Monday, September 21, 2009

Vacation in Libertania

Many years ago, my grandfather had some friends over to his house for a slide show. For years these friends had traveled around the country and around the world and taken many pictures of the wonderful places that they'd visited, and my grandfather, who didn't travel much, would patiently sit through them. Well, this time it was my grandfather's turn to show off his travel pictures as he'd just gotten back from a trip to Libertania. Sadly, none of his friends had heard of this small country, so he used the slides to tell the story of Libertania's history and culture. He had pictures of various statues of important Libertanians, he had pictures of some of the more famous buildings, natural features, and natives of the country. Everyone was delighted with his travelogue and quite pleased to have learned about this obscure little country. It was only after the slide show and discussion was over that my grandfather revealed that every single picture had been taken within about 10 miles of the small Illinois town that they all had lived in for the past 20 or 30 years! None of them had recognized the pictures of their own town because they'd never really bothered to explore it.

His point was that you don't need to travel half way around the world to have new and meaningful experiences. Often, you need travel no further than your own Libertania for a great vacation, and Rachel and I got to do just that last Saturday thanks to Ben's generosity. He travels a great deal for his job, and had some hotel points that were going to expire soon, so he asked if we'd like to spend the night at the Westin Hotel in Portland.

We started the day at the farmer's market on the PSU campus. It's one of the bigger farmer's markets in the area, and it was amazing to see all of the wonderful produce, grass-fed meat, farm-made cheeses, and baked goods. If we weren't having dinner in Portland that night, I would probably have bought everything in sight and made a huge dinner. As it was, we bought some cheese, baby artichokes, bread, a pork loin and bacon. We had originally planned to go to the Portland Pirate Festival next, but it had been raining all morning, and we really didn't feel like being soggy pirates, so we went home with our bounty from the market (it was too early to check into the Westin). This worked out well since we were able to get our purchases put away in fridge and freezer, and I got to watch the Dodgers-Giants game on TV and Rachel took a nap.

After the baseball game, we packed up and headed back into Portland. The Westin is near Pioneer Courthouse Square, the art museum, the symphony hall, and many restaurants and shops. They don't have an accessible parking garage, but they do have curbside valet parking, so we unloaded our bag and left the car with the attendant. There was some slight confusion at the front desk because the reservation was in Ben's name, but he had been clever enough to add Rachel to the reservation so we were able to check in without any problems. The clerk then mentioned that we'd been upgraded to the Presidential Suite, and that he'd call up to make sure it was ready. It was, and we headed to the elevator for our ride to the "Deluxe Apartment in the Sky" on the 19th floor. We were a bit confused as we got off the elevator and the sign to help you find your room showed that 1901-1906 was in one direction and 1907-1914 was in the other direction - our room was 1906/1907. It turns out that 1906 was the door into the sitting room and 1907 was the door into the bedroom.

The presidential suite was amazing: there was a huge sitting room with a bar, a dining table, and a remote controlled fireplace with a big screen TV above it. The bedroom was a pretty typical hotel bedroom, but the master bath was huge! It had a jacuzzi, large shower stall and a long counter with 2 sinks. We relaxed and enjoyed the view of the west hills out the window. One could also see a building about 3 blocks over that had 4 big wind turbines on the roof.

At a bit after 7:00, we headed down to the lobby and walked about a block and a half to Pazzo, an Italian restaurant. We'd eaten there many years ago and thought it was OK, but not great. However, it's gotten such great reviews that we thought we should try it again. The wine list is extensive, but we quickly honed in on a bottle of 2003 Elio Grasso Barolo. Faithful readers may recall the immense pleasure we derived from a bottle of their 2000 Barolo with Tony's pizza last Christmas in San Gabriel. While the 2003 isn't quite as good as the 2000, it didn't disappoint - dark warm fruit with dusty tannins, developing into a subtle cherry cola with time. For food, we did the whole 5 course Italian meal, although we only ordered one of everything except the Secondi and shared. We had a prosciutto plate as our antipasto which came with baby cress, pickled melon, and grilled ciabatta rubbed with lots of garlic. Mmmm! We then had a very nice Caesar salad (although they didn't called it that) which had tons of garlic in the croutons and anchovy in the dressing. For the pasta course we had pappardelle with lamb ragú that was delicious. For our secondi, I had seared fresh halibut with ultra-crisp shaved ciabatta slices over an heirloom tomato and herb salad with herbed olive oil. It was excellent. Rachel had muscovy duck breast with duck confit, mustard greens, a cornmeal tart and rhubarb. It was great also, and Elio went well with all of it. For dessert, we shared a large serving of pistachio ice cream sandwiched between several slices of chocolate cake - what could be bad!? I accompanied that with a glass of Warre's 1985 vintage porto, which I loved, but Rachel had to make "the face" when she tried it.

After a short walk, we were back on the 19th floor, and settled in to watch some TV after I used the remote to start the fireplace. Pretty cool!

As we made the short drive back to Forest Grove on Sunday, we talked about how much fun it is to take a vacation in Libertania. There's so much to do and eat so close to home. I enjoy exploring other parts of the country and other parts of the world, but one shouldn't overlook the great things we have close to home, especially when an opportunity comes up such as Ben gave us.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Labor Day Wine Tasting

As harvest nears, it seems that many wineries are working hard to get the last few visitors in before the end of summer with special events, dinners, etc. This past weekend the Chehalem Mountain Winegrowers association held a special event called "Explore, Tour and Taste" featuring most of the wineries in the AVA including many that are not usually open. The Chehalem Mountain AVA is a large sub-AVA of the Willamette Valley extending across the north end of the valley from highway 47 west to I-5 near Sherwood. It's a big area, and honestly seems more like a geographical convenience than any real cohesive chunk of terroir. Soils in the AVA range from marines sediments to Columbia River basalts to ice age loess giving rise to a widely diverse range of wines.

While some of our favorite wineries on Calkins Ln and Ribbon Ridge Rd are part of Chehalem Mountain, we decided to head out toward Sherwood again. Faithful readers may recall that we spent an enjoyable day near Sherwood over the Memorial Day weekend, and in looking down the list of participating wineries, we thought "What about Sherwood?"

Our first stop was Utopia Vineyard and Winery on Ribbon Ridge Rd. It turns out to have the smallest tasting room I've ever been in, but some pretty decent wines. The owner/winemaker moved to Oregon from Napa in 2000 after realizing that he could actually afford a vineyard here, and planted Pinot Noir in 2002. They were tasting the 2006 and 2007 estate Pinot Noirs, both of which were pretty good, but we preferred the 2007 for its structure and complexity. He was also tasting a couple of wines from his Napa days - a 1997 Malbec and a 1997 Cab Franc. I'm not sure if they were great examples of either varietal, but they had aged well and we enjoyed them very much.

Our next stop was Privé Vineyard and Winery on Bell Rd., another new-to-us winery. They were tasting a couple of different wines along with pizza and a full glass of one of the wines for $20. We didn't want a full glass of wine since we had a lot of wine to taste that day and $20 for 2 tastes and a piece of pizza seemed excessive. Rachel bargained them down to $5 to taste and we tried their Pinot Noir and some kind of red blend that I don't remember. Whether it was the wine itself or our dislike of the tasting concept, the wine was forgettable and we tasted and left.

We continued driving along Bell Rd. through the big sweeping curves (aka the Bell curves) and arrived at Laura Volkman Vineyards on Quarry Rd. We had tasted her wine a couple of years ago at August Cellars and thought it was OK, but not wonderful. She has a very good reputation, so we wanted to try it again now that we were a little more experienced. She was tasting a Chardonnay and 3 Pinot Noirs. The Chard was lightly oaked and wonderfully floral - a very fine example of a good Oregon Chardonnay. The 3 Pinots were again good, but not great in our opinions. All were 2007's - two vineyard designates and a blend. They were elegant, but all seemed to be missing something - perhaps some depth and finish.

Turning northeast on 99W we continued to head toward Sherwood and arrived at Quailhurst Vineyard Estate. Yes, there's a vineyard there, but you've really just driven into horse country. From the huge multi-horse barn to the dressage ring and the immaculate grounds, you know there's a lot of money in this place. The tasting took place in a large tent erected for the event across the drive from the dressage ring. The tasting staff were knowledgeable and friendly and the food was pretty nice too. They were tasting a vertical of their estate Pinot Noirs from 2001 through 2008 along with a couple of white blends, a rosé, and several vintages of the PN port. The whites were not very good - little fruit and somewhat bitter and thin. The Pinot Noirs were all pretty good, each showing what we would have expected for those vintages that we were familiar with (2003 through present). The ports were OK, with the older (2005) being the best. The 2007 port hadn't integrated well yet and was harsh.

