Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sip with Me Goes Doppelganger a la Facebook

This week is Celebrity Doppelganger Week on Facebook. If you don’t know what that is, it’s this sorta creepy and ridiculous (but somehow fun) trend where you post a picture of your celebrity look-alike as your profile picture. For me, growing up in “The Valley” in the 80’s, it was always Martha Quinn from MTV (ha ha). So even though I hated being associated with her as a teenager, she looks quite cute to me from this side of 40, and at this moment, her photo is my Facebook profile picture.

Anyway, this Facebook development got me thinking about how in one of my prior posts, I refer to Archery Summit as the Princess Diana of wineries. Well, struggling to write my post this week, (and struggling with my project’s repetitiveness quite honestly) I’ve decided to go against my tradition, break my mold… do something completely different and perhaps even a bit off the wall. Today, there will be no tried and true format of honest winery experience, with details about the wines, yada yada yada. Sip with Me dedicates this blogpost to Facebook’s Celebrity Doppelganger Week! My sincere apologies if I offend anyone or if a winery feels glossed over, that's not my intent. Enjoyment is my only goal and my experience at each of these establishments was memorable and recommendable.

Namaste Vineyards = Woody Harrelson

A little bit hippy trippy, but a serious actor nonetheless.

Chateau Bianca = Minnie Driver

Is she English or is she American?

Van Duzer Vineyards - Daryl Hannah


One look at the Zephra – Goddess of Wind on their label and you get it.

Eola Hills Winery = Susan Lucci


This soap star won’t be invited to the Oscars,
but she has class and staying power.

Once again, the label speaks volumes so I don’t have to. This one honors their very own 
Daisy the dog (and notice the wineglass inpression on her forehead—it's genuine!).

In the same spirit of silly alter-egoness: On my way home from wine tasting today, I got behind a car whose license plate read “Mulva,” and referring back to one of the best Seinfeld episodes ever, I couldn’t help but wonder if her name was really Dolores (it rhymes with a female body part), and had a little giggle—I hope you do too. Until we sip again…


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Finding the Balance in Oregon Wine

With the current state of the economy, my former hobby of seeking out value-driven wines has now become more of a necessity. With that thought weighing as heavily upon me as a teenager’s backpack, I located Firesteed Cellars, who to me epitomizes both quality and value.

Though Firesteed Pinot Noir has graced my table many times with their consistently good, fruit-forward $10.00 wines, I’d never actually visited their facility—and until 2003, nobody else had either (with no vineyards and no winery, Firesteed was what was called a virtual winery). Owner Howard Rossbach had the forethought to produce reliably good yet affordable Oregon wines over 15 years ago, sourcing fruit from the state’s most renowned growing regions and utilizing a custom-crush facility before purchasing the existing vineyard and winery. Located a mere ten minutes from downtown Salem, this accessible winery is a relative newcomer on the scene but fully ready to play ball with the big boys. While expansive views of the 74-acres of vineyards greet you (with 200 more slated for planting), the quiet and windowless tasting room overlooks the winery facility, keeping the focus on the wine, not the vine.

For a facility that produces 80,000 cases per year, it was like a ghost town the day I visited. Winters are generally quiet around most cellars; wines from the past harvest have all been bottled or put in barrel to age, the vines have been pruned back and lie dormant for months. I relish in the extra attention I get in an uncrowded tasting room, so a lack of people didn’t phase me (though I do love a good party atmosphere). Byron poured me through Firesteed’s line-up, which actually had a few surprises. The 2005 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir was expressive with black cherry, raspberry, cedar, cocoa and spicy notes. It was earthy and smoky and good, but wait… it’s $30 a bottle. Next, Byron’s pouring $35 and even $50 wines. Really? $50 Pinot noir? From Firesteed? Well, as it turns out, Firesteed created a entirely different label for this wine, called Citation, which they age and hold back until it’s truly ready for release. I tasted a 2000 Citation Pinot Noir, which is primarily only available in the tasting room. It tasted of cranberry with firm yet silky tannins—a solid wine. I totally get the concept; chosen select barrels, aged years before release. But with all due respect to Mr. Rossbach, I do have to question producing a wine that seems to violate the One-Two-Punch quality AND value theme Firesteed has built their reputation and success on. Just sayin’!

Travel just a bit further down the road and discover Johan Vineyards and their boutique winery which produces less than 1,000 cases of wine each year. Located on 85 acres of organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards in the Van Duzer corridor, Johan sells 85% of their fruit to lucky local wineries. The winery produced its first vintage of estate wine in 2005 and recently celebrated the grand opening of their winery and inviting tasting room just a short couple of months ago.

