Thursday, October 7, 2010

Joining the Willamette Valley Century Club

Last week, on October 2nd, I along with some fellow wine geeks accomplished something remarkable. The six of us visited 12 tasting rooms and wineries, going through 101 wines in the span of about seven hours.

101 wines, all from Oregon or Washington. In one day..Make that, in less than one day. For the record, I did spit and kept hydrated with copious amounts of water. Was my palate a bit burned out by the end of the day? Yes, definitely, but not nearly as much as I thought it would be.

First though, a bit of back-story to set things in the proper context: I had never been up to Portland and I needed a mini-vacation from San Diego. My friends Dan and Chas of Wine is Serious Business gave me an open invite last time we hung out, at the Wine Bloggers Conference this past June. I sensed they were eager to show me both Portland and to visit some wineries in the Willamette Valley. Fast forward to early September, my schedule allowed a quick (four day) trip somewhere. Why not Portland? After some emailing back and forth, Dan, Chas and I worked out some possible dates to come hang out with them. One weekend worked out for all of us and that also happened to be the weekend Dan had organized the Century Club Tasting for. What great timing!

I arrived in Portland on October 30th, Chas picked me up and we spent the day tasting beer at Rogue and Hair of the Dog in downtown Portland. At Rogue, we were joined by an old friend of mine who'd herself just moved to Portland. Following those two superb tasting sessions, we hit up Voodoo Donuts for their famous Maple Bacon Bar (it's everything everyone told me it would be) and also the Portland City Grill for an attempt at some Happy Hour drinks. There, I tasted some organic gin and vodka from Organic Nation of Ashland, Oregon. Both were superb and I hope to see at least the gin down here in San Diego soon.

After first retiring to my friend's place to have a glass of wonderful Oregon Pinot Gris, Chas and I had to meet Dan at Willamette Wine Storage to shoot another episode of their great video blog. I'll post that link up, but be warned: Chas and I had been sampling beer and wine (and in my case, gin and vodka) all afternoon. Neither of us shined but Dan did a great job holding it all together, as usual. Later that night, a concert, sushi and other things ensued.

Fast forward through a painful recovery day on Friday, pizza, walking around Portland, Starbucks and many cobwebs..But highlighted by dinner at Gruner, one of the best meals I've had this year, and we get to Saturday morning. This is it! Dan rented a minivan for the group, a wise idea given that we were six guys and our associated cameras, bags, etc. We also had a driver who's name I forget but was a friend of some of the guys. Arriving at Chas' place, Dan and I were rested and ready to get to tasting, Chas had stayed up drinking and was in an advanced state of "being tired".

 Our first stop was at Elk Cove Vineyards. Chas called the day before and warned them about us, luckily they had a great lineup of wines to get our tasting off to a roaring start. This was perhaps 45 minutes outside of Portland, a nice drive.
This is a shot I took right as we stepped out of the van, I can't explain how beautiful the scenery is, especially for a wine geek. The morning fog was slowly burning off as the sun introduced itself to us for the day, lifting our spirits and getting us in the mood (even Chas).

The kind folks at Elk Cove poured some great wines including a stellar 2009 Riesling and an amazing 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir.
My favorite though was the 2008 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir, wow! Great balance of earth, cherries, spices and acid. I loved it and would give it an A-, it's $48.00 a bottle.
I should also note that they did pour a really interesting dessert wine called Ultima, and for some reason I thought this was just a great way to start off the morning tasting.

Our second stop took us to Bergstrom, where we'd sample more Pinot in addition to some Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay.
I have always liked their style which to me is accessible but still possess some texture and complexity. My top pick was the 2008 Bergstrom Vineyard Pinot Noir, an A- from me. Beautifully integrated sour cherry, minerality, spice and florals highlighted a wonderful wine. $78 per bottle. I felt the pricing was high but the quality was undeniable. This theme would recur throughout the day, unfortunately.

Up next, a visit to Adelsheim, we were already tasting wines 18-22! While the group agreed this pace wasn't likely to continue, we were happy to have made such progress so quickly.
Two of the wines I tasted ended up being some of the highest rated wines of the day, but of course, the highest priced of the day too. Too bad, because while the wines were wonderful, they were also overpriced.
Still, the 2008 Calkins Lane Vyd Pinot and the 2008 Bryan Creek Vyd Pinot each received an A from me.
The Calkins Lane was sublime; meaty, spicy and powerful with notes of earth and ripe cherry. Contrasting that was the Bryan Creek, beautifully elegant notes of raspberry, spice box, cedar and hints of minerality integrated throughout. $68 and $75 respectively.

Laurel Ridge was up next, pouring a whopping 18 wines! This was great, we made some huge gains in progress while also tasting some very interesting wines. I also made my first purchase of the day, a bottle of their 1998 Willamette Brut Sparkling Wine. It's a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc and in a word, it's funky! The group (six of us) bought four bottles, I can't wait to open it for my wine buddies here in San Diego. My top pic, with an A-/B++ was a 2005 Chehalem Mountain Pinot Noir. Good fruit, oak and fine tannins backed up by some earth, well balanced and drinking great right now. At $28 a bottle, I was impressed.
We also tasted a funky blend of Zinfandel (34%) and Pinot Noir (66%), called Zinotage which like the Brut, was something I'd serve to wine geek friends. B-.

Laurel Ridge finished us off with something I'd never tried before, a Cabernet Franc Port fortified with Cabernet Franc Brandy. They paired this with chocolate truffles. While I didn't really go for the pairing, I did think this dessert wine was very interesting, though I couldn't think of a food pairing to go with it. I gave it a B and it comes in at $45 a bottle.

So basically, that's 40 wines down, 60 more to go. In the interests of maintaining my reader's sanity, I'll only post a few more pictures and focus mainly on some of my favorite wines through the rest of the day. Our next stop was Willakenzie Estate, a very well known producer and one that has helped put Oregon on the map for Pinot, among other things. Here's a couple of my favorites, out of the seven wines the group tasted.

2007 Pinot Noir Kiana - Definitely my style with earth aromas complemented by spice and ripe raspberry. Wonderful acid, cranberry and bittersweet chocolate on the palate. Delicious! A-. $45. At the club price of $31.50, this wine definitely is worth it, at the retail price, it's a tougher call and I lean towards no.

2007 Pinot Noir Terres Basses - Superbly built with earth, hints of oak, chocolate and meaty notes. These evolve into some complex flavors of cherry, baking chocolate, spices and earth on the palate. I'd love to taste this again in ten years. A-. $60 retail, $42 for club members, again over priced at the retail level but a good price for you club members.

We had a bit of a drive after this, heading over to Carlton Winemakers Studio to samples some more wines. I love the concept of building a facility where smaller winemakers can come and pour their wines. It saves those smaller wineries the cost of building their own tasting rooms, resulting in more capital that can be spent on grapes, equipment or land. This facility houses eight vintners that produce some well known but small production wines from the Willamette Valley.

2007 Andrew Rich "Cuvee B" Pinot Noir - Wow, what a great bottle of wine! Beautiful floral, earth and cedar with spice woven all through the nose. On the palate, ripe raspberry and cherry flavors held together by some seriously silky tannins, framed by bakers chocolate and earthy spices. Another A rated wine. At $24 a bottle, ridiculous QPR.

2009 Lazy River Riesling - Gorgeous apricot and perfume on the nose. Summer-flower bouquet, I really got into this wine. Vibrant acidity, low residual sugar, hints of honeysuckle, pear, stone fruit. A- from me, rocks the QPR at $18 a bottle.

Overall I had mixed feelings about the Carlton Winemakers Studio. I love the concept and thought the architecture was modern and clean. The attitude of the guys pouring was a bit too pompous for me though, I felt we were expected to rave about every wine simply because it was being poured at that venue. Give me a break. Still, they knew their wines and were able to answer some questions I had regarding vineyards and producers. I respect knowledge.