Our last stop of the day was a favorite from Memorial Day: Alloro Vineyard. David was tasting most of the same wines that he had tasted last time we were there. We tried all 3 2007 Pinots - the estate, the Winery Block, and the Church Block. All were wonderful, but our favorite was the all Pommard clone Church Block. Interestingly, I looked back at our Memorial Day notes and we had preferred the Winery block then, thinking it more interesting than the Church Block. David said that the Church Block had evolved quite a bit over the summer. Interesting! They also had their wonderful Riesling and (I believe) a very nice Chardonnay. They will be open over the Thanksgiving weekend (as well as the weekend before) and will be tasting a new 2008 Pinot Noir - 3 Gables. We'll be there for sure!

On Monday we headed south along Hwy 47 toward more familiar territory. Our first stop was Sejourné's new tasting room in McMinnville for their 2007 Pinot Noir release party. It turned out that about 8 of us arrived at the same time so we all sat down at the bar and Kevin poured for us all and described each wine. I can't remember everything he poured, but the wines included the brilliant 2008 Pinot Gris and Chardonnay (both done in stainless), a Rosé from Arcane cellars (not very good), the 2007 Pinot Noir (good, but probably too early to drink) and the 2006 Zenas Meritage (very deep and rich). So far we like their whites better than the reds, but they are definitely on the watch list for the future. And, one of the nicest rosés we've had has come from them too.

We then headed out 99W toward the Dundee Hills and arrived at Domaine Serene. They have developed quite a reputation for great Pinot Noir, and we've enjoyed their wines a couple of times. We first visited a couple of years ago and bought a bottle of the 2004 Evenstad Reserve PN - the most expensive wine we'd ever bought at $52. When we went back last year to try the 2005, they had sold out (it had been one of Wine Spectator's top 100 wines of the year that year). Fortunately I was able to buy a bottle from a wine merchant, but we'd never tasted it. So, one of the reasons for our trip now was to make sure we got to taste the 2006 before they sold out. We did, and were a little underwhelmed. It was a very good wine, but it just didn't push our button the way we remember the 2004 had (especially Rachel). We also tasted their Two Barns PN, and wonderful Chardonnay, and a Rockblock Syrah (meh).

Addendum - we returned to Domaine Serene the next weekend because they were having a reserve tasting that included the 2005 Evenstad Reserve! It was more like we had remembered the 2004 - a taste that Rachel describes as "pine." So, we are now confident that our bottle of 2005 that is resting quietly will yield great enjoyment when eventually opened. We also tried the 2005 Jerusalem Hill PN (wow, very nice) and the 2005 Mark Bradford PN (wow, even better).

Our next stop was White Rose Vineyard right across the road. We had tried to visit there in the past, but they weren't open. Before we get to the wine, a quick note to winery architects - when designing a tasting room on a hill overlooking one of the most beautiful sights in the Dundee Hills, add some windows! You walk up from parking next to the vineyard, taking in the incredible view and end up in a dark, cave-like tasting room. What were they thinking??? They make only Pinot Noir, and were tasting 4. They were all OK - well made, technically good, but seemed to lack character and personality.

As we were driving down from White Rose, we thought maybe we should stop at Winderlea again. This was a new winery at an old vineyard (Goldschmidt) that we had stopped at about a year and a half ago right after the new owners took over. We weren't terribly impressed, but wanted to give them another chance. Sadly, they were closed. So, we decided to head back toward home toward our last stop. However, as we drove up over Worden Hill Rd, we saw that Bella Vida Vineyard was actually open! Every time we've ever driven by in the past, they've been closed, often with a "sold out" sign up. We turned into the driveway and happily started up the long gravel drive. Then it got steep. Fortunately, although they haven't paved it, they have put narrow cement "tracks" on the steepest part and there are signs that tell you to keep your tires on the cement tracks. Fun. We finally got to the top, and they too have a great view (and their tasting room has windows!). There is no winery here; Bella Vida is just a vineyard. They contract 3 well-know winemakers (Jacques Tardy, Jay Somers of J. Christopher, and Brian O'Donnell) to make wine from their grapes. The result is a wonderful lesson in how winemakers can influence the final product since the grapes all came from the same place. All 3 wines were very nice - the Tardy was still a little too young to drink, but had great structure and depth. The J. Christopher (Jay Sommers) was more approachable with good earthiness and red fruits. The O'Donnell was screaming "drink me now" and was very smooth and elegant. We bought a couple of boxed sets of all 3 and plan to hold a couple of tasting parties over the next few years with them.