While winery cats Fox and Leopard twirled at my feet, I enjoyed wines that were focused, elegant and told a beautiful story. The 2007 Estate Pinot Noir was a bit showy with a lovely balance of cherry, pomegranate, cassis, a bit of dust and just the right of amount of spice to make the finish bold and memorable. The 2007 Pinot Noir Nils Reserve (named for Johan’s father) was deep and mysterious, with a bit of dark side; black cherry, currants and blackberries dominated the fruit spectrum while hints of forest floor and spice added pizzazz. Leaving the company of Dag’s charming wife Alison, I ventured back down the windy road, past open meadows, spring-fed lakes for irrigation and runoff, solar panels and of course, rows and rows of grapevines. Left of center, and right back up the other side of the bowl, I discovered Johan’s next-door neighbors, Left Coast Cellars, and their country-contemporary tasting room.

Left Coast Cellars is situated on a 306-acre estate that’s so much like a nature preserve it’s easy to forget it’s a vineyard. In addition to the 125 acres of meticulously maintained organic and biodynamic vineyards, there’s Italian Cyprus and Oregon White Oak trees, as well as fruit orchards and lakes and streams that attract migrating birds and larger birds of prey. Left Coast owners, the Plaff family, also planted four acres of hazelnut trees, shrub roses and holly oak to encourage growth of their European truffles. I wonder (and didn’t ask) if those truffles will be available for sale in the tasting room?

Annabelle, the winery mascot, was there to greet me and shepherded me to the bar for tasting. She knew it was getting close to the dinner hour and I sensed she was wishing I would wrap things up already instead of making her pose for a picture. But Annabelle sat pretty and patiently while Judy and Jean made no hurries at all, making me feel right at home while poured me through the extended portfolio. As with other wines from this AVA (American Viticultural Area), the Pinot noirs showed a similarity with their expressions of dark fruit and earthiness. Left Coast was pouring three Pinots from the 2006 vintage, which were all pretty bold, jammy and intense (like many Pinot noirs of that vintage). My favorite, and the wine I thought the most elegant, was their 2006 Cali’s Cuvee Pinot Noir (named for owner Suzanne’s daughter). Its generous nose tempted me with ripe Bing cherries, blackberry pie, orange zest and pine while the taste revealed a mixed bowl of wild berries which gave way to an interesting herbaceous quality. The finish was long and lovely with sweet maple and baking spice that would be perfect to sip on its own or to pair with a hearty and meaty meal. Though I seem to have skipped straight to the reds, I actually really enjoyed the whites from Left Coast Cellars, where winemaker Luke McCollum takes the mundane and makes it interesting. Definitely worth mentioning, is Left Coast Cellars 2006 Chardonnay… complex and vivacious with flavors of lemon meringue pie, white peach, green apple, quince and vanilla skipping about my mouth. They may be a bunch of lefties out there, but they’re certainly doing something right.

While I was tasting at Left Coast, I was intrigued by a couple of women I met named Nichole Taylor and Ivy Hover of Vino & Vinyasa. Nichole and Ivy run yoga retreats at wineries and vineyards, bringing the revitalizing practice of yoga to the expansive views of Oregon’s vineyards… relaxing and stretching while surrounded by nature’s beauty and bounty. The sound of it alone sounds relaxing, no? Back on the road, but with my mind still doing Tree Pose in the vineyard, I passed by Firesteed again and thoughts of money and value invaded my formerly peaceful place, jolting me back to reality. A few deep cleansing breaths and it occurred to me that like the yin and yang, I guess ultimately, wineries must find their balance too. Perhaps Firesteed’s luxury tier provides some kind of balance for their value-priced wines, perhaps even adding value to the less expensive wines. Does the $50 wine make their $16 bottle taste even better? I guess some wineries make decisions to introduce a top-shelf wine based on marketing principals and some just have a passion to make a better wine. The wineries that do this best strike a precarious balance between the two. Here’s to balance. Until we sip again…


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

At Last… It's a Wine-Snob Free Zone

Recently, when a friend asked me what wine she should serve at her Rose Bowl party I replied, “Dare I suggest Duck Pond?” We giggled, though both slightly uncomfortable with our snobbery, and then she said, “No, really.” As New Year’s has come and gone, taking with it any chance of me making resolutions I’ve no intention of keeping, it occurred to me that maybe I should have considered it a moment longer before I tossed the resolution notion like a bottle of corked wine. Maybe I should try not to be snooty this year. I chose to think bigger and I set a 2010 goal for myself to be the best me I can be. Though I genuinely try to keep my mind open and my pretentions in check, I will confess (to you only) how I’ve found myself occasionally looking down my nose before I sniff wine from my Riedel crystal glass. In my effort to be true blue, I chose to start the year by blogging about my visit to a winery I passed over on every prior trip through the Willamette Valley, Duck Pond. And to further demonstrate my horrible example of exclusivity, I’ll come totally clean and own up to the fact that I may have occasionally dissed them while working in various tasting rooms, suggesting guests bypass them in favor of more prominent Dundee wineries (I’m sorry Duck Pond!!).

