Scott Paul 2006 Pinot Noir “Audrey” (Dundee Hills) – Passion and seduction, but the play ends a bit early; the wine teases rather than fulfills, and I’m not sure it’s going to make good on its promises with age. What’s in evidence is a lush, overwhelmingly inviting pillow of softly floral berries. It’s really lovely to drink, but I just don’t know if it rises all the way to its pedigree. (11/08)
Archery Summit 2004 Pinot Noir Red Hills Estate (Dundee Hills) – Dark, concentrated fruit. Beet and cedar. Crunchy. Decent, but simple, and lacking the promise of future complexity; the wine is awfully monolithic. (2/08)
St. Innocent 2005 Pinot Blanc Freedom Hill (Willamette Valley) – Striking green grape and zingy, underripe apricot with fresh-cut grass and spiky acidity. It’s got a nice, clean, pure appeal, but it carries too much alcoholic heat, and as a result loses most of its claim to freshness and approachability. (12/06)
J. Christopher 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Maresh (Dundee Hills) – Green fruit and herbal sodas with a shattered crystalline minerality, dustings of sea salt, and a lot of exciting, almost frothy complexity along a sharp, clean finish. This is fantastic sauvignon blanc, individualistic and nervy, with structure to spare. (12/06)
Hendry 2005 Chardonnay “Unoaked” (Napa Valley) – Friendly peach, grapefruit, ripe lemon curd and apple. Deliciously appealing, and there’s plenty of bright, balancing acidity as well. Despite a well-justified fear of aging any unoaked chardonnay that isn’t from Chablis, I’d consider holding on to this just to see what happens…but then again, it’s awfully nice now. (12/06)
(The original version, with bigger photos, is here.)
15 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon
Oregon Sauvignon Blanc Cartel – While tasting at Bella Vida, we’re handed a card announcing this most unlikely event: a sauvignon blanc tasting at Patricia Green Cellars (normally closed to the public). Sauvignon blanc from Oregon? This we have to taste for ourselves.
The drive, which crosses the hills on a small country road winding through trees and vineyards, is a beautiful one, but we take it a bit faster than caution might indicate, as we’re short on time. In Green’s busy winemaking shed, three wineries are represented: Andrew Rich, J. Christopher, and Patricia Green Cellars, and not everything on offer is made from sauvignon blanc. We grab glasses, push through the dwindling late-afternoon crowd, and dive in.
Andrew Rich 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Croft (Willamette Valley) – Grassy, with big lime, green apple and grapefruit bursting forth on the nose and palate. It become riper and more focused on the finish, with gooseberry, lime, lemon and lemon curd dominating, yet the wine is obviously a bit of a fruit salad. And there’s an intrusive Styrofoam note throughout, the memory of which the delicious finish can’t quite obliterate. Admirable but worrisome.
Andrew Rich 2005 Gewurztraminer “Les Vigneaux” (69.5% Washington, 30.5% Oregon) – A “freezer wine” that apes true ice wine as made in Germany and Canada. There’s much varietal truth here, with lychees and peaches in play, and though the wine is a little on the silly side, it’s got a great balance between acid, sugar and fruit. Fun.
Patricia Green 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Oregon) – Citrus rind, Bosc pear, green apple and fetid armpit notes – not all that unusual for sauvignon blanc, though I don’t know that it’s ever actually welcome – with an exceedingly dry, flat finish. Not very interesting.
Patricia Green 2005 Chardonnay “Four Winds” (Yamhill County) – Restrained with terrific acidity, showing melon, grass and lemon over a firm bedrock of limestone. The finish, though seemingly dominated by malic acid, is incredibly persistent. A terrific wine that almost mimics unoaked Chablis (not in taste, but in overall structure)…and it’s hard to believe that it’s from the U.S. I don’t know that it will age, but it’s awfully nice right now.
J. Christopher 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Maresh (Dundee Hills) – Dominated by majestic quartz-like minerality, with grass, dried lemon, and apple skin. Acid and a tannic dryness compete with fine-grained minerals on the finish. Just terrific, and probably the best domestic sauvignon blanc I’ve ever tasted.
J. Christopher 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Croft (Oregon) – It’s interesting to compare this with the Andrew Rich wine from the same vineyard…though I note they use different appellations. A blending issue, perhaps? This is harder-edged than both the Maresh and the Rich version of the Croft, with green apple about all that’s discernable amidst a biting wave of acidity. It probably needs some time to settle down and develop aromatics, but it is a much more uncompromising interpretation that either of its cohorts.
Ponzi Wine Bar – Part of a larger complex of restaurant, wine bar, and (as of our visit) empty space awaiting a client, this is a very pleasant spot that desperately needs a better exterior view. Nonetheless, it does well, presenting both Ponzi and other Oregon wines by the glass and bottle. The staff, almost inevitably, is almost exclusively comprised of attractive young people…though unlike so many other similar venues, they appear to know their stuff.
Ponzi 2005 Arneis (Willamette Valley) – Floral, showing honeysuckle, ripe apricot and mango with a spicy texture. Yet despite all these yummy descriptors, the wine comes of as simple. Pleasant, to be sure, but simplistically so.
Ponzi 2004 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – Very closed at first, with burnt cherries and a bit of jam underneath a heavy, palate-deadening weight. With air, a Port-like character emerges, with jam a significant player as well. A decidedly fruit-dominated, somewhat behemoth wine that’s not to my taste, but that’s executed pretty well for those that appreciate this style. And I suppose it will age…though my previous experiences with old Ponzi pinot suggest that “last” is a better term.
The Painted Lady – Like Red Hills and the Joel Palmer House before it, this is a converted residence. And as with the Joel Palmer House, we barely see the interior, preferring an outdoor table on the restaurant’s tiny terrace to one of the over-conditioned rooms. (A word of advice: there are serious issues with glare and heat from the setting evening sun on the few outdoor tables, so if you eat early, be prepared to play a positioning game until after sunset…or sit inside. After the sun goes below the rooftop horizon, however, the outdoor tables are well worth their previous inconvenience.)
With a passionate, knowledgeable owner and (mostly) excellent service, plus a true purity to the cuisine, this ends up being the most complete dining experience of our stay. While it’s not as memorable at our fungal fiesta at the Joel Palmer House, it does everything just a shade better.
Theresa starts with fried razor clams, their panko-encrusted texture and form a surprising and worthy variation on an old standard, while I nibble on flawless sweetbreads in a shallow pool of chopped corn and porcini cream, the earthier aspects of each combining for a glorious whole. Proximity to source improves an impeccably roasted filet of wild King salmon, while halibut over corn succotash and fried green tomatoes is no less perfectly presented. The most outstanding dish, however, is a simply-prepared 10 oz. cut of Strawberry Hill beef that brings out every beautiful essence of rare steak, served with pillowy potato gnocchi and a few asparagus spears drizzled with olive oil. It sounds unexciting to the jaded diner, but each bite proves otherwise.
Willakenzie 1998 Pinot Noir Aliette (Willamette Valley) – Shy at first, though it builds and improves throughout the evening, showing gentle baked cherries and leaves over a flowing stream of gravel and crushed granite. Soft-textured, this pinot embraces the tongue, getting longer and longer with each sip. A lovely wine, though I don’t know if I’d hold it much longer.
The only lapse in the restaurant’s perfection comes at the end of the meal, when we’re offered a “small plate of local cheeses” and, after much delay but no explanation, presented with a single, razor-thin wedge of a cheese…from Washington. Well, OK, I guess it could easily be “local,” but somehow this seems to subvert the premise. Or at least the plural.
Toro Albalá “Don PX” 1971 Pedro Ximénez “Gran Reserva” (Montilla-Moriles) – Prune motor oil that’s still amazingly primary (though I’m led to believe that this isn’t exactly 100% 1971 wine, but rather more of a solera), yet with beauty and elegance as the wine lingers…and lingers, and lingers, and lingers. Old PX is the longest-finishing wine I’ve ever encountered, which I guess means that one should studiously avoid bad examples. Thankfully, this isn’t one.
And thus is our brief Oregon visit brought to a satisfying close. The drive to the airport, through otherwise depressing strip malls and chain shopping complexes on the southern outskirts of Portland, is overwhelmed by the beauty of a dark purple sky, in which the snowy peak of Mt. Hood and the smoking crater of Mount St. Helens gleam as pinnacles of light and dark; metaphoric representations of good and evil made manifest. (Or perhaps that’s just the wine talking.) We’ll remember the books, the wines, and the mushrooms, but most of all we’ll remember the gentle beauty of a region to which we’ll soon find a reason to return.
(The original version, with bigger photos, is here.)
15 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon
St. Innocent – It’s a little surprising that one of Oregon’s most acclaimed wineries is hidden in a bleak commercial backlot of Salem, surrounded by chains and warehouses. If you go, bring good directions…and a better map.
The quality and ageability of St. Innocent’s pinots has been an open secret for some time now, but recent critical acclaim has left the winery’s tasting room a little underwined. Well, I’m happy for them, though it makes our visit a short one. Almost everything is vineyard-designated (the sole exception being an unremarkable sparkling wine), which makes any comprehensive tasting an exercise in terroir identification. Other winemakers may have their doubts about the individuality (or, perhaps more accurately, maturity) of the Willamette Valley’s vineyard sites, but there seems to be nothing but enthusiasm for the concept here.
St. Innocent 2004 Chardonnay Freedom Hill (Willamette Valley) – Green apple and celery; crisp and intense, with balanced acidity but a dominant simplicity.
St. Innocent 2004 Chardonnay Anden (Willamette Valley) – Grapefruit and limestone with a drying, structured finish. Very long. This shows more complexity and character than the Freedom Hill, though it’s less pleasurable to drink in its callow youth.
St. Innocent 2004 Pinot Noir Temperance Hill (Willamette Valley) – Dusty strawberry is the only element of interest in an otherwise odd, off-putting nose. The palate shows growth, with dried seeds and leaves both green and dry. Not particularly enticing, and showing rather striking desiccation.
St. Innocent 2004 Pinot Noir White Rose (Willamette Valley) – Red fruit and white flowers on a gravel bed, turning soft on the palate but then finishing crisp and spicy, with lovely balance. It neither strives for nor reaches the summit, but it’s a very good pinot nonetheless.
Bella Vida – Perched atop a beautiful expanse of vineyards, with some of the best views in the entire valley, this is a bit of a “concept” winery. Only pinot noir is produced, via a métayage-like arrangement with a succession of local winemakers. For the consumer, it’s a fascinating study in the ongoing tension between the inevitabilities of terroir and the transforming power of the winemaker. For the winery, I’m less sure of the benefit; surely an inconsistency in winemakers is bound to create an inconsistency in styles. It’s a good one-time gimmick, but eventually the Bella Vida name has to stand for something in the minds of consumers, or they’ll look elsewhere for something upon which they can rely.
Bella Vida 2002 Pinot Noir “Ryan Harms” (Dundee Hills) – Shy on the nose, though the palate is redolent of dark chocolate and black cassis liqueur. It’s heavy and strong, perhaps even a bit hot, though a bit of age might resolve things. Harms is the Rex Hill winemaker.
Bella Vida 2004 Pinot Noir “Jacques Tardy” (Dundee Hills) – Much lighter in color than the Harms bottling, with dust on the nose and a red cherry/licorice palate. As with the previous bottling, there’s noticeable heat on the finish, turning the cherries to kirsch. Tardy is the Torii Mor winemaker.
Bella Vida 2004 Pinot Noir “Brian O’Donnell” (Dundee Hills) – Aromatic, showing strawberry and raspberry plus gentle earth. More agile than either of the two previous bottlings, with the nicest, prettiest fruit and by far the best balance. Brian O’Donnell is the Belle Pente winemaker.
Bella Vida 2004 Pinot Noir “J. Christopher” (Dundee Hills) – Mixed cherries and mint with rosemary. A bit spirituous, with a long, hot finish. The second best of the cuvées. Jay Christopher Somers is the J. Christopher winemaker.
Other than a tendency towards heat, it’s not easy to see a terroir signature in these wines. However, the winemaking style is immediately obvious, and it’s interesting to see how different winemakers treat this fruit. If this experiment is still ongoing when the vines (and the winemakers) are more mature, the results could be exciting. But it must be said that, from a qualitative standpoint, this collection of wines does not make a compelling case for the excellence of the site.
14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon
(The original version, with more photos and the real secret to pinot noir production, is here.)
Anne Amie – The former Chateau Benoit (the name lives on via a few bargain-priced wines) is perched atop a hill of vines, with one of the most expansive views in the entire Willamette Valley. The tasting room/visitor center itself is beautiful and artfully decorated. And so, I worry. Majestic views and elaborate interior design are rarely indicators of quality wine, except by historical inertia.
