Posted by: David Stewart | March 9, 2012

Good wineries around Salem? Really?

Last year when my sister Susan and her husband visited Oregon from their home in Burma, their schedule was so tight we only got to spend a day with them and it had to be in the Salem area. Other than attending the Oregon State Fair most years (which is a real hoot), we were pretty unfamiliar with something fun to do together.

Little did we know about the wine producers in the Salem area, some of which are only a 20 minute drive from the center of town. Are there good wineries around Salem? I would say there are some great wineries there! I got a chance to visit a few of them last weekend and have a few observations.

Just 25 minutes from the Fairground

There is a cluster of very nice wineries along a stretch of country road. You can even skip past the town of Salem itself and take the Wheatland Ferry across the Willamette from I-5.

St. Innocent – The name of this producer is in honor of winemaker Mark Vlossak’s father, who was born on All Innocent’s Day. On the day I visited, I was able to arrange to taste a flight of nine Pinots, almost all of them 2009 single vineyard wines. (The sole 2010 was their  “Villages Cuvée” which combines juice from all of the six vineyards they draw from.) This kind of tasting allows one to experience the taste difference between different plots of ground but the same winemaking techniques. Some of the vineyards (like Shea) are shared by a number of other producers like Raptor Ridge, Boedecker and Shea Vineyards themselves, so you can see the effects that the winemakers have. I particularly liked the Freedom Hill Pinot, which is from 20 year old vines and had intense berry flavors, dark extraction and nice balance of fruit to acid.

Christom – just up the road from St. Innocent is a winery operation named for the next generation: Christine and Tom are the children of the founding owners; Tom is the current boss of the operation and I met him at Pinot in the City last year.  They are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, and some of their single vineyard wines are even older: Marjorie Vineyard was planted on its own rootstocks in 1982, and is being replanted as the old vines die of phylloxera. The 2009 Marjorie is quite mellow and nice. The tasting room staff in my visit made a point of listing out the percentage of whole clusters in each wine. This is a technique which includes both the berries and the stems in the fermentation vat, and increase the flavors from tannins, the woody, herbaceous flavors found in tea. Whole clusters are often used when you have a very hot year, and you need to balance out the intense fruit flavors from the resulting extra sweet berries. But Christom seems to use whole clusters every year to a greater or lesser extent, which might make these wines evolve in the cellar in a very interesting way.

Witness Tree – is named after an old oak tree which was a surveyor’s landmark back in the 1800s, and like Christom, their next-door neighbors, they have some old vines which date back to 1982. They have an interesting variety of Pinots, from the fruity new world style Estate cuvee, to their Hanson Vineyard wine, which is at the highest altitude of their holdings. This vineyard is exposed to the winds coming down the van Duzer Corridor from the coast, and the resulting wine is more acidic as the grape skins have to be thicker. While I was in the tasting room, a local couple came in to buy a case of Pinot Blanc, which is their favorite sipping wine, although they complained that they didn’t get as good a case discount as club members got!

Bethel Heights – follow the road back to St. Innocent and keep going up a hill and you will reach Bethel Heights, one of the oldest wineries in Oregon. Their tasting flight on the day I visited was structured to compare two vintages, 2008 and 2009, in two of their single vineyard wines, the estate’s Southeast Block and the Justice vineyard. The latter vineyard was apparently named by the vineyard’s owner, who is a lawyer. This mini-vertical tasting was quite instructive in how different a wine can taste with just a year between them. And the years ’08 and ’09 were superficially quite similar in terms of stronger fruit concentration, at least compared with the relatively lighter extraction 2007. The usual reputation of ’08 as a knockout year was actually swapped around a little in the Southeast Block, with the ’09 coming out a bit stronger and the ’08 more restrained. The Justice wines were quite approachable and drinkable today, though they will age quite well. These are all $50 Pinots, and they are wonderfully balanced between fruit and tannins which should make them age-worthy.

Further Out from Salem

If you have time and inclination, there are other producers with terrific wines to taste, as you wander further north towards McMinnville.

Maysara -just off of state highway 18, where the Lawrence Gallery stands and where the Oregon Tasting Room was once the place to go to taste and learn about Oregon wines is Maysara. Anyone with an interest in biodynamic winemaking, or have read Voodoo Vintners knows the story of the Momtazis and their escape from Iran on motorcycles. The Momtazi Vineyard is a very large plot of rolling hills with strolling livestock and a stream tinkling along. Maysara is building a massive hanger of a winery, made 95% of materials from the property. The tasting room is like a cavern hewn from the local rock dynamited from their hills. The Pinots were a range of 2008’s and 2009’s, poured on the day I visited by Naseem, one of the Momtazi’s daughters. These are mostly cuvees, rather than single-vineyard wines, but the 2008 Asha is from only two sections of the vineyard. These are terrific wines, and their 2009 scored 94 points.

Amity – One of the oldest wineries in Oregon, Amity is a bit off the beaten track in the little town of Amity, Oregon. My history with Amity is a bit strange, since I have some really old Oregon wines in my cellar. Once of these was a 1981 Amity Winemaker’s Reserve, which we opened and drank last Thanksgiving. It was a truly marvelous wine, with savory complexity and mellow fruit still shining through. So my kids told me that I should buy more Amity this year, and save it to open 30 years from now. By then I think I might be too old to enjoy it, but I dutifully bought a couple of bottles and clearly marked it “Do Not Open Until 2040!” Even though the tasting room does not officially open until June, the winemaker Darcy let me in and taste a few of their current releases and buy a little.  Their 2009 Bass Vineyard is very accessible and drinkable today with really amazing perfumed nose. The 2007 Winemaker’s Reserve is a more tannic, old-world style Pinot which hopefully should age well… to 2040, I hope.

Bergstrom – and finally, I made a stop at this high-end biodynamic producer north of Newberg. They had a nice selection of 2009 and 2010 wines. Look in bottle shops for “Old Stones” and “Cumberland” for their lower-priced Pinots. The single vineyard wines run up into the $60s.

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