Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New York

OK, so it's been a life goal of mine to avoid New York City. I'm just a country boy and New York isn't the country. But I got sent to NY on business, so I sort of had to go. In addition to the meeting, we got a chance to walk around (while testing some technology, of course), and eat some pretty good food.

My co-worker Tad and I arrived Monday night at Laguardia at about 6:30pm. After experiencing the thrill of riding with a crazy New York cabbie, we made it to our hotel in amazing time. The Mansfield is an older hotel just a few blocks off Times Square on W 44th. It turns out that I got a fairly nice suite - the Mansfield is on the Intel approved list and apparently they fix a price and give you whatever rooms they have available. I lucked out! I was a bit confused about the air conditioner however - it was behind a grill that I had to pry off to get access to the controls. It was only the next day that I discovered the remote control for the A/C on my nightstand. Oops. this makes it much easier than prying off the grill!

We had dinner at a decent Italian restaurant about a block from our hotel. I had a wonderful tortellini soup and penne pasta bolognese. Tad doesn't particularly like wine, and ordered an Italian beer that he later wished he hadn't. I'm sure it was fine, but I think he forgot that he's used to the Pacific Northwest: the microbrew capital of the world. I had a glass of passable Nero D'Avola.

After dinner we walked up to Times Square. Wow, what a weird and wonderful place. It's really quite the tourist trap and reminds me a little of Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. They've blocked off parts of the street and set up hundreds of chairs in the street where tourists just sit and soak in the ambiance. It's an amazingly bright place - I'm not sure you could even see the moon if you looked up. Anyway, it was quite an experience.

6:30 came very early the next morning, especially since my body is still in the Pacific time zone. Even though our meeting wasn't until 1pm, Tad wanted to get an early start. We met for breakfast in the hotel at 8am and were ready to head out by 9:00. We had several pieces of technology to test on the streets of New York, so we walked around like tourists for several hours.

We walked by Rockefeller Center and I saw the plaza that they flood for the ice rink in the winter, and all of the NBC NY studios. In fact, they were just breaking down the set for an outdoor segment of Good Morning America was we walked by. We walked by Radio City Music Hall, and the old Ed Sullivan Theater. It seems that there's a landmark every block or 2: Morgan Stanley, Time Life, UBS, etc. We headed toward Central Park and saw St. Patrick's Cathedral and across the street, the statue of Atlas that was one of Dava Sobel's inspirations to research the history of Longitude. About this time we were getting thirsty, so we popped into Trump Tower and went downstairs to the public café and had a couple of Snapples. In case you're wondering - yes, there is a gift shop with all sorts of Trump merchandise including T-shirts that say "You're Fired." The Donald himself never made an appearance, however.

We then walked through Central Park for a while and sat and watched a softball game until it was time to head to our meeting, which was in a building a couple blocks south of Central Park. The meeting went fine, except that my demo failed miserably. I had just tested it in the hotel room that morning, but I just couldn't make it work at the meeting. I later realized that changing my computer's time zone to eastern messed things up. I wish I'd realized this during the meeting, because as soon as I set it back to pacific time, everything worked. Rats!

After the meeting we walked back to the hotel, dropped off our bags and set out again. This time we headed southeast. So here's a trivia question: how many trains per day pass through Grand Central Station? The answer: none. Grand Central Station is a post office; the train station is called Grand Central Terminal. I have seen pictures of the ceiling painted with the constellations of the zodiac, so it was very cool to see it for real. We then headed out and went to the Chrysler building - the tallest building in the world from its completion in 1930 until the Empire State Building surpassed it in 1931. The art deco lobby has been referenced many times in popular culture and it was very cool to see the original.

We then walked past the amazing New York Public Library building and into Bryce Park behind it. There's a big drive-in movie screen set up in the park and every Monday night during the summer they show an old movie for people sitting in the park. At this point, we decided it was time to head back to the hotel and think about dinner. Our hotel is in the same block as chef Daniel Boulud's new restaurant db Bistro Moderne - "a modern French-American restaurant where traditional French cuisine meets the flavors of the American Market. db is Daniel Boulud's renowned contemporary interpretation of the Parisian classic" according to their web site. We dropped in at about 5:10 to see if they could get us in at 6pm. We were told "no, but we have an opening at 5:45." OK, works for us. We headed back to the hotel (just down the block) to get cleaned up a bit. Little did we know that nature was going to help us out. We'd been hearing thunder for a few minutes and just as we stepped out into the street the sky just opened up and poured, and I mean a downpour. Everyone who didn't have an umbrella (including us) ducked into the nearest doorway. Tad and I figured that we were tough northwesterners who weren't going to be deterred by a little rain. We could see our hotel about 200 feet down the street and decided to make a run for it. I guess we didn't really understand how hard the rain was because 30 seconds later as we entered out hotel lobby we were drenched from head to toe. I got up to my room and changed my clothes and dried off. Good thing I brought an extra dress shirt! We got back to the restaurant about 20 minutes later and were promptly seated.

Tad left the wine ordering to me, after assuring me that it was legitimate to expense it. They had a lot of very nice wines on the wine list, but I figured I'd better go easy with Intel footing the bill. I found a very nice 2006 Vacqueyras that was reasonably priced. It turned out to be very nice, but not as nice as the one that Rachel and I had in Lincoln City. Both Tad and I ordered from the pre-theater prix fixe menu. I had a wonderful artichoke velouté with basil oil and garlic as my first course, a very well prepared flank steak with grilled zucchini (sound familiar?) with pommes frites for my main course, and a very strange but wonderful creme brulee sundae for desert. The food was perfectly prepared, but not as interesting as I'd hoped. Well worth going, however.

New York wasn't as scary as I'd thought, but I'll be glad to get home tomorrow.

Friday, June 26, 2009

More food on the coast

When last we left our intrepid foodies, we were having Rachel's famous fruit salad on Wednesday night. It was fabulous as usual, and we added a little Ferrari-Carrano El Dorado Gold dessert wine as a finishing touch. We paired the fruit salad, cheese and bread with a bottle of Tualatin Estate semi-sparkling Muscat - not too sweet, slightly spritzy and very tasty. This is a great wine, at at only 6.5% abv, you can drink it all night.

