile) and neon-purple teeth that glowed in the dark, Muriel made a few dinner suggestions and then went to the added trouble of writing the restaurant’s phone numbers down so we could try to get an early reservation… the exceptional service was greatly appreciated.

Taking Muriel’s advice, we walked over to Saffron, who at 5:00pm, was already booked solid for the night. Much to our elated surprise (but perfectly in line with a day where every little thing seemed to fall magically into place), the beautiful hostess squeezed us in anyway. Saffron was like a little slice of the Mediterranean, focusing on using seasonal, local, organic and all natural ingredients whenever possible. They make their own bread, flatbread, pastas, cured meats and sausages in-house — and those quality details didn’t go unnoticed. The wine list was a good mix of local and Mediterranean wines that paired brilliantly with their flavorful food and the open kitchen, with exposed brick and Champagne riddling racks for tables, created a warm, sophisticated and inviting atmosphere.

While enjoying our dinner of tapas, Hunter and I were reliving the day, recapping some of the best moments. The conversation turned to Zerba’s Paul Samson and his great sense of style and when I admitted I thought he was handsome, Hunter remarked how he liked Paul’s cute cap and then even confessed he had his own little man-crush on Paul. Some wine, some food and all the secrets come pouring out.

With bellies full and eastern Oregon wineries visited, we returned once again to the bosom of our family. One of the many things I enjoy about visiting my in-laws in Richland, Washington (aside from their pampering ways) is their proximity to some of the best and virtually undiscovered wine regions on the West Coast. Just minutes from my husband’s childhood home is the Red Mountain AVA (think Seth Ryan, Fidelitas and Col Solare) and wineries of the Tri-cities (Bookwalter, Barnard Griffin…), Prosser (Hogue and Snowqualmie…), Yakima Valley wineries and of course Walla Walla (home of the legendary Leonetti, Abeja and Woodward Canyon, just to name a few). With all that amazing wine nearby, what I find myself coming back to again and again in this post (and so I guess my lesson) is the stories and the importance of family. I’ve been beautifully reminded this weekend through wine labels (with indelible black purses and burned images) to not only hold dear memories close to the heart but share them with others, paying tribute to each of our family stories… and through subsequent generations, those memories can live on forever. Until we sip again…


Monday, October 26, 2009

Oregon Indulges in Beer, Food, Coffee, Sex and Best of All, Wine!

Or-y-gun. If you’ve never been there, you probably pronounce it Or-e-gone; which sounds a bit like nails on a chalkboard to any Oregonian. The state, however you pronounce it, is a relatively undiscovered tourist destination—the name Oregon conjures up images of rain, endless green trees, unpolluted air, rain, beavers and more rain. What you probably don’t know about the happy-hippy-hillbilly state is that in addition to the abundantly cleansing rain and gorgeous greenery, it’s also a culinary Mecca, musical Motown, coffee capital and known by locals for some of the finest Microbrews in the nation. On the seedier side, Oregon has the adult entertainment arena cornered. Satisfying virtually any indulgence, the state has more strip clubs per square mile than any other place. But, if your indulgence happens to be wine (like mine) rest assured you’re definitely in the right place, because with nearly 400 wineries in the state, there’s certainly a little something for everyone.

Most recently, my quest has taken me to the most northern tip of the Willamette Valley where I visited the wineries and vineyards of Washington County’s Forest Grove and Gaston. I started the day at Apolloni Vineyards enjoying owner/winemaker Alfredo Apolloni’s Italian-style wines and the picturesque country setting of their location. In the tasting room/barrel room, Toni started me off with a 2008 Pinot Blanc which although had a lovely bouquet of honeysuckle and pears just didn’t have a whole lot going on in the mid-palate or the finish. The 2007 Pinot Grigio by contrast, was 100% stainless-steel fermented and 100% crisp and clean. It had a solid core of pear and melon and I understood the winemaker’s fruit-forward intention, capturing the true fruit flavors. The next wine became my veritable quandary for the day. It was a 2008 Pinot Noir Rose (with five-percent Viognier) that blew me away with an intense nosefull of sweet strawberry and watermelon juxtaposed against a mouth that exploded with tart and zingy grapefruit. With my nose in the glass and my mind spinning in dilemna, I pondered how a wine could smell so drastically differently than it tastes. I brought a bottle of this wine home for my husband Hunter knowing his fear of pink wines—thinking this may just be the one that finally wins him over and makes him think pink.

