Posted by: David Stewart | May 29, 2011

Giving you good advice on Memorial Day wine country visits

I am usually pretty motivated to stay away from big crowds if I have a choice – I try to stay away from Costco on the weekends, Disneyland in the summer and rush hour driving pretty much all the time.

But sometimes you can find something special when you brave the crowds – Disneyland tries to have all of its rides functional in the summer, for example, and takes several of them down for repairs in the off season.

Local Oregon wineries have been swinging wide their doors for visitors every Memorial Day and Labor Day since I can remember, a time guaranteed to draw crowds. But like Disneyland, they often will embrace the crowds and do something special. Like launch a new wine, bring in live music, feature other artisan growers and do barrel tastings. The trick is to avoid the absolutely mobbed places and enjoy the less-beaten path.

I have friends who habitually visit wineries the weekend before Memorial and Labor Days to avoid the peasantry. I can understand the motivation for this – you might get a somewhat more personal experience, but you might end up running into crowds anyway and miss out on some of the specials. For example, Cooper Mountain Vineyard was releasing their 2009 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir this weekend. I asked if I could taste it on the weekend before, and they refused.  So there.

One final note: the local paper, the Portland Oregonian often puts together a special section devoted to local wineries, which comes out a few days before Memorial and Labor Days. I’m looking at the Oregonian’s "Spring Wine Guide" which came out this week. Unfortunately, I think these are nearly useless. True, there are maps of the local area and where the wineries are, but with hundreds to choose from, a novice taster would get really intimidated.

Better to ask a friend (like me) for advice. And once you start visiting a few places, start asking them who they like. You will get plenty of ideas from these.

So Deb, Anne and I picked out a few smaller places and roamed the less-trodden way. Some tricks to keeping your sanity on Memorial or Labor Day:

  • Avoid driving on 99W if you can. This road which connects Tigard and McMinnville can be like the backbone of a wine country visit, much like California 29 in the Napa Valley. But this road is a real bottleneck, since it is also a major route to get people to and from the Oregon coast, and towns like Dundee refuse to widen the highway through their town.  Much better to take Oregon 219 and 210 into west Portland.
  • Carlton, Oregon is like wine country ground zero these days. You can move around there without tripping over a tasting room. I suspect that it’s a good place to avoid on these holiday weekends; visit at other times.
  • Stay away from the big trendy places with splendid picture windows of killer views and plenty of limo and bus parking. It’s almost guaranteed that these will be jam-packed and a mess. Unfortunately I have to put Penner Ash and Willakenzie in this category. I love the major investment in tasting rooms, but go another time.
  • Try to find some of the places which are only open by appointment only. If you are like me, it is sometimes hard to remember to make an appointment, and on Memorial and Labor Day weekends, these smaller places swing wide their doors and likely do the majority of the year’s business.
  • You might want to be prepared with some picnic food to optimize the drive time.

Memorial Day 2011, and I was tracking a few specials that were going to be introduced, so I arranged a three-hour visit, mixing some smaller favorites with some places I hadn’t visited before. Deb, Anne and I lined up our GPS navigator and our sandwiches and braved the crowds. I will say that beyond a few wide-stance stretch limos, we were not disappointed.

  • Raptor Ridge, whose winemaker is friend Scott Shull now has their one purpose-built tasting room in the Chehalem Mountain AVA, right on Oregon Highway 219. I have have driven past it numerous times and it never registered with me. They were pouring a Pinot Noir Rose, and an Atticus Vineyard 2008 Pinot Noir, which we already own from the Yamhill-Carlton AVA tasting even a few weeks ago. The Raptor Ridge Pinots included a very nice 2008 Yamhill Springs Vineyard Pinot Noir, which we bought a couple of.
  • Ayers Vineyard is a perfect expression of a small Oregon winery – Brad and his in-laws have an operation in the daylight basement / garage of a house on the vineyard property, and are normally open by appointment only. Brad is a really nice guy and will readily tell you his story, how he got into the business and his winemaking. According to Brad, they really try to work on the value-to-price ratio on his Pinots, so this means they are usually reasonably priced, very nice and normally sell out every year. There is no concept of an "Estate Reserve" that gets held back, although he might at some point. On this Memorial Day, they had a duet band (guitar and accordion) who looked appropriately crunchy and country. We got a nice 2009 Pinot Blanc for Anne to take home and a couple more bottles of his 2009 "Pioneer" Pinot Noir.
  • Brick House Vineyard was another place we have never made it to, although they are just down the road from Ayres. The last time I called for an appointment, they were all out of wine for the year, so there was no point in coming. These guys definitely had the best setup. The barn adjacent to the brick house was set for barrel tasting of a Gamey Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir tastings, a local cheese maker with very fresh cheeses and a local honey maker with a portable swarm of bees. The barn itself is appointed with the right collection of country antiques to set the perfect mood.  But even though we bought some honey, we skipped purchasing any wine. Although the Gamey futures were interesting, their flagship Pinot was a 2008 "Evelyn’s" Pinot Noir had a nice collection of flavors and and a good finish but the aromatics were totally missing. And at $58 per bottle, I’m not interested in buying wine that I am not thrilled with.
  • Belle Pente, another by-appointment-only place was launching their 2008 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir. I really liked their 2006 Estate Reserve Pinot, and the New York Times loved their 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot (a "value" label) which sold out very quickly. So I was really anticipating something special in the 2008 Estate Reserve. And I was not disappointed – wonderful smell, dense fruit consistent with this boffo vintage, complexity and a lingering finish. Very nice. We picked up a few of these and a few remaining bottles of the 2006 Estate Reserve that they had left. (I refer to this 2006 as our "anniversary wine" since we had it for our 26th wedding anniversary dinner. Hopefully we will have some drinkable for the next few anniversaries).
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