Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Vintastic Voyage: Willamette Valley

As you may know, I am an event producer by trade and produce several large events throughout the year. One of my traditions is “getting out of dodge” after each big event, and Halloweenie last year was no exception. Yes, you heard me correctly, Halloweenie. Halloweenie is a big, fat party with lots of boys, music, and drinks! And it’s not just a fun time; Halloweenie is one of the largest fundraisers for the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles every year. A party with a purpose, if you will.

Last November, after Halloweenie, I enjoyed my FIRST trip to the Willamette in Oregon. I’ve got a handful of family that live in Central Oregon, including my sister in Redmond, and my Aunt/Uncle in Bend. Fresh from my visit with them, I decided to tack on a side-trip to the Willamette and brought the family along!

The Willamette Valley is a vast wine region located between Portland and Eugene. It’s 150 miles long from top to bottom! The region boasts over 550 wineries with 20,000 acres under vine. Approximately 75% of that acreage is planted to Pinot Noir, its most well-known grape.

The Willamette is a “newer” region in the wine world, with vineyards first planted in the mid-60s. There are 6 sub AVAs in the region: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton.

The Willamette is situated between the Coast Range to the west, with an average height of 1500 ft and the Cascades to the east, which have peaks over 14,000 ft. This sandwich of mountain ranges give the region a mild continental climate though with strong maritime influences, as the Coast Range is not quite high enough to mitigate the ocean influences. The Willamette has a finicky climate with a good amount of cloud cover and precipitation. And a finicky climate calls for a finicky grape: Pinot Noir.

Most recently, Wine Enthusiast named the Willamette Valley 2016 Wine Region of the Year. And after my trip, I can see why! Read more HERE.

We spent a good part of our first day at Youngberg Hill in McMinnville, 25 miles from the ocean (some say these are the most Western vines in the Willamette). The first vineyards on the property were planted in 1989 by Ken Wright, one of the “gurus” of Oregon wine. In 2003, Wayne Bailey came in, bought the property, and has been farming grapes for close to 15 years there. Currently there are 20 acres planted to Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, all dry farmed organically and biodynamically.

The first thing you notice at Youngberg Hill is the presence of animals. Upon arrival, a couple dogs greet you. The dogs are used for security (I found this hard to believe, as they were sweet as sugar) and to maintain pest control. There are frogs in the ponds and honeybees onsite. Most noticeably they have a small group of Scottish Highland Cattle (and a Black Angus!) that I wanted to take home with me.

Wayne describes the Youngberg Hill philosophy, “It’s all about balance and being in concert with nature,” he explains. “Anything that man does will inhibit nature. We try to do anything we can do to stay out of the way. As an example, plant life, insect life, animal life ... if we throw any of that off, we’re going to throw the balance off. It’s common sense.” The biodynamic “debate” is still a hot one. Some fail to see how burying a horn with dung in the vineyard has anything to do with the quality of the grapes grown. However, Bailey states, “Back in Iowa (where he grew up), we planted potatoes according to the Farmer’s Almanac. And that’s biodynamic farming.”

The sprawling property also features a quaint 11-room inn. Rates start at $199/night and go up to $399/night. The estate tasting room is open seven days a week from 10am-4pm. Youngberg offers vineyard tours and barrel tastings by appointment. They also have a new events center to host weddings and other social events. Total case production for this entire operation is (approx) 2,500 cases per year.

Youngberg Hill Wines Tasted

Aspen Pinot Gris 2016  $25
All stainless steel. Named after Bailey’s daughter, Aspen, this is a very food-friendly wine with a slight residual sugar.

Bailey Pinot Blanc 2016 $25
These are sourced grapes.  Stainless steel fermentation and aged in neutral oak. Aromas and flavors include: stone fruit (peach/apricot), citrus (lime peel and meyer lemon). A great food-friendly acidity.

Natasha Pinot Noir 2014 $50
Grown on marine sedimentary soil with clay, this wine shows: white pepper and red/blk cherry. It’s showing a bit tight at the moment, but this wine should age 20+ years in the bottle.

Jordan Pinot Noir 2013 $50
This vineyard has the highest elevation onsite. The wine is earthier than the others and shows more fruit concentration, with darker fruit than Natasha.

Jordan Pinot Noir 2012 $50
This was a hot year, therefore we see darker fruit. I got dark black fruit (cherry, blackberry) plus bramble, and a bit more structure than the other Pinots.

Our next stop was to the tasting room of Evening Land Vineyards, in Dundee. This was a very different experience than Youngberg Hill, as the tasting room is located in an industrial park setting. To my dismay, there were no fluffy animals onsite. But I can’t say I wasn’t excited for this visit. Winemakers Sashi Moorman and Raj Parr are pseudo celebrities in my eyes. From hearing their interviews with Levi Dalton on the “I’ll Drink to That” podcast to reading about them in every wine rag, these guys are everywhere. I first heard of them when Sashi gave the “viticulture” talk to my WSET Diploma class in 2015. I was instantly captivated with his philosophies when it came to grape growing and winemaking. He’s a bit of a purist and (in my opinion) has a “no fucks given” approach. He’s certainly not afraid to voice his opinions and I found him to be honest, refreshing, and not ego driven, as many winemakers (and producers) can be.

Evening Land fruit comes from Seven Springs Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. It was planted in the early 1980s. I visited the tasting room only, as a vineyard visit was not available when I went. But next time I plan on taking the vineyard tour!

Evening Land Wines Tasted

2014 Pinot Noir, Seven Springs Vineyard $45
Wine Deets: 2,000 annual case production. Only middle/bottom clusters used, and 25% whole clusters included.
My notes: Pepper, earth, and muted red fruit on the nose. This wine has a pungency (a good one) with notes of game and mushroom. On the palate this wine is spicy and leather-y. It bounces on my tongue a bit. This was my favorite of the Pinot Noir selections we tasted. You’ve got to work harder for it. It doesn’t rest on its laurels. My kind of wine.

2014 Pinot Noir, Seven Springs Vineyard, La Source $75
Wine Deets: 1,000 annual case production. These vines are at a higher altitude than the others and are more stressed as the soil is less fertile and rocky. 25% whole clusters included.
My notes: A beautiful wine with red fruit (cherry), pungent spice (black pepper), baking spice (cinnamon), and an earthy forest floor note.

2015 Rosè of Pinot Noir, Salem Wine Company $24
This was a treat. Bright, juicy red fruit (strawberry, raspberry, cherry) and with good acidity. Exactly what you’d want out of a rosè.

2015 Gamay Noir, Seven Springs Vineyard $35
Wine Deets: 600 annual case production. In fact, only 7 producers in the Willamette Valley do Gamay. Fun fact: part of the Gamay vineyard was planted in 1983, which makes them the oldest Gamay vines in the US. Whole cluster carbonic in concrete.
My notes: Red fruit (cherry, cranberry), pepper, and the requisite bubblegum note from the carbonic maceration. Raj is showcasing this wine because it’s unique and fun. The industry buys it up. Exhibit A: I bought a bottle.

2014 Chardonnay, Seven Springs Vineyard $45
Wine Deets (aka nerd talk): Aging in 30% new oak, and then stainless steel tanks to rest. Organic/biodynamic farming and wild/native yeasts used. This wine goes through full malo (though spontaneous). No sulfur is used at press, just some at bottling. All their Chardonnay’s are made in a reductive style (in an environment that lacks oxygen). The first exposure of oxygen to this wine is when the bottle is opened. I’d call this a low intervention wine.
My Notes: This wine is delightful. Meyer lemon and a doughiness on the note. A pleasing, creamy palate. But not gratuitously creamy.

2014 Chardonnay, Seven Springs Vineyard, La Source $75
This wine has everything you’d want in a Chardonnay. Biscuit, dough, and yeast on the nose, with green fruit (green apple and pear) on the palate. Also a distinct flint/matchstick flavor characteristic, reminding me of a Chablis.

2014 Chardonnay, Seven Springs Vineyard, Summum $100
Wine Deets: The soils in this vineyard are the least fertile of the bunch. Major vine stress here. 100% new oak.
My Notes: Yeasty notes on the nose with a round, full, and creamy body. A great spice character as well.

Our final stop before I headed to PDX was Brooks Winery. We met up with Neal and Alyse Stone, of Winery Wanderings. This is one of their favorite spots in the Valley, and I quickly grew to love it as well. The setting was superb. It was a foggy and rainy day in the Willamette. Walking into a warm, inviting tasting room with dark wood and cushy couches was a plus. Neal and Alyse are wine club members and knew some of the staff, so we had incredible customer service. As we worked though our tastings, they told me about the history of the winery and the tragic and untimely loss of Jimi Brooks, winemaker. In reading through some of the press materials for Youngberg Hill, I learned that Ken Wright (of Youngberg Hill) took advice from Jimi some years prior. Quite the coincidence. Collaboration and camaraderie seem to be the name of the game in the Willamette.  We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Brooke Winery. I could have spent all day there! Below are my tasting notes, though I will admit my notes were fewer and far between as I had such great company!

Brooks Winery Wines Tasted

Janus Pinot Noir $38
An earthy wine; Burgundian in style. 58% estate grapes.

Rastaban Pinot Noir $60
Great fruit concentration

Crannell Pinot Noir $48
Ultimate Burgundian style: understated and subtle

Big Cheese Pinot Noir $48
With big alcohol! 14.5% ABV

Temperance Hill Pinot Noir $48
Old vine Pommard planted in ‘73-’74. These are the 2nd oldest vines in the Eola-Amity AVA. This wine had the lightest color, yet was the biggest wine we tasted thus far. Dried black fruit (prunes!) + red fruit + vanilla + earth/dirt. This was my favorite Brooks wine.

Amycas White Blend $20
The name comes from a play on the word amicable. It’s an Alsatian blend (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat, and Riesling). Perfumed white flower and a honeyed nose. Zippy on the palate with stone fruit.

Pinot Blanc $20
Lovely and a bit less perfumed than the Amycas.

Gewurztraminer $18
Washington fruit is used and this wine is made in the dry style.

The Willamette Valley is one of those places where you instantly feel at home. There are breathtaking landscapes, incredibly nice people, and great wine. It’s just got a good feel to it. A small-town America vibe that leaves you wanting to come back. McMinnville itself is darling and was voted one of the best small towns in America by Sunset Magazine (read HERE).

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank those who helped coordinate my winery visits. Thanks to Carl Giavanti for coordinating my visit to Youngberg Hill, Nat Gunter and Sarrah Torres at Evening Land Vineyard, and Neal & Alyse of Winery Wanderings for their hospitality at Brooks Winery.


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