Alfredo embraces a long tradition in winemaking from his Italian family roots in the Arezzo region of Tuscany. The label was inspired by their original family Coat-of-Arms and features a black eagle as a symbol of strength. Alfredo’s philosophy includes extended barrel aging time for the reds allowing for easier approachability and smooth yet structured tannins; evidenced by the 2007 Laurine Pinot Noir which had a nice, light color typical of the ’07 vintage (and typical of a true Burgundian style). The flavors of dark fruit dominated with black plums and black cherries standing out against the backdrop of moist earth and sandalwood. The 2006 Estate Pinot Noir showed like a typical ’06 with big, bold black fruit, cassis and chocolate; a limited edition and like the ’07 Laurine, an excellent example of both vintage and terrior. The 2007 Soleggio was an interesting and easy-drinking blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot. I tasted bright red cherries, figs and a peppery spice that added a layer of intrigue to this food-friendly any-day wine.

Toni reminded me to go visit her neighbors at Purple Cow, which was just 200 feet or so down the road, so I popped in on winemaker/owner Jon Armstrong, who was ready to pour for me—but not till I first passed the Quincy Test. I pulled up to the house where I was quickly approached by what could be considered a large and intimidating dog to some (but not to someone who owned a 120-pound wolf dog). I opened the door, trying to get a gauge on this dog’s friendly factor. He gave me two barks and a growl, at which I replied, “Too bad, I’m getting out and you’re gonna like it!” Clearly what he needed to hear, and passing his test, he let me exit my vehicle, pet his belly and enter Jon’s tasting area. Having the bonus of the winemaker pouring for me, I took advantage to explore some of his thoughts on varietals, blending, biodynamic farming and even marketing. 

Jon has an experimental personality and believes in creating a new perspective of Oregon wines with uncommon combinations. For instance, the 2008 Siegerrebe is a cross of Gewurztraminer and Madeline Angevine, a cool-climate early ripener with an intense aroma reminiscient of Muscat. Another of those puzzling wines of the day for me, its nose was sweet of melon, apricot and sweet lemon, tricking your mind into expecting sweetness, but without a hint of residual sugar, it was bone-dry and caught my palate pleasantly by surprise. Jon makes two Pinot noirs, both named in honor of his daughters. The 2007 Pinot Noir Sophie’s Edition showed a lovely light color with excellent structure, velvety mouth feel, bright yet balanced acids and lots of black fruit and dark chocolate. The 2007 Kelsey’s edition was not yet available to taste but was grown with 100% estate-grown fruit, I look forward to trying it. The 2005 Tempranillo (with fruit sourced from California) spent 27 months in barrel and dreamily tasted of smooth leather, raisins, dried cherries and vanilla.

To Jon, the Purple Cow has become a symbol for remarkability and an appropriate mascot for the brand. He recounted the tale about when his daughter Sophia was small, she joked about a toy purple cow knowing full well that cows weren’t purple. That moment stuck with Jon and was further driven home by a marketing book of the same name by Seth Godin, promoting business strategies Jon identified with. I admired Jon’s technical savvy about winemaking and vineyard management, but was even more excited about his experimental nature and to see a break from tradition. We should all keep our eyes peeled to see what comes out of Jon’s cellar in vintages to come.

After Quincy escorted me to my car, like the perfect gentleman he was, I set off for Shafer Vineyard Cellars. The 70-acre estate, founded in 1973, is tucked into the Gales Creek Valley and bordered by regal old oak trees. I think Miki Shafer sensed my confusion about her second business attached to the tasting room (a complete Santa, Christmas ornament and Wreath Shop) because when I approached the counter to taste, Miki immediately set the record straight, telling me she had no time for wine snobs. Afraid she could smell my fear and was reading wine snob written across my forehead (though I tried to wipe it off before I went in, but I think my notebook gave me away), I began tasting a very extensive lineup of good, value-driven wines. The stand-out of the wines was the 2008 Shafer’s Cuvee, an impressive, bone-dry sparkling Chardonnay with the perfect balance of citrus and effervescence. Though not really a deal at $38.50, I couldn’t justify the purchase, but with extremely generous case discounts (50% with 2 or more cases), this wine would be a show-stopper for any celebration.

