A week ago yesterday, we were deciding on which winery stop to squeeze in before having a late lunch and heading to the spa. Ah, vacation. Whereas yesterday, I shuttled myself and one child between two doctor's offices, had three conference calls, completed 11 new slides in a 59-slide deck, and tried chipping away at a budget reconciliation project. Before lunch.
It's all about balance, right?
Visiting Oregon's Willamette Valley has been on our Bucket List for a while now and we were blessed to share the experience with wonderful friends who also harbor preferences for herb-y cocktails, cheese and meat boards, and a variety of folk rock artists. Pardon me while I put on my Food and Wine Critic Hat for the remainder of the post. It's a rarely exercised muscle but I'll do my best to provide honest reviews of what we saw and tasted along our route through Northwest Oregon. With pictures, of course.
Wednesday afternoon, we landed at PDX and checked in at McMenamin's Crystal Hotel in the Pearl District to clean up and snag snacks at the Whole Foods across the street.
McMenamins is a chain of quirky hotels, bars and music venues throughout Oregon and Washington state, rehabbing decrepit historic apartment buildings, even former nursing homes, that might otherwise have met with the wrecking ball. From our room on the fourth floor, we had a nice view of the Pearl District and the food at Zeus Café was surprisingly good. Wes and I opted for two different versions of hash -- root vegetable for me, corned beef for him -- the next morning, but the risotto cakes nearly won out.
Wednesday night, we wandered up the hill from the hotel to Tasty n Alder, related to the acclaimed Tasty n Sons, where we were quoted a 30-minute wait time. An hour and half (a Moscow Mule discovery, and an "apology" cheese board) later, we were seated. While the service was fairly awful, the ambient music selection more than made up for it. Think: early nineties hip-hop/rap ala Notorius B.I.G. with a little Coolio thrown in. The highlight of the meal, oddly enough, was a radicchio salad which shared the bowl with lardons, manchego and a chopped six-minute egg.
The next morning -- post-delicious hash breakfast'ing -- brought on a big decision: Coco's or VooDoo? VooDoo won out and without having had both, I cannot comment on the big winner. Well, actually I can. It was us. Because we went out for doughnuts immediately after eating a large breakfast. Don't tell the kids.
Our original plans included a drive out to the coast, either to Cannon Beach or Tillamook, before heading South to McMinnville, but with the drizzly weather forecast, we opted to cruise down the Columbia River Gorge to Multnomah Falls instead.
Taking a scenic byway, we came across Wahkeena Falls and made a quick stop.
Multnomah Falls, billed as the second-tallest perennial falls in the states is about a mile further down the road. Whether that's accurate or not, it sure was worth the short drive to see it in person.
On the way to McMinnville, we pulled into Newburg for lunch and found a great little Italian deli called Bonaventura. After picking up a local winery map, and hydrating appropriately, we got back on the road.
Our first tasting stop was at Alexana Estate Vineyard and Winery on the Northern side of the Dundee Hills region. They have a pretty little tasting room (LEED-certified, of course...very Oregon-y) and a gravity-flow winery.
Alexana was a winery recommended by more than one local, noted as an "up and coming" winery doing great work. The owner, a cardiologist from Houston, partnered with Lynn Penner-Ash and we would agree that the results are tasty. We came away with three bottles - a light, refreshing Pinot Gris and a couple of Pinot Noirs to get a jump-start on our stash. They also have a limited edition series under the name Sitar, featuring the work of an Atlanta artist Thomas Arvid, but we didn't bring any of those home.
Next, we drove further down Worden Hill Road to Winderlea, a stop that Jason and Micki had ventured to before and listed as a 'can't miss' spot. We had the place to ourselves until the very end, enjoying stories from our Scottish-born pourer who gave us our first lesson on Mr. Shea and his incredible grapes. Shea has a reputation for farming with excellent results and we enjoyed tasting his produce in fermented form at a handful of the wineries we hit along the way.
After a slight mix-up where I led us astray to a sister building that wasn't yet completed, we found our keys to the 3rd Street Flats where we would stay for the rest of the trip. While McMenamins was fun and funky, this was much homier.
The weather didn't cooperate with our plans to do Happy Hour on Hotel Oregon's rooftop deck (another McMenamin's property) but we made do and ended up at La Rambla for an extensive array of tapas. We had heard luke-warm to raving reviews of this restaurant, and all-in-all, I think we would give it two thumbs up. They had an eclectic drink/wine menu and an inviting cheese board -- because you know we love cheese boards.
Friday morning, we crossed the street to Community Plate. It made us so happy, we ended up there on Saturday morning as well. They offer a wonderful combination of home-style, feel-good breakfast creations, almost overly friendly staff, help yourself condiment stations, and a few communal tables.
At first I was a little surprised to learn that tasting rooms often open at 10 a.m. but I quickly became accustomed to the wisdom of that practice. I believe we pulled into Bergström at approximately 10:15 a.m., up in the Chelalem Mountains area just Northeast of Newburg.
