Friday, October 19, 2007

Oregon Wine Tour 2007

Tasting a lot of wine and drinking a lot of beer. That’s it in a nutshell. Oh, I guess I ought to include the purchasing of much wine. Oregon is such a beautiful state—different from the flatness of my Midwest. Portland was great—beautiful light rail, European-designed streetcar, and a, uh, bus system. The people (aside from the smelly ones) are fabulous (especially during Northwest Pride)—they’re politically, culturally, and environmentally minded, making them kick ass in my book. Portland was nice, but I’d rather live in the country. Wine country

Jason and I began our journey driving west from Portland and then planned to go down Highway 47 and hit up some wineries on our way to our hotel in McMinnville. SakeOne, an intriguing American “sakery” was my first stop. (Since I played uber-hyper scheduler during this leg of our trip.) Well, it wasn’t open yet. I got us up that early. So we headed down the road to what I thought would be an interesting stop.

Montinore Estate turned out to be a great first stop. They claim to be one of the only biodynamically farmed vineyards in the Willamette Valley, and many of the wines proved to express a little biodynamically influenced, hands-off winemaking techniques that I love. During the tasting, the associate whipped out a map of the vineyard (which surrounds the winery and tasting room) and pointed to which block may of the wines were grown. Damn, I love maps. The winner, in my mind was definitely the 2005 Gewurztraminer Reserve. Fermented entirely in neutral oak barrels, it had the classic rose-petal perfume that I find captivating. It also had a little fat oiliness that I expected, but counteracted the fullness with some nice acids, giving the wine fullness, richness, but food friendliness. This is a Gewurz I would pair with something richer, like a rosemary-braised pork loin. Yummy.

We did head back to the sakery, much to my excitement. The associate explained the whole brewing process of sake, which was somewhat foreign to me. And the sake itself was outstanding. Now, I’ve had too little sake as it is, but I was never sake tasting. The aromatic qualities of the sake stunned us. It was all well made, and we got some of the G sake, their premium, cask-strength cuvee, and some sweet sake infused with coconut and lemongrass. The latter tasted like medicine to Jason and sunscreen to me (when we decided to drink it at our hotel in Portland)—so we were glad we bought a tiny little bottle.

Then we went down to Elk Cove to check out some of the wines I’ve had before. No tasting fee: Good. Wine: Good. Nothing was outstanding—everything was well made. The Grenache from Southern Oregon was my favorite, yet we didn’t get to taste any of the prestige cuvées like the “La Bohéme” (which was served at in the Clinton white house). The dry-ish Riesling was nice, too. The winery really does have it’s own beautiful little cove, all nestled away.

Then we were hungry, so we went to Ruby Tuesday’s for white bean chicken chili and the fresh garden bar. Checked into the wonderful Hotel Oregon in McMinnville, and then headed out to go to a few more wineries before the day was up. We were heading to Argyle, and decided to pull off and follow the blue sign to Stoller. According to all Stoller propaganda, their south-facing hill in the Dundee Hills is deemed the Willamette’s “Corton Hill”. The south-facing slope has many different varieties, planted, primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And as it turns out, most of the wine I bought (even at other wineries) was grown on this pretty plot. The site is on a former turkey farm, and the vineyard has been in existence since ###, yet the winery began in ###. They focus on estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They make two wines with each, a JV and SV, as well as a JV Pinot Noir Rosé. The 2006 JV Chardonnay is all stainless steel and beautiful. Mineral, floral, with a bright acidity and a lemon/green apple flavor profile that I love in Chardonnay. The SV Chardonnay held on to much of it’s lovely acidity, but added a little butter (from very slight malolactic fermentation) and pure vanilla (from some new and new-ish oak). I though the SV was elegant and more understated than some (the Argyle Nuthouse Chardonnay). The JV Pinot Noir was very nice, bigger than any Pinot Noir we had tasted so far, and a well-done effort, even though primarily younger vines compose the JV. Lots of fruit and a little flowers and spice. Fresh and food-friendly for being so big. The Rosé showed aromatic flowers, fresh strawberries, and a little but of a clean, crisp, yet full-bodied and fruity summer pinky. I bought a JV Chardonnay and a Rosé.