We left Carlton Winemakers Studio and moved into the town of Carlton. Our first stop there was Terra Vina, a place I'd never heard of, then again that isn't saying much. They make most of their wines with fruit from Washington state. I looked at the tasting list and noticed a Syrah on there, so I was looking forward to tasting another Washington Syrah. Since the Wine Bloggers Conference, I've become a big fan of Syrah from that state.

2007 Erickson Vineyard Columbia Valley Syrah - Bold, expressive nose with blackberry, black cherry, earth and oak. Built for power, this was a burly, chewy wine with great textural qualities across the palate. I was impressed with the complexity. That balance of a powerful yet complex wine can be hard to find, not here though. An A- from me, $36 a bottle which fits with what I'd expect at this price level.

2008 Terra Vina Malbec Columbia Valley Wahluke Slope - Not too often do I get to taste a Malbec from Washington. Dark, brooding, ripe, juicy and spicy. Great balance, could have used just a bit more tannin and earth though. I could see this wine pairing beautifully with rich, spicy foods. B++/A-

Moving on, our group had accomplished 66 wines by this point. Quite impressive and it was around 1:00 pm if I recall correctly. My strategy of spitting nearly everything and staying hydrated was paying off beautifully. My palate felt good and I didn't feel a buzz or any other feeling of mild intoxication. This is where things got fun though, as we went to Scott Paul Wines. Basically, they make a bunch of Oregon Pinot's as well as importing some Burgundies and branding them Scott Paul too. While the lady at the tasting room was a bit frosty, the wines were delicious.

2006 Volnay Les Fremiets 1er-Cru Domaine Huber-Verdereau - If you've ever tasted a wine that screams "Age me!!", you'll know what I mean when I say I was absolutely impressed with this wine and wish I could lay a case down for ten years. Beautifully elegant spice, sour cherry, graphite and earth on the nose. The taste felt like a rush of interwoven flavors like cranberry, raspberry, dark damp earth, baking spices and cedar. Easy A and at $65, what I would expect from a good bottle of Burgundy.

2007 La Paulee Pinot Noir - A blend of four vineyards, they each contributed to a silky smooth, ripe, richly textured Pinot that I felt delivered far above it's price point. The complexity and ripeness were in harmony, the earth took a bit of a back seat to the spicy raspberry and strawberry notes but this worked out great because the oak helped push the flavors into a rounder, smoother mouthfeel. I gave this an A- and was surprised (and pleased) to see it coming in at $30 a bottle.

2008 Dom Denise Pinot Noir - An Oregon Pinot drawing from a bit of Burgundian history. All the fruit comes from the Momtazi Vineyard. Half the fruit (2 tons) is vinified in the methods of Dom Denise (the Burgundian monk) and half is vinified using new methods. The result, a seamless, elegant, juicy Pinot. Spicy black cherry, strawberry, and earth play off of each other, mainfesting as a wine with profound finesse. Perhaps one of the best wines of the afternoon. A from me, comes in at $40 a bottle and to me, a great deal.

So at this point let's adjourn. Call this Part 1 of a 2-part entry on the Willamette Valley wines I tasted. I'll post the second entry tomorrow, with more pictures, more ratings and more comments. Up next, Solena Estates, Seven of Hearts, Argyle, and White Rose, featuring the 100th and 101st wines we tasted!

I wrote a much better conclusion at the end of the second blog entry, detailing my feelings at the end of the day. Here, I'll just say that as we left Scott Paul Wines, I was fortunate to have a moment to think about what we were doing, how lucky we all are to be able to do this. Not everyone gets to taste wine like my friends and I do. In the grand scheme of things, hardly anyone gets to live like we all do here in the States. That isn't to try to put you on a guilt trip, just to try to remind you, readers, that savoring moments throughout the day will make your life more enjoyable. They needn't be anything particularly special, just times when you can step back, take a deep breath, and enjoy what you have here and now. This trip helped me do that and I am indebted to Dan and Chas for helping me get there.
Beau Carufel

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