Our last stop of the day was another local favorite - Kramer Wines near Gaston. Trudy, Keith, and the whole gang are a lot of fun, and today they had live music and good food. They were tasting through all of their wines (they make a lot of wines!) and also had Jon Jennison there pouring his Thistle Wines. We didn't make it through everything, but got a nice sampling of their whites (a couple of oaky Chardonnays, a Pinot Gris and a Muller Thurgau), and then moved over and had Jon's Pinot Blanc. Jon likes crisp, acidic, food-friendly wines, and his Pinot Blanc was just that. We then tasted through the Thistle Pinot Noirs (all quite nice), and moved to the Kramer reds. Trudy makes a range of Pinot Noirs from the simple estate blend, through several reserves, and some from specific areas of the vineyard. They mostly had 2006s which are not my favorites at this point. I loved the 2005 Cardiac Hill PN, and while the 06 is good, I don't like it as much. They were also tasting the 2005 Heritage PN from the oldest vines in the vineyard, and I liked that one very much.

We came home having bought more wine than we intended over the 2 days (don't we always?), but much of it will be put into storage for future years. We had a wonderful couple of days of tasting, and I feel blessed to live in the middle of beautiful Oregon wine country.

Catching Up

Wow, I've fallen behind in my writing! I usually like to write about our food and wine adventures soon after they happen, but it's been a busy couple of weeks, so I'm going to catch up by combining several events into this post.

Merlot Bottling

Nearly a year after crushing the grapes, my first vintage is in the bottle! On August 29th Rachel, Tim, and I bottled the Merlot. I filled the bottles and Rachel fed the bottles and corks to Tim who operated the corker. A few days later we added the capsules and labeled the bottles. They're all quietly resting now for a couple of months to get over bottle shock. I may break one out around Thanksgiving to see how its doing. There are only 2 cases, but they represent a lot of work over the year. As I write this, I'm preparing to pick up the 2009 Merlot grapes tomorrow and start the process all over again. I'm also getting Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese this year, so I guess that means I'm tripling my production!

Yamhill-Carlton Tasting

On Monday, Aug. 31st, Rachel and I attended a tasting of wines from the Yamhill-Carlton district at the Gerding Theater in the Pearl District of Portland. It did seem a little odd to be driving into Portland to taste wines that were grown closer to Forest Grove, but it was a great opportunity to taste a lot of different wineries in one location. The price was hard to beat too - $25 admission with no additional tasting fees for 24 wineries and light snacks from 5 restaurants.

The Yamhill-Carlton district is a sub-AVA of the Willamette Valley in the northwestern part of the valley. The predominant soil type is marine sedimentary and like all of the northern Willamette Valley, this is Pinot Noir country. Several of our favorite Pinot producers were at the event. What was particularly interesting about this event was that regardless of where the winery was located, all of the wines being tasted had come only from vineyards in the Y-C district.

Now, the frustrating part of this is that I took lots of notes on the wines that night, but I can't find them! For some reason I didn't use the little notebook that I usually take to tastings, and the paper that I was writing on has just disappeared. So, until I find my notes, I'll just list the wineries that were there: Anne Amie Vineyards, Atticus Cellars, Barbara Thomas Wines, Belle Pente, Biggio Hamina Cellars, Bishop Creek Cellars, Carlton Cellars, Carlton Hill Wine Co., Elk Cove Vineyards, Ghost Hill Cellars, Ken Wright Cellars, Kramer, Lemelson Vineyards, Monk's Gate Vineyard, Panther Creek, Resonance Vineyard, Roots, Shea Wine Cellars, Solena Cellars, Sotor, Stag Hollow, Twelve, Wahle, and Willakenzie. All were pretty good, with Lemelson having the best Pinot Noir, and Roots with a killer Melon. Ken Wright and Anne Amie were a little disappointing, and Ghost Hills is one to keep an eye on.