David Hill Winery & Vineyards was next up on the tour and as I descended upon the estate from the dirt road running above, I saw the vineyards still changing colors in the fall season, sweeping views of the Coastal Range and the quietly quixotic and historic farmhouse nestled in the grounds. With over 15 wines to explore, Tasting Room Associate Amy had her pouring work cut out for her. The white wines didn’t appeal to me much as I thought they all had a bit too much residual sugar and a sweet taste I just generally don’t seek out unless it’s a dessert wine. Moving onto the reds, I tasted a 2007 Estate Pinot Noir that seemed slightly out of balance with a soft structure and high acids—I could see why they were trying to move it out at the bargain price of $16.00. Nevertheless, the 2006 Barrel Select Pinot Noir had distinctive aromas of red berries and spice with hints of earth and vanilla, round tannins and detectible acids which made this wine a solid example of a quality Pinot Noir. I fell hard for the Farmhouse Red though—at $10.00 a bottle, the price immediately grabs your attention, but the wine doesn’t let you down one bit either. A clever blend of Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, this easy-drinking, soft and fruity everyday wine is a must have for anyone’s table, add to that a 15% case and it’s practically a steal!

If David Hill is the epitome of serene romance, Montinore Estate is like the grand castle. Drive through Oregon’s largest continuous estate vineyard—230-acres of organic and biodynamically farmed grapevines located on an east-facing slope on the foothills of the Coastal Range Mountains. Peruse the enormous Victorian-era mansion, the view from the deck overlooking the vineyards or grab the croquet set from the Tasting Room and explore the estate in a different and more sporting manner. The large and elegant tasting room had a relaxed feel and knowledgeable friendly staff pouring wines for a decent-sized crowd.

By this point, I was sharing the bar with many of the same guests I had seen at other tasting rooms, forming new friendships along the way. Amy gave me a wine menu, directing me to select five wines to taste and a difficult task even for an experienced taster, I thought it might be a bit daunting for a newbie. I intended to choose wines I thought would best represent the winery, but ended up opting for what looked interesting to me at that particular moment. I began my tour of Montinore wines with their 2007 Reserve Gewurztraminer that beautifully expressed citrus and floral aromatics. With a rich mouth feel, but completely dry, the wine was refreshing with delightfully playful acidity. I loved the 2007 Parsons Ridge with dark fruit flavors and earthy undertones and saw great promise in the arresting 2007 Graham’s Block 7 Pinot Noir. With only 10 months in barrel, I think the wine should have served a bit more time to mellow out the tannins, but if cellared properly, it still may reach its fullest potential. The wine was well-structured, complete and round with fruit flavors that grabbed you right up front. There was a beautiful background of truffles and forest floor and a pleasant, long, balanced finish. The 2007 Syrah “Columbia Valley” was excellent—jammy, smelling and filling the mouth with wild-berry pie. If you don’t know by now, I’m kind of a dessert girl and my favorite way to finish any tasting is to leave with a sweet memory on my palate. So, that said, I thoroughly enjoyed Montinore’s ports and sweet white dessert wines, which left me with that perfectly sweet, not cloying and overly-syrupy memory I was hoping for.

Making Plum Hill Vineyards the next stop on my tour of Forest Grove and Gaston wineries, I learned the tasting room has only been open to guests for one year, as the land had just been purchased two years prior. Originally a dairy farm, the country ranch tasting room is also home to a gift shop featuring work by local artists. A large yellow Labrador named Ghost lounged almost invisibly at my feet. Practically blending in with the wood floors, and quietly sleeping the day away, he was like a ghost in the tasting room. I particularly enjoyed the fact that some details have not been overlooked; such as the labor-intensive, hand-dipped waxed bottles (a process typically reserved for more expensive wines) and their generous hospitality. With mountain views, picnic area, covered deck and gracious staff, the ranch home welcomes you with open arms.

