The Carrot, So To Speak (A Week in Oregon Wine Country)
Most of that Thursday night was a blur. At least, that's what it felt like. Day to day interactions blur at the 24-hour margins. The underappreciated working life builds the thickest of shells until you end up with an unnatural anaesthetic numb feeling that gets you through most days. To break out of that shell, you need something to shock you back into your senses, to lure me out. So, I got on a plane, endured a drowsy commute next to an effeminate Korean hair dresser (who stole my issue of GQ) and a very late night in Portland. By the next day I found myself in completely unfamiliar territory. The sun was shining, 70 degrees. And this was staring me in the face. Acres and acres of it. Pinot noir. In the heart of the Willamette Valley. With this alluring dark purple bunch, the shell was cracking.
So, the place doesn't so much as shock you as it does lull. I don't need to say much to romanticize this place. Just look at it. It's worthy of fixation, imagination, elation, and every other "-tion" that runs through your veins when you take in bucolic views from the Chehalem Road.
It's a place where hazelnut groves sit in perfect rows. Sit still in one long enough and you hear hazelnuts drop with a light "thud" onto the ground. Road side honey stands promise jars of the wild blackberry kind. I stopped at one and was surprised by a fuzzy little fellow that liked to use his claws. Clever cat. He makes you stay long enough to buy more honey.
The farther I drove south into the valley, the more the scenery coaxed me. Leaving a rather industrial McMinnville to the sleepy town of Amity and beyond, you run into the Eola Hills. I don't know the meaning of "Eola." But when you say it, you can't just spew it. You have to e-nun-ci-ate every letter. EE-OH-LAH. A little word that demands much attention. Rightly so given the quilt of firs and vineyards that rise and fall with the hills. I find myself incanting those three syllables, eyes closed, in my office, or when I think of the single block Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from Bethel Heights Winery.
The drive to Gaston, one of the more northerly towns in the valley, takes you into what is the heart of redneck country. I can say this because I live pretty damn close to redneck country and know what it's like. And the one in Oregon was like the ones at home except greener. But you forget all this silly shit when you pull up to Elk Cove. It sits in its own little bowl of paradise, far above the camouflaged pick ups.
I once met a winemaker who claimed that she let the grapes tell her when they were ready. What a kook, I thought. But she didn't listen with her ears. She listened with her eyes and tastebuds. And you will know, or they will tell you, how they are doing. Take row 114 at the block just outside of Domaine Drouhin's tasting room. Start with one berry at the top of the row and slowly make your way down the hill, picking a taste here and there. Sweet, becomes more sweet, becomes intensely sweet, with a velvety feel from the thin peel. You notice something other than sweet about half way down, a whisper of what the wine may be. Examine the seeds the rolling around your mouth. Green, the grapes need more time. Brown, pick them now. Below, the trucks are heavy will crates of fruit from the bottom of the slope.
Crush was in full swing by the time I made it Adelsheim Winery. There was a sign that read "Make eye-contact with fork lift driver." I could hear them everywhere, just couldn't see them. The forklifts were buzzing somewhere about, just as busy as the numerous bees that flew around the heady and heavy crates of Reserve Chardonnay grapes. How could anyone blame the little drunkards? Everything about the fruit was intense—its golden translucent hue, its fragrance, and its flavor. Just inside, Pinot Noir rested in huge fermenting vats, quietly bubbling and hissing with released sugars and gasses as workers came by and mixed them up with what looked like a huge hand mixer mounted to the ceiling.
What struck me about the area was how many languages and accents I heard. In the loud din at Adelsheim there were accents from New Zealand, Argentina, Australia, and beyond. Little old Oregon, temporary home to wannabe winemakers from all over the world. One such fellow was named Shane. He showed me how the state of the art centrifuge press worked (I still don't get it) with its continued hum and watched the Reserve Chardonnay grapes I just tasted trickle down into a steel tub. "Wanna taste it?" he asked. As if that needed a reply, he came back with two glasses clanging in one of his hands. He dunked them into the vat and handed me one, dripping. It was the color of unfiltered apple juice. "It's from the oxidation," he said with elongated vowels. Hoses and trucks roared behind me. The juice was intense. But for as sweet as it was, it told of sunlight, soil, and the year past. The grapes were ready. And this wine-to-be was already talking.
Of course, the whole point of a wine country trip is to sip. Plentifully. Drouhin, Sokol Blosser, Adelsheim, Chehalem, Bethel Heights, Cuneo, Elk Cove, Anne Amie, Penner Ash ... oh, and Domaine Serene in the Red Hills of Dundee (neighbor to Sokol B. and Drouhin) where I by sheer luck joined a VIP tour with the head honcho of the Oregon Tourism Board and his guests.
I remember this tasting in particular because if you taste (READ: drink) enough of the wine, the view from the bottom of the tower looking straight up is alot cooler than when you first walk through sober.
In the town of Carlton, neslted close to the Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge, I believe there are more wineries than people. Some are small tasting rooms on the main drag, like Solena. Others require a little drive and patience, especially if you run into a huge bus load of folks and a wine club, like at Cuneo. If this is the case, just head down the road to the Carlton Winemakers Studio where Domaine Meriwether and Andrew Rich (my favorite) do their thing. Mr. Rich's grapes come from the Columbia River Valley, east of Portland, and the Rogue Valley, south of the Willamette, where it's hot enough for Viognier and Syrah to flourish under the watch of maverick winemakers. I was starting to get sick of Willamette Pinot anyway. Just kidding.
The shell was properly cracked. I was starting to feel something. Hunger. Properly soused from a half day of drinking with no breakfast, I stumbled upon Martha's Tacos in Layfayette. In front of me were carne and pollo asada tucked into homemade corn tortillas, tender braised pork tamales, and a Jarrito. Around me sat two American ladies discussing their finds at the antique shop down the road, two Mexican field workers recharging from an early morning's work, and three Frenchmen chowing down on enchiladas. I take note that Mexican food really does bring the world together.
Everyone that I spoke to about eating recommendations usually ended the conversation about this-or-that fancy-schmancy restaurant with "have you tried Burgerville, yet?" This fast food joint makes its distrinction with its ingredients—all regional and local as possible. Oregon beef, Rogue Creamery blue cheese, Tillamook cheddar, etc. Seemed to good to be true. I walked into a greasy-smelling hub with buzzing fryers and warmers. The employees looked just as happy as they did at McDonald's. But oh my god, that Tillamook Cheeseburger rocked.
There's something called "SPREAD" on Burgerville's menu. I noticed everyone at the tables dipping their fries into little tubs. The lady at the counter described it at "Caesar salad dressing, tartar sauce thing, kinda." Intrigued, I bought a packet and opened it to discover something vaguely akin to Utah's fry sauce (a local frenchy fry dippig obsession limited within the Beehive state's borders—or so I thought). Except this had chunks. And it indeed tasted like somone had mixed Caesar dressing with something else hanging out in the condiment bin. My Utah tastebuds fought it. But by the third bite, it became somewhat good. No ingredient list; couldn't check to see if there was any crack in the mixture.
For proper dinners there were The Painted Lady in Newberg and Bistro Maison in McMinnville. From the first I experienced a salad of tender fingerlings coated in a grainy mustard dressing, a layer of naked frisee, and a confetti of crunchy/velvety duck confit. After that came a slow-roasted wild salmon (brown sugar brined, according to the server) on an oozy mound of of chanterelle mushroom risotto. Consumed more wild mushrooms at Bistro Maison. It studded the rich coq au vin, just after the pork rillettes with cornichons. There are photos from neither of these because it was too dark and the images were shaky. I'll blame it on the time of day and not on the amount of wine.
I stopped by one road to take some photos when I first noticed all the hazelnuts on the ground around me. For whatever selfish reason, I picked up a scattered few, figuring there would still be plenty left after my little harvest. I picked up the smooth shells or a few in their thorny bunches and placed them into a plastic bag and made off with my booty. Later that night at dinner, I overheard the table next to me talk about the hazelnut farmers and how the price for their crop had dropped ridiculously this year. They would only be getting 50 cents a pound for all their labor. They got $2.50 last year. I remembered the rumpled plastic bag sitting in my car and briefly considered driving back to said grove to "re-distribute" the nuts. Instead, I forgot about them, discovered them in my suitcase, and used them for ...
A Midnight Snack to Invoke Vacation Memories
I realize this "recipe" won't be useful for many of you. But I find it immensely helpful regardless of ingredients or technique, as long as the moment is solitary and the room is quiet. A few tastes and a couple of sips with whatever edible talismans from your trip, and the scenery usually comes rushing back.
A bagful of fallen hazelnuts picked (okay, stolen) from a grove by the road * Some wild blackberry honey bought from the roadside stand with the playful and sharp-clawed kitten * 1 bottle of Adelsheim Deglacé Ice Wine (smuggled in), slightly chilled
Toast the hazelnuts in their shells in a large skillet until charred slightly and they emit some sort of lovely fragrance. Tumble the warm hazelnuts onto a kitchen towel on the counter and crack each to enjoy. Alternately drizzle some honey onto the hazelnuts or dip one whole into the jar to see if pairing regional ingredients really rocks. Find that it does and sip some of that figgy Deglacé to toast your discovery. Remember the bunch of grapes, that was the carrot, that lured you out of your numbness. Repeat.