I was fortunate enough to be invited to a Pre-WBC event tour the Willamette valley by Lynette Shaw of Soléna Estate. I’ve been on several of these type of events and I must say this trip knocked all the rest out of the park on the sheer fun meter, plus it did not hurt that the winery’s we visited were top notch as well.
To start the day off in style, we climbed aboard the flashy red double-decker bus from Portland. It was the maiden voyage for this little cutie and I hope we did not jinx it. The bus, a 1959 vintage had been completely restored and outfitted as a deluxe party bus complete with leather lounge banquets up top and a bar area down below. The view from the top deck was exceptional for taking in all those beautiful Willamette valley vistas. Adding to the thrill of the ride were the Voodoo Donuts a Portland gastronomic icon. Although I must admit those donuts looked more like hood ornaments than anything edible. Maybe they were "Mt. Hood" ornaments (Yuk Yuk).
Our first stop was Soléna located in Yamhill, Oregon. From the innovate design of the winery to the story of the “wedding gift grapes” there was a lot to take in. Danielle and Laurent Montalieu, the winery owners, greeted us. Laurent is the chief winemaker at Soléna. We also met Bruno Corneaux one of their winemakers from Grand Cru Estates.
Laurent and Danielle have one of the most unique stories I’ve heard about how they got the estate going. In lieu of traditional wedding gifts the couple asked for vine stock and received enough to plant their wedding vineyard. So where do you register for something like that? Crate and Wine Barrel? Nice way to start a marriage. But dare I ask what happens in the event of a divorce? Is Oregon a community property state? Lets hope one buys out the other and no ripping out of vines occurs. (just kidding, they seem very happy)
The Montalieu's are especially enthusiastic about their land. Laurent prides himself as being very hands on with the ability to take to the tractor and tend to the vines as needed. His daily immersion into the vineyard keeps him close to the changes that are occurring and alerts him to opportunities as well; such as planting on angles according to the declination of the sun for greater yields in the short but intense growing season.
One thing I’ve learned from visiting wineries is that you better love being out in the dirt as much as in the cellar if you want to make great wine.
After a tour of the open pavilion style tank room, built to have the flexibility of use, we adjourned to the cellar for some barrel tasting from vineyards located in the Willamette valley sub AVA’s: Hyland from McMinnville, Guadalupe-- Dundee Hills, Thistle –Dundee Hills, Monks Gate- Yamhill-Carlton District and Kalita – Dundee hills.
This was not your typical barrel tasting. It was a virtual “barrel buffet” in which we were all presented with our own personal thief’s and given free reign to taste and sample as we liked. I liked this unhurried approach to barrel tasting. Like hummingbirds with glass proboscises we dipped in and out of the samples at our own pace. I found it really gave you a chance to think about each sample and go back to compare and contrast among the barrels.
I liked the Hyland, Guadalupe, and Thistle, most, all of which feature volcanic soil. I liked this open tasting concept very much and it helped me to set the particular AVA’s in my mind and palate. I was struck by how vast the differences were between barrels.
We had a regal luncheon with food pairings created by chef Matthew Howard for each of the wines. It’s hard not to come away from something like this without a halo effect of affection, but I felt by tasting the barrel samples I got a good hit on the foundation of the wine they are making without the fancy package. Pairing the wines with food added dimension to the experience and for my goldilocks palate it was just right.
Next the bus grinded some gears up more picture perfect roads to Soter Vineyards. I just loved the look of this place--a simple rustic barn open on both sides to the most stunning views of the surrounding valley. Well, a simple rustic $7 million dollar barn probably, but who tallies theses things anyway. The impression was priceless. On arrival Courtney Sheilds handed us a glass of 2005 Brut Rose and led us to the tasting tables where we were able to sample the following:
2008 North Valley Pinot Noir
2006 Beacon Hill Pinot Noir
2007 Mineral Springs Ranch Pinot Noir
I preferred the 08 North Valley Pinot over the others which were both high point generating wines from Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate. I liked the body of the North Valley and it’s scent was filled with dark plum and earthy notes with and a bit sage and dust. Once again I find when placed sided by side I often favor the younger wines. Not to say that the Beacon Hill and Mineral Springs were not standouts as well, but my palate belongs to the Soter North Valley.
The atmosphere at Soter is very relaxing. Off to the side of the building I noticed the remnants of their hay bale Stonehenge; part of a celebration they had for the solstice. I get the feeling Soter is a more-fun-than-meets-the-eye kind of place. I felt a great sense of well-being on their land, and Mr. Soter seems to be one of the happiest wine guys I’ve ever met. There is something special in the air and in the soil up there at Soter. Go check it out.
Back on the bus we took a few pokes at the now half congealed Voodoo Donuts and next thing we knew we were at Anne Amie in Carleton.
The winery at Anne Amie looks like it could be the HQ for Swiss Miss. It’s a little bit Tyrolean. But the wines we tasted were far from the “braids and hot coco” esthetic the building might imply.
Wine maker Thomas Houseman has taken an interesting path to become a winemaker He was formerly a modern dancer. But as he says--art is art in whatever form you seek to create it. I was disappointed he did not do a few plie’s or rond de jambe’s in the barrel room or at the very least give us some Fosse “jazz hands” to spice things up, but the wine was jazzy enough, especially that Muller Thurgau, which for the rest of the day had me thinking of that movie Bad Santa where the kids name was Thurman Merman. (Don’t ask. Just know we all must seek to make sense of the world.) Anyway, we got to try some Pinot barrel samples with Thomas and based on what I tasted I think the Anne Amie Pinot's are worth waiting for.
The level of hospitality we experienced from all the wineries was exceptional and I can’t thank Lynette enough for organizing it all and also thanks to Thea @winebratsf for hooking me up. If the Pre-WBC was as far as I got on the road to the Walla Walla, Washington and the WBC, I would have gone home very happy indeed.
As always, it's the people in the group that really make or break it, and the biggest bonus of the trip was meeting new wine peeps with varied interests, backgrounds, and above all great sense of humor. Many of these folks have written about the trip more eloquently and in greater depth than I, so you might want to check out these posts as well: