Posted by: David Stewart | December 12, 2014

Get out of that rut – Eola-Amity edition

A few years ago my sister Susan was visiting Oregon. She was setting up shop for a few days at a friend’s house in the town of Keizer, which is right outside the state capital, Salem. We both had a free day in common, so we decided to get together.

“Is there anything we can do for fun around Salem?”

Well huh, that is a head-scratcher. Frankly after living for 30 years in the Portland area, the state capital didn’t get much of my attention, other than the Oregon State Fair, and it wasn’t August.

Had I known then what I know now, I would have suggested we drive just 15 minutes out of Salem to some of the state’s most outstanding but lesser-known wineries. Don’t make the same mistake as I did. Plan a trip to visit some of these places and get out of your Dundee Hills rut!

There are four really great wineries all within about 4 miles of each other, a mere 15 minutes outside of Salem. Your could easily tackle four tastings at these places on a weekend day. They are clustered around one particular ridge line in the Eola Hills, a zone exposed to the breezes which blow in from the Pacific Ocean up a cut in the Coast Range called the Van Duzer Corridor. 

Those ocean breezes cool the Eola Hills area during summer, insuring that the Pinot Noir grapes have a lot of hang time and don’t ripen too quickly. The wineries will say that the higher elevation vineyards which are more exposed to the Van Duzer wind will tend to have thicker grape skins and thus more flavor.

(Note: Before you finalize your plans, make sure all of these tasting rooms are open. Some may be closed during the deeps of winter.)

  • Witness Tree – A very personal small family operation. The owners and winemaker met in college and are living the dream of a “retirement” as farmers and winemakers. There is a very broad range of varietals, from their delicious Pinot Blanc, Burgundian Chardonnay, a sweet desert wine and a collection of Pinots Noir. I particularly like the Hanson Vineyard Pinot Noir, from a vineyard high and exposed to the Van Duzer winds.
  • Cristom – Named for Christine and Tom, children of the founders. Whole cluster fermentation is the hallmark of Cristom’s Pinot Noir. This is a technique of fermenting the wine stems along with the grapes. The idea here is that the stems contain a lot more of the tannins which will create structure and age-ability. So why doesn’t everyone do it? Some winemakers will add in some whole clusters in very hot years, to counter the stronger sugars created in the heat. (And in cooler years, they will often add in sugar in a process called chaptalization.) But Cristom uses some percentage of whole clusters every year. These are Pinots which are definitely built to age. Most unusually, they also have Syrah growing on their property, which isn’t made into wine on cool years.

  • St Innocent – Next around the hill is Mark Vlossak’s place, named in honor of his father who was born on All Innocents Day. St. Innocent is known for their large collection of single vineyard Pinots from the top vineyards in the valley, such as Shea, Freedom Hill and Momtazi. These wines can be a little tannic when you drink them in the tasting room, so they can be a bit of a surprise if you are not used to the style. But they age wonderfully and will develop for 10 years or longer. The back label reads out the recommended drinking windows if you are confused. The tasting room space is connected to an event room which can be rented out. I really like Mark’s wines, and have quite a few in my cellar.
  • Bethel Heights – Finally around the bend and up the hill is another historic Oregon winery. Bethel’s first vines were planted in the 1970s on their own root stock. This is most unusual, since the European vines like Pinot Noir tend to be susceptible to the phylloxera louse which eats up the roots. But apparently they have vineyard sites which are isolated enough to have survived. These are beautiful, age-worthy Pinots and the view from the tasting room porch is killer. 

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