This winery was probably the most built-up stop on our list, supported by their 2011 Sigrid Chardonnay which beat out all of the Oregon Pinot Noir's on Wine Spectator's best of list, which is a first for a Chardonnay. We tasted the 2012 and it was delightful, so naturally some came home with us. I definitely prefer Oregon's style of Chardonnay -- often produced in a mix of multiple-use oak barrels and steel -- over California's style with a heavier emphasis on oak during production. Their Pinot Noirs here were not wonderful enough that I couldn't walk away from those.
Next Stop: Adelsheim. This place had one of the best pourers we encountered over our long weekend. I feel that wine tasting has the distinct tendency to be incredibly awkward as someone pours you a glass, watches you swirl, smell and taste, then stares at you, waiting to hear that their wine is the absolute best you've ever had. [Am I supposed to swirl champagne like I would a red wine? Did I stick my nose in far enough? Too far? Is mouth-swishing appropriate or only something the really douche-y/snooty tasters do? I need to know these things.]
For these, and many other reasons, I highly recommend going with a small group of friends -- preferably ones with great senses of humor -- to any wine tasting event. We had such a good time.
Back to Adelsheim and our pourer who was wearing a fabulous pea-green knit sweater...their selection was all over the map. I couldn't discern any distinct "Adelsheim-ness" across the flight. Wes preferred the younger, lighter reds, and I preferred their more mature, rounder ones. Luckily he didn't want to weigh in when it came to picking one to keep and, for a couple of reasons, I gravitated toward the one below. It's their version of a 'best of' barrel production from 2011 and I plan on holding onto it for a few years before drinking.
From Adelsheim (is anyone else hearing Edel Veiss in their head now?), we wandered just over the line into the Yamhill-Carlton region to Penner-Ash. My favorite part of this stop was that the sun came out for a few brief, glorious moments.
There were actually a few remarkable notes from Penner-Ash.
(1) Their vineyard borders the famous Mr. Shea's.
(2) I got a very detailed lesson on the various methods for dealing with pesky fruit flies. I am very interested since we seem to bring them home in droves from the farmer's market each summer. [And in case you're also interested, they swear by a dish of apple cider vinegar mixed with a few drops of dish soap.]
(3) Our lunch place recommendation came from the group they were catering for that afternoon.
(4) Their Hyland Riesling is outstanding and affordable. Score.
(5) And did I mention they have sunshine there?
Being on a roll, we next went to Anne Amie, a little deeper into Carlton territory. The boys decided to sit this one out, but Micki and I cheerfully bellied up to the bar and I found Anne Amie to be my favorite winery of the bunch. Their wines are a wonderful combination of delicious and affordable for everyday drinking.
After an ill-fated selection of somewhat pricey wines we brought home from Italy, I have learned something important about ourselves. We have a hard time defining occasions as special-enough to warrant decanting a nice bottle. I much prefer to find a wine that is enjoyable yet also won't make me feel guilty about uncorking it on a Thursday night.
I can honestly say this was the only place we stopped where I enjoyed every single wine on their (extensive) flight. They bottle a Pinot Blanc Rosé (odd....maybe; delicious....oh yes) which I forgot to purchase when it was time to head out. Good thing I signed us up for their wine club and I can request one in our next shipment.
[Insert Wes shaking his head at me here.]
As it turned out, the place recommended to us for lunch in Carlton -- The Horse Radish -- was also catering a wine-tasting lunch at Anne Amie. We took that as a sign and headed right over. It turned out to be a solid decision.
With just a half-hour to kill after our late lunch, we didn't have enough time to go to the much-recommended Carlton Winemaker's Studio, but we did have time to visit Ken Wright Cellars in a cool train depot-turned-tasting room, pictured above.
With all due respect to Mr. Wright, the best thing I can say about the flight we tasted was that it confirmed we didn't have on our wine-goggles when going ga-ga over what we had at Anne Amie. This was, however, the only place we tasted where they poured side-by-side glasses so you could go back-and-forth between vintages and styles, which I appreciated.
They must wash a lot of glassware.
At this point, we drove back into Newburg for the afternoon-at-the-spa portion of our itinerary at The Allison Inn & Spa. It was lovely. It provided my first experience in a steam room. Saunas? No problem. Steam rooms? I immediately found it hard to take a full breath as Micki and I stepped inside. I'm pretty sure we were playing some sort of unspoken game of Chicken to see who could stick it out longer.
I was so disoriented from the heat stepping outside the room, I am proud that I managed to find the showers so I could regain my composure before my warm stone massage.
Feeling like jellyfish, we drove back to McMinnville for naps and a late dinner at Thistle. Home of the most amazing meat butter-in-a-jar I've ever had. Okay, they didn't call it 'meat butter,' but they should have. 'Pork terrine' raises questions that 'meat butter' can settle in a flash. Spread over a slice of crusty french bread, it was a little taste of heaven. The Oysters Mignonette were also popular.
Saturday morning, we got a slightly later start but we were on a mission. There were 11 and 9 wine spots left in our respective wine boxes and we were looking forward to the challenge.