I continued up the road to Patton Valley Vineyards, driving up the steep winding road through the longest blackberry bramble I’ve ever seen. I played with the winery’s dogs, pushing Gracie around, getting her excited until she pounced on Lucie—probably enjoying it a bit too much before I even began tasting the wines. It was Christina’s first day pouring behind the bar, but clearly a natural, you never would have known it. Patton Valley focuses on Pinot noir and was showing only four wines from estate-grown fruit. The wines were exceptional, each a beautiful expression of vineyard location. The 2007 de-Classified Pinot Noir was not at all serious with bright cherry flavors, zippy acids and a light color and body. The flagship wine is their signature Patton Valley Pinot Noir. The ’07 vintage exhibited smoke, cherry pie, damp earth and some baking spice. The finish was long with blackberries, sweet vanilla and cocoa. The 2007 10-Acre Block Pinot Noir (from the coolest parts of the vineyard) had lots of forest berries and dry earth on the nose which when hit your palate, burst with red fruit like cherries, plum and tart cranberries. Underneath all that fruit, lies a solid layer of caramel and hazelnuts adding further complexity to the wine. The 2007 West Block Pinot Noir was elegant, with aromas of white flowers, truffle and spice that opened up to a mouth of crushed black fruit, cinnamon with hints of black tea and vanilla that kept you coming back for more. I drove back down the road, paying close attention to the stunning views as thankfully recommended by my friend Cindy Anderson in her Wine Country Oregon Guidebook.

When I pulled out of Patton Valley, I realized it was getting rather late and it was unlikely for me to make it to Elk Cove Vineyards, my planned last stop of the day. With agenda in mind, I made the drive anyway, figuring I only had a few gallons of gas to lose. I pulled into Elk Cove, driving down through the bowl of vineyards surrounded by oak trees whose leaves were burning shades of bright red, rust and orange. I waltzed into the tasting room at 4:55 pm prepared for sneers and frowns to be met instead by welcoming arms and smiles. The staff of two genuinely offered exceptional service, even in the minutes leading up to and then after their official closing time—while old Cosmo slept by the door, oblivious to all. I certainly wasn’t a VIP, but the staff treated me like somebody special and never made me feel rushed… now that’s service. The tasting room was light and bright, with enormous windows to take in the view, an open, teepee-style roof and a Colorado elk guarding the bar.

Winemaker Adam Campbell crafts wines that are simply exquisite, apparent even at the end of the day when I thought my palate was fried. The 2008 Pinot Blanc was feminine and slightly austere, with essences of flowers and citrus. The 2008 Pinot Gris was 100% stainless-steel fermented, with clean, straightforward flavors of green apple and lime. The 2007 Viognier (from Del Rio Vineyards in Southern Oregon and only available for purchase in the tasting room) had a lot going on—super ripe flavors of apricot, honeysuckle, ginger, and white peach with flavors of honey and apricots that really hung around. The 2007 Pinot Noir was classic-French in style, with a light ruby red color, and a heavily nuanced balance of fruit, spice and earth; another shining example of true Willamette Valley Pinot noir. Adam makes a Syrah from Del Rio fruit as well, that was as masculine as the Pinot Blanc was feminine. The 2007 Syrah had big berry flavors with chocolate, toast and some herbal accents I just couldn’t quite pin down. The wine was pungent and exciting, like a spice rack in a bottle! I was happy to finish the day’s tasting off with a 2008 Late Harvest Riesling that had a captivating perfumed nose of tropical fruit, honey orange blossom and jasmine. With high acids to balance the sugar, the wine was light, satisfying and the perfect close to the day. After rescuing me from an eager yellow-jacket making a beeline for my neck, the tasting room staff then took the time to give me written directions for a lovely scenic shortcut home (thanks ladies!). I was impressed by Elk Cove to say the least—the staff repeatedly went above and beyond to provide the highest level of service without a hint of attitude, the grounds were magnificent with 180 acres of vineyard views stretching out before your eyes, and both a large deck and quaint gazebo to soak it up from and the wines were first-rate—truly a winning combination.

