Last week we posted an article entitled “Top 10 ways to show off at wine tasting” (Top 10.) Today, we are focused on 10 ways to stand out from the crowd – but in a bad way. Hopefully everyone will consider this a list of things not to do rather than a list of suggested activities.
Show up at the winery with no appointment or advance notice and expect to be accommodated. This is especially aggravating when a huge group shows up unannounced – a family reunion or the noisy bachelorette party – and piles out of a van or bus and descends on the tasting room. All or most wineries have specific visit restrictions (per day and per week) in their permits and cannot take all comers. Also, with the exception of the mega-wineries, most wineries have limited staff and simply cannot comfortably handle large (unexpected) crowds. So hey, why don’t you check online before you show up and see if reservations are required, or recommended. Even if they are not, maybe show some courtesy and call ahead and see how busy they are and if they can accommodate you.
Visit five or six or seven wineries in one day. Unless you are an accomplished professional expert at wine tasting instead of wine swallowing, this is simply too many places to visit. After the second or third winery you’ll have blown out your palate and you’re just wasting your time. And thus everyone else’s. Moreover, that many winery visits doesn’t even allow you sit down and soak in the atmosphere or absorb any information. We call these “running tastings” because the groups that do this seem to literally run through the tasting room, hardly stopping to taste or engage.
Complain about the cost of the tasting. Yes, we know, you visited Napa way back when you had hair and wine tastings were free; and the wineries back where you come from have free tastings. Apologies for discussing business but, well, wineries are businesses. If your tasting is $30, or $40, or $100, it’s because that’s how much wineries have to charge to cover all of the saps who visit and don’t buy any wine. Also keep in mind that in places like Napa Valley, an acre of undeveloped land costs upwards of $500,000 an acre. In other words, it’s super expensive and not a fair comparison to your favorite winery in your neck of the woods.
Complain about the cost of the wine. See the discussion in #3. If you want cheap wine, go to a cheap winery. Even in Napa you can visit wineries that sell cheaper wine. If you go to Opus One and complain about the several hundred dollar bottle of Cabernet, that just makes you look bad.
Complain about the size of your pour. Wine tasting rooms are not restaurants or bars. You are not purchasing a glass of wine, you are purchasing a series of small tastes. The objective is to put enough wine in the glass – 1-2 ounce pours are common – to enable you to evaluate the color, aroma and flavor.
Gulp your wine. Wine gulpers – the visitors who don’t even bother to swirl or sniff – can make it through an entire tasting in 5 minutes or less. Slow down. Maybe even sit down.
Get sloppy, stupid drunk. Violations of #6 often lead to this embarrassing outcome. Tasting room managers all have war stories about the person, or groups, that confused wine tasting with getting hammered. The results are many, and we have seen broken glasses, people falling down, yelling and screaming, and even crying (melancholy drunks).
Complain that the white wine is “too sour” or “not sweet enough.” That’s probably what the wine maker was shooting for!
Say that the wine is “not good.” Unless you are a sommelier or other qualified wine industry expert, stick to simpler evaluations: “I like” or “I no like.”
Leave without showing your appreciation. If you had a great time at the winery, consider buying some wine. It might even reduce or eliminate the cost of your tasting. If you don’t want to buy wine, buy something else, like a winery souvenir. We often buy hats or sweatshirts from wineries where we didn’t love the wine but really enjoyed our time (and our wine tasting guide). If you don’t feel like buying anything, leave a generous tip for the tasting room staff.
See you around at a winery some time soon and we hope we don’t cringe when we see you.
Yesterday we passed another milestone: we reached 100 countries where our blog has been read. This is a proof-positive of the global nature of our lives today as well as the wide reach of social media and the scale of blog platforms such as WordPress that are used literally all over the world. For the record, our 100th country was Armenia, the former Soviet republic tucked between Turkey, Georgia, Iran and Azerbaijan. Without question, this new reader was not our first ethnic Armenian as many countries (including the United States) are home to Armenians. And we know for a fact that our good friend Vadim has read the blog. But we are grateful to Armenia for getting us to this surprising milestone and we look forward to seeing how many of the world’s other 96 countries we can penetrate. Here are some fun facts about the 100 countries in which our blog has been read:
The United States accounts for about 75% of our total views. This is expected given that we are in the US and we write our blog in English.