After Breakfast No. 2 at Community Plate, we went first to Sokol Blosser back in the Dundee Hills area of the Valley. They had the most insanely bubbly Welcome Lady (that may not be her official title) and an incredibly cool, freshly built tasting room. Their wines were nice, but not at the top of my list. I was more excited to discover the Kinfolk series of books and magazines they had in the room, as if I need more reading material to add to the backlog.
They were one of the few places we visited pouring wines older than 2010, and we bought a nice 2009 to snuggle in with the rest of our finds. Our kids can get scholarships. It's fine.
A bit further up the hill was Domaine Serene, probably the swankiest winery on our list. We arrived just in time for the noontime Behind the Scenes tour which we had all to ourselves. Our very enthusiastic, slightly long-winded, tour guide took us through all three levels of their gravity-flow facility.
Here was the only place we took advantage of an Estate Tasting (translation for newbies like us: a few more wines, some from their Library of older vintages, and some light food pairings like chocolate, hazelnuts and dried fruit). Of our group, I think I'm the only one who enjoyed the two 2001 wines in our flight -- they were very bold, the Chardonnay was creamy and the Pinot tasted closer to a Tempranillo or Malbec to my fairly uneducated palate -- but the 2012 Pinot Noir won the popular vote in our group. We also tasted a nice Rosé which found it's way into our wine box.
By the time we were ready to go, the room was absolutely packed. Despite it being off-season, apparently the droves still roam the wineries on weekends.
Of course, before we could go...as they say, "When in Rome,"...if the opportunity to have your photo taken in front of a large metal sculpture of a mastodon (or wooly mammoth? the debate rages on), you must.
Onward...down the hill a little ways to the White Rose Estate Winery and Vineyard which had come up several times when we asked for advice on what not to miss. The property was gorgeous -- like the rest of the area -- and the tasting room was super unique. It had a Hobbit-house or secret hideaway feel that we loved.
The unfortunate story of this stop is that our favorite wine was well out of our price range, but we really enjoyed the room, the cheerful, no-pressure staff, and we did find one Pinot that we are looking forward to opening some day soon. My only advice to future adventurers is to make sure you've used the restroom before coming here if it's a rainy day. Their only option is akin to a very posh outhouse, quite a little walk around to the backside of the main building.
Leaving here, we decided it was time for lunch and visited the much-talked-about Red Hills Market which was, indeed, a hipster-y, fun place for lunch. The menu provided some tough choices but we left feeling kind of 'eh.' I wanted to hand the cook a shaker of salt. But not to complain, they had a great selection of wines for sale...we're just trying to erase the knowledge that some wines we bought the day before were available there for $10 less a bottle. I did come away with two GoVino glasses which will serve me well poolside this summer.
With a few spots still to fill in our boxes, and a few wineries on our wish list that we didn't have time to hit, we picked up a three more for the road.
And here is where the trip took a terrible left turn. Acting upon bad advice from a pourer at White Rose, we wandered upstairs from Red Hills Market to the tasting room for Domaine Touvere. I'm not going to bother with linking to the site or with the accent over the 'e' thing. After the first wine in the flight, Wes suggested we cut our losses and head out. But 'no!' we said. That would be rude. So we stuck it out until wine four of five, when I came back from a quick ladies' room stop and declared we were about to be late to a 4 p.m. appointment and could we just settle up now?
How everyone held their laughter until we hit the street, I don't know. Apparently while I was in the bathroom, the pourer asked what we were up to that day and everyone said something like 'Oh, we don't know. We don't really have a plan.' To her credit, she didn't outright call me a liar...but we were all glad to get out of there and visit Argyle and their famous Pop Flight.
Argyle proved to be a fun stop, offering both a single-vineyard Pinot and a bottle of 2009 Blanc du Blanc bubbly to take home for a day to celebrate future good news. You must be prepared.
With more time to kill, we walked across the street to the Ponzi tasting room which was friendly, but the highlight of that stop turned out to be the sleepy Bulldog puppy in the corner with his new mom and dad.
Not ready to give up on a low note, we walked into the Dobbes Family Estate tasting room which was a wonderful, low-key end to the day. As with most rooms we visited, the staff were personable, approachable and utterly Oregonian. Our hands-down favorite was another reserve bottling, this one named after Joe Dobbes' wife Patricia.
With the wine boxes filled, we called it a day and settled into our final in-room happy hour in McMinnville, pushing our dinner reservation at Nick's Italian Café back another hour. A few short words about Nick's....skip the (terrible) cocktails and focus on the lighter dishes on the menu.
But really, it's Italian food, so you're going to be just fine if you've got good company and a lot of embarrassing stories to recount together.
Sunday morning, we headed back to PDX making a brunch stop at the Grain and Gristle. If we lived nearby, we'd be carving our names into their chairs, staking out our spots as official Regulars. It was the perfect place to wrap up our weekend of pure gluttony.
In the end, by going in April, we traded bunches of grapes for bare vines, sunny days for cool air and cloudy skies, crowded roads and hurried vintners for colorful stories and extra pours...and I think we walked away with the better end of the deal. It's not often we get the chance to get away and disconnect --- and, more importantly, reconnect -- and we appreciated the hell out of it, especially the small army of people who made it possible.
But it was sure good to come home.