A quarter-way into my journey visiting every one of Oregon’s nearly 400 winery tasting rooms in one year’s time, the big lesson I want to share with you is a reminder to anyone who has read my blog in the past or any new readers joining us—what this blog is about is simply sharing the experiences of my crazy journey with you. Sometimes those experiences are about the wine, perhaps it’s just one wine that really struck me hard. Sometimes I talk about the people (the family, the winemaker or the staff), or the history, the philosophy, the scene… sometimes I just write about the dog. I’m not a wine expert and I don’t pretend to be—I wouldn’t presume to know what you like or tell you what to buy. What I do present is my honest impressions from my visits and I hope you’ll take those impressions into consideration when planning your trip to Oregon’s wine country. If you’re not planning on visiting anytime soon, there is still something for you to get out of my blog—perhaps you’ll learn something about wine, hospitality, Oregon, travel, adventure, commitment, me or even about yourself. Until we sip again…


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Life's Lessons… in a Bottle of Wine

I roamed the countryside yet again, blazing my own wine trail as I taste across Oregon. On an early fall afternoon, I visited Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, driving past their vineyards, already showing the telltale signs of surrendering to the winter. It’s probably one of my favorite times in the vineyard—the fruit has all been harvested, the nights are getting cooler (especially at higher elevations) and the plants inherently know it’s time to shut down; turning all shades of yellow, orange, red and brown before they drop their leaves and become bare till the following spring. The process by which the vines do this is astounding. Different parts of the vineyard begin to change colors at different times, and almost like a psychedelic watercolor, the hues swirl together yet at the same time are so distinctively separate, it almost defies nature. I felt like this kalaidascope of color was nature’s personal gift to me that day.

Penner-Ash is in an 80-acre estate ideally perched high above the Chehalem Valley revealing striking views of the estate as well as Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson. In addition to the expansive outdoor panoramas, Penner-Ash brings the view indoors with sizable windows that put the wine cellar on display. The day I was there, I saw Lynn Penner-Ash out on the Crush Pad, which was being swarmed by stubborn yellow-jackets, and at least two dozen vats of grapes fermenting.

The stunning tasting room with slate mosaic floor and tasteful art for purchase was quiet and Patty was giving me one-on-one service until, as if all it once, it was suddenly full and I had to share her with the other guests. She gracefully handled the crowd, whom we had guessed to be the “after-church crowd”, with a smile. Part of the horde actually turned out to be a rambunctious group visiting from out of state, converging on Wine Country, Oregon to celebrate their 60th birthdays, happy birthday friends!

The wines were luxurious in both taste and price. Penner-Ash makes one Estate Pinot Noir and purchases the remainder of the fruit from valued vineyard sites all over Oregon to produce an interesting line-up of wines. I particularly enjoyed their 2008 Viognier which had a lovely body consisting of a clean yet slightly creamy, oily texture with a core of ripe pear, top notes of melon and citrus and the typical apricot finish. The 2007 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir had succulent red raspberries, cherries and strawberries with subtle accents of chocolate, spice and smoke. There were four single-vineyard designates, each with a different flavor profile representative of the particular vineyard’s location. The 2007 Estate Pinot Noir was still very young and fruit-forward with big, bold black cherries and plum yet also well-rounded with some rose petals, Cherry Vanilla Coke and light base of peppery tannins.

I’ve always enjoyed my experiences at Penner-Ash; with exceptional wine and a patio overlooking one of the best views in town, it’s the perfect spot for a romantic picnic, a family lunch or just an afternoon getaway.

My next stop along Ribbon Ridge Road was the brand new Trisaetum tasting room, winery and vineyard. The tasting room, come art gallery, displays owner and winemaker James Frey’s photography and vivid abstract expressionist works; many of which incorporate vines and vineyard soil into the powerful, articulate and vibrant pieces.