On Thursday we were in a bit of a quandry. It was time to have lunch at the sunny beer garden at the Warren House Pub, but unfortunately it wasn't sunny. Instead we decided to have our second lunch at Bill's Tavern, and we all had the same things we had the first time. In addition to her burger, Rachel also had a glass of the spruce ale, a light hoppy ale with the definite taste of pine. Very refreshing, and she really enjoyed it. I also discovered why 2 pints of 2x4 stout makes me feel like I was hit with a 2x4 - it's 7.5% abv! That's higher than the wine we had last night!

For dinner on Thursday, we had originally thought that we might eat at Ye Olde Driftwood Inn, but after popping our heads in the door after lunch, we decided not to. The menu looked like plain uninteresting American food, and the smell of old deep-fry oil was somewhat off-putting. Instead, we decided to make reservations at JP's. Now, faithful readers of Rachel's Post from the Coast will recall that last year JP's was very disappointing. But, we decided to give them another try - after all, we've had many good meals there over the years.

We started with the crab cakes appetizer, and it was really nicely done - crisp on the outside, smooth and creamy on the inside, and served with a tangy and sweet BBQ-style sauce. The boyz both had Caesar salads, and I had a green salad which had not been sufficiently dried, which diluted the dressing. For the main course, Rachel had her usual Black Forest Salad (chicken and lamb), Tim had the New York strip steak with green peppercorn sauce, and Josh and I had the daily special - cracked pepper crusted flat iron steak with mushrooms and a red wine reduction. Our steaks were very good - flavorful and spicy, although a tad overdone. Rachel's salad was good, but Tim was disappointed with his steak. He said it was like "when Dad's in a hurry and just throws a steak on the grill." The marionberry lemonade was better than last year, but we think they may be using frozen lemon juice concentrate rather than fresh lemons these days. For desert, Rachel had the "dessert bites" size of the bread pudding - a smaller version which she said was just right. Tim had a cappuccino torte with cinnamon ice cream, and I had creamy cheesecake with chocolate topping. The cheesecake was very good, but didn't really need the chocolate. The best part of dessert, however, was the wine. They had 2 Moldovan wines on the menu, and I asked the waitress to tell me about them. She didn't know, so she brought Diane Papas over (chef Bill's wife). She poured me a taste of each and asked me to describe them. The first was in a bottle that had been decorated to look like a tree. It tasted earthy and slightly musty - interesting, but not great. The second was similar to a tawny port, and I had a glass of it. So, JP's exceeded expectations, but is nowhere near a "knock your socks off" experience. I'm glad we went, but it certainly wasn't the high point. I think I'd rate it just below Wayfarer this trip.

Friday was finally almost sunny enough to have lunch on the deck at Warren House. Rachel and I both took long walks in the morning and ended up meeting in Cannon Beach. I walked from the house in Arch Cape to the north end of Cannon Beach (about 5 miles) and Rachel walked from Indian Beach into Cannon Beach (about 3.4 miles). We called Josh at the house and he and Tim drove down and met us at mid-town and took us to Warren House. I had my usual pint of 2x4 and Rachel had more spruce ale (Warren House gets its beer from Bill's). Rachel had a very nice smoked salmon salad, Josh had the mountain of nachos, and Tim had his usual giant burger. I had the special - a grilled andouille sausage in a bun with sauerkraut, cheese and a little pico de gallo. Very tasty! After lunch, we drove up to Indian Beach to retrieve my car that Rachel had left there for her walk this morning.

For dinner, Rachel and I again left the boyz to fend for themselves at home and had dinner at the Bistro. For several years, the quality of the food here was hit or miss, but for the past couple of years it's been superb and tonight was no exception. To start, I had the Greek lemon soup - a chicken based soup with lemon and rice. Rachel had a wonderful pear, walnut and bleu cheese salad. For the main course, I had seared scallops with dried tomatoes and capers accompanied by asparagus risotto and Rachel had crab stuffed prawns. My scallops were prepared perfectly - crisp searing on the outside without being overcooked. We also ordered a bottle of St. Veran, which went nicely with the meal. Normally St. Veran has an overtone of honey, but it was somewhat muted in this particular instantiation. For dessert, we shared a very nice chocolate torte with a nut crust. I asked about port, and they gave me the choice of a tawny from Australia or a ruby from Portugal. Needless to say, I went with the ruby from Portugal and was not disappointed.

Tomorrow is our last day, and I don't know what we'll do about lunch. Dinner will be the annual smokked fish and steamers which I will prepare at the house. We'll also be tasting wines from Zenas at Mr. WKIA in town. Should be fun!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cannon Beach Restaurants - Part 1

Every summer we venture out for a week to a house near Arch Cape that we've rented for the past 16 or 17 years. There are many wonderful reasons that I look forward to this vacation every year, not the least of which is the food at various restaurants in nearby Cannon Beach. I'm writing this on Wednesday, the half-way point in the week as I look out over a stormy ocean. We've had 3 dinners and 3 lunches so far: some good, some not so good.

Our traditional first night meal for the past several years has been at Mo's, a northwest chain specializing in fried seafood. I first came to truly appreciate Mo's about 14 years ago when Tim was about 7 months old. To say that he was a difficult baby is an understatement. It was rare that we could take him anywhere without him screaming and crying and generally making a scene. We'd pretty much stopped eating out, so it was with some trepidation that we entered Mo's for dinner that night. However, once we were seated, I realized that in addition to the loud TV showing a baseball game, there were at least 2 other babies making their parents lives miserable too. What a relief! We had our clam strips and oysters and clam chowder, and I honestly don't remember if Tim screamed or not - it didn't matter at Mo's. In those days, when we did eat out at all, we'd go early so as to not disturb patrons looking for a more quiet experience later in the evening. We no longer have to do that of course, but our first night at Mo's is still early to avoid the inevitable line (Mo's is quite popular).

Although Mo's has never been top end food, it seemed to have gone downhill this year. The fried food (clams and oysters) were slightly soggy, the mashed potatoes weren't hot enough, and the service was even slower than usual (although our waiter did poke the garnish on Tim's plate with a fork as he was clearing it, and it squeaked).