After being smitten with Stoller, I we headed into Dundee. Upon numerous recommendations, I decided that we should make sure to stop by Argyle. I have had three of their sparklers (two different vintage bruts and a vintage rose) as well as their 2004 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. The latter was decent, but the three bubbly wines were standout winners. As many people know, visitors almost always hit up the Argyle tasting room. As on of the busiest, and with a broad range of wines, it makes a great stop for the more casual (aka less-obsessed) wine enthusiast. Their bubbly was nice, their pinots were a little too new worldy for me (lots of fruit) and the Nuthouse Chardonnay was very very ripe apple, pear, vanilla-candy, coconut macaroon. A great dessert or cocktail wine for those with a sweet tooth. Not simple, but not as elegant, restrained, or expressive of the climate as I would have liked, and it lacked acidity. The tasting room staffer was very inattentive and I wanted to chat and ask questions and learn about the winery. She acted as though it was insanely busy and that she didn’t have time to small-talk, and when she did answer my questions, the answers lacked any true substantive information. I’ve worked in a MUCH busier tasting room and still managed to answer curious customers’ questions, from very basic to extremely detailed. Verdict: nice bubbly, poor service, disappointed.

Enough wine for the day—the two weary travelers headed hotelward to rest our palates. The Hotel Oregon in McMinnville is part of the famous (or infamous) McMenamin’s empire of refurbished historic buildings. A bit gimmicky with the décor, this hotel was still charming. We had a nice room in downtown McMinnville right on Main St. near a great sushi spot, that we decided to hit up for dinner as suggested by my friend Claire, and our host at Stoller. The tasting room staff/bookkeeper at Stoller was finishing her dinner when Jace and I walked in, and she suggested what to order, and we added a few items to our list and had some of the freshest and most reasonably priced sushi I have had in recent memory. The creamy scallops were….mmmm. Yes. Time for some ice cream next door and bed.

Next morning provided us with a bit of heaven. Right next door to the hotel lays the Red Fox bakery—mmm. This gem has something called an “everything scone” filled with every sort of grain and nut and northwestern berry you can imagine. The associate even heated my coffee mug before filling it. I love them, I loved the scone, and it still haunts me. Best Scone Ever.

The next winery we hit up was actually up the road a few blocks in a former factory and run by Claire’s boyfriend Justin’s ex-brother-in-law. Sounds confusing, but he has a kickin’ Mohawk and runs a sweet gig. Basically he makes wine for [wealthy] people who have the winemaking bug. But he also bottles a bunch of wine under his own label. He was nice enough to stop sandblasting the outer wall of the building to come and pour us his wine. All of it. Which was very good. The Pinot Gris was probably my favorite, most mineral-laden PG of the trip. The Viognier was nice, as was the other big, fruit/oak white blend. His regular Willamette Valley Pinot Noir was quite good, and priced outstandingly, probably the best quality/price value on our trip. He had a bunch of other nice Pinot Noir, especially one with great tomatoey richness, that most people wouldn’t be fond of, yet Jace and I loved—but it was a little pricey for my taste. He also made a Cabernet Sauvignon, but I was not really enthused, but it was a nice departure from the Noir. That was Walnut City Wineworks.

We tasted so much with Zach @ WCW that we were late for our appointment with Chehalem. I was sort of like, meh, we should pass on it, but we drove right past it so I had to stop in. The next party was inside and we didn’t really know where to go but then a dog greeted us, as per usual, and the TR guy told us that they were nearly finished and that we could taste next. I insisted on waiting to taste at Chehalem because I knew they are a winery that focuses on (gasp!) White Wine. Blasphemy! Quite the opposite, folks. We tasted through a stunning list of whites. Many of which are partially sourced from Stoller Vineyard, which Chehalm’s founder helped to start. A lovely Pinot Blanc with a little more body than most, thanks to neutral oak. Stunningly silver-green dry Riesling that really impressed me, and the taster was quite excited about our enthusiasm about white wines in general. We chatted about the expressiveness of Riesling and it’s sad second-class status in many people’s eyes. We had another very nice Pinot Gris. I very nicely asked if we could taste the INOX Chardonnay, because I had loved the previous vintage. Again, it was delicious, yet a little much alcohol for my taste. But so so so yummy. Ian’s Reserve Chardonnay was massive. More oak, a little more fruit, yet it was complex and very Grand Cru. Quite good, but not for my cellar. Then we moved on to the reds. The 3-vineards Pinot Noir was really really yummy, with some awesomely intriguing smoke, spice, earthiness as well as bright fruit. The Ridgecrest was a huge, dense wine, very, very, pleasurable wine with big (not obnoxious) fruit that I think lots of people would love. The Reserve Pinot Noir also had tons of size, but with a little more restrained complexity in the earthiness arena. Or maybe it was the smell of the two huskies.