The United Kingdom is our second largest readership base – also expected given the language in which the blog is written. The fact that the blog is read in so many other countries is a reflection of how ubiquitous English has become we suppose.
Croatia accounts for our third-largest viewership among the 100 countries. We did go to Croatia late last year and some of our most memorable posts have been about that trip. (A link to our last post from that trip is here: Croatia blog post).
Of the 100 countries, there are only two with which we were not previously familiar: Mauritius and Cape Verde. Thanks for the 5 views from Mauritius, we now know that it is a tiny island east of Madagascar. As for Cape Verde, it is also a tiny island, but this one is off of the northwest coast of Africa.
Our very latest new viewer comes from the Palestinian Territories which comprise Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Because we are sticklers we are not counting this as 101 because the Territories are not a country. But there are over 4 million residents there and we look forward to more readers there.
Six out of the seven continents are covered – North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. We have not recorded any readers in Antarctica and we may never do so. The way IP addresses are recorded is generally by country and Antarctica is the one continent that has no countries.
We have only visited 25 of the 100 countries that read our blog. Clearly we have to crank up our travel plans for the future!
Virtually all of the countries in which the blog has been read permit the consumption of alcohol. However, there are two (Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia) that do not permit alcohol to be consumed, and we are grateful to our intrepid readers in those countries.
Seven readers have been identified as being from the European Union, which is also not a country so not counted as one of our 100. But it did cause us to do some research and we learned that occasionally IP addresses will identify generically as “EU” when people are working in headquarters locations.
Our final, and perhaps most important fun fact, is that wine is something that people all over the world have interest in regardless of the political structure in that country, dominant religion or class structure.
We appreciate all of our followers and will try to keep posting interesting and meaningful stories and experiences.
John & Irene Ingersoll
June 24, 2017
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There is a winery in Paso Robles – Dracaena Wines – that we have been hearing about for the past year or so. Friends and fellow bloggers have posted about the winery’s Cabernet Franc and the reviews have been positively glowing. On more than one occasion we visited the Dracaena website and took a closer look at their story – and it’s a really cool one. For some reason, though, we never pulled the trigger and ordered any wine from them. Until last week, that is. We are not sure what happened on that particular day that compelled us to go to the Dracaena website (http://dracaenawines.com/) and order four bottles of the 2014 Cabernet Franc. Usually we buy a single bottle just to make sure that we like the wine before making a bigger commitment. However, at $32 a bottle (way below the Napa Valley average for any style of red wine) the value ratio was simply too high to purchase less than four.
Once the order was placed we sat back and waited for the wine and got very excited when the UPS tracking system alerted us the wine was scheduled for delivery that day. Of course, both of us were out when the UPS truck came and all we had to show for our patience was a sticker on the front door promising that they would come back the next day. Early evening the following day we were in the back yard and heard a truck coming up our secluded and dead-end street; at that time of day it could only be a delivery. Both of us raced from our seating area, flew out the back gate and intercepted the UPS man in our driveway: “Do you have something that requires a signature?” we asked him. When he confirmed that one of our packages did in fact require a signature we knew that our wine had arrived. It did not take us long to unpack the bottles and make the four lovely ladies feel at home.
We have read about people who, when their wine arrives, put it away and save it for some time in the distant future. We are not those people. Five minutes after rescuing the wine from the UPS box, we had popped the cork and poured the first two glasses. And the next night? Yes, we had more of the 2014 Dracaena Wines Cabernet Franc.
At the rate we are going we will run of the Dracaena Cab Franc before the end of this upcoming weekend! We will try to be disciplined enough to set aside a bottle or two to enjoy in the coming months – especially now that we have learned that the 2014 Cab Franc is sold out and the 2015 is just being bottled.
Most Americans consume Cabernet Franc not as the exclusive or even primary grape in a bottle of wine, but generally as a smaller percentage blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. A number of producers in the U.S., however, are making 100% Cab Franc (the 2015 Dracaena will be exclusively Cab Franc) or blends where Cab Franc is the majority grape. For an excellent primer on the grape that is in fact one of the “parents” of Cabernet Sauvignon read this article: Jancis Robinson on Cab Franc.