We’re here to meet Craig Camp, noted Italophile and blogger, but now general manager of the winery, and we’re several hours early. I’ve told Craig we’ll arrive in the afternoon, but a quick visit to Scott Paul has left us with some time before an appointment at a nearby winery, and since we’re in the neighborhood…
Anne Amie 2005 Pinot Gris (Oregon) – Ripe pear and hints of wood, with a juicy, chewy, and almost salty broth of overripe grapefruit infused with a little bit of anise. Feels off-dry, though I don’t know if it is. Strange wine.
Anne Amie 2003 Chardonnay (Oregon) – Smoked Calimyrna fig and sweaty oak with a sweet aspect countered by bitterness on the finish. The overall impression is candied and somewhat sickly, but then I’m rarely a fan of chardonnay.
Anne Amie 2005 Riesling (Willamette Valley) – Geraniums dominate a big, floral nose, rising from a wine full of ripe apple and tangerine. It’s crisp and fun, but the finish is distressingly short.
Anne Amie 2004 Pinot Noir “Cuvée A” (Oregon) – Intended as an early-drinking, inexpensive bottling, showing slightly stale and burnt notes on the nose, though it freshens considerably on the midpalate. There’s simple plum and synthetic strawberry fruit, with corn silk and an out-of-place buttery note on the finish. It’s decent, but no more than that.
Anne Amie 2003 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – Fragrant with roses and lush strawberry vegetation, somewhat green in the middle, but longer-finishing than its predecessors, and showing more breadth and potential; not everything here seems to have ripened at the correct time. I’d suspect this is better in other vintages (and, as it turns out, we’ll have the chance to find out).
Anne Amie 2003 Pinot Noir Yamhill Springs (Willamette Valley) – Raspberry, strawberry, and charming floral notes, which turn to red plums on a bed of decayed leaves on the palate. Just a bit sweet (I suspect it’s from alcohol, not sugar), which expresses itself more positively as soft plum on the slightly overpolished finish. Almost a really nice wine, but it lacks…I’m not sure how to express it, but perhaps that extra bit of conviction necessary to carry the complexity of pinot noir.
Anne Amie 2003 Pinot Noir Hawks View (Willamette Valley) – Cherry liqueur, ripe strawberry and plum, with a nice, fresh, flower pollen finish with softness and elegance. By far the class of the bunch thus far, and a really lovely wine…as long as one isn’t overtly averse to kirsch.
Craig is out, but expected back soon, so we settle into an outdoor table with some average local cheese and a bottle given to Theresa as a conference gift; a micro-lunch (neither of us are particularly hungry, especially after a marvelous breakfast at the Black Walnut Inn, and with a big dinner on the horizon).
Sokol Blosser 2002 Pinot Noir (Dundee Hills) – Sweet plum and orange rind with a boring, flabby structure. Understuffed. While it’s never actively unpleasant to drink, boredom soon sets in.
As we sit and sip on Anne Amie’s gorgeous terrace, overlooking both vineyards and the valley below, Craig joins us, bottles in tow. We’re short on time, but it’s an enjoyable (albeit brief) overview of the Valley, the soil types, and Anne Amie’s history and philosophy. Vineyards sloping down towards the winery entrance have a rough patch in the middle (amongst a cluster of müller-thurgau), which Craig labels phylloxera and which allows him to utter the line of the afternoon: “müller-thurgau is the leading cause of teen pregnancy.” He’s also brought the single most interesting wine of our visit.
Anne Amie 2005 Viognier (Oregon) – Very floral, showing honeysuckle and peach with a pretty, flower-dominated finish. Gorgeous, varietally-true, and somewhat of a revelation.
Anne Amie 2002 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – A small dip into the archives, showing a better (and, one assumes, more representative than the ’03) vintage of the basic pinot. This is very closed at the moment, showing hefty tannin that lends the wine a fairly bitter cast, but there’s soft fruit lurking underneath the structure. Too difficult to assess at the moment.
We do a brief tour of the cellar and a nearby vineyard, with Craig pointing out one of the fundamental differences between the Willamette’s various subregions: the soil. Here, it’s the grayish-tan Willakenzie, whereas in Dundee it’s a sun-baked brick red that gives the Red Hills their name. And he does us a final kindness by guiding us to our next appointment, a destination we might not have been able to find with our fairly indistinct map. The only lingering regret is that, in our haste to talk, tour and make our next appointment, I fail to purchase a few bottles of the wines I’m most interested in. Well, I’ll make it up to them next time.
(Disclosure: wine tasting, extra wine, several opened gift bottles from our tasting, and cheese provided free of charge.)