Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Honeymoon: Elk Cove and Willakenzie Wineries

Tuesday April 30, Gaston and Yamhill OR

Ugh! Still not acclimated to Pacific Daylight Time, I woke up at 0530 after hearing squalls in the night again and sat around watching the gulls and the Mallards play in Ecola Creek, waiting for Ann to wake up. Once we packed up our stuff and loaded up the car, we headed down to the Sleepy Monk one last time for a cup of joe and another of their fabulous bacon and blue cheese scones. It was a good thing we did, for apparently I must have dropped my AMEX card on the floor the night before at the Irish Table. I was presented with my card as soon as I walked in. Thank you, thank you!

We were trying to decide where to eat for lunch and had thought about one of the restaurants in Astoria, so we drove north on 101 to the mouth of the Columbia River. We found it to be kind of a dumpy, depressing port town and kept on moving inland, upriver on highway 30 thinking to take in the river vistas and see some of the famed Columbia Gorge. Yeah, well after striking out in Astoria, US 30 proved to be a bust as well and the GPS wanted to take us into our destination, Newberg, via Portland and I-5. Not so much.

We made it as far inland as Clatskanie when we had both had enough of US 30 and so I headed up into the mountains on highway 47, knowing that it goes south into Carlton and McMinnville. The view was much more scenic, even if we were afraid of getting blown away by the logging trucks flying down the highway. Once over the mountains and down into the Willamette Valley proper, as we neared Gaston, we started seeing signs for wineries in the McMinnville AVA. But finding one open for walk-ins on a Tuesday where we could stop for lunch was a bit problematic.

I had thought to go to Patton Valley, whose wines we have carried at the restaurant for years, but they're only open Thursday through Saturday, so we ended up going to nearby Elk Cove Vineyards, one of Oregon's older wine producers. Not surprisingly for a Tuesday afternoon, we were the only visitors at the winery.

Elk Cove Pinot Noir "Mount Richmond" 2011
We tasted with a gentleman named Brad who was very good about answering our questions. One of the key things I wanted to get an appreciation for while we were in Oregon was not only the lay of the land and the relationship of the AVAs to one another, but a good handle on the recent vintages as well. At Elk Cove, we tasted through the Pinot Noir rosé, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and several Pinot Noirs including a few of the reserve single vineyard wines. Standouts for me were the rosé, estate Riesling, and a couple of the reserve Pinot Noirs.

I noticed the glassware immediately. We tasted out of big Riedel Oregon Pinot glasses with the flared lip and etched with the Elk Cove logo. Except for the really high end wineries in our area who use small but beautiful Schott glasses, everybody else uses junk glasses, glasses that cost about $1.50 with logo, horrible, heavy glasses. Drinking out of these ethereally light Riedels was quite a pleasure and though we didn't know it yet, every winery save one and every restaurant would use these same glasses. More on glassware in a few paragraphs.

After profusely thanking Brad for his patience with us and great walk-through of the Elk Cove wines, we asked him to pick one bottle for us to have with lunch which we took out on the patio facing northwest looking at the vineyards and mountains behind. For our lunch, Brad selected the 2011 Pinot Noir Mount Richmond which we thoroughly enjoyed; I really appreciated the structure of the 2011 wine and how well it went with our sausage and cheese. In retrospect now from having tasted wines from 2007 through 2012 barrel samples, I am coming to love 2011, which because it was a very cool year has produced lean, high acid wines of a subtle nature, wines that suit me very much.

Summing up from a week of tasting: 2007 and 2009 were like Virginia in 2007 and 2010, super warm and very ripe, bordering on overripe and under-acidified. 2008 was like Virginia 2006, 2008, and 2009, sleeper vintages that just get better with age. 2010 and 2012 are just great vintages from the get-go and should age pretty well.

Looking East over Riesling Vines
Elk Cove is a gorgeously scenic winery with plenty of room outdoors for picnics. The winery is surrounded by vines with a stupendous view of the mountains to the west. The tasting room, with its mounted elk head dominating the tasting counters, has spectacular views of the vineyards. The wines are delicious and worth the trip, but you will keep returning just for the sheer beauty of the location.

Due West from Elk Cove


Due North from Elk Cove Lies Patton Valley
From Elk Cove, we decided to stop by Willakenzie and taste through their line up. Even as we were driving down Laughlin Road to their driveway, I just kept saying "Wow!" because the scenery was so fantastic. You enter Willakenzie's driveway way below vineyards that are visible on the hilltops above you on both the right and the left. Only as you make the long drive up the seam between the two vine-clad hills do the tasting room and winery buildings come into view, buildings that are tucked tastefully into the hill so as not to mar the setting.

Walking from the south-facing parking lot in front of the Pinot Blanc vines to the big open square between the winery on the left and the tasting room dead ahead, the first thing you notice is the beautiful landscaping around the buildings and in the center of the partially paved piazza. The entrance to the tasting room is at the back (north) end of the piazza and down a half flight of steps.

Outstanding Landscaping in front of Willakenzie Tasting Room
It took me several minutes of taking in the phenomenal, breathtaking property before I was ready to go into the tasting room, where we met Sherry Simmons, 13-year veteran tasting room manager whose encyclopedic knowledge of the property and the wines I really appreciate. We were one of two couples doing the tasting that afternoon and after the other couple left, we tasted some other wines that are not normally part of the tasting.

In particular, when I inquired about the Gamay (which they call Gamay Noir, which is itself short for Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc) that I saw in the display along the wall, Sherry kindly opened a bottle for us. Although I am not surprised that they grow Gamay, I never really connected the dots with Oregon and Gamay, though I had heard of Brick House's bottling even back in Virginia. It turns out that Gamay is very rare in Oregon. Willakenzie's Gamay is spot on, bright purple, oozing with fruit, and displaying that distinctive Gamay nose.

Ann asked about the Riedel Oregon Pinot Noir glasses that we were tasting from and wondered aloud if the glass made any real difference to the wine. Without missing a beat, Sherry went back in the kitchen behind the tasting counter and grabbed two Bordeaux glasses and poured us each a taste in a Bordeaux glass and in a Pinot glass. Suffice it to say that Ann is now a believer. The difference is not subtle: the Pinot we tasted was very dumb and closed when drunk from the Bordeaux glass and very fresh, light, and lively when drunk from the Pinot glass.

Willakenzie had always made great wine but we don't get to taste too many bottlings of it back east, the vast majority of the wines from the smaller parcels being sold to their club and at their tasting counter. I truly enjoyed the opportunity to taste and compare the wines from the different parcels around the property. My favorite wine of the day was the Triple Black Slopes, from the steepest blocks on the estate. It had super-concentrated fruit with the biggest structure.

Gamay Just Beyond Us

After tasting at Willakenzie, it was time to find our B&B near Newberg and get ready for dinner over in McMinnville, so we headed into Newberg and then followed the GPS on a hugely tortuous route along seemingly the whole length of Chehalem Ridge, finally arriving at the Chehalem Ridge B&B with its stunning views of Newberg and the valley surrounding the town. More on that later.

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