When we took our first sniff of the Dracaena Cabernet Franc, the aroma took us completely by surprise. Often, Cab Franc has a very strong vegetal aroma, in particular bell pepper; we have tasted several Cab Franc’s with people who were turned off by the bell pepper aroma and flavor. (If you want to know why wines have the aroma and flavor of bell pepper, read this easy-to-understand article: Why some wines taste like bell pepper). With its super-value price of $32, we were definitely anticipating that the Dracaena Cab Franc would come across a bit young, harsh, and definitely have the strong vegetal/bell pepper aroma and flavor.
We could not have been more wrong. The Dracaena Cab Franc was smooth, delicate, balanced, and sophisticated. For several minutes after pouring the wine into the glass we were stuck on the first step of the three-step wine tasting process (“sniff, swirl and sip”). We couldn’t seem to get past “sniff” because the Dracaena Cabernet Franc was so richly aromatic. On the nose, the wine resembled something you might expect from France, and this expectation was reinforced on the palate as well. The tannins were present but not overpowering and overall the wine balanced fruit and acidity very nicely.
We have some wines that we call “Tuesday night wines,” usually wines lower in cost and where a price-quality compromise has been considered. On the other end of the spectrum are our “going out wines”: those that are good enough to take to a fine restaurant and share with good friends. The 2014 Dracaena Cabernet Franc is a “going out” wine . . . but at a Tuesday night wine price. An American wine this good for $32.00 a bottle is an absolute find and an impressive addition to the roster of excellent Paso Robles wines.
Now that we know the 2014 Dracaena Cabernet Franc has sold out, we will try our best to hold out and not consume the last bottle until the 2015 release is in sight. With our shaky self-control, however, we may not make it!
One year ago we decided that we wanted to start a blog about life in Napa Valley wine country and our experiences visiting the restaurants and wineries here. Almost immediately we felt that Napa Valley was too narrow a focus as our travels took us to other California wine region and wineries in other states. Before the blog was 6 months old, we found ourselves in Europe writing about our adventures with food and wine across four countries. A year later, we can say that our blog is still focused on sharing our food and wine experiences, but we no longer feel compelled to limit ourselves to any particular region.
When we started we had no plan for, well, anything – frequency of posts, mix of content (food vs. wine vs. travel), length of blog. To the question “how do I become a writer” there is an old joke response: “You write.” That’s how we started this blog: we wrote. Our first post was about a visit to a wine pick-up party where they served a whole roasted pig to accompany the wines being poured. That first blog can be accessed here: A Bovine and Wine Saturday at HdV. As soon as we published the article as better title came to mind “A Wine and Swine Saturday,” but we were too lazy to change it. Faithful readers will know that as often as possible we title our blog posts with some sort of play on words that we hope qualifies as “clever.” More often that not, though, the titles are more corny than clever.
After the first post we managed to write another 57 over the following year – almost 5 a month. This might sound disciplined but the truth is our blog posts have had peaks and valleys rather than coming out in a steady stream. Each of our first three months we managed 3 posts. In August, we were very active visiting restaurants and wineries and we managed to publish 6 posts. Then came October, our most prolific month, where we published 12 separate posts about our California, Oregon and Europe trips. The past few months the “day job” and other personal projects have brought our monthly volumes back down a bit. Our goal as we head into Year 2 of our blogging adventure is to be a little bit more consistent – at least a blog post a week.
Looking back on the past year there are some facts and figures that blew us away:
We went from 0 followers to just over 8,000 at current count. Writing a blog should be a labor of love because there is no guarantee, when you push “publish,” that anyone will see it, read it, or care about it. The first follower was a delightful surprise as have been the ones that came after.
Our blog has been read in 95 countries according to our analytics reporting. Our first follow, in fact, came from Australia from some fellow wine bloggers that we consider to be among the best in the world. As a thanks we will provide a link to their blog: The Wine Wankers. Of course we could not have expected or even dreamed of such a wide reach. We have friends, family and colleagues in probably 20% of these countries; the others we have been able to reach using social media, in our case primarily Twitter. We would like to give a shout-out to all of our international followers and a special recognition for the one visitor in each of the following countries that has read our blog: Tanzania, Mauritius, Fiji, Djibouti and Antigua & Barbuda. Hey, tell a friend about us, maybe we can get multiple readers in your country.
A large majority of our views come from the United States, not surprisingly given where we live, the language in which we we write, and how we distribute our blog. Our second-largest viewership comes from the United Kingdom, followed by Croatia, Canada, Spain, Australia, France, Italy, Germany and India. As we look down the list we realize how popular wine has become across the globe; even in countries where it may violate local laws and/or customs to purchase or consume wine we have followers.
