Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tasting in the Willamette Valley-Day 1

I just returned from four days of tasting, primarily pinot noir, in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, just south of Portland.  I last visited the area in the summer of 2008 when we tasted primarily 2006 wines and I was looking forward to revisiting some of the wineries we enjoyed during that trip and to explore other wineries that were new to me.  Oregon is making some of the finest pinots in the US and this trip did not disappoint.

Day 0 (July 14, 2010)
After driving 10 hours from the San Francisco Bay Area, I checked into my hotel and relaxed for a bit before going out for a glass of wine.  I ended up at Press a Wine Bar in Dundee with Mark at the tasting bar who, as it turns out, gave us a nice tour of Domaine Drouhin during our last trip.  I ordered a flight of three pinot noirs and sought some recommendations from Mark about places we should visit.

Day 1 (July 15, 2010) - With John and Erik
I had made appointments at a couple wineries that we were disappointed to have missed on our last trip.  We started at Beaux Freres (owned by Robert Parker, Jr. and his brother-in-law who runs the operation).  Because we had the first tasting appointment of the day, some of the wines had been stored in the refrigerator overnight and were slow to open up as they warmed.  We tasted four pinots, then headed into the vineyards with Rebecca, our host, with a promise of retasting when we returned.  We were able to see vineyards that have been newly planted (phylloxera seems to be an issue in a number of areas we visited) as well as established vineyards while Rebecca explained the winery's winemaking practices.  Heading back to the winery we visited the barrel room, then retasted the wines which had returned to an appropriate temperature and were showing better.   Beaux Freres is doing a really nice job with Pinot Noir.

Our next appointment was at Brick House, which was the first Oregon Pinot Noir I ever tasted, about 10 years ago.  Alan was a great host and he was tasting a 2007 and 2008 chardonnay which were quite different in style, as well as two pinots, both delicious.  We were then treated to a barrel sample of 2009 gamay noir (Beaujolais) which was delicious and which I intend to purchase upon release.

Just up the hill from Brick House was Trisaetum, owned by an artist whose art is on display in the tasting room.  The winery is fairly new and rather opulent, doubling, as I mentioned, as an art gallery.  Our primary reason for visiting Trisaetum was to try their Riesling, which was good, not great, and their pinots were not particularly to our liking.

Next we headed to Vidon, owned by Don Hagge, a real-life rocket scientist.  Vidon was one of our more memorable visits on our last trip, partly because of Don's down-to-earth attitude and his enthusiasm for what he's doing.  On our first visit we had welcomed us as if we were guests to his home, pouring the 2005 and 2006 wines on his tasting menu and then taking us into his barrel room to taste his 09 single clone samples.  He's making very nice wines at affordable prices and is one of the nicest guys in the business.

After leaving Don, we stopped at Penner-Ash, the antithesis to Vidon.  The tasting room is opulent and pretentious and the wines were unremarkable (though some have received good ratings from the press) and pricey.  It was getting late and we may not have been at our peak, but this is a winery I will not need to revisit.

A view from Anderson Winery
Upon Don's recommendation, we called Anderson Winery to see if we could visit and taste.  Despite the time of day (4:00) Cliff invited us to come by.  Owners by Cliff and Allison Anderson, both of whom were in the tasting/barrel room for our visit, made no effort to hurry us as we sampled their wines and talked about their winemaking practices (minimal intervention), barrels and cooperage, soils, vineyard exposure and clonal selection.  Their whites and pinot noirs were well-made and enjoyable and their pricing philosophy (sell wines to customers at wholesalers' price) is unique in the industry, as far as I know.  This was a great culmination to a very enjoyable day.

Tasting in the Willamette Valley-Day 2

Day 2 (July 16, 2010)-With John

Grapes on a sample vine at Bethel Heights.  The vineyards themselves were just experiencing bud break.
We decided to explore wineries in the Salem area on our second day.  We began with an early tasting at Evening Land which is located in an industrial area of Salem.  Ian, our host spent 90 minutes with us in the barrel room pulling samples of their 09s from barrel after barrel, first pinot noir and two chardonnays at the end.  The various pinots were from different blocks that were differentiated by altitude, grape clone and even soil type.  While the first two pinot samples were quite simple, the the remaining samples were developing nicely with a lot of fruit character and nice complexity.  After seven or so pinot samples, Ian went to the chardonnay barrels, explaining that they were making their chardonnay in the Burgundian style.  Several of the wineries that we visited made this claim, but not all followed through.  John, much more knowledgeable about Burgundy than I recognized these chardonnays as indeed, Burgundian.  They had clean and crisp fruit with a great balance of acid and minerality.  Very pleasant to drink, even at this early stage.  Ian had a busy day ahead of him, so we were especially grateful that he was so generous with his time.  This visit was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.  Unfortunately, they sell no wine out of this facility, but I'll be looking forward to the '09 release, though their wines are pricey.

We had a couple hours before our next tasting so we stopped to get sandwiches for later while we waited for other wineries to open.  Our next stop was St. Innocent which has a lovely tasting room, grounds, and event center.  Their wines tended to have a spicey character imparted from the soil which mostly, were not to my liking.

View from Bethel Heights
We continued up the hill to Bethel Heights which was pouring a couple whites and several pinot noirs.  Several of the pinot noirs were enjoyable with nice fruit and complexity.  After taking time to enjoy the view from the tasting room, we headed to our next appointment a few miles back at Evesham Wood.

When Erin greeted us, he told us that the latest news was that he and his wife had just purchased the winery from its original owners that week.  He took us through the barrel room, pulling samples from barrels of their 09 wines.  Evesham Wood is making some very nice wines and Erin has his own label, Haden Fig, which we sampled from bottle ('08) which was also very good.  Again, no sales at the winery, so this will require some hunting and waiting for the 09 releases.

Our last stop was at Cristom.  They poured two whites, then we took a break on their deck to have lunch. Afterward we tasted through their pinots, which, possibly due to our fatigue, did not seem remarkable.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tasting in the Willamette Valley-Day 3

Day 3 (July 17, 2010) With John
We wanted to explore the Dundee Hills, revisiting some of the wineries we went to in 2008 as well as visiting some new (to us) wineries.  My GPS unit directed us to a variety of dirt/gravel roads, some of which where necessary, and others not.  Our first stop was Bergstrom which we had enjoyed on our earlier visit.  They have a tasting room with a patio with a beautiful overlook of their vineyards.  In 2008, Bergstrom was one of my favorite stops, but I was less enthralled with this visit.  They are still making enjoyable wines, but I tasted fewer that I wanted to buy.  Fortunately, I still have  couple 2006's from our last visit.

The "Red Hills" jory soil of Dundee Hills at Lange
After leaving Bergstrom we wound through a series of dirt roads to arrive at Lange (3 miles off any paved road). They had redesigned their tasting room and built a new building since our visit two years earlier.  In preparation for our visit to Lange, I had reread Brian Doyle's book, The Grail, which chronicles a year in the life of a winery with many conversations with Don and Jesse Lange.  The Lange wines were good, but unlike our previous visit, when they had opened all three single vineyard bottlings, they opened only the Freedom Hill, indicating that it was showing the best of the single vineyard offerings.

After leaving Lange, we went to Ayoub winery where we had made an appointment.  Mo Ayoub welcomed us and showed us his new, as yet non-functional, winery built adjacent to his home.  He then invited us into his kitchen where he had opened a bottle of his 2008 wine, along with a spread of cheeses, bread and almonds.  Mo is making an incredibly enjoyable and complex Pinot Noir which continued to develop as it opened up.  In the course of our conversation, Mo talked about the Chardonnay that he made and he and John struck up a discussion about Burgundian Chardonnays.  Suddenly, a smile crept across Mo's face and he said "You may be in luck" as he went to his refrigerator and pulled out a barrel sample of his '09 Chardonnay.  Indeed, we were fortunate.  This was another beautifully made wine which, as it warmed up, delivered a wonderful balance of fruit, acid and minerality.  This visit was definitely the highlight of Day 3, and I'll be looking forward to the '09 releases.

We continued down the hill to Winderlea, a relatively new winery with a glassed-in tasting room overlooking the valley and owned by a couple in their "second career".  The wife of the partnership was pouring in the tasting room alongside a staff member who was congenial and knowledgeable.  The wines were pleasant, but nothing stood out as a must buy. After leaving Winderlea, we headed to Carlton where we tasted at two of the tasting rooms.

Tyrie Evans is the tasting room for Ken Wright Winery.  I was not impressed by the wines they were pouring, though I've had a Ken Wright from 2006 that I really enjoyed.  Our next stop was Scott Paul, across the street, who makes wine as well as importing wines from Burgundy.  Interesting, but again, nothing outstanding.  We also stopped into The Tasting Room in Carlton because we had had an enjoyable visit in 2008, but did not taste here.

Tasting in the Willamette Valley-Day 4

 Day 4 (July 18, 2010)
On my last day of tasting, I decided to visit the pioneers of the wine industry in the Willamette Valley.  My first visit of the day was to Sokol Blosser which has a beautiful tasting room overlooking some of its vineyards.  They had a refreshing Rose and a variety of Pinot Noirs from fairly generic blends to single block bottlings, of which the latter were much more intriguing.  

My next stop was Erath, another early winery in the area.  Again, their wines were enjoyable, but nothing that I found to be outstanding.  I've had, and enjoyed their 2006 Willamette Valley and also have a 2008.  Relatively inexpensive and a well-made wine. 

