By: Bryan Brick | K&L Domestic Wine Buyer
When last I left you we had just gotten pounded a bit by Mother Nature and had already been extremely happy with what we were seeing from the 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages. The great news is that the rest of this day did nothing to persuade us away from that happiness. From our wet but enjoyable walk and tasting at Westrey we headed to one of my favorite new wineries in the Valley: Arterberry Maresh.
I had been to Arterberry Maresh once before and sort of had my mind blown by the dichotomy of intensity and subtlety that these wines possess. These are wines to wrap your head around (not to mention the fact that a man as young as winemaker/owner Jim Maresh can be already making wines at this level). His secret, by his own admission, is that he works with some of the best old vine vineyards in the Dundee Hills, first and foremost his family’s Maresh Vineyard. One of the oldest sites in all of the Willamette Valley, the family originally planted it to Pinot Noir in 1970; this fruit is legendary and not only produces fantastic Pinot Noir but possibly the best Chardonnay in the Valley. Case in point: the barrels of the 2011 Chard we tasted with Jim. Everything was sort of mind-boggling, and you could see how the individual parts were going to make a whole that would be something incredibly special. The levels of density, texture, acidity and complexity in these puzzle pieces were rivaled by few on our trip in either red or white wine.
We left the barrel room and went upstairs to taste through the current and upcoming vintages of the Pinots. I hadn’t tasted the 2009 Maresh Vineyard Pinot ($49.99) in awhile, and it instantly reminded me of why I was so head-over-heels in love with this wine when it was released. The delicate but forward nose of wild iris, rosewater, lavender and white cherry is, for me, worth the price tag alone. But wait, there’s more! A silky soft texture glides weightlessly over the palate with flavors of bitter cherry, anise seed, cola, licorice and warm red soil, with a long chain of lovely tannic weight arriving on the finish. This wine is pure class from a vintage that is all about power and extraction. Then we launched into the 2010 vintage wines, which play right into Jim’s style. Vibrant, sassy and plucky, these wines were all outstanding in their own ways but my two favorites were from new vineyards in Jim’s lineup: Gehrts and Weber. The 2010 Gehrts is a wine that is purely of the soil and the 2010 Weber is sexy, powerful and will possibly be the longest lived of the bunch.
We had to scurry off too quickly from Arterberry Maresh (an ongoing occurrence this trip) to head down NE Worden Hill Road for our next appointment and lunch: Winderlea Vineyards. Before we set down to a beautiful meal that included a fantastic salad, and I don’t use those two words in a sentence often, with rabbit and fresh cherries, we took a quick look at the vineyards and learned about some of the biodynamic farming practices Winderlea has used since 2008. Believe what you will about some of the mysticism behind biodynamics, the fact is that farming this way has much less negative impact its subjects [the vines] and on everything around them. While tasting through the winery’s lineup, the 2010 Dundee Hills Chardonnay really struck me as a delicious wine. It surely didn’t hurt that it paired beautifully with that aforementioned salad. Fermented in 85% oak but only aged in 15-20% new wood, this wine had impeccable energy and framed the zest that the 2010 whites show so well. Butterscotch and caramel notes hide underneath a pear-driven nose as flavors of clementine, chalk and fern fronds unfurl easily on the palate. Both the company and the wines couldn’t have made for a better lunch.
As our fearless leader Tom Elliot began to crack the whip again, we all ran out of the sleek, modern-yet-beautiful tasting room at Winderlea with a mouthful of insanely delicious cookies made by a local caterer and headed down the road to DePonte Cellars. DePonte wines have long been somewhat a mystery to me personally. I’ve always loved there brisk, racy and varietally correct Melon de Bourgogne, but their Pinots have been a little more elusive. Sometimes I find these wines delicious, with deep set, dark, bass-toned fruit with huge dollops of earth, sometimes I find them to just be a bit muddled and in need of further bottle aging. The wines we tasted that afternoon were in both camps; there was the ripe and ready 2009 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, which was really one of my favorite early releases from the vintage. The 2010, which was already floral and effuse, was in need of time to rectify its spiky acidity and long earthen streak, which are not yet fully integrated into the wine.