Lunch on Monday (our first full day) is always at Bill's Tavern. In addition to some of the best Stout on the coast, they make pretty good basic pub food. I had my usual bacon cheeseburger (and 2 pints of Stout), Rachel had a bacon burger (no cheese), Tim had his usual chili dog and Josh had a quesedilla. Just as we were done ordering, Josh added an order of onion rings to start with - very sneaky. The food was good, fully meeting expectations.

For dinner on Monday, we went to Wayfarer. This has always been a family favorite and is consistently better than we expect - until this year. They had just changed their menu and removed our 2 favorite appetizers: mushroom caps with Pinot Noir and bleu cheese, and roasted garlic with baked goat cheese. They also got rid of the giant rib eye steak that Rachel and Tim usually split. Oh well, we thought, we'll just try some of the new items. To start, Tim ordered a spinach salad with roasted corn and bacon, and we shared the crab and artichoke dip and "Wayfarer Wings." Tim let us all try a little of the salad, and it was absolutely delicious. The crab and artichoke dip was good, but nothing to knock your socks off, while the wings got mixed reaction. They were coated in what seemed like the sweet and sour sauce that you might find on fried pork in a cheap Chinese restaurant. Josh really loved them, I didn't care for them, and Rachel and Tim were ambivalent. For the main course, we all ordered hunks o' red meat - Tim and I ordered Fillet Mignon, and Rachel and Josh ordered the 14 oz New York strip with Pinot Noir reduction. These were accompanied by the usual potato-leek cake and an assortment of veggies. Sadly, for the first time at Wayfarer, we were disappointed. All of the meat was slightly overcooked (medium rather than medium rare), and my fillet was fairly tasteless. Rachel said that if that was a Pinot Noir reduction with her steak, then she's an Arab! The usually fabulous potato-leek cakes were thick and soggy rather than thin and crispy. Fortunately, we had a very nice bottle of 2003 Penfolds Shiraz with the meal, and that helped quite a bit. We finished the meal on a high note with the deserts - I had a very well executed creme brulée, while the rest of the family had the traditional fallen chocolate soufflé topped with ice cream.

All in all, we're not quite sure what to think - maybe the chef had the day off, maybe he had a bad day, maybe they got a new chef. I'm sure we'll give them another chance, but it was unfortunate that our usual bastion of reliability let us down.

On our initial drive through town, we noticed that the Gower Street Bistro had been replaced by the Cannon Beach Café, so we decided to give it a try for lunch on Tuesday. The Gower Street Bistro had a few wonderful breakfast items on the menu, and the new café had retained a few of these. Rachel ordered the eggs Benedict, I ordered a Cajun shrimp Po' Boy, and Josh ordered the monster 1/2 lb burger. Just before we'd left the house to head into town for lunch, Tim decided that it was breakfast time and had eaten a huge bowl of Cacklin' Oat Bran. Apparently each of us in turn had told him that it was a silly thing to do right before lunch, and sure enough he wasn't terribly hungry. Nonetheless, he ordered a Caesar salad. In all, the food was OK, but not what it could have been. Rachel's eggs were overdone and the Hollandaise sauce was not lemony enough and my Po' Boy was OK, but really just a bunch of heavily peppered shrimp, chopped onions and bell peppers on a bun. Josh's burger looked good (and was a ton of food), but he said that the bacon was underdone. Tim's "Caesar" salad had bleu cheese dressing. No need to go back again, I think.

So far, it sounds like the food scene was pretty bleak, and it's true that we were getting somewhat discouraged. For dinner, we had decided that we'd just eat at the farmer's market that they've started holding every Tuesday afternoon. Apparently a different local restaurant each week sets up a booth and sells food, and this week it was the Bistro. On our way out of town after some shopping, we stopped by the farmer's market to make sure that having dinner there was a good idea. Unfortunately, all they had were meatball sandwiches at the Bistro booth, so we decided to make other plans. Instead, Rachel made reservations for 2 at Newman's at 988 and the boyz would eat at home (much to their delight). In spite of his parents taking him to nice restaurants and supporting his expensive eating habits (oysters on the half shell, giant steaks, etc.) Josh still makes it very clear that he'd rather not spend time with us, so he's perfectly happy to eat at home.

Newman's was a highlight of last year's trip, and we were prepared for it to suffer from "second time syndrome" this year. Fortunately, it did not. Last year we had the chef's 5 course prix fixe menu with wine pairings and had planned to do so again this year. However, the selected courses tonight weren't our favorites, so we decided to order from the menu instead. I started off with a fantastic pear and foie gras appetizer - both seared and plated with a warm balsamic vinegar reduction. Unbelievably good! Next, I had a grilled romaine salad and Rachel had a crab and roasted tomato salad. Both were wonderful. For the main course, Rachel had duck breast with foie gras (and crispy skin!), and I had a rack of lamb that was probably the best lamb I've ever eaten. It was tender, flavorful, seasoned perfectly (lamb wants more salt than you think). It was so good, that I even picked up the little rib bones and chewed on them to get the last bit of meat off. Both plates were accompanied by a perfectly perpared vegetable medley (one carrot, one green bean, one asparagus, and several fingerling potatoes). The only sad part of ordering from the menu is that we miss out on the different wines with each course. So instead, we ordered a bottle of 2006 Anam Cara Nicholas Estate Pinot Noir. We're quite familiar with this wine, and it was a perfect accompaniment to both the duck and the lamb. For desert, I ordered the creme brulée again, and Rachel ordered a dense chocolate torte. Both were excellent, and after a few bites, we swapped. The chocolate did go better with the glass of vintage porto that I'd ordered. So, another winner from Newman's that didn't suffer from second time letdown. Definitely the highlight so far.

Finally, for today's lunch we hit the Pig 'n Pancake after Rachel and Tim rode the beach bikes. It was breakfast all around, and was quite good - no letdown here either. Tonight Rachel is making her famous fruit salad here at the house, along with a loaf of "Bob's Daily" bread from EVOO.

I'll be back in a few days to report on the second half of our vacation.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Memorial Day Weekend, Day 3

After two full days of wine tasting, part of me really just wanted to stay home on Monday. But, we had places to go, wine to taste, and (unbeknown to me) people to see. Besides, it was another gorgeous day in Oregon wine country.

We left the house late - about 10:45 since our first stop was a local winery in Forest Grove that didn't open until 11:00. We had visited Montinore Winery a couple of years ago when we were starting to get serious about wine, and had thought that the wine was not bad, but nothing amazing either. During the past year, they've participated in Forest Grove First Wednesday several times, and I've been impressed with the improvements in their wine, so we figured we should stop in for a full tasting on our way down highway 47. Montinore is pretty big for an Oregon winery, and the tasting room looks out over their 230 acres of vineyards on the estate. Many wineries have a winery dog or winery cat to greet visitors, and Montinore's mascot, Miss Kitty, was dozing peacefully on a bench as we approached the tasting room. They had 17 wines available for tasting, but each person only got 5 tickets, meaning that we had to choose 10 wines between the two of us. Fortunately, we're pretty good at sharing. We ended up tasting the '06 Gewürztraminer (very floral and bright), the '07 Reserve Gewürztraminer (interesting with a touch of oak), the '07 Reserve Riesling (crisp and acidic), the '08 Borealis (a white blend that was either not sweet enough or too sweet), the '07 Estate Pinot Noir (a very nice PN for $19), the '07 Reserve Pinot Noir (slightly smoky), the '07 Parsons Ridge Pinot Noir (earthy with some smoke), '07 Columbia Valley Merlot (OK, but without much personality), '07 Columbia Valley Syrah (jammy), and the '07 Frolic (a sweet Müller-Thurgau with good balance and fruitiness). The wines were all good, but still not great. Their lower priced wines are a great value, but the higher end Pinot Noirs, while quite nice, aren't the best examples of $30-$35 Pinot Noirs.

Our next stop was Patricia Green Cellars. Patricia Green specializes in Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, and although we've driven by many times, we've never had her wine. She only sells futures on her Pinot Noir, and apparently usually sells out. After paying our tasting fee and getting our Oregon Pinot Noir glasses (oh boy!), we tried the three Sauv Blancs. The first was the 2008 Dollar Bills Only, a $10 wine that was made from grapes that didn't quite make the cut for her regular Sauv Blanc. It had good acid, but too much green pepper for me. The second was her regular 2008 Sauv Blanc (very nice round flavors, cat pee, hints of grass), and the third was the 2006 Panama White - a monster at 16.3% alcohol (too big, too hot for my taste). We then moved on to the 2008 Pinot Noir barrel samples. She sources fruit from many different vineyards in the Willamette Valley and creates something like 8 or 10 vineyard designates. Today we tried samples from 3 vineyards with Jory soil (volcanic) and 3 vineyards with Willakenzie soil (marine sediments). It was time to test what we learned at Ken Wright Cellars! The three from Jory soils were Ana Vineyard (restrained and elegant, some earthiness with a short finish), Balcombe Vineyard (more nose, but otherwise similar to Ana), and Winerlea Vineyard (formerly Goldschmidt Vineyard - big smoky nose, not as much up front but a longer finish). The three from Willakenzie soils were Whistling Ridge Vineyard (earthy, minerals, somewhat restrained), Bonshaw Vineyard (spicy finish, earth, minerals), and the Etzel block of the estate vineyard (big, earthy and smoky). All were good, but we definitely preferred the earthiness and spice of the Willakenzie soils. We were able to turn in our glasses and get some of our tasting fee back too!

We tried Pinot Noir from the Anderson Family Vineyard at Lemelson yesterday, and today we visited the vineyard itself. In addition to selling some of his fruit to several high-end wineries, Cliff Anderson also makes wine from his grapes. The winery itself sits at the top of a fairly steep hill surrounded by the vineyard and provides a commanding view of the valley below. The view obviously inspired a little captain in Rachel! We first tasted several very nice whites. All were perfectly clean with good acid. We tried the '06 Pinot Gris (lots of crisp acid, very fruity), the '07 Pinot Gris pre-release (acidic, slightly green, less fruit than the '06), and the '06 Chardonnay (slightly oaked, crisp and acidic). Do you get the impression that we like a lot of acid in our white wines? We then moved on to the Pinot Noir. We tried their '06 Estate Pinot (fruity but not over the top, nice structure) and the '07 Estate Pinot (dark for an '07, structured and earthy). We were then shown down the stairs to the underground barrel cave - one of my favorite places to be in a winery. Cliff Anderson himself was down there cleaning up after a small wine explosion earlier in the day. He keeps his fermentation temperatures very low for the whites and also for the ML conversion for the reds. His 2008 whites are still going through primary, and the Pinot has just started ML. Apparently he topped a barrel a little too high and when he took the bung out, it released a small geyser. Fortunately, he invited us down onto the floor anyway, and we got to hear the snap, crackle, pop of Pinot Noir going through ML in a barrel. Very cool! Because his main income is derived from grape sales, Cliff can take his time and make his wines slowly and to his own exacting standards. The results are marvelous and I'm sure we'll be back again next year.

Our next stop was Vidon Vineyard. We've had several friends rave about the wine, so we had to stop. Besides, they had a great Latin Jazz guitar duo playing, and weren't giving away any glasses! Unfortunately, we weren't blown away by the wines. They had several different Pinot Noirs to try, and some barrel samples of soon to be released whites. We tried the '06 Chehalem Mtn PN (nice smooth fruit, great clonal mix: 115, 777, and Pommard. Didn't really go anywhere), the '06 Mirabelle Reserve (cherry cola nose, nice ripe red fruit, more interesting finish. Nice mid-pallate but not much character), '07 Briggita (777 clone, lots of big fruit, some finish, w/o personality), '07 Hans (Pommard clone, lots of fruit, some smoke, classic Pommard - warm up front but very little finish), the '07 Mirabelle (115 clone, most complex of the 3 '07s so far, decent fruit with a finish), and the '07 3 Clones (nice blend of the 3, but slightly bitter at the end). We also had some barrel samples: '08 3 Clones Pinot Noir (less fruty than expected, some gamy notes in a good way), an '08 Chardonnay and '08 Pinot Gris (fruit from Anderson Vineyard, so the flavor was great, but not nearly enough acid - flabby), and an '08 Rosé (great nose but we didn't like this at all). And yes, I did have my head buried in my notebook taking notes with the beautiful vineyard spread out below me. In all, the wines seem to be almost too well made - they're all clean, but really don't have any personality or interest. They are very approachable wines, but there's not much beyond the initial impression.

