By: Bryan Brick | K&L Domestic Wine Buyer
Back in July Mike Jordan and I had the distinct pleasure of taking a trip to the Willamette Valley for a week. We were super excited about this opportunity and had a crazy schedule where we visited seven or eight wineries in a day, so don’t think we were just sitting around getting drunk all day. (Although we did sit a lot, and it is possible that someone on the trip may have been over-served.) Our goal was to find some new wines, check out the new 2011 vintage and make new connections with wineries and renew some old connections. I think we were successful on all fronts.
Mike and I flew into Portland on Thursday, July 7th in mid-afternoon on a surprising empty Virgin Airlines’ jet. It was only the second day they were flying from SFO to PDX, so I don’t think people had caught on that they were flying up there for super cheap yet. We got off the plane, got our somewhat ridiculous rental car, a flashy white new Dodge Charger sans Hemi, and went straight to meet our traveling companions for the first part of the trip. In front of Higgins Restaurant and Bar in NW Portland, a local institution, we met Tom Elliot, owner of Northwest Wines—the best distributor of wines from OR and WA in California—and our salesperson from Northwest Wines and all around gentleman Jake Higgins (no relation to the restaurant). A quick shake of the hands and we were off to the races.
Our first meeting was with Ed with Angel Vine. Ed is doing something that is certainly a little bit different in that his focus is on Zinfandel, specifically Zin from Washington and Oregon. I bet you’re saying to yourself, “huh?” but it is true. There is very little Zin planted up there, something like 60+ acres, but he has a good line on some really amazing fruit. Producing around 2,000 total cases a year he is certainly passionate about what he is trying to accomplish, which is to try to make balanced and tasty wines. He told us that his idea was to try and make Zin like you would Pinot Noir, and the restraint and class of his wines certainly reflect that. The 2008 “Les Collines Vineyard” Walla Walla Valley bottling is a perfect example; this clocks in at a paltry 14% ABV and has the delicacy and weightlessness of nice cool climate Pinot Noir. We tried six wines from him that afternoon and everything was interesting at the very least.
From there we were headed to dinner at Irving Street Kitchen with Andrew Rich of Andrew Rich Wines. Andrew is a supremely nice guy and we had a really good dinner with him at this open, airy, woodsy restaurant in the middle of the Pearl district in NW Portland. The food has a distinct southern bent but is totally Portland: rich, bold flavors using local, super fresh ingredients. Andrew’s wines went great with the food and the company made it all the better. His 2011 “Croft Vinyard” Sauvignon Blanc ($18.99) has long been one of my favorite SBs made in the US with its dried grapefruit, talc, quinine and Meyer lemon flavors and long but delicate acidity. In a word—refreshing. The other wine that did exceptionally well that night was the 2010 “Prelude” Pinot Noir. With its red berry, rose petal, clove and raspberry preserve flavors it was great with the rich, saucy food. Entering with gobs of fruit and developing a pleasing earthen bitterness towards the finish this was fantastically complex for around $20.
After about a three and a half hour dinner we got into our cars and headed southwest into the Willamette Valley where we had a beautiful house booked at Stoller Vineyards near Dayton. We were dead beat, so beat that we didn’t even have time to stop and grab some beers for the house. I think I went straight to sleep knowing that the next day was going to be some sort of tasting marathon. I was completely correct.
We began our day just up the road at Stoller Vineyards at 8:30 in the morning; that is right, 8:30! This is what we do, the sacrifices we make, to bring you the best possible wine we can bring you. Our tour started with an incredibly informative tour around the 200+ acre property of which 185 acres are currently planted to vines. This vineyard is easily the largest vineyard in the Dundee Hills and is at the southernmost boundary of the appellation. We saw what seemed like all 80 blocks that they had planted, even their little experimental blocks of Syrah and Tempranillo, really cool stuff, and I loved hearing about the level of attention and detail that they put into this ever-improving vineyard. Then it was a quick tour though the winery and some 2011 barrel tasting with their young and talented winemaker before we tasted the line-up of current wines. Far and away the highlight of these current releases was the 2011 “JV” Chardonnay. Fermented in stainless steel without malolactic fermentation has this wine, even in its youth, incredibly complete and fresh, with aromas of plantain and buttered brioche and building flavors of honeysuckle, jasmine, Bosc pears and passion fruit on the lightweight frame. Such a pretty wine. Tom from the outset was trying to keep us on schedule knowing what kind of day we had in store and was rushing us off to the next appointment while the last wine was being poured. We knew he was right. We sped off from our new friends at Stoller with a much better sense of their wines and what they were trying to accomplish than we had when we arrived.
Next up was a quick jaunt north, while still keeping us in the Dundee Hills appellation to meet David Autrey from Westrey. Rather than meet David in a shiny, fancy winery, we met David at his “estate” vineyard: Oracle Vineyard. Did I mention that it was starting to rain, hard? Well it did and we were out in the vineyard complete with booties to protect from any phylloxera transfer we may have picked up from any other vineyards we may have been in earlier. But the rain and baby blue booties couldn’t put a damper on this exciting vineyard and the wines that David and his partner Amy Wesselman produce. Tasting in a metal tool shed off of a tractor just added to the rustic charm. I’ve maintained for some time that Westrey’s wines represent some of the best values in the Willamette Valley and this did nothing but bolster my claim. The perfect example of this was their 2010 Pinot Gris. This maybe the best we tasted on the entire trip due to its power and heft, both of which it has in spades. Where most people are making light, fruity, crisp wines (which there certainly is nothing wrong with) Westrey goes a different way. To me it tasted like great Grand Cru Pinot Gris from Alsace, and I believe my tasting partners all agreed. Where else are you going to get that for less than 20 bucks? But that wasn’t all; their 2009 “Justice Vineyard” Pinot Noir was also superb, showing the marked acid of the vintage with scrumptious black fruited stuffing and cola/sassafrass spice. This was truly a fun and informative trip with David!
Part 2 coming soon with the craziness that is Arterberry Maresh, the green Winderlea, the boldness of DePonte and the pure texure of Shea. Many of these wine are not yet in stock, but should be here soon. Check KLWines.com for our current selection.
Quote of the Day (source requested anonymity): “I don’t have ladies in my life, I have dogs!”