While perusing the passionate visual representation of James’ art, I was equally enjoying the creative statement he makes with his wines. Partnering with fellow winemaker Greg McClellan, the two crafted their first vintage in 2007 with a selection of three Rieslings and two Pinot Noirs, which Tasting room associate Courtney Ashford proceeded to pour for me. Of those, the 2007 Trisaetum Riesling was ripe with grapefruit, white flowers and peaches with nicely balanced sweetness and acidity; the 2007 Tristae Pinot Noir was a remarkable and approachable blend with dark cherry and blackberry fruit, smoke, spice, just the right amount of velvety texture in the mouth and acids to make it food-friendly, as a Pinot noir should be. The 2007 Trisaetum Pinot Noir had a deep, ruby color, predominantly cherry flavor with structure making it built to last. And like a bite of dark chocolate at the end of the day, I finished my tasting with a long sip of the 2008 Lassa Riesling. The sweet, golden colored wine was like a bouquet of tropical flowers and fruit. It was light, despite its density and with flavors of peach and apricot finishing long and clean. Trisaetum is definitely worth a visit on your own tour of Oregon wine.

Located just off Ribbon Ridge Road, but still part of the smallest American Viticultural Area (AVA) consisting of five-miles of some of the most sought-after fruit, lies Aramenta Cellars. Co-owner and co-winemaker Darlene Looney was convivially pouring wines that day in their relaxed yet rustic and farm-like tasting room.

Darlene poured a Chardonnay and three Pinot noirs from the Estate vineyard to start. I tasted the 2006 and 2007 vintage Pinot Noir Willamette Valleys, preferring the latter with Bing cherry, red raspberry, white pepper and soft floral essences. The 2007 Pinot Noir Reserve had a nice dark, black fruit sweetness on the lips, like eating blackberries straight from the bramble, and some faint pepper and spice on the finish. Darlene told me she has five sons, of which one makes beer and three make wine, with their first vintage under the label Brothers.

Enjoy the wine on the small outdoor patio, draped in hops, scenically overlooking the converted wooden barn winery, pond and vineyards. For a real experience, see what it’s like relaxing on the grounds after closing time and stay the night in Aramenta’s vineyard guest suite.

My final stop of the day brought me to Bergstrom Wines in the Dundee Hills. Family owned and operated for the past decade (and certified biodynamic) winemaker, vineyard manager and general Manager Josh Bergstrom crafts his wines in the classic Burgundian style.

The 2007 Chardonnay was truly a favorite of mine and exceptional with sweet yet tart aromas of lemon meringue pie, apples, pears, honey and toasted nuts that all came through on the palate as well. The wine had enough structure and minerality to age well into the next decade but balanced acidity that lifted and refreshed the palate, making it an ideal food-pairing wine, now. Though at $75, it’s the most expensive white wine in the Willamette Valley, and though admittedly decadently deelish, I do wonder about its position in the current market.

Deanna Toney was providing warm and friendly tasting room service while she eloquently explained the make-up of the 2007 Cumberland Reserve Pinot Noir, “It’s a blend of 15 different vineyards with all of Oregon’s six AVAs represented in one glass,” she said. The wine had a rich garnet color, lovely and complex perfume and was bursting with cherries, raspberries, coffee and chocolate indicative of this region. The estate wine, the 2007 de Lancellotti Vineyard Pinot Noir, was a bit sassier and quite different than the Cumberland with intense, pronounced flavors of wild black forest fruit (blackberries, huckleberries, marionberries) and sassy kicks of nutmeg, cinnamon and clove. The highlight was the memorable Chardonnay, but a close runner up was the 2007 Bergstrom Vineyard Pinot Noir. This youthful yet elegant wine showed signs of tremendous promise for ageability. It already possessed many of the benchmark Pinot noir characteristics like red cherry, rose petals, a touch of fallen leaves and subtle spice and with its focused flavors, lush and silky mid-palate and a long and pleasant finish, this wine was still a winner in my book.

I watched Lily, the resident black lab who seemed to think there was a revolving door to the tasting room as she had everyone so well trained to open doors for her. I followed her out to the partially covered patio where together, for but a moment, time stood still as we enjoyed the vineyard views with rolling hills and oak trees beyond, before Lily meandered back to the tasting room door, knocking to be let back in while I went on my way. I left Bergstrom with a bottle the Cumberland Reserve feeling satisfied that my single bottle purchase will be enjoyed and was a genuine example of quality Oregon Pinot noir, but secretly I was wishing I could have bought a case of the ’07 Bergstrom Vineyard. Some day.

