Sunday, June 5, 2011

Memorial Day Weekend 2011 (Day 1)

We trained for it all year. We researched and developed our plans for a month in advance. We created our spreadsheets and custom maps. Yes, it must be Memorial Day weekend in the Willamette valley once again.

After visiting many of our favorite once-a-year wineries the previous weekend (Shea, Patricia Green, Dukes Family, Penner-Ash, etc.) we thought we might revisit a few places that we hadn't been to for a few years, as well as some of the usual suspects. I'd been building our spreadsheet for about a month that describes the possible wineries to visit along with their address, hours, and anything special that might be going on. Although we have many, many wineries that we like to visit, we give preference over Memorial Day to those that are only open a few times a year. We also had such a great time staying at the Allison Inn for a night last year, we decided to spend 2 nights there this year.

On Saturday morning we loaded up the Expedition with our suitcases, an empty wine shipping box, GPS, notebook PC, spit cups, and tasting notebook. We discovered last year that the Expo is a much better vehicle for wine tasting over a long weekend since it handles the gravel roads well and has a ton of room for us and our stuff (and any wine we might buy!).

Brick House
Our first stop was Brick House. This is a winery that has a very good reputation, and we'd stopped there about 3 years ago but hadn't been all that impressed. Of course as we learn more about wine, our tastes tend to change, so we thought we'd try it again. Besides, the winery itself is in a beautiful old barn right next to the eponymous brick house. They had a couple of 2009 Chardonnays which were good, but undistinguished. We actually liked the non-reserve better than the reserve which seems to have been made so smooth that it lost most of its character. We also had a couple of 2009 Pinot Noirs which were also good (earthy and smooth), but nothing special. Finally, they were barrel tasting and selling futures of the 2010 Gamay Noir which was light, bright and peppery. But selling futures on a Gamay Noir? Really? It's a wine that is ready to drink quickly and doesn't last long. Why didn't they just bottle it and sell it? Or wait a few months? It seemed pretentious to be selling futures. Brick House also had this horrible ticket system where they gave you tickets as you came it, and then you had to pay one ticket per wine taste, and one more ticket for the cheese table. This seemed petty and inconvenient (juggling my wine glass, spit cup, and tasting notebook made it nearly impossible to get a ticket out at each wine station). We did finally put their location in perspective when we looked across the vineyards and fields to the next ridge and saw some buildings. Rachel recognized it as Bergstrom, so we knew where Calkins Ln was, and put it all in perspective. All in all, I'm glad we went, but we can probably leave them off our list for another few years.

We planned to head south toward Amity for our next few stops and started in that direction. However, shortly after leaving Brick House we saw the signs for Utopia. We had visited them about a year ago, and really enjoyed both the wine and the quaint little tasting room. Well, the tasting room has since been expanded and remodeled, but the wine is still good, and the winemaker, Dan Warnshuis, still pours behind the counter. He has a killer Pinot Blanc and a very good Rosé. But he specializes in Pinot Noir and we had several very nice ones today spanning the vintages from 2006 thought 2009. He's in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, and has a poster hanging in the tasting room called "Welcome to the Neighborhood" showing a bottle of his wine alongside those of some of his famous neighbors: Archery Summit, Adelsheim, Bergstrom, etc.

Calamity Hill
Back on the road, we headed south toward Amity and our next stop at Calamity Hill Vineyard. You may recall that we first tasted at Calamity Hill 2 years ago at their first public tasting. We had just come from a very snobby and horrible experience at Hawk's View and when we arrived at Calamity Hill, Tom and Marion Vail were incredibly friendly and welcoming to us. Our visit last year was similarly great, and they didn't disappoint this year either. They claim that they are Oregon's smallest legal vineyard and they make under 100 cases. Their wine used to be made my Michael Stevenson at Panther Creek, but now they've moved their production to nearby Methven Family, and the first wine up was Methven's crisp and balanced 08 dry Reisling. They then poured their new 2010 Starlight White (Pinot Gris) which was bright and crisp and just slightly sweet. Great wine, but could use just a touch more acid. Finally, we sampled the 07 and 08 vintages of their Garden Shed Red Pinot Noir. We remember the 07 fondly as a light bright summer Pinot and it' still exactly that, although developing a bit more character in the past 2 years. The 08 is great too, but still a bit tight. Tom opened a bottle of the 09 even though Marion keeps telling him to wait, so we could get a preview of it. It's great; still a light summer wine that brings in notes of cherry to complement the strawberry. It'll be released in November.

Our next stop was Brooks, another winery we visited 2 years ago. They had a large number of whites, including Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, and lots of Riesling. We love Riesling, but none of these were good. There was an unpleasant taste present in most of these wines. Moving on to the Pinot Noirs, we noticed gaminess in the wines, and just a lack of finesse. We wondered if the unpleasant taste was a quality of the Brooks vineyards, especially in the Rieslings. We would find out later than it was not. Anyway, probably not someplace we need to go back to again.

Methven Family Vineyards
Although Methven has regular tasting room hours, we always like to visit them on Memorial Day weekend. They usually have risotto from Joel Palmer House along with a lot of other great food, and hey, what would Memorial Day weekend be without seeing Will Kobyluck (former sales manager at David Hill). After accidentally coming in through the back door, we eventually found where we were supposed to be and started tasting. Methven wines are generally quite good, but not spectacular. We started with a couple of their crisp 09 whites (Riesling and Pinot Gris), and then moved back into the winery itself where Allen Methven was pouring a couple of their 2006 Pinot Noirs. Both were very nice - big and fruity (typical for 06), but well balanced. Allen (a trained sommelier) then showed us how the bouquet of a wine changes depending on how deeply you get your nose into the glass - floral aromatics above the glass, fruit just inside the glass, and earthiness deep in the glass. I'm not quite sure I get it yet, but I'll keep trying it. Finally, we went back into the tasting room to taste their current releases of Pinot Noir. Will poured and entertained, and we enjoyed the three 2007 Pinots that he was pouring. On our way out, we saw Will talking to a limo driver parked outside. He keeps wanting to send a limo up to the tiny tasting room at Calamity Hill just to overwhelm them, and I wonder if he was trying to work something out!