Our penultimate stop was another favorite from last year: Stag Hollow. I still don't know much about the winery other than the fact that they're rarely open, and they make some great Pinot Noir. Maybe I'll do more research next year. Their tasting room seems to be the lower level of the winemaker's house, and rather than a tasting bar, you are escorted from station to station by a representative of the winery. They're very friendly and knowledgable, and while it may sound slightly intimidating, it's not. In fact at one point, our pourer couldn't contain himself any longer and had to comment that Rachel was the first woman he'd ever seen at a wine tasting who would spit. She told him that it was more like drooling actually, which almost sent him into hysterics. We tasted the '07 Field Blend (nice red blend, more complex that David Hill Farmhouse Red), '07 Vinnae Pinot Noir (very nice for a $19 Pinot), the 2000 Vendange Selection Pinot Noir (very nice smoky aged Pinot), '06 Yamhill-Carlton PN (20 clone blend, nice ordinary Pinot, smooth and easy), '06 Vendange Selection (wow, smooth tannins, slighly closed, could use some age), '06 Reserve (smoky nose, good structure), '05 Reserve (funky, mushrooms), '06 Muscat (good floral nose, slightly weak), '07 Muscat (similar to the '06, not as good as Purple Cow). We bought a few bottles, stashed our glasses on a nearby window sill and left.

Which brings us to our final stop - Carlton Hill Vineyard. This was our last stop last year as well, and they basically throw a party in the barn at the vineyard. The food was excellent both this year and last year, although we thought that this year's lamb ragout wasn't as good as last year's lamb burgers. The surprise happened as we pulled into the parking area. As we drove in, I saw a couple standing near a car waving at us. "How friendly," I thought. Then I recognized our friends Rhonda and Tracy. Apparently Rachel had emailed them to meet us there at 4:00 (we pulled in right at 3:58:24 according to the GPS log), but hadn't told me. There were 3 wineries pouring in the barn: Carlton Hill of course, along with Resonance, and Roots. Resonance was pouring their '08 G3 (mostly Gewürztraminer, soft and slightly sweet), ;07 Estate PN (light and structured), and '06 Estate PN (rich dark fruit). Carlton Hill was pouring '07 Estate PN (amazingly ripe fruit with good structure), '06 Estate PN (dark fruits, good tannin, quite complex), and '06 Estate Reserve PN (very smooth with good fruit, not as structured as the Estate). Roots was pouring '08 Riesling (wow, lots of acid, good floral flavor), '08 Viognier (floral nose, but evaporates on the tongue), '07 Crosshair PN (fairly light but structured), '07 can't remember the vineyard PN (a bit darker but still fairly light). It had been a long weekend of tasting, and I must admit that I didn't spit here at Carlton Hill - after all, it was party time. It was great to see Rhonda and Tracy, and I think they had a good time too. In total, we ended up tasting about 180 wines from something like 36 different wineries most of which were quite good, a few were pretty bad, and some were exceptional. We learned more about Pinot Noir clones and also about how different soil types affect the taste. Mostly we just had fun, and I'm always grateful for the opportunity to spend time with my lovely wife (purple teeth and all!). Looking toward next year...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Memorial Day Weekend, Day 2

It's unusual to have a perfectly clear weekend in Oregon in May. It's even more unusual to have two in a row, but that's what we got. Faithful readers may recall that the weekend before Memorial Day was clear and sunny, so I was expecting that this weekend would be the usual clouds and drizzle. Not so! After a great day of wine tasting on Saturday, we woke up to another morning of clear blue skies on Sunday, ready for another full day.

We left the house around 10:00, and headed south toward Lachini Vineyards. We had bought some wine there last weekend, but they had run out of their 2005 Estate Pinot Noir, but said they'd have it waiting for us this weekend. Rachel averted her eyes from the cheese and meat on the snack table as we entered the tent, and we picked up our wine and left. According to the GPS record, we were there for all of 3 minutes!

Our first real stop of the morning was Belle Pente winery. They had been on our list last year, but we ran out of time and didn't get to stop there. They were well prepared for visitors and had plenty of signs pointing the way, and had chalked in lines to form parking spaces on their gravel. In fact, not only did they have signs leading from the parking area to the winery, they even had blue tape marks on the floor to show you how to move from tasting to tasting inside the winery! They were pouring the following wines: a mostly dry '07 Muscat (clean with light smoky notes, less Muscat nose than expected. We like Purple Cow's better), an '07 Pinot Gris (clean, well made, but nothing special), their '07 Cuvée Contraire Rosé (peppery, spicy rosé), '07 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir (somewhat light, and a bit harsh), '06 Belle Pente Vineyard PN (good, smoky nose, decent finish), and their 2006 Estate Reserve PN (OK, forgettable). Our overall take-away was that the wine was very well made but lacked personality.

Our next stop was a favorite from last year: Lemelson Vineyards. Unfortunately we arrived just after a small busload of people, so there was a short line before we could pay and get in. We overheard someone in the group complain "Hey, all they have is Pinot - I'm not going to taste." It's a pity because if there's one place where you can really get an education about the differences that vintage and vineyard make, this is the place. We decided to skip past the whites since that's where most of the bus people were lined up. Lemelson makes several single vineyard Pinot Noirs in addition to a blend, and they were tasting both the 2006 and 2007 vintages for most of them. First up was the '06 Thea's Selection blend (dark fruit, long finish) and the '07 Thea's Selection (dark fruits, but slightly brighter and lighter). I actually preferred the '07 to the '06. Unfortunately as we got deeper into the Pinots, I forgot to take notes, but in general the '06s were bigger and fruitier, while the '07s were more subtle but in many cases more complex. We tasted the '06 and '07 Meyer Vineyard, the '06 and '07 Stermer Vineyard (my favorite), the '06 Anderson Vineyard (very interesting) and the '06 Jerome Reserve (we bought this last year, and it's still great). After the Pinot Noirs, we went back to taste the whites. The '08 Tikka's Run Pinot Gris was very crisp, floral and delicious, but we were disappointed by the '07 dry Riesling. We had so loved the '06 and were looking forward to the '07, but while good, it just didn't seem to have the same acidic crispness that we were looking for. Fortunately, we thought to ask about the '06, and they still had some for sale, so we got a couple more bottles.