Upon leaving Erath, I passed by Maresh Winery and was seduced by the "5 wines for $5" sign out front which also, as it turns out, is one of the earliest wineries in Oregon.  Here, I met Jim, who is the real deal.  No pretentions.  Alone in the tasting room with, Jim, wearing his bib overalls, he happily talks about all of the wines.  A recommendation for Maresh is to get glasses that will better show the wine.  The glasses at this winery are the smallest I've ever encountered.  I'm interested in seeing how the 2007 Red Hills Vineyard that I purchases will taste in a better stem.  
My next stop was Eyrie, owned by the Letts (David now passed) who started it all.  Jacques, my tasting room host, was very interesting and very talkative.  I was in the tasting room with a couple from Belgium who decided to visit because they had had one of Eyrie's wines the night before at a local restaurant.  The Belgian couple's enthusiasm encouraged Jacques to open a wine that was not on the tasting menu "Black Cap", which was my favorite that he poured.  As an added benefit, Jacques showed us how to cleanly open a wax-sealed bottle (which I have since tried with no success).  The couple had hoped to have a tour of Domain Drouhin, but had not been successful in scheduling the appointment.  Jacques called the winery to try to get them in, but the last tour had started earlier in the day.  As a consolation, Jacques offered to tour Eyrie's winery, but I had to leave to make my next appointment, which turned out to be the highlight of the day. 

Et Fille shares a winemaking space with about 5 other wineries, so when I entered the tasting room, I told the tasting room staff that I had an appointment with Jessica, who arrived shortly.  We tasted in the barrel room which was shared with another winery.  Jessica, the daughter of a father-daughter team had brought out a white, rose and four Pinots.  Before we began, she asked if I was mostly interested in reds, which I said I was.  So, she said instead of the white and rose, she would open another Pinot.  Jessica proceeded to open and double-decant 5 bottles for this tasting.  Her wines are all very well-made, complex offerings.  Midway through the tasting, she said she wanted to get another bottle so that I could taste the '07 against the '08 of the same vineyard.  I left the winery having purchased more than I had intended, but the generosity of her time (1 hour) and the quality of the wine made the decision an easy one.  

I had one final appointment and after driving 25 minutes, I called the owner's cell phone to find out which building I should go to.  He was apologetic and explained that his daughter's soccer team had unexpectedly made it to the final match in a tournament and that he was not in the area.  He offered to see me the next day, but I needed to return home.  I was happy to have Et Fille as my final tasting experience for this trip.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

2005 Howell Mountain Zinfandel Beatty Ranch

This wine has a lovely dark garnet color with well-defined legs once swirled.  On the nose I get lively aromas of black raspberry and white pepper and a tickling in the nose from the alcohol (15.6%).  Initially, I was getting hints of brettanomyces, but that seems to have blown off.  In the mouth one gets a nice fresh flavor of dark fruits, spice (pepper, primarily), and bright acid backed with a nice tannic structure.  The good balance of fruit, spice and acid lingers on the finish.  I've tasted this wine on three occasions with very consistent results.  This was a $15 bargain at Trader Joe's (retailed for $45).  The 2006 Beatty Ranch Zin is not of the same caliber.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

2006 Ridge Zinfandel Dusi Ranch

This perennial favorite zin has a nice dark cherry color.  Although it's a little cold having just been brought up from the storage area beneath my house the nose gives off blackberries, cherries and a complex spice blend of white pepper, nutmeg and cloves.  Oh yes, and you can smell the alcohol, but the aromatic nature of the wine makes the alcohol not as pronounced as it could be at 15.8%!  Surprisingly devoid of tannins, the taste of this wine is dominated by cherry and dark berry fruit and much less spice than I expected from the aromas.  On the finish, the alcohol creates a burning effect on the tongue, but there is also fruit that lingers.  I would have expected to detect more acid than I'm getting, but I think the alcohol is masking that. This is not as sweet as some of Ridge's late picked wines, which have significant residual sugar and alcohol.  The grapes come from the Paso Robles area and were picked at a high sugar content which fermented efficiently providing a high alcohol, low RS wine.  I like it, but with I were drinking it with lamb instead of pizza.s

Sunday, November 29, 2009

2006 Ridge Carmichael Zinfandel

Well, it happens, reportedly, about 5% of the time.  This wine is slightly corked, the musty aroma immediately detectable.  Ridge would certainly take it back, but I don't have time to mess with it.  I tried to get past that to see what a non-tainted bottle might offer.  The grapes come from Carmichael Ranch on the North Coast.  This medium-bodied wine has a pretty ruby color with nice gradation.  There is plenty of fruit on the nose, mostly blackberries, and a slight amount of spice.  In the mouth, there is a nice acid/fruit balance, but I can't get past the corkiness.  The rest goes down the drain.  Too bad, because I'm a big fan of the winery and of its winemaker, Paul Draper.

Update:  I contacted Ridge through their website and within three days they had delivered a new bottle at no charge.