Production's Down, Quality's Good
Editor at large Harvey Steiman has been traveling through the northwest corner of Oregon this month. In this installment of our occasional series of postcards from Wine Spectator's globe-trotting wine tasters, Harvey tells us what he's found.
It's February in Oregon wine country and it's snowing. A storm has blown in from Alaska and the view out the window from King Estate's dining room looks like the inside of one of those little plastic domes with a chalet in it. Somewhere out there is a vineyard, a darned big one, in fact. All we can see is white.
Welcome to Oregon in the winter. Don't plan a wine country trip here without bringing your wool underwear. The up side is that the vintners have plenty of time for visitors. They're inside keeping warm, often in the barrel rooms where the heaters are blazing away to encourage malolactic fermentations.
Pioneer winegrowers came to Oregon because it was a colder climate than California's. I should have known.
For several days I have been driving around the northwestern quadrant of the state, where most of the prime vineyards and wineries are. I remember about four hours of uninterrupted sunshine. I think it was last Thursday. Then the gray clouds came and have not lifted.
Despite the moist chill, winemakers' spirits are high. The 1998 vintage looks like it's going to be a good one for quality. Statewide, however, production was down 20 percent despite a 13 percent increase in harvested acreage. Some vineyards harvested less than a ton per acre when they are accustomed to getting two-and-a-half. But the wines are tasting good, and that always causes rejoicing in the cellars.
As fortification against the chill, we are eating well. While the snow blows outside at King Estate, I join owner Ed King, winemaker Will Bucklin, vineyard manager Brad Biehl, and several staff members around a big table next to a crackling fireplace. King's in-house chefs, Julia Potter and Mary Bellardo, whip up roasted pork with asparagus and nicely browned potatoes. I wish I could hang out here, sipping King's Pinot Noir Reserve 1994, but the weather has caused me to miss a morning appointment at Broadley, an hour north, near Eugene, and I have to rush off to squeeze it in.
My lunches at the wineries have been casual and satisfying. At Argyle, winemaker Rollin Soles, vineyard manager Alan Holstein and I dig in to a risotto with salmon cooked at Tina's, one of the Willamette Valley's gastronomic treasures, located across the street in Dundee. We sip Chardonnays from 1987 and 1988, Argyle's first vintages. Neither wine has the finesse that current vintages show, but they are both alive and tasty, especially the 1987, supple and dripping with honey and almond flavors. The next day, in the chalet-like tasting room at WillaKenzie, owners Bernard and Ronni Lacroute and winemaker Laurent Montalieu have invited a neighbor, Michael Etzel, co-owner of Beaux Freres, who has collected a small tasting of recent-vintage Oregon Pinot Noir. Wines from Cristom, Brick House, McKinlay, WillaKenzie and Beaux Freres lubricate lunch and offer an interesting glimpse of the 1995, 1996 and 1997 vintages, three notoriously difficult vintages as made by some of Oregon's better practitioners. The verdict? There is no consistency; each winery seems to have done better in a different vintage. And each taster seems to have a different take on which vintage is best.
There is no disagreement on the food, however, and how beautifully it shows off the wines. Ronni has roasted and broiled asparagus, red peppers, potatoes, eggplant and squash. Montalieu has cooked halibut in verjus, the unfermented juice of unripe grapes, which he makes and bottles for sale at the winery. It is traditional in Burgundy as a sort of alternative to vinegar, and one taste of the red wines with the dish and it's easy to see why the Burgundians love it. The fresh acidity and fruity flavors make the wines seem silkier and more generous.
By Friday night I am in Northwest Portland, at an enjoyable Spanish tapas restaurant called Tapeo, huddling around a small table in the corner with Wine Spectator colleague and Portland resident Matt Kramer. We peruse the wine list, which is almost exclusively Spanish. I am no expert on Spanish wines, but I do sort of know my way around the better Rioja and Ribera del Duero names. One unfamiliar name catches our eye, however. It is the last wine on the list, and neither of us has a clue how to pronounce it. "What the hell," says Matt. "Let's order it. It's only 20 bucks."
Txomin Etxaniz Txacolina 1997 (pronounced, apparently, cho-meen e-chah-niz cha-co-lee-na) turns out to be a lively, bright white wine from the Basque region with a welcome raw edge to the almond, earth and floral flavors, and just a hint of peach at the center. It serves us well with grilled sardines, with octopus cooked with potatoes and olives, and with a heady, aromatic stew of cured meats. For dessert we have excellent Manchego cheese with a quince relish and tall copitas of La Gitana Amontillado.
It's raining outside, but who cares? Life is good.
--Harvey Steiman, editor at large
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions