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  • Writer's picturethe_maestro

Portland and Willamette wine tasting – Oregon

My sister Georgia and I have had a really awesome summer together. It’s been wonderful having her on this side of the Atlantic, both in Iowa and during our travels together. We decided to take a little journey back to the homeland at the end of July, just in time for Pioneer Day, or as the heathens of Utah call it, “Pie and Beer Day,” celebrating Utah’s statehood. And also pie and beer, duh. Dozens of restaurants and local breweries team up to offer… you guessed it… pie and beer! About half of the “pies” are savory and the rest are sweet, and some restaurants get a little more playful with the word “pie” and include things like empanadas and pizza. This year someone made “frito pie” and served it in a bag of fritos. Our favorite was a “Mormon funeral potato” pizza from a pizzeria in Ogden, and our favorite beer was called “This is the Pilsner.” Pretty fun!

Pie and Beer Day also coincides with National Tequila Day, so we took a trip to the bar next door, Bar X, one of our favorites in SLC, and glugged down a couple of tequila-based "roulette" cocktails, where the bartender makes the decision about what to serve.

Another highlight was scattering Dad's ashes up in Albion Basin in Little Cottonwood Canyon. We found the perfect resting place with a beautiful view among the wildflowers.

After our little sojourn to Utah, we decided to tack on a tour of the Pacific Northwest, since Georgia had never been, and because our uncle Scott and aunt Jacque (and their adorable critters, Yuki and Neve) live up in Seattle. We scored an upgrade to first class and sat on the left side of the aircraft, allowing us a view on approach to PDX of the imposing Mount Hood. It was crazy to see it literally RIGHT there! Georgia, sitting at the window, told me it was upcoming but I never expected us to be THAT close to it. Such a cool introduction to Oregon!

We were peckish when we landed, so once we picked up our Turo we headed into the city to check out the downtown area, which is SO beautiful, maybe my favorite downtown in the US, and have a bite at Måurice, a little French/Scandinavian bistro/bakery/café/whatever that was described by a veteran Portland food critic as “the quintessential Portland restaurant.” What an endorsement!

Måurice is the dream shop of proprietress Kristen Murray, who still works behind the counter baking the day away. Kristen wished to pay homage to the baking she learned with her Norwegian grandmother as a child, and fuse this with her love of all things French. The restaurant is named for her loppy-eared bunny and long-time companion. The “Luncheonette” menu changes daily, but some items are staples, and you can find a handful of savory items alongside the sweets.

I started with a couple of Shigoku oysters, some of my faves, which Georgia doesn’t care for, so I slurped both of them up gleefully. These were larger, with deep cups, owing to their tumble farming in rougher waters. The flesh and liquor were classic Pacific Northwest, sweet and fresh, tasting of the pure, clean Pacific, and without being overly briny. These were served with a few slices of their house-baked baguette, which was SO tasty with the fresh butter they provided.

The next was a “simple greens” salad with a lemon vinaigrette. Just spectacular, and really let the greens shine. Not much more to say… local, fresh produce, prepared simply. Heaven.

Quiche was next, and I had heard wonderful things. This was perfectly cooked, just set, unlike any quiche I’ve had… it was almost floppy, and just like the food critic said, seemed to be held together “by a wish.” The fresh herbs were perfectly balanced, and there were some thin slices of squash and onion, and the cloud of egg melted in our mouths. Alongside were some of the most glorious berries you could imagine.

We closed with two of Kristen’s most famous desserts, brought forth by Kristen herself. The first was a lemon soufflé cake, which was delightful––almost effervescent in its lightness, with just the right hint of lemon tartness. Georgia, a big fan of lemon, was particularly enamored with this dish. I was most excited, however, for Kristen’s black pepper cheesecake. The aforementioned food critic called this the “most mature cheesecake in the world,” and we happened to score the last one baked that day. The cheesecake was fluffy and rich, but in no way overly sweet, the way cheesecakes can sometimes be. The black pepper added an interesting earthiness to the cheesecake. Wonderful!

Our next day was spent tasting wine in the magnificent Willamette Valley, one of my favorite wine regions in the country. We picked out four spots to try over the course of the day, and made our way up toward Yamhill, in the northwest foothills of Willamette Valley, to taste.

The thing about Willamette Valley is that it is getting warm. No, it’s getting hot. Once an ideal cool climate for growing sleek, aromatic, and feminine pinot noir and chardonnay, along with some lovely German/Austrian varietals, the increase in heat over the past decade has had a major effect on the winemaking in the region. This is true worldwide––it’s getting warmer, and so wines are getting bigger, and new winegrowing regions are emerging to preserve the cooler-climate style. 2011 and 2013 were likely the last two “cool” vintages in the Valley, and the wines have changed dramatically since then. Pinot in warmer climates tends to be fuller-bodied and berry-forward, with blue fruits over red fruit, often with baking spice notes, and higher alcohol and lower acidity. This is a good general descriptor for pinot made in places like Sonoma, particularly the interior of the county such as the Russian River Valley (the Sonoma Coast, however, is still a magnificent cool climate). It’s not my favorite style; I’ll probably be drinking stuff from Sonoma Coast and Santa Barbara fruit more often now, but the pinots being produced here are still magnificent, and you can still find cooler single-vineyard expressions floating around. I will miss 2013, though.

We tried to focus on some new spots this time around, and I picked a few roughly adjacent properties in the Yamhill-Carlton area that had the endorsement of multiple experts online and in the wine community. Since it was Georgia’s first time, I wanted her to experience excellent wine and also excellent views, a cornerstone of the Willamette experience. We headed to one of the prettiest tasting rooms I’ve seen, Saffron Fields Vineyards, where we were the lone visitors. The 12-year-old (seriously he looked like he was 12) at the counter chatted with us about wine and showed us around the property. The wine was good, but nothing blew me away until he opened a bottle of their 2013 estate Heritage Clones pinot, and he, too, expressed dismay about the demise of the cooler Willamette climate. Pommard is such a great clone, and I really enjoyed both the 2016 and 2013 vintages, which we tasted vertically. I also can’t say enough about how magnificent the property is!

Our next stop was a reservation at Beaux Frères, a pretty famous spot that does tastings only by appointment. The property is on a hill overlooking one of the side valleys in the Yamhill foothills, just a few minutes from one of my favorite spots in Willamette, Penner-Ash. We arrived early and awkwardly parked and ate some cheese and salami out of the back of our car while winery workers eyed us. It wasn’t until we heard a squeal that we noticed there was a MASSIVE hairy pig chilling over on the other side of the parking lot. Come to find out, the property used to be a pig farm, and they still keep pigs on-site.

We started our rather rushed tasting with two off-site pinots, one from the Chehalem Mountains to the northeast, and the second from Eola-Amity, a sub-region of Willamette to the south hugging the hills that guard the valley from the coast. Neither of these wines spoke to us much at all, sadly, although I did appreciate the uniqueness of the Eola pinot, which had a lot of grip and body due to its harsh growing conditions in which the cold air from the sea covers the vineyard every night, requiring the grapes to grow thick skins. Their estate pinot, however, was stellar, and was showing very nicely even at two years old; I would LOVE to taste one of these from 2011 or 2013. Their last was a little experiment, which is part of a rotating series they do every year featuring something unique and different. This time, it was the growing technique, called palissage, a method used in Burgundy where the tops of the grape plants are not trimmed but woven back down into the branches. Not sure what exactly this does, and I don’t know that our young and sorta checked-out hipster host did either, but the wine was also very good. I’d still pay big money for a 2013 of that estate pinot (sugar daddies?)

I had in my mind a plan to pop in to Penner-Ash, since we were practically next door, so that Georgia could take in the view and the gardens and we could sip a glass of viognier. Sadly, they didn’t offer single glasses, so we ended up doing a flight, and I am SO glad we did. I love Penner-Ash for the property and views, including their row of Adirondack chairs that overlook the valley below, as well as their monumental viognier, but I have to be honest that I have never cared much for their pinot relative to the other houses in Willamette I’ve tried. They have always been good, but in the heavier style described above, and it seems that she seeks fruit from warmer vineyards and manifests the wine in a style more reminiscent of a California pinot. Now that things have gotten warmer, however, I found these pinots to be the most consistently excellent of all of those we tasted on the trip. The fruit is now playing right into the winemaker’s hands, and the style of wine that is being produced is really exceptional. Georgia and I particularly loved the Dundee Hills Élevée Vineyard pinot, which was closer in fruit profile to the red fruit found in the cooler vintages, but still with a body and “sweet spice” I’d expect from the warmer ones.

After Georgia took another 1,200 photos (it’s a really pretty spot), we hustled off to our last tasting room. I’d had a spot on my radar that specialized in Riesling, which I thought might be a nice change, but Georgia countered that we had heard incredible things from nearly everyone we’d talked to about Dominio IV. Here we sampled a far more diverse offering of wines on their beautiful wrap-around porch, including a really wild viognier that was fermented briefly with syrah grapes on top through carbonic maceration. We also happened to drink the very best pinot (to my mind) on the trip, which was a 2014 from a nearby vineyard. Their chardonnay was also stellar, and we wound up tasting NINE wines in all. Their later wines were big reds from a vineyard in the shadow of Mount Hood, the first aged in Hungarian oak and the second in Minnesotan oak. The syrah didn’t work for me, and I found the Hungarian oak to bring too much of a thick and chocolaty profile. The tempranillo, however, was very nice, and is a wine they keep and age in the bottle for a long time––this 2010 was their current release.

Probably the coolest thing about the winery was the labels for some of them, which are copies of “flavor charts” that the winemaker draws in order to describe the wine. Words don’t work for the winemaker, and these charts, for him, more accurately represent what he tastes. Really cool to see, and wish I had a photo at this writing! We wound up taking home a really inexpensive bottle of their chardonnay, and I was arm-twisted into joining the wine club, which is an insanely reasonable $20ish a month.

Had so much fun showing Georgia Willamette Valley! Next time, I’d like to spend some additional time up there, but I will say that due to the volume of my visits to Willamette over the past five years, I would like to spend more time exploring some of the wine regions that I don’t know as well, such as Central Coast and Paso Robles or the Okanagan in British Columbia.

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