Argyle 1998 Brut (Willamette Valley) – Salt and paper (not a typo). The fizz is still fine, but the wine within is a little wan. One might charitably call it elegant, but that’d be a lot of charity. (11/07)
Argyle 1998 Brut Knudsen (Willamette Valley) – On the off-dry side, or so it seems – it could just be the extremely ripe fruit, which tends towards pear, grapefruit and strawberry – with a thick texture. There’s a bit of brioche, and a counterpoint of shaved Buddha’s hand pith. It’s a nice bubbly, but I think it could use some more age, to tame the rather exuberant fruit. (3/07)
Evesham Wood 2005 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – Charred, creamy vanilla wood with milk chocolate, coffee, and soft waves of rich, black cherry fruit given just a hint of strawberry zip. While it shows broad appeal, it’s too woody for me (which is strange, as I don’t think it sees anything new, and the weight of the fruit should be enough to deal with the time it spends in barrel). (2/07)
Argyle 2003 Brut Rosé (Willamette Valley) – Spiced, aged strawberry and raspberry with blended apples and tightly-wound acidity followed by a mélange of spices. There’s significant weight here (not surprising for a varietal pinot noir), but it’s never heavy or overpowering. This is complex and interesting, in a way that few New World sparklers are. (2/07)
Hartley Ostini “Hitching Post” 2005 Pinot Noir “Cork Dancer 5.1” (Santa Barbara County) – A separated wine, with zippy strawberry and raspberry, clingy acidity, and a light, scraping tanning all sitting in their corners glaring at each other. It’s got a picnic-style appeal, but doesn’t bear close scrutiny. (12/06)
Evesham Wood 2004 Pinot Noir Seven Springs “En Dessous” (Willamette Valley) – Difficult at first, showing thick, almost brooding fruit under a smooth wave of tannin. With an hour or so of air, complexities emerge from the murk, and the wine picks up an earth-floral component – still in the tone of brown, but with promise and possibility for the future. The finish is long and, eventually, elegant. There’s nothing but upside here. (12/06)
Dog Point 2005 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Concentrated plums in the key of jam, with little shreds of orange, walnut and beet zest. Call it a Midwestern Jello “salad,” of sorts…except that it’s much better than that. All the elements are in balance, and the package is unquestionably tasty, but the wine is a little on the monotone side, and eventually grows slightly tiresome. A persistent, nagging weight problem doesn’t help this. (12/06)
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.
15 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon
McMinnville Turkey Rama – Some things cannot be described, but simply must be experienced. This is one. It must be said, however, that there appears to be a general undersupply of turkeys.
Van Duzer – Once upon a time, I had great affection for this winery as a commercial but solid producer of nice pinot noir, plus eminently drinkable pinot gris and bubbly. So, despite it being a really, really long way from just about everything else, we make the long drive from Dundee to the extreme south of the winemaking Willamette Valley to check up on things.
And so it is with dismay that I must report a significant downturn in quality. I don’t know where to place the blame – some sort of change in vineyard or winery practice, ownership, or the inconsistencies of my palate – but this is a very disappointing lineup of wines. What’s not exceedingly commercial is disjointed and unbalanced, the newer wines are decidedly worse than the older versions, and there seems to be a rather disheartening wandering of the winery’s attention towards other labels and regions.
Van Duzer “Stone’s Throw” 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Lake County) – Slightly fetid grass and pink grapefruit with gooseberries on the finish. The wine has a strange texture that turns gummy as it rests in the mouth. Disturbing.
Van Duzer 2005 Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley) – Tart pear and grapefruit. Big and fruity, this tastes more like freshly-crushed grapes than wine. It’s not bad, just uninspiring.
Van Duzer 2005 Pinot Noir Rosé (Willamette Valley) – Raspberry bubblegum and tart green beans wrapped in plastic. Odd, and very acidic.
Van Duzer 2005 Pinot Noir “Vintner’s Cuvée” (Willamette Valley) – Smoky plum and juicy blueberry with Juicy Fruit Gum™, jam and canned peas. Red apple and raspberry emerge on the finish, but the vegetal thing is a deal-breaker.
Van Duzer 2004 Pinot Noir “Estate” (Willamette Valley) – Big spiced blueberry and blackberry with anise liqueur. There’s some structure, but heat will always be the wine’s dominant feature.
Van Duzer 2003 Pinot Noir Homestead Block (Willamette Valley) – Roasted cashew, dark plum and moody blackberry with leathery black earth underneath. This, at least, shows remnants of the quality I remember from this winery. The fruit edges towards liqueur (kirsch or mure, perhaps?), but there’s structure and aging potential here.
Van Duzer “Stone’s Throw” 1999 “Skipping Rock Red” (Mendocino) – A blend of syrah and zinfandel, still full-bodied and fat despite seven years of age, showing wild blueberry and leather with a smooth, creamy texture. It’s all quite enticing, until one realizes that the wine is absolutely formless, as if its skeleton had simply been removed.
Van Duzer “Windfall” Port (Oregon) – This is, to my knowledge, the first “port” of pinot noir that I’ve tasted. It’s big and strong, with strawberry and red cherry cough syrup sweetened by milk chocolate. It nods, briefly, towards balance, but soon slips into unstructured flabbiness. Plus: cough syrup. Blech.
(The original version, with bigger photos, is here.)
14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon
Joel Palmer House – For some people, the Willamette Valley isn’t about grapes at all. It’s about mushrooms, which grow wild, and…apparently…in some quantity, or so one must conclude from their ubiquity on local menus. But no one does as much with as many champignons as this restaurant, yet another set in a converted house of considerable charm. Not that we get to enjoy much of that charm, because we sit outside. It’s a beautiful evening; why waste it?
