Prior to my marriage to Graham almost 7 years ago I didn’t know much about wine. I also had a tight budget so didn’t buy it often. He is an oenophile, a person who loves and appreciates wine, so in our travels we made time to stop at local wineries. As I tried a wide array of wines, I began to learn what varieties of grapes I preferred. And soon I learned that even within the same varietal, the flavor of the wine can vary based on the wine maker as well as the terroir (land and soil) and climate.
In fact, we got to be a bit snobbish about wine but not in the typical way. We enjoyed going to out of the way wineries in areas that had small production so were not widely distributed. Even in Napa, we refused to go into a winery with a name we recognized.
So moving to the Willamette Valley in Oregon posed an exciting new phase in exploring wine. This region produces some of the best pinot noir in the world. In fact, it is the same grape as used in Burgundy, France and the climate is essentially similar. In blind taste tests the Oregon pinots win! And now the French are buying vineyards here, so I suppose we can expect the price of the wine to go up.
Thanksgiving weekend, as well as Memorial Day weekend, are huge open house events at wineries throughout the region. Having experienced the crowds on a typical Saturday at one tasting room in the renowned Dundee AVA, we decided we would opt to go to places that might not attract the hordes from Portland.
On Friday we headed a few miles south to the Eola-Amity Hills AVA (American Viticultural Area) and stopped at five wineries. Dan and Lisa were with us, enjoying the experience as well.
We first went to Ilahe, set up on a hill above the vineyard. They offered 5 wines and some very nice food, including a salmon cheesecake that was superb. The recipe was obtained by our friend Charles Price who writes a food blog, The Taste of Oregon. It was funny, but we saw a friend of Charles’ when we were there! The wine was nice, including a taste of the vintage they produced completely by hand and animal power, called 1899, but its $65 price tag kept us from buying that one.
We then drove over to Kathken. Their tasting room is located in a 30-foot diameter yurt, similar to the one lived in by friends in Vermont. While we didn’t like their wine as well, we appreciated the food they were serving. We realized if this kept up we would not have to buy lunch. Lisa, who had worked in a number of vineyards in New Zealand, pointed out that not only had this year’s crop not been completely harvested, but no vine trimming had taken place yet. When Kathy was questioned, she said that the contract labor they had for picking left after only a third of the grapes had been harvested. It made us appreciate, once again, that farmers work hard and there are many factors that can actually ruin a harvest.
Our next stop was about a mile away, basically on the other side of the ridge. Cubanismo is owned by a family of Cuban-Americans who exhibit a sense of humor with their offer of toilet tissue. However, it was also the priciest place we encountered. Not only was it charging $10 a tasting, but I was charged $5 to “enter” even though I was, at most, taking a small sip from Graham’s glass. They explained that they had lice music and so I should consider it a cover charge. They had advertised Cuban food, but charged $6 more for that. If you wanted water that was an additional dollar. We can appreciate the fact that hosting an event costs money. We understood that the usual tasting fee was double and were willing to pay that, but the attitude of this place was amazing. The band was very good. The food was okay. The wine didn’t need to come home with us.
We then headed over to CherryHill, where there are still cherries grown. This winery had the best view and very friendly staff. The wines were very drinkable and reasonably priced. We are debating joining the club there. One perk it offers that is not typical, is a free night at the cabins on the property.
And finally, we reached Amity Hills and were blown away with what we experienced. The tasting room was well staffed with cheerful people, all eager to explain and share. Apparently, they had decided to bring out the “library”, all the wines that were still stored from all the years of production. One of the oldest wineries in Oregon, the first wine was bottled in 1977. An older gentleman who owns a vineyard stopped by with a bottle of wine that Amity Hills had made from his grapes after the winery that had contracted for his grapes that year refused them. The wine maker at Amity Hills took some challenged grapes and made a gold medal winner out of it. They popped the cork and we all got a taste of what is currently valued at $300 a bottle. Not including that bonus, they offered over 20 different wines to taste and a discount if three bottles were purchased. We’ll be going back to that winery!
By that time the sun was setting and it was time to head home. Saturday we will head north and visit a few wineries, a farm that makes mead, a sake distillery and a cheese creamery. And yes, I will be the designated driver.