Moving on from Lemelson, we headed into Carlton where you can't swing a cat without hitting at least 5 wineries or tasting rooms. For some reason, I had Domaine Coteau on my list even though they appear to have a tasting room that's open most of the time. We got to try their '07 second label Pinot Noir along with their main label. We also tried a barrel sample of the 2008. All were pretty much forgettable.

We then walked next door to Ken Wright Cellars. I'd been wanting to try some of Ken's wine for a while now, but have always been a bit reluctant to go since he almost always is sold out and only sells futures. It turns out that I really had nothing to worry about, and in some ways this was the highlight of the day. The open house took place in his barrel storage building - a large dark wooden structure that looks quite old. They could just as well have called in a wine education seminar as much as an open house. There were many interesting displays and information tables that included grape vines of different ages from 1 year through 20 years, soil samples from the many different soil types in the Willamette Valley, and different types of bottle closures. Oh, they were also tasting wine, starting with a nice clean 2007 Pinot Blanc and a lightly oaked crisp acidic Chardonnay. Both were quite nice. They were also tasting 2008 barrel samples (direct from the barrel) of wine from 3 different vineyards with different soil types. That was absolutely fascinating, and we learned that volcanic soils tend to give the wine red and dark fruit flavors, while sedimentary soils tend to give spice and earthy flavors. We also now suspect that the Wädenswil clone imparts a taste that Rachel doesn't like in Pinot Noir. Finally, we got to sample a couple of Ken's 2006 Pinots: the 2006 Elton Vineyard (big fruit and smooth tannins - volcanic soil) and the 2006 Freedom Hill Vineyard (plenty of fruit tempered with earthiness and minerality - sedimentary soil). Both were very good, but perhaps not worth the $75 price.

We left Ken Wright around 1:30 and headed down to McMinnville. I wanted to try Ghost Hill wines, and they were tasting at Anthony Dell's tasting room. This worked out very well on several fronts: they had live music, large Syrah-style stemware and they were serving lunch, all included in the $10 tasting fee. We started with lunch (pulled pork sandwiches again, red beans and rice, and something else I can't remember) and then moved to the tasting. Ghost Hill is a fairly new winery whose vineyards are right next to Monk's Gate. They were tasting 2 vintages of their Pinot Noir by their previous winemaker, and we had a nice chat with their new winemaker who was kind enough to take us back to their barrels and let us sample the 2008. The 2006 was pretty average, while the 2007 was a bit lighter but seemed to have more structure than the '06. Both were fine but not spectacular. The 2008 samples were separated by clones and were all very good. They'll blend for the final released wine, and it will certainly be worth trying. We then went over to taste the Anthony Dell wines. We've had mixed feelings about them in the past. We really liked their Syrah at a tasting, but must have gotten a bad bottle that we really didn't like. Today they were tasting a Pinot Gris (pretty weak), the '03 PN (big and warm), the '05 PN (nicely structured), '06 PN (fruity and structured), Syrah (a very nice example of warm climate fruity Syrah), their Rio Red blend (similar to David Hill's Farm House Red, but not as good), and a Cabernet Sauvignon (good).

Leaving Anthony Dell with full stomachs, we drove about a block to Westry Winery. However, as soon as we arrived in the parking lot, we both remembered that we had visited them 2 years ago, and decided to pass this year. We then headed south toward Amity.

We arrived at Calamity Hill Vineyard for their very first public tasting. The vineyard is a small 1.5 acre plot within 5 acres that includes the owners' house and a beautiful yard and garden. When we arrived, it almost felt like we were crashing another private event - everyone there seemed to be friends or family of the owners. However, the response was the exact opposite of what we felt at Hawk's View. The owners, Tom and Marion Vail, went out of their way to welcome us and talk about their vineyard and wine. They planted the vineyard in 2005, and were just releasing their first wine - a 2007 Pinot Noir and 2008 Pinot Gris. The Pinot Noir (35 cases) was made by Michael Stevenson at Panther Creek, and the Pinot Gris (15 cases) by Geoffrey Crowther at August Cellars. The Pinot Gris was crisp and light, while the Pinot Noir was light and fruity, with notes of strawberry and some earthiness. Not bad for such young vines. Because they wanted to make sure that visitors got their money's worth, they also poured a 2006 PN from Stevenson's own label which was really nice. Marion showed us her garden and invited us to stroll through the vineyard with our wine. It was absolutely marvelous, and we wish them great success. It will be interesting to try their wine again next year.

Continuing south, our next stop was Mystic Winery, another favorite from last year. They also had live music, but the singer was just off key enough to be grating. That may be why we weren't as impressed with the wine as I remember from last year and several bottles that we'd had since then. They were tasting their '07 Temprance Hill Pinot Noir (earth, some spice, nothing special), '03 Merlot (fairly bland - too bad because we had really liked the '02), '03 Cab (nice fruity with very smooth tannins), '05 Barbera (good fruit, nice finish), '05 Syrah (OK, but something was missing), '05 Zinfandel (very peppery) and the '03 Reserve Merlot (good, lots of oak). Ray Walsh was also there tasting his Capitello wines. He had his '06 Sauvignon Blanc (crisp and acidic with bell pepper), '07 Pinot Gris (not quite sweet enough), an '08 New Zealand Pinot Noir (big and fruity, like a California Pinot), his NV Brut (crisp, acidic, dry - quite good), and the '07 Dolcino dessert wine (nicely balanced, but maybe a bit too sweet).

