Walking into Oregon’s Evergreen Space Museum this past Sunday was oddly nerve-wracking. The 24th Annual McMinnville Wine & Food Classic better known as Sip, was in full swing.
How exactly does one tackle introducing their palate to over 70 wineries, vineyards, and cellars?
I’d come prepared. A bottle of water and water crackers discreetly (I hoped) stashed in my purse. Grabbing a map, I rounded the corner, ready to dive into a sea of Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir, after all, has earned Oregon international recognition. In 2016, Willamette Valley was named Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Bring, Pinot, On!
Bring, Pinot, On!
Surprisingly, what captured my attention was not Pinot Noir. Rather passion projects pouring out of Pinot country that are decidedly not Pinot Noir, winemakers referring people to other wineries and a serious splash of style.
Here are a few of the more delightful surprises uncovered at Sip!
Oregon Wineries Support Each Other
In Miracle on 34th Street Macy’s Kris Kringle, steers customers to Gimbels, another department store. Kringle’s primary concern, helping Mom find the exact toy her child really wants.
That’s Oregon Wine Country.
“The wine industry out here, people are just awesome. Very supportive of each other. That’s what I like the most. If people walk into my tasting room looking for something specific and I don’t have it, I’ll tell them where they can find it. They are often a little surprised by that. I’d rather, them be happy with their experience of being in Oregon Wine Country. ” — Brian Matta, Asst General Manager Le Cadeau Vineyard
Much like the Portland dining scene where Chefs rally around each other, the Oregon wine community shares the same philosophy. Represent the community.
“All the wineries kind of work together. We’ll send each other customers because everybody’s palate is different. We may not have what you want, but someone else may.” — Katrina Taylor-Rickard, General Manager Cardwell Hill Cellars
The feeling of comradery amongst Oregon’s wineries and vineyards is inviting. Exploration is natural, welcomed and guided by the winemaker themselves.
Style Matters in Oregon Wines
Finding space at Varnum Vitners table nearly required throwing elbows. Cyler Varnum stood front and center, hat perfectly askew, entertaining and educating all who would step right up.
With six wines to taste, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir Rosé, Pinot Gris Rosé, Riesling and Pinot Noir, Cyler stepped in and out of stories along the spectrum of his wines, on request.
“Never in a million years [would I have] thought I would make Chardonnay. So when I make it, I make it the way I like it. So this is a non Chardonnay drinkers, Chardonnay. Varnum Chardonnay, it is its own thing.”
A gentleman steps up, asks for something refresh.
“Something refreshing? [fun chuckle] That’s everything I make! All of our wines are refreshing. That’s actually the punchline for Varnum Vitners ‘Made to Drink, Don’t Overthink.’ So the wines have complexity and they are serious but they are definitely very delicate and refreshing. We like wines that are easy to drink on their own and yet still pair well with food.”
Pouring a Pinot, Cyler spins a new story.
“So we make a sort of elusive style of Pinot. It’s a German Style. Germany is the third largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world. There they call it spätburgunder or late burgundy. A lighter more peppery style, a little bit more savory, a little bit more acid driven. That’s what we try to do.” — Cyler Varnum, Owner, Winemaker Varnum Vitners.
In other words, both literally and figuratively, Oregon wine country has style.
Oregon reflects one of the most unique parts of the American wine industry. An open-minded curiosity and ability to adapt and tweak influences and styles from around the world.
In France, you drink French wines. In Italy, Italian wines. In America, wines varietals and styles reflect the best from around the world. In America, winemakers bravely go, where no vintner has gone before.
Oregon Wine Country Is Accessible
Paolo and I are destination drinkers. Spain, Italy, Napa, Santa Ynez wherever we are, we tour and taste. It was not until tasting in Oregon, that I realized, how accessible Oregon wine country is in comparison.
“People are so amazed at the knowledge of the people in this industry here. We could talk your ear off for an hour about each wine. If you were interested. People are surprised by the passion and the opportunity to get to talk directly to the owners and winemakers in a tasting room, which happens here. Everybody is approachable.” — Megan Markel, Sales Manager Le Cadeau Vineyard
Unique access is part of what makes Oregon Wine Country particularly compelling to wine lovers who like me, are suckers for a good story.
Passion Projects Are Not All Pinot Noir
Many of the passion projects up for tasting at Sip went beyond Pinot Noir. Sampling these wines is to taste all the big passion that goes into wine making.
“Our real passion is the Triomphe. We bought all five of the principal Bordeaux grapes in 2011. The Cab Franc, Sav, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot and we’re going to start the process to make the fifth version this weekend.” — Scott Nelson, Owner Winemaker Résolu Cellars
It was at this point that Scott went into an impassioned description of his team’s process to create Résolu Cellars Triomphe. It, was, riveting.
Double-blind tastings, the Davis 20 point wine scoring system, tastings triggering long debates followed by more tastings. Then the final blending, barreling, bottling and waiting. A full two years in barrel, 14 months in the bottle and only then do Résolu Cellars Club members get the first taste with a Veterans Day release.
Curious why Veterans Day? Me too, so I asked.
Scott motioning to his son standing beside him said,
“Well, he’s a Marine. Triomphe is the name and I wanted to release it later in the year, which gives me a chance to honor him. The other reason [pausing slightly] he was in Iraq when he called and said ‘Dad, I think I want to come and be a winemaker with you.’ That started us on this journey.”
Scott and his son Cameron are now the Owners and Winemakers behind Résolu Cellars, together.
Sucker for a good story, in Oregon Wine Country I’m home.
Exploring Oregon Wine Country
McMinnville Wine & Food Classic proved to be a great way to sip into Oregon Wine Country. The exciting part is knowing there is so much more to explore. With over 500 wineries in the Willamette Valley, world-class Pinot Noir is just a first taste of what’s to come.