Founders John Platt and Elizabeth Furse Elizabeth planted grapes in 1982 originally to supply home winemakers and actually hadn't considered making wine at the time. Their intent was to grow something to satisfy the requirements of farm tax deferral, and wine grapes seemed the likeliest of crops. Later, when these very same home winemakers started winning awards, John's interest in winemaking was sparked. 1996 brought about their first commercial crush and they’re now producing 1,300 cases of estate wines from their 10-acre vineyard located on a southwestern face of the West Hills at the northern tip of the Tualatin Valley (which is actually still within the Willamette Valley).
Winery mascots Jake and Coco are the real greeting committee at Helvetia Vineyards, and even on a spring day that was as soggy as breakfast cereal after sitting in milk a bit too long, who could possibly resist sloppy, wet kisses from a face like this?
The winery’s visitor center is located within a 100-year-old historic farmhouse which now features a display of some of the original winemaking equipment found in the cellar as well as hammocks, horseshoes, croquet and picnic tables to help make your country retreat complete.
While admiring an old framed photo of the original residence, John relayed the story of how this photo was actually a postcard sent to the owner, Jacob Yungen, from his daughter Elise expressing her troubled situation as a single mother while trying to raise her young children. She had mailed it from Reedville, Oregon with a message scrawled on the back asking for help. Looking at that ancient photo of Jacob sitting on the front deck while his daughter Elise gathers her children at the back door moved me in a way which seemed to send me whirling backwards through time. I wondered who took that photo. I could imagine how drastically different her life must have been—to be a woman in 1900. Can’t you just feel their struggle? As I looked into their faces, I tried to understand their relationship. Why is Jacob sitting on the front deck while his daughter and grandchildren stand out back? The house’s air was thick with stories of labor and love, of people and time and I wanted so much to just breathe them all in; yet their secrets remained as elusive as the apparitions themselves. John brought me back to the current century by offering me a tasting of his wines.
Miss Kitty (the resident floozy) affectionately swirled around my feet as I swirled my wine in my glass. She kept me company while I enjoyed a 2007 Chardonnay that was a bit like that tropical vacation I so badly need. With notes of banana cream pie and kefir lime adding a nice twist of tartness, it was like eating dessert while on that tropical vacation… double bonus, all for the value price of $13.00. Ka-ching!
The 2008 Pinot Noir had just been bottled three weeks prior to my visit, and though very young and fruity (put that baby to bed), amidst the sweet strawberries and tart cranberry smell, I detected a bit of barrel funk that’s sure to add elements of intrigue as this wine develops. John offered me a bit of smoked salmon, which brought out a lovely earthy component in the wine, similar to freshly dug truffles. He said he gears his wines towards smoked salmon, and I don’t know how he does it, but he’s right, the combination was very complementary.
John didn’t have to twist my arm to convince me to drive with him over to the nearby winery for some barrel tasting. Jake and Cocoa apparently didn’t want to miss the opportunity either as they ran alongside the car trying to keep up. I thought I lost them, but apparently, they knew just where we were headed and caught up with us before I could even park the car. The wines in the barrel room were listening to some Jazz a la NPR’s Prairie Home Companion (so that’s where that funk in the wine came from) while we tasted an 09 Pinot Noir already developing some nice complexity showing similar moist earth and truffle notes as the 2008 vintage. Sensing I must be a rosé fan, John went to great lengths to siphon off some 2009 Pinot Noir Rosé for me from the Rose Vineyard, a one-and-a-half acre block that doesn’t ripen up quite like the rest. The wine was vibrant and teased my nose with smells of comforting memories of childhood—bubble gum, watermelon and strawberries. Like a fountain of youth, too bad it wasn’t bottled yet.
I dropped John back off at the old Victorian estate and it occurred to me how history has a way of shaping perspective, molding thoughts on your own reality like a lump of clay. Looking up at the windows of the house, envisioning whose faces have looked out of that glass over the years, it occurred to me how closely connected we all are no matter how much time separates us. When Jacob Yungen wrote home about his new life in Oregon, he said, "The North wind howls here every time it frosts. However, the grapes often ripen full and wonderful." So, the house is still here, there are just new faces peering out the windows. The grapes are still ripening, wine is still being produced and families are still gathering on the farmhouse estate where time has a way of just slowing down so much, it’s almost as if it never existed. I guess things haven’t really changed all that much. Until we sip again…