We left Mystic at about 4:30, and realized that we had time for one more stop. A quick look at the map showed that we were near Brooks Winery which we'd never visited. As we pulled into their parking lot, we saw 2 horses tied up outside the tasting room. I don't know if it's illegal to ride while intoxicated, but at least the horses hadn't been drinking! They had a lot of wine to taste and we didn't have much time before closing, so we got right to it. The first wine was a very nice white blend - nothing spectacular, but quite good. We then started down their lineup of five(!) Rieslings. Most were quite good, but nothing extraordinary. Moving on to the reds, they had five Pinot Noirs: the '07 Runaway Red (a nice light value wine), '07 Pinot from the assistant winemaker's label (good basic PN), their '07 Willamette Valley PN (very interesting, spicy, earthy), and their '06 Janus (all the nice fruit of a typical '06 plus minerals and earthiness), and finally the '06 Rastaban (big, over the top fruit and tannin). Finally, they had a knock-your-socks-off late harvest Riesling called Tethys (light, acidic, balanced sweetness with a light mouth feel). As we were buying a few bottles of wine, we heard a bit of the story behind the winery. The winery was started in 1998 by Jimi Brooks. When he died unexpectedly in Sept. 2004, his son Pascal, now 13 years old, became the sole owner of the winery. The Oregon wine community showed its typical generosity and helped with harvest and wine making that year, and Jimi's sister Janie volunteered her time to keep the business going, and now serves as managing director. Chris Williams had worked with Jimi and is now the wine maker at Brooks. An extraordinary story and some very nice wine. We arrived back home around 6:00 - tired but happy. One more day to go!

Memorial Day Weekend, Day 1

Maps, spreadsheets, GPS's, Styrofoam lined wine box, camera, netbook PC, newspaper inserts, bottles of water, and a lot of paper cups - these are the tools of the Memorial Day Weekend Wine Warrior. Every year, most of the over 400+ wineries in Oregon open their doors over the Memorial Day weekend and offer tasting, barrel samples, cave tours, etc. Many of the wineries are open to the public only twice a year, so this is a great opportunity to visit places that we can't normally visit. Obviously three days isn't enough to even make a dent in the long list of wineries, but with careful planning and execution, we were able to visit 36 wineries and sample about 180 wines.

The first step is planning. We usually start by looking at the open house listings in the Oregon Wine Press and the Oregonian and select wineries that aren't usually open. We also look for wineries that are doing something special such as live music, library tasting, cave tours, etc. In previous years, we've also given higher priority to wineries that were giving away the Riedel Oregon Pinot Noir glasses, but now that we have about 14 of 'em and countless other winery logo glasses, we get very creative about finding ways to leave the souvenir glasses behind after tasting! Once we've chosen a list of wineries to visit and entered them into a spreadsheet, Rachel plots them on a map. We then use mapping software to plan our routes for each of the 3 days. Some wineries are not open on Monday, so we need to make sure that our plans account for that. Rachel loads the maps onto her netbook PC and programs them into our GPS. For each day of tasting, I put a Styrofoam-lined wine shipping box in the trunk to keep our purchases from getting too hot, load up all our maps and paperwork, and grab a pack of paper cups. Why paper cups? If you're going to taste an average of 60 wines each day, you'd better either have a designated driver, or paper cups. All of the wineries supply "dump buckets" or "spit buckets" and I'll use those if there's one handy, but with the crowds that are often around the tasting tables, I find it easier to spit into a paper cup and eventually empty that into the dump bucket. Sounds a bit disgusting, but it's really the most responsible way to taste wine. Plus, I'm still able to taste and evaluate each wine even late into the day. I've finally started carrying a small notebook so that I can take notes on each wine that we taste.

Day 1 - Saturday

On Saturday, we decided to head further east than usual, and try some lesser known wineries out toward Hillsboro and Sherwood. We left the house at about 10:40am and drove to Ardiri Winery (formerly Gypsy Dancer). Gary Andrus started his third winery, Gypsy Dancer, in 2004 after founding Pine Ridge in California and Archery Summit in Oregon. In October 2008, Andrus sold Gypsy Dancer to Ardiri, a Napa Valley winery. The new owners haven't yet released any wine made from the vineyard, but they were tasting a couple of Carneros Pinots that had been made at the winery. It struck us as quite strange that anyone would truck Pinot Noir grapes grown in Carneros to the Willamette Valley (coals to Newcastle!?). The wines themselves (an '06 and '07) were big California fruit bombs, although the '07 was a little more subtle with decent acid. They also tasted a wonderful '07 Gypsy Dancer Pinot Gris that was crisp and fruity.

We next headed to Freja Winery near Hillsboro. The winery and tasting room were in a nice old barn, and we were the only ones there when we arrived. They were tasting an '07 PN Rosé and a couple of Pinot Noirs ('07 and '05). All of the wines were fairly forgettable, and we left somewhat disappointed.

Just down the road from Freja is Beran Winery. They too had converted an old barn into a winery and tasting room. They were just tasting Pinot Noir, and had a nice '05 Dijon 115 clone, an '05 Pommard clone, and an '06 estate blend. All were pretty good, but ordinary.

By this point, we were thinking that while we didn't regret coming out this way, there was probably a reason that these lesser known wineries were lesser known! But we decided to stick to the plan and head out toward Sherwood to Alloro Vineyard. As we were driving up the tree-lined driveway past the statuary toward the newly constructed (and expensive) winery, we were wondering if we were back in Temecula. Fortunately, we were in for a pleasant surprise once inside the winery. David Nemarnik, the owner and vineyard manager is justifiably proud of his wines. He was pouring 3 '07 Pinot Noirs (an estate blend and 2 individual vineyard blocks), a killer '08 Riesling, and a wonderful Muscat/Riesling dessert wine. The '07 Pinots had a good amount of fruit up front and nice extraction for '07s. The Winery Block (all 777 clone) had a nice smoky nose with lots of layers, while the Church Block (all Pommard clone) was good but somewhat less complex and interesting. The winery itself is all gravity fed with a nice barrel cave underneath. Very good wine, nice people, and a beautiful winery and vineyard. We'll be back.