Wine is being produced almost everywhere. As we have pushed our blog across our WordPress platform, Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels, we have met wine makers in so many places. It was a definite learning for us, for example, that all 50 of the United States produce wine. In addition, our eyes have been opened to the excellent wines being made in parts of the world where grape growing is not a traditional form of agriculture.
As we buckle down to Year 2 we promise to sacrifice ourselves for our readers by visiting as many fine restaurants and wineries as we can and tasting wines from all over the glob. Keep sending us your comments and questions and hitting that “like” button when you appreciate what we have done. We hope to avoid a sophomore slump and will do our best to come up with witty/silly/clever/corny headlines and interesting content.
The Oakland Raiders are one of America’s most successful franchises: owners of three National Football league championships and a team that has placed twelve players, one coach and their owner into the NFL Hall of Fame. Over the course of their history, the Raiders have developed the reputation as one of the fiercest teams in the country. So what comes to mind when we think of the Raiders?
For many of us, the Raiders’ logo is the first thing that comes to mind: the pirate or “raider” with the eye patch wearing a football helmet dressed in the team’s sliver and black colors. For others, what comes to mind is an image of the players themselves, either as a unit …
…or perhaps a favorite individual player.
As much as the players are celebrities, the Raider fans have also become notorious for their intense love for their team, their elaborate costumes, and the inhospitable nature of the Raiders’ home stadium, the Oakland Coliseum.
These are the images and ideas that we conjure up when we hear the words “Oakland Raiders.” What we do not conjure up are …Cabernet Sauvignon, fine wine, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. Nevertheless, American football and the Oakland Raiders do in fact have a strong connection to Napa Valley, wine and great Cabernet Sauvignon. This past week at a local Italian restaurant (thanks, Pasta Prego!) we ordered wine from a label that was new to us: Twenty Four Wines. Our waitress explained that “Twenty Four” was a reference to the uniform number worn by previous NFL football player Charles Woodson, a member of the Oakland Raiders (retired in 2016).
The wine had a lovely aroma of dark fruits (blackberry, blueberry) as well as some spice and a hint of oak. Based on the bold aroma, we were expecting a very fruit-forward, high-alcohol wine that jumped out of the glass. Instead, our first couple of sips revealed a very restrained wine; it almost seemed like it was holding itself back. Initially, the fruit was muted by the acidity and dryness of the wine and there was not much to the finish. We decided to let it open up more and a few minutes later the fruit flavors become more prominent as did the tannins, leading to a much longer finish and more satisfying balance of fruit and acidity.
You might wonder how Charles Woodson went from this …
Charles Woodson was drafted by the Raiders in 1998 and attended his first training camp that year in the city of Napa, where we live. Through his annual visits to training camp and exposure to the Napa Valley, Woodson became more and more interested in wine and became friends with some knowledgeable wine people along the way. After leasing a property in Calistoga in 2001, he planted vines and made his first wine in 2005, a Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, he bottles Cab as well as Sauvignon Blanc, which we also had a chance to taste at Pasta Prego. We were impressed with the aroma and flavor of the Sav Blanc as well – a nice balance of fruit and acidity.
Like many of our favorite wineries in Napa Valley, Twenty Four Wines is still a small production operation compared to the “big fish” in the Valley. But with the quality of the wines, the energy of its owner, and the interesting story behind the brand, we anticipate that growth is in their future. Next time you’re going to a Raider game, forget about that flask of whiskey, case of beer, or bottles of tequila. Get yourself a bottle (or six) of Twenty Four Wines and tailgate like a Hall of Famer. And don’t forget your wine glasses, good Cab does not taste good in a plastic cup.
You can find Charles Woodson’s wines here: http://www.charleswoodsonwines.com/
Images of Napa Valley often depict sprawling fields of grape vines and majestic winery structures that resemble castles or Tuscan villas. Certainly those pictures are appropriate as we have literally miles and miles of vineyards and side-by-side wineries along Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. However, Napa Valley is more than just grapes and wineries; for about 135,000 people, it’s the place we live. Although we enjoy the natural beauty of our wine-based agriculture, there are many dimensions to life here – some of them good and some not so good. Since moving here in 2013 we have captured our exploration of the region as well as just everyday life in photos