A grand opportunity presented itself though and my mission ultimately trumped elitism. After countless drive-bys, I finally visited Duck Pond and found myself surprisingly and utterly charmed. Duck Pond Cellars, sits just north of Dundee and serves as a virtual gateway to the wineries of the Dundee Hills. The sizeable facility, processing 125,000 cases a year is one of Oregon’s largest wine producers, yet the atmosphere is very small-town cozy. Walk beneath their covered trellis and feel as if you’ve stepped onto a lushly landscaped southern plantation, complete with tranquil pond and large patio to enjoy it all from. The winery produced its first vintage in 1989, and today successfully owns and operates 840 acres in Oregon and Washington.

Cindy poured me some tasty, well-structured wines that were incredible values, but I was most impressed by their sister label’s 2006 Desert Wind Cabernet Sauvignon, which told a beautiful yet strong story filled with plums, blackberries, black cherries, pine, vanilla and baking spices. Duck Pond features a complimentary flight of five wines (which actually give a fair representation of the local bounty) in addition to a selection of their premium wines for a small fee. They’re one of the only wineries in Oregon I know of still offering free wine tasting, which is especially odd considering their heavy-trafficked location.

Venture just a bit further down the road and discover one of the Willamette Valley’s newer stars of the show, The Four Graces. Owned by the Black family out of California, The Four Graces hit the scene big, first purchasing a 110-acre vineyard in the Red Hills of Dundee and then providing a homey place to enjoy their wines. Set in a stylishly remodeled historic cottage, sip from any number of comfy locations—at the bar, lounge in one of the home’s sitting rooms, on the deck or by the outdoor fireplace on the back patio.

The elegant wines are crafted by Laurent Montalieu (of Solena Cellars and Evergreen Vineyards) and named in honor of the family’s four daughters. The day I visited, there was a cellar club party and the atmosphere was buzzing with anticipation of the first 2009 vintage release, a Pinot Blanc that sadly just didn’t impress me as much as previous vintages (I’m certainly no expert, but I just wasn’t sure it was quite ready for release. Ideally, I would like to reserve judgment, re-tasting this wine in six months). The Pinots were solid and earthy with deep colors and good complexity. The Dundee Hills Reserve Pinot Noir was a mouthful of decadence. I felt self-indulgent as I absorbed all the flavors and aromas of this luxurious wine which was as multifaceted as a brilliant diamond—enjoying how it sparkled with strawberries, pomegranate, raspberries, mocha, orange blossoms and nutmeg. The debauchery continued with the smooth, full-bodied and very sexy 2007 Yamhill Carlton Doe Ridge Estate Pinot Noir. Aged in 100% new French oak, this powerful wine delivered big in the final act, seducing my nose and palate with layers of cherry, blackberry, licorice, milk chocolate and an interesting faint and dusty smell of earthy dried chanterelle mushrooms lingering quietly in the background.

I spoke at length with Jason Senior, The Four Graces Direct Sales Manager, who was very knowledgeable about wine and the Oregon industry as a whole. On my way home, my head started to spin with thoughts about how wine achieved its snooty reputation. Why are wine drinkers stereotypically thought of as snobs? Where does the judgment end? The French notoriously poo poo American wine, American’s have been known to snub varietals (as in “I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!” —poor Merlot), New Zealand thinks their wines are superior to Australia’s, and on and on and on. I think some people actually aspire to achieve wine snob status, setting themselves apart from the rest of us who merely drink wine for enjoyment. Hell, there’s even an application for the iPhone called wineSnob v2.0, which breaks down food pairings, terminology and saves tasting notes and label photos which will make anyone look like someone in the tasting room. I realize Snobbery and Ego are all snuggled up together cozy in a blanket but wonder, if Snobbery ran away, would Ego stick around? Elitism may be on ongoing symptom of a supercilious society but I’ve made a choice instead to take a turn at the signpost up ahead and cross over into the Wine-snob Free Zone. Until we sip again…