Our next stop was Hawk's View Winery, another new place. While the newspapers had them listed as open all 3 days, we were a bit concerned as we saw signs that read "private event," but we figured that perhaps it was just for folks who had seen the open house notice in the paper. Driving in, we had the same impression that we got when visiting Left Coast Cellars - rich Californians wanting to buy into the wine country lifestyle. This place had a boatload of money put into it - big state of the art winery, expensive tasting room, huge mansion up the hill. The tasting room was full of obviously wealthy people who didn't give us the time of day. The pourers were polite enough, and the wine was terrible. We left as quickly as possible. Now in fairness, perhaps we really did crash a private event, but a simple explanation and either being welcomed or asked to leave would have been much better.

We next headed back to more familiar territory: the Dundee Hills. Our first stop here was J.K. Carriere. What a contrast with Hawk's View! The winery was in an old barn (no big bucks here), with a moderately friendly staff. They were tasting a white Pinot Noir - something which I'd never had before. As you know, red wine gets its color primarily from the skins - the longer you keep the juice in contact with the skins, the darker the color. White wine is made from red grapes simply by pressing the juice and separating it from the skins immediately after harvest. This wine was light and refreshing. They also tasted a nice Chardonnay done in neutral oak, their 2007 Provocateur Pinot Noir blend (fairly light, typical '07) and their '06 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (deep and rich).

We left J.K. Carriere a little after 2pm, and although we'd been snacking at each winery, we needed some lunch. Fortunately, our next stop was the Ponzi Wine Bar in Dundee which just happens to be right next to the Dundee Bistro. Jason (the chef) had prepared "the whole hog" for the weekend - real smoked pork BBQ, in the parking lot. This was perfect since we didn't want to take the time for a full sit-down meal at a restaurant, but wanted tasty food. It was all you can eat for $15 and they had set up tables and chairs under a big tent right in the parking lot - pay, eat, and leave. After stuffing ourselves, we walked across the parking lot to the wine bar. They were tasting wines from four different wineries. First up were several wines from Ponzi - the '08 Pinot Gris that we'd tasted at the lamb dinner a few nights earlier, the '08 Rosato Rosé that we'd also had at the lamb dinner, an '08 Arneis (a dry white Italian varietal with a warm peppery finish), and the '07 Tavola PN (their value blend). Next up were wines from Antica Terra. I had been looking forward to trying their wines, but came away somewhat disappointed. They were tasting their '07 Rosé which was good, but nothing special, and their '07 Pinot Noir (some earthiness, fuller than some 2007's). The wines were fine, but not spectacular, and the pourer droned on for what seemed like 10 minutes with his memorized speech. Next was Ayoub. They had their '07 Memoir Pinot Noir (very light, strawberry notes, good sipping wine), the '07 estate PN (dark, earthy, and complex) - both very good examples of what they were trying to be. Finally, we tried 3 Pinots from Dusky Goose. The first was the '06 Dundee Hills Pinot (nice, fairly average 2006 PN), next was their '06 Estate PN (less complex than the Dundee Hills, still quite nice), and finally a library wine, the 2003 Dundee Hills PN. 2003 was a hot vintage and a lot of Pinots ended up as fruit bombs. This one wasn't over the top with fruit (perhaps it had aged out), but wasn't quite as complex as I expected from a 6 year old Pinot.

Our last stop of the day was a favorite from last year: 12th and Maple Wine Co. This is home to many small wineries, and actually had the third largest production of all Oregon wineries last year with over 85,000 cases. Because there were 8 different wineries tasting here today, we first did a round of whites, then went back to taste the reds. However, I'll describe the wineries in alphabetical order here. Ancient Cellars is owned by a young winemaker and his wife. By day, he makes huge batches of wine for 12th and Maple's bulk customers, but by night he makes small batches of his own wine using grapes from prestigious vineyards. They were tasting an '07 Pinot Gris (smooth and slightly sweet) and an excellent '07 Pinot Noir (complex, earthy and deep for an '07). Barbara Thomas wines had been there last year also, and were tasting a very nice white table wine, an '08 Pinot Gris that we didn't care for, a wonderful acidic dry '08 Riesling, a spicy red table wine, and a fairly average '05 estate Pinot Noir. Blue Pirate was there with their '07 Pinot Gris and several vintages of Pinot Noir. They had a very nice value Oregon '07 (forest floor, mushrooms, short finish), an Oregon '06 Reserve (average), their '05 Willamette Valley (dark, earthy and complex), and an '03 Willamette Valley (very smooth, good fruit, warm finish). Gino Cuneo was there with several variations on Sangiovese. The first was an '08 Rosato which was a fun and interesting wine. Next was the '07 Sangiovese (somewhat rough) and finally a pre-release sample of the '07 Sangiovese Reserve (quite nice). Next was the Dukes Family Vineyard. We'd met the owners at a Forest Grove First Wednesday a few months back and had been very impressed with the Pinot Noir. Their wines had been made by Gary Andrus (former owner of Gypsy Dancer) until he passed away in January. They had brought 5 of their Pinots to try, and all were fantastic - deep, rich, and complex. They had the '05, '06, and '07 Alyssa (all very warm and fruity, approachable now) and the '06 and '07 Thomas (needs age). Keep an eye out for their wines - they're all wonderful. Next was another small operation - Longplay. They had an '07 Pinot Noir and an '07 Chardonnay, both of which were good but not standouts. We really enjoyed talking with the couple who were pouring for Seven of Hearts. They were both geneticists who also owned a vineyard where Seven of Hearts (among others) purchased grapes. They were pouring an '06 Willamette Valley Chardonnay (good, neutral oak, not enough acid), an '08 Roussanne (very interesting but not enough acid), an '07 Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir (pretty good), an '06 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir (very good, warm and fruity), and an '07 Crawford Beck Pinot Noir (decent). Finally, we tasted at Basket Case Wines. They had their '07 Chenin Blanc (somewhat boring, dry), an '08 white table wine (ok), their '06 Basket Case Syrah (I liked it, R didn't), '06 Reversal Syrah (good warm climate syrah), and their '07 Stumbling Block Red Blend (we didn't care for this).

We arrived at 12th and Maple around 3:30, and left after they closed, about 5:15. Wow, what a day of wine tasting. We got home around 6:00, and because we'd been spitting all day, actually felt like having a glass of wine with dinner. We unloaded our purchases from the box, and put it back in the trunk, ready for another day of wine tasting.