We traveled to Oregon in late September to drop off a kid at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Wrapped around that momentous event, we planned a series of adult activities for ourselves: wine tasting, visiting some nice restaurants, attending an Oregon football game, and staying at some wine country bed and breakfasts. This post is the fifth and final in the September 2016 Oregon series.
When we started to look for a hotel room in Eugene for a couple of days in late September, we realized that we had waited too long. All rooms, ranging from “nice” to “halfway decent” to “ugh, at least it’s only for two nights” were booked. The rooms that fell into the even lower categories of accommodations were demonstrating the interaction of the competing economic forces of supply and demand by charging Ritz-Carlton prices for accommodations so substandard that nearly all Yelp reviewers advised sleeping in the car as a preferred alternative. We decided not to stay in Eugene at all and started looking for something a bit outside of town. By a stroke of good fortune, our internet search led us to a cozy bed & breakfast: the Bluebird Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast. Located in Monroe, Oregon, about 45 minutes north of Eugene and 30 minutes south of Corvallis, Bluebird Hill Farm is a perfect spot for visitors to either University of Oregon or Oregon State.
We stayed at the B&B two nights, the first of which was after the Oregon football game; because we had dinner after the game, we didn’t arrive to Bluebird Hill Farm until well after dark. Our innkeeper, Sue Shay, must have heard us coming up the driveway and was outside to greet us when we got out of the car.
She led us upstairs and showed us to our room, one of only two in the B&B. We noticed right away that there was a large window overlooking vineyards outside, a pleasant reminder that we were in the heart of Willamette Valley. We wondered whose vineyards they were, a mystery that was cleared up the following morning at breakfast.
We slept in late and slowly made our way downstairs for breakfast. Sue had arranged a nice spread for us in their dining room and we loaded up with coffee and breakfast goodies for the day ahead. During breakfast, Sue sat with us and gave us the history of not only the B&B, but also of the vineyards and winery operation. As it turns out, the vines we could see outside of our window belong to Sue and her husband Neil. Like many other Oregon winemakers that we met, the Shay’s story of becoming winemakers in the Willamette Valley has a charming, modest and almost accidental feel to it. In 2010 the Shay’s moved to Oregon after Neil took a position at Oregon State as Professor of Food Science and Technology. Neil and Sue wanted to live out in the country and they spent about a year looking for the perfect spot. Their patience paid off when they found a six-acre property with a lovely home surrounded by overgrown Christmas trees.
As we noted in one of our earlier Willamette Valley post (A Lot of Sass In Willamette Valley), we saw hundreds of acres of Christmas trees being farmed in several spots in the Valley. As we enjoyed breakfast, Sue told us that when they moved in to their new home, the six acres were dominated by these trees. They blocked views from the house to the Valley below and also took up land that could be put to better use. During the week Neil worked his professorial day job; on the weekends, he and Sue took on the herculean chore of cutting down about 2,000 trees. If we had to cut down 2,000 trees – or 2000, or 20, or probably even 2 ,we would hire someone. Not the Shay’s. With a trusty chainsaw in hand, they cut and cleared the trees themselves, giving themselves not only a gorgeous view but a lot of open land suitable for planting.
And what do you suppose they planted? Grape vines, of course! True to their Willamette Valley location, they planted Pinot Noir; the first vines were planted in 2013. The Shay’s also planted Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, two white varietals that are also very common in the Valley. They now have about three acres planted on the property.
Today, the Shay’s are selling the fruit of their labor (or is it the labor of their fruit?) through their own winery ,which they have named Bluebird Hill Cellars. Their wines are made from grapes grown on the estate as well as fruit sourced from other high-quality producers in the Willamette Valley. Like others we have met, the Shay’s did not come to Oregon with the expectation that they would grow grapes and make wine. Instead, they followed Neil’s job opportunity and picked a serene and beautiful property on which to live. When they describe the decision to plant some grapes, it sounded very casual, not at all compelled by a commercial purpose, but for perhaps the same reason that we plant tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables in our garden every year. At some point, again seemingly without commercial motivation, the Shay’s decided to make wine from their fruit. We do not know what their long-term aspirations are in terms of size and volume, but we do know that they are committed to being very involved in their grape growing and winery operations and selling small-lots that meet their high standards.
For the two days that we stayed at Bluebird Hill Farm B&B, we got an up-close view of what a small lot, husband-and-wife wine operation looks like. Each morning, while we were enjoying breakfast, Neil was working with the grapes that had been harvested in the days leading up to our visit: doing “punch downs” when necessary and measuring “Brix” (sugar levels) in the fermenting wine. In the middle of one of our breakfasts, Neil came into the kitchen with a couple of glasses of what looked like grape juice – except that they were in wine glasses. After having Sue taste the samples, he put some glasses in front of us and let us taste them. One of the samples was from approximately a week prior, so it was pretty far along in its initial fermentation and had a higher alcohol content. The second sample was from a few days ago and it still had a fair amount of sugar and the alcohol was not as pronounced. Finally, the third sample was from grapes crushed the previous day and tasted as yummy as any grape juice we’ve had. Perhaps we should have felt some level of shame for wine tasting with our breakfast, but for some reason it felt natural and normal.
After breakfast we left for a day of wine tasting and exploring, including a stop for dinner along the way. Sue promised that if we made it back early enough she would let us taste their wines – not the fermenting juice, the stuff that actually made it to a bottle. When we got back, Neil and Sue were having dinner with Bobby Moy, their smart, young winemaker who, like us, lives in Napa Valley. We told Sue that we didn’t want to get in the way of their dinner and would skip the tasting. She was having none of it and invited us to join them on their outside deck. The Shay’s opened all of their wines and we had our tasting overlooking the vineyards on a beautiful Willamette evening. It was a special feeling, more like sitting with friends than visiting a winery. Adding to this special feeling was having Bobby there giving us inside information on each wine, vintage, and sharing their wine making approach. It was exciting for us to see two people approaching the wine business with a mixture of adventure, seriousness, curiosity and humility.
We enjoyed the Bluebird Hill Cellars Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, as well as their Rosé of Pinot Noir. We purchased bottles of all of these wines to take home with us. Many of their wines are sold out until the next vintage is bottled, but their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Rosé are available for sale on their site: http://www.bluebirdhillcellars.wine/shop. Unlike small-lot producers in Napa, which often charge exorbitant prices for their wines, Bluebird Cellars’ wines are very reasonably priced: $20 for the Rosé, $22 for the Pinot Gris, $28.00 for the Chardonnay, and $32.00 for the Pinot Noir. In our opinion, the Bluebird Hill Cellars wines can hold their own against much more expensive Willamette Valley offerings.
As we pulled out of the B&B driveway on our long drive home on Monday morning, we felt like we had made new friends that we hope to see again soon. Certainly, the next time we have to be in Eugene, we will skip the chain hotels, even if reservations are available, and stay with Neil and Sue at Bluebird Hill Farm B&B. The tranquility of the setting and the warmth and hospitality are well worth the extra few miles of driving.
John & Irene Ingersoll
October 19, 2016