We had tasted at The Eyrie during Memorial Day a couple years ago and not been that impressed. We then tasted again sometime within the past year, and been more favorable. Eyrie of course was started by David Lett in the mid to late 60's and claims to have been the first Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley. He was followed closely (or perhaps preceded by) Charles Coury in Forest Grove (now the site of David Hill winery). There's been no small amount of acrimony over Forest Grove's current effort to brand itself as "The birthplace of Oregon Pinot Noir" based on Coury's plantings. Actually, it was Richard Sommers who planted the first Pinot Noir in Oregon in 1961 in the Rogue Valley. Jason Lett (David's son) has taken over as winemaker and was tasting his BlackCap label alongside Eyrie wines. When we arrived at the winery in McMinnville, we saw that they were also offering a taste of some of their library wines. Normally here in Oregon, "library" means maybe 5 or 6 years old. In this case, however, it meant wines from 1980, 1985, and 1999! How could we pass that up? We started with the whites (Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and 2 Chards). The Gris and the Blanc were OK, but the 09 Eyrie reserve Chardonnay was absolutely wonderful - crisp and fruity, and very clean. We then moved on to the reds, starting with the South Block library Pinot Noirs. 1999 was a classic Oregon Pinot Noir vintage, and my first Pinot Noir love was a 99 David Hill Reserve. The 99 Eyrie was structured and elegant, and still had great fruit. The 85 had a brick color and definitely tasted older. The 80 was less structured than the 99 but was still vibrant with plenty of fruit. We also had a nice chat with Jason as he was pouring the library wines, and while very gracious, he explained that Charles Coury had his original Pinot Noir vines planted in the Lett's nursery before transferring them to his vineyard, so he couldn't have planted first. We then moved on to their current release and enjoyed them all, especially the 09 BlackCap Pinot Noir with a very nice hint of anise on the palate. We left quite pleasantly surprised. We had gone primarily to try the BlackCap, and left having enjoyed all of the wine very much.

Et Fille
We got back into the truck to figure out where to go next. If we had remembered our plan, we would have headed up to Carlton Hill, but we didn't. It wasn't on the map we were using (which showed all the wineries open on both Saturday and Sunday), so we didn't think about it. Instead we drove over toward Parrot Mountain and up to Et Fille. This is a father/daughter team and they make absolutely delightful Pinot Noir, along with Viognier and Rosé. They purchase fruit from various vineyards around the Willamette valley, but also maintain a very small test vineyard at the father's home so that they can keep in touch with each vintage. We tasted through their lineup and enjoyed each one. I had tasted most of them on Valentine's weekend, but the 09 Maresh was new (lively, fruity, and like many 09s, drinking well now).

By this time, it was about 4:20 and we thought maybe we had time for one more winery. We headed toward Natalie's Estate which is near the Allison. However, as we got closer, we realized that we were going to only have about 15 minutes and decided not to rush it. Instead we headed directly to the hotel.

Often, the second time you do something or go somewhere that was wonderful the first time, it suffers from "second time syndrome" and doesn't live up to our memories. Fortunately, this was NOT the case at the Allison. Allison herself checked is in, much to Rachel's delight. No, not the Allison, but it was the same woman who had showed us to our room last year when Rachel had been so pleased at the name coincidence. The room was just as delightful as we remembered it - the huge soaking tub with a view out the window, the fireplace, and wonderful view. Our dinner reservations weren't until 6:30, so Rachel had time for a soak in the tub while I prepared for a short nap. Unfortunately it was at this point that I finally realized that we had missed Carlton Hill completely. They were tasting at their old barn along with Z'Ivo and Roots on Saturday only. We've always enjoyed our time there, and were quite depressed at having missed them. We should have gone there right after The Eyrie, but didn't remember. Next year.

We had made reservations at Farm to Fork in Dundee about a month earlier and we were looking forward to trying it again since the inn and restaurant had been sold, and I believe they have a new chef as well. We arrived a couple minutes early and were shown to our table. Well, it was sort of a table. Actually, it was a low coffee table that they had put up against a bench and set as a table. It was really too low to eat at, and we asked for a real table. The hostess informed us that there were no other tables available since they had all been reserved. I explained that we had reservations also, and couldn't eat at this table. She then informed us that because we had booked online using OpenTable, "that system just puts you anywhere and that's why you have this table."!! Hmm, that's a new one. In hindsight, we should have called the concierge at the Allison to ask for help finding somewhere else to eat, but at the time we figured that there wouldn't be anywhere else with an opening, and ended up eating at the bar at Farm to Fork. The food was fine, I'm sure, but we were rather peeved at the whole thing and I really don't remember the food. We did have a very nice bottle of Kelley Fox 07 Pinot Noir (winemaker for Scott Paul).

I later sent an email to the new owners and they were very apologetic and offered to treat us to another dinner at some point, but I suspect we won't be back.

So, other than a disappointing dinner, the weekend had started very well: the wines at the Eyrie were unexpectedly good, especially the library tasting, and the Allison absolutely met expectations so far. More tomorrow.