After the tasting, we walked about four blocks and had a wonderful dinner at Andina, a Peruvian restaurant. They serve small plates and recommend 5 or 6 different plates for 2 people. The selection was overwhelming, so we put ourselves in the hands of our waiter and asked him to bring 5 plates that he thought represented a good cross-section of the menu. We were not disappointed! Our meal included quinoa-stuffed pequillo peppers, a Spanish-style potato fritatta, a fresh fish ceviche, crisp prawns, and of course, empenadas. Although they have a fantastic wine list, we were pretty wined out, so I just ended up with a glass of Malbec from Mendoza. We ended the meal with a trio of creme bruleés. Very tasty!

Matello Winemaker's Dinner

We first met Marcus Goodfellow (winemaker and "head fool" at Matello wines) a couple of years ago at a Memorial Day wine tasting event. We had driven by the Adea Wine Company on the way to McMinnville for years, but because they aren't usually open, we had never stopped. However, they are open over Memorial Day weekend, so we were excited to visit. The winery itself is host to several winemakers in addition to its own label, and nearly all of them were tasting their wines. The Adea wines themselves were not very good, and I really don't remember the wines from any of the other winemakers, except for one - Marcus. He was tasting a couple of his Pinot Noirs, a mostly dry Riesling, and a great dessert wine. All were wonderful, and we bought a couple of bottles. We have gone back to Adea since then, just to get more Matello.

Fast forward to late August of this year as we were driving home from the Oregon Star Party. As were were approaching Madras, I was able to get signal on my iPhone and decided to check my email. There was an email from Marcus describing a winemaker's dinner that he was doing at clarklewis restaurant in Portland featuring samples of wine from his first commercial vintage in 2002 up through 2008. What a cool concept! As there were only 20 seats available, I replied right then and there as we drove into Madras. You gotta love technology!

So, on Wednesday Sept. 2nd, we drove into Portland to the restaurant on Water St. near OMSI. clarklewis ( is fairly new on the Portland restaurant scene, and is housed in a building along the river that used to be a loading dock. It was a very pleasant temperature that evening, and they had all of the garage doors open, giving us the feeling of al fresco dining. The cuisine is generally Italian-inspired using fresh local ingredients, much of it cooked in a wood fired oven. All of the food was served family style, and it appeared that this may be the norm, not just for the winemaker's dinner.

The menu was a six course extravaganza paired with 11 Matello wines! Up first was an incredible combination of watermelon slices topped with raw goat's milk feta cheese, gaeta olives, shredded mint, and fleur de sel. It was absolutely wonderful, and was Rachel's favorite dish of the night. It was paired with the 2007 Rosé of Pinot Noir - one of the nicest rosés we've had. The second course was a housemade spaghetti with shredded Oregon dungeness crab, fennel, heirloom tomatoes and summer herbs. The pasta was perfectly al dente and the sauce was a great light summer red sauce. It was paired with the 2003 and 2008 Pinot Gris. Marcus had said that he only brought the 2003 to torture us, and it was definitely past its prime. It was musty and waxy and oxidized, but it was interesting to see what 6 year old Pinot Gris was like. The 2008, on the other hand, was wonderful - crisp, floral and acidic. The third course was pork belly - yum! It was a cube of melt-in-your-mouth tastiness seared and slightly sweetened with black currants, summer corn, and purple orach. This was the first course where there was nothing left on the serving platters when we were done. It was paired with the 2004 Hommage a'A&D and 2004 Souris Pinot Noirs. Both were very good; I preferred the slightly more structured and complex Souris to the more approachable and fruity Hommage. Moving on to the entrée, we were served slices of lamb saddle with cannellini beans, baby mustard greens and black plum jus. The flavor was excellent, but the lamb was slightly too fatty for me. Rachel loved it! This was served with the 2003 Hommage and Souris Pinots. These were obviously 2003s (big, warm, fruity) but quite nice. The cheese course was a hard raw goat's milk cheese that was paired with the 2002 Hommage and 2002 Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs. The pairing was perfect and the older Pinots were structured and very interesting. Finally, for dessert we had a tasty apple tart with blackberry ice cream. The menu indicated that we were going to be served the 2008 Whistling Ridge sweet Riesling with this, but first Marcus brought out the 2006 slightly sweet Riesling - the first wine of his we ever had. What a treat - and it was still as good as I remembered it.

Fortunately, the dinner took over 3 hours, so even with the 11 wines, we were still seeing straight when we left. It was a great time, with great food, and we ended up sitting fairly close to Marcus, so we had a good opportunity for some conversation. These winemaker dinners are a lot of fun, especially when they're held at great restaurants.