By this point we’d probably tasted around 40-50 wines from five different wineries, there were still three more to go and it wasn’t yet 4 p.m. I hit the wall, temporarily, and I think I dozed off for 5-10 minutes in the back of the Hyundai Sonata that we were driving speedily through the valley as we tried to make up time from appointment to appointment. It was shocking how fast that sedan could go on the gravelly backcountry roads of Yamhill County when pushed!
When pulled up to Shea Wine Cellars and Vineyard I let out a stretch and a yawn and got right back down to business. We met Dick Shea, his lovely wife Deirdre and their new winemaker Blair Trathen, who seemed like a thoughtfully talented New Zealander (which there seems to be many of in the Willamette Valley). Shea may be one of the most famed vineyards in all of Oregon, certainly by the critics’ standards, and it is easy to see why. The level of detail here is impeccable; Shea’s 140 acres in the Yamhill-Carlton District AVA make for heftier, ripe, masculine Pinot, and the fruit is sought after by a who’s who of Oregon wine. It was an intriguing exercise to taste through the barrels of Pinot Noir from 2011 and even more interesting to taste through six of the single vineyard block bottlings from 2010. Easily my favorite of the bunch was the 2010 “Block 7,” which is made solely from one clone of Pinot Noir, the Wädenswil clone. This it made perfect sense to me. I’ve always liked Shea when it is more restrained, throttled back, if you will. The cool 2010 vintage and the feminine, aromatic charm of the Wädenswil clone did just that, leading to a wine with a much more red fruited nose, sexy spice components and a floral pitch that I thought may not be everyone’s favorite, certainly not the critics, but a note that I really enjoyed.
Next we were off to a tasting, dinner and concert at Penner-Ash. But alas, it didn’t really work out that way. The folks at Penner-Ash recently started holding events at their winery, which is a state of the art “green” facility perched high on a knoll with a panoramic view of the Chehalem Valley and the Dundee Hills. Most have gone off without a hitch, but on this night things seemed to be a bit chaotic. Both the caterer and the musician were late, really late. People were filtering in for the show and food, and there was nothing ready to go. Lynn Penner-Ash was giving us a tour and walking us through her wines while all of this was happening, and she seemed to have it all together, whereas I would have been pulling what’s left of my hair out! As people were milling about, we got down to business tasting Lynn’s bold, fruit- driven, modern-styled wines. Sadly, both MJ’s and my favorite wine was one that we’ll barely see, the 2010 Rubeo, which is a very unusual blend of 30% Syrah and 70% Pinot Noir. Sure people are sneaking Syrah into Pinot more and more these days, but few do it with the precision and grace than is found here. These two varieties mesh perfectly to become more than the sum of their parts, creating a versatile, gulpable, yet classy red. Kudos to Lynn and the rest of the staff for keeping it together on what I’m sure was a stressful evening.
At this point we had a decision to make: cruise back to the house, freshen up and come back to the festivities to relax for the evening or try and squeeze in one more winery. What do you think we did? Of course we tried to fit one more in. We headed to the fairly large facility that houses the NW Company, a large custom crush facility that also owns a historic vineyard, Hyland. We toured the vast facility and were interested in the potential of the project, in fact we found out that we already carry some of the brands that they are responsible for, such as Grapesmith & Crusher. But what really got us excited was the possibility of doing our own custom Pinot Noir for one of our house labels through them. We’ll keep you posted!
Tired and hungry, we were all being a bit indecisive about dinner, but one of us must have spoken up because we ended up at one of the best old-guard restaurants in the Valley, Red Hills Provincial Dining, which resides in a beautifully restored craftsman house right on Highway 99 in Dundee. The food here is rustic, charming and simple while losing nothing in the way of flavor. Every bite I had that night restored some of my will after a long, but enjoyable, day. Then of course I hit the nearest corner store for a six-pack of beer and nursed a couple until I passed out from sheer exhaustion.
Part 3 coming soon with visits to Ponzi, Trisaetum, Tendril and others!
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