As much as weekend tasting has become a part of my new routine, so has thinking about and deriving my lessons for each blog post on the way home. I started thinking about lessons and how each bottle itself is its own lesson with something remarkable to teach; a lesson about the weather patterns the year the fruit set, geography, soil conditions, the history of a family, the determination of the winemaker. It teaches us about hard work, joy, beauty, appreciation, passion and failure. I embrace the lessons each bottle teaches me and I hope you do too. Until we sip again…


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Living La Dolce Vita… in Carlton

Driving along the back-country roads past farmhouses where livestock aplenty roam sprawling acreage, I couldn’t help but reminisce about my years living in the remote countryside of southwestern Colorado where my daily commute was more like a scenic route along similar roads, past similar farmhouses with similar sprawling acreage.

I pulled into the quaint little town of Carlton with one blinking stoplight and a quiet demeanor. I immediately noticed the Tyrus Evan tasting room in the old train Depot and since traditionally train stations would be the first impression visitors had of a town, I figured it would be an appropriate first stop for me as well.

Built in 1923, the notable historic Depot is experiencing a new revival as a tasting room for Tyrus Evan’s wines. But once upon a time, it was Carlton’s “Red Electric Car Station,” established as a way station along the Southern Pacific Railroad between Portland and St. Joseph to help farmers get their produce to the nearby cities without having to travel such great distances. The Old-West feeling has been beautifully and authentically preserved and is seen throughout the Victorian-era building, from structural features to western-themed décor which also vividly and almost painfully reminded me of the establishments in the old-western town of Durango, Colorado where I lived before landing in Oregon.

Legendary Oregon Pinot noir winemaker Ken Wright crafts Tyrus Evan wines and the label is named for his two sons (their middle names actually) who may one day take the helm. In the meantime, Ken has a chance to work with some warmer-climate varietals specializing in big, juicy, expressive and mouth-watering Syrahs and Clarets (varietal blends also known as Bordeaux) using fruit from friends with some of the best vineyard sites in the Pacific Northwest. Depending on the vintage, Ken also makes Viognier, Chardonnay and individual bottlings of Cabernet Franc or Malbec.

The inviting and comfortable tasting room features a traditional parlor area with plush seating which was occupied by a group amusing themselves on a perfectly lazy Sunday afternoon with a variety of board games, wine and a lovely cheese plate complete with pepper jelly and dried pears (available for purchase). The wines were presented in individual glasses on a clever tasting placemat printed with each of the wine’s vintage, varietal (or blend), vineyards and price. Tyrus Evan has given new meaning to the marketing term “branding” as their label itself ingeniously looks like a cattle brand. Ken plans on keeping production small, but as the secret gets out, I’m not sure how possible that will be.

The real beauty of downtown Carlton, besides the obvious and external visual beauty, is that it’s a destination in and of itself. With tasting rooms, restaurants and shops all within a few-block’s walk, I just parked my car and wandered the town for the day. I found my way into Scott Paul Wines, where in striking contrast to the soothing, “days of yore” feeling of Tyrus Evan, the more contemporary bustling bar was offering up a Scott Paul Pinot noir as well as a variety of French Burgundy imports to taste.

Founders and proprietors Martha and Scott Wright were both behind the bar sharing their passion, their story and their wines. Founded first in 1999, they built their current winery and tasting room in 2005 (complete for the 2006 vintage which is on their current tasting menu) in two buildings dating back to 1915 when they were used as a granary and creamery. The original granary roof was recycled and used for both the tasting room ceiling and bar front—serving its purpose decoratively, artistically and functionally.