Service is a bit on the quick side, and since we’re ordering the five-course mushroom tasting menu, this rapidity does impact our ability to finish each dish. However, it’s hard to find fault with a restaurant that passes out free glasses of Argyle when one of the managers learns he’s just become an uncle.
Argyle 2001 Brut (Willamette Valley) – Frothy. Tart citrus and more lurid tropical notes dominate a wine playing host to a war between simplicity and goofiness. It’s pleasant, but easily forgotten.
The tasting menu works like this: a diner selects a “main” course from the (already mushroom-dominated, though there are a scant few exceptions) regular menu, while the chef constructs the rest of the meal based on what’s been freshly-foraged. It’s an exciting concept, and we do love mushrooms, so…
Amuse bouche: mushroom risotto. The concentration of mushroom flavor here is almost unfathomable (one presumes mushroom stock of a rare intensity), though this is balanced by a heady dose of piquant parmesan. The risotto is done in the drier American style, in which the rice is a bit softer and the runoff less pronounced. But it’s no less excellent for it.
First course #1: porcini chowder. All the classic elements of pure New England chowder (well, minus the potatoes) are here, with the creamy and sweetly earthy power of porcini in their thick dairy sludge dominating the little counterpoints of corn. Delicious.
First course #2: mushroom soup (from an old family recipe). Theresa receives this as an alternative to my chowder…and while my dish is nearly flawless, this one is flawless. A beautifully-integrated mélange of flavors literally explodes with every bit of fungal earthiness one can imagine. It’s salty, but not overly so, and I could happily eat bowl after bowl of this. But then, I’d miss out on the rest of the meal. Pure umami, available by the spoonful and growing under a tree near you.
Second course: three-mushroom tart. Simplicity works best here, showing off the quality of a blend of mushrooms that, contrary to many such tarts I’ve had, are not variably overcooked. Perfect.
Third course: baked portobello with gruyere. Decent, but nothing special.
Fourth course: sautéed morels with crisp potato curls. Just when the earthy intensity of the mushrooms – and these are pretty spectacular morels – threatens to overwhelm, these crisp little shreddings of potato liven things up. Sort of a root vegetable intermezzo, if you will.
Fifth course: local (from nearby Carlton) fallow venison served with juniper-infused red cabbage and black trumpet mushrooms. My most disappointing dish, and one I do not care for at all. The problem here is the cabbage; an extremely sour and over-flavored expression that reminds me of an Vienna-style Christmas dish cranked up to eleven (or perhaps about eighteen). It obliterates the mushrooms, and comes very close to muting any positive qualities of the venison as well. What’s the point? Theresa opts for a ’shroom-less rack of lamb with jalapeño cornbread, which is quite nice but very spicy…and also a huge amount of food to appear this late in a tasting menu.
Sixth course: candy cap mushroom ice cream, with caramelized candy caps and candy cap cheesecake, plus a hazelnut/chocolate torte with raspberry sauce. Now, careful readers will note that the five-course tasting menu has, including the amuse bouche, become seven courses comprising nine different dishes. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but given the quantities involved it’s worth noting. More importantly, this is an incredible dish, utilizing the natural, maple-like sweetness of this rather unique mushroom to stunning effect. The non-mushroom torte is awfully nice as well, with a better balance between the nuts and the chocolate than such concoctions usually possess, and showing admirable restraint with the sauce.
All of this is paired with a selection from a very long wine list, jammed with local specialties (and, of course, very heavy on the pinot noir, which can and does excel with the mushroom-dominated cuisine) and littered with mini-verticals. However, the markups range from large to huge, and there’s very little that comes with a “name” or an appealing number of years in bottle to be had for less than three digits. It’s not that there’s a lack of bottlings at more reasonable prices, it’s just that with a list like this, one hopes to be able to drink something not currently (and widely) commercially available without sending the tariff into the Michelin-starred range. We have a long, friendly, but ultimately frustrating dialogue with a waiter who presents himself as the wine guy for the evening, though he seems unable to find something to our tastes (all his suggestions are way, way above our oak/extraction thresholds) without several consultative trips to the kitchen…and even then, his suggestions are not really what we’re looking for. Lacking expert local guidance, we turn to a bulkier variation on an old friend.
Domaine Coteau 2002 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Yamhill County) – Solid, with dark fruit and black, post-forest fire undergrowth. A dense, muscular structure surrounds the brooding fruit, and there’s incredible aging potential here. Right now, however, it’s all a bit much to take, and requires aggressive food to keep it in check.
Coffee is weak…not that it much matters, because we’re stuffed to the gills. I take a flyer on a glass of dessert wine, though in the end I wish I’d not bothered.
Sineann 2002 Riesling Medici (Willamette Valley) – The restaurant’s wine list calls this “late harvest,” but I can find no evidence that such a wine exists in the Sineann portfolio, leaving this as the only identifiable alternative. Anyway, it’s out of balance, showing sweet lime, lemon and green grape with spiky acid that’s completely unable to beat back a thick, goopy sludge. Those for whom intensity is the only worthwhile virtue in wine will find this exemplary. But it’s not good. It’s not good at all.
The final verdict on the Joel Palmer House is this: the chef has a clear specialty, and like many other such chefs can appear to lose interest in dishes that don’t fit the theme. Almost any dish with mushrooms will be somewhere between good and extraordinary, while other dishes are decidedly more variable. And the salt-averse will want to be wary here. However, the relentless brilliance of the majority of the mushroom dishes makes this one of those meals that surpasses its objective quality, making it truly memorable. That’s something that even many of the best restaurants in the world can’t say, and something to be cherished.