After that we drove around the Dundee Hills area a bit, and realized that we needed to head to the opposite side of Portland before the evening. So we went to Portland for lunch in the Pearl, then headed over to our second McMenamins hotel—Edgefield. We did not care for this hotel at all. Tacky to a new level. This place had a winery, distillery, eight million restaurants, thirty thousand bars, and an herb garden. Not to mention the entire suburban population coming out to enjoy the evening. It was just busy, loud and mediocre. I’d recommend against it. But the next morning might have been the most magical part of the journey.

The Columbia Gorge. One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever traversed. We drove on the Historic highway, with the first hour or so of our drive blanketed in dense fog, we stopped at Bridal Veil and a few other waterfalls, hiked, and finally came to Multnomah falls, hiked all the way up to the top (don’t let anyone tell you that it’s a short hike) and had an awesome brunch at the state park’s restaurant. Marionberry pancakes and a trout scramble—how northwest can you get. Yummy.

After breakfast, the fog began to clear. Aside from the beautiful canyon created by the mighty Colombia, the journey from Portland toward Hood River and beyond takes you from lush, near-rainforest climate to a Mars-like desert. We drove through the precious town of Hood River, where we should have stayed the night, and then crossed the river into Washington (mainly so I could say I’ve been to Washington) we headed down the WA side of the gorge to hit up Maryhill Winery (which we never actually got to). I knew that a teeny winery was somewhere near to where we were driving, and I knew they focused on Rhone varietals. So, of course we had to find them. After a little bit of getting lost, we finally found the bard-winery-tasting room. Some guy from Maryland was fixing his car with in the gravel lot in front of the winery, so we greeted him and then walked toward the door. Mind you, this is a major back road in the middle of nowhere in the semi-arid boondocks of southern Washington. AKA prime wine territory. We went inside…no one was in there. Then we went back outside. The guy fixing his car asked us if we wanted some wine. Of course, I agreed, but felt like I was putting him out a little. Quite the opposite. We went inside and sat on stools around a barrel, as I gazed around the cinderblock barn. I saw tons of barrels, almost zilch high-tech equipment, and a tiny tiny portable bottling line labeler. The dog joined us (as per usual) and we tasted through the five wines he had on hand. As the lack of high-tech equipment suggested, this winery, Syncline, used very minimal handling and traditional methods. The whites were fermented in neutral oak, giving them a lovely richness without too much or any tree flavor. The Viognier was above and beyond any we had tasted heretofore, with more body, more aroma, a bigger white peach and apricot fruit, with some utterly yummy complexity. But the real stunner of the winery was the fantabulous Roussanne from the Horse Haven Hills AVA. Big, rich, but not overtly modern in the tacky, manipulated sense. Lovely chamomile, orange spice tea, and a really minerally, and dried yellow fruit sort of flavor. Haunting. Our entertaining taster even had to pour himself some—he loved it too. A side note, this guy was from Maryland, and had some sort of winery and/or vineyard in the area, and helped Syncline’s owners out when they needed to. This guy was so much fun, we talked a lot about Albarino and he told me how Maryland was prime Albarino vineyard territory, just like Galicia. True or not, I loved his enthusiasm about Albarino and Maryland crab. The two Syrahs we taster were very big, a little more modern, extracted, yet had a Northern Rhone elegance. The regular Syrah was more tannic and a little more old school, so I liked it a bit more, but the single-vineyard Syrah was a points-scorer and one most people would adore. Both of these were eighty times better than any Cali renditions of Syrah at the price. Delicious. Two Roussannes and we ended our wine-tasting adventure, headed up Mt. Hood, and then back to Portland for a few days before flying back to Indiana, leaving my job and my friends and moving to Chicago.