Because Scott Paul is a direct national importer for small family producers in Burgundy France, what they do special, (in addition to their elegant Pinot noir which is true to both location and the classic French style) is offer guests the experience of tasting Old World and New World Pinot noir side by side. The French Pinots were lovely, but I’m not going to remark on them because they’re not part of my Oregon tour of wine. The 2006 Scott Paul La Paulee Pinot Noir was inviting and somewhat mysterious. The ‘06 vintage produced wines that were concentrated, big and fruity, as was this one. Though lacking any real earthy characteristics, there was a beautiful, soft under-layer of roses, strawberries and pepper that made the wine bold while maintaining its finesse; a good example of balance. The wine was a blend of four different vineyards sites from all over the Willamette Valley including the prized Shea, Ribbon Ridge, Momtazzi and Stoller Vineyards. I left Scott Paul thinking about how everyone has their own unique story; and like all stories, some are better than others.

Solena has one of the most romantic stories by far. In 2000, Laurant and Danielle Andrus Montalieu purchased an eighty-acre estate as a wedding gift to each other. The story goes that instead of registering for traditional gifts like china, crystal and silver, the couple registered for clones of Pinot noir to plant their vineyard. Ultimately, I guess all the love of their family and friends can be found in each of the vines and each individual cluster of grapes. Solena, named for the couple’s daughter, is a combination of two names meaning “sun” and “moon”, and to the Montalieus it represents the celebration of life. They also own and operate NW Wine Company which is a custom winemaking facility located in McMinnville where small producers can use state of the art equipment to vinify their wines. The Montalieus are also preparing to open a brand new winery and tasting room in Yamhill (as to whether they’ll continue with their downtown location, has still yet to be decided).

Lynnette was pouring the wine in the tasting room that day, and though she slyly confessed to me it was only her third day, her understanding of the brand and the wines was that of a seasoned professional. Solena makes an estate Pinot noir and sources the rest of the fruit for a full portfolio of wines making for a new tasting experience every time you visit. While I really enjoyed all the wines, the one that struck me the most was the 2007 Grand Cuvee. At only $25, this value-driven wine didn’t lack in quality one bit. The deep, ruby color was enhanced with the aromas of pie cherries and sweet strawberries with nuances of floral and spice. The bright acids in this lively wine reminded me of how good Pinots are enhanced by lighter foods like fish, pork and chicken, and I thought the ’07 Grand Cuvee would be the perfect food complement, so I bought a bottle for the collection.

Located in the old bank building, circa 1910, you’ll find The Tasting Room and EIEIO, named by owner and winemaker Jay “Old” McDonald that is the oldest tasting room in Carlton. I really enjoyed the use of the original bank vault as a wine cellar holding nearly 50 different Northwest varietals.  I was confused and slightly put off when the manager explained to me she didn’t honor industry discounts because she was a retail outlet. If they’re the tasting room for EIEIO and sell other wine too, how was that different from any other tasting room in the Valley?

I left pondering this dilemma but quickly forgot when I arrived at Troon Vineyard’s tasting room located on N. Kutch, just off the main drag. The organically grown vineyards are located in the Applegate Valley near Grants Pass, Oregon and they just completed a brand new winery facility with tasting room and full kitchen where you can taste at the source. The Carlton tasting room allows the winery to reach an even larger audience though and they will continue their Carlton presence.

Troon’s tasting room was large and interesting with unfinished cement walls and enormous cement bins holding at least a pallet of wine in each. Karissa kindly poured me through the current flight; which started with a classic 2008 Viognier smelling of pear and green apple with lingering tastes of apricot and lemon grass. I also enjoyed the 2005 Blossom Fire Cabernet Reserve; which if I closed my eyes, it very well could have been a bowlful of plums, black cherries, licorice and toffee-covered hazelnuts. The 2007 Druids Fluid is the winery’s bestseller. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet, Zinfandel and Syrah, this fruit-forward wine was pleasing with a mouthful of sweet, chocolate covered cherries and red raspberries. Hunter and I enjoyed a bottle on that early fall evening with a hearty chili con carne which warmed us to the bone. You know I’m not the biggest fan of stickies (sweet wines), so I was somewhat reluctant when I saw a Tempranillo Port on the tasting horizon. Troon removed all doubt from my mind with their lovely and distinguished 2007 Insomnia Port. Paired with Honest Chocolate’s truffles, the wine was ripe with flavors of dates, currants, candied apples and amaretto and was the perfect end to the perfect day. My lesson for the day was simple. Never question or never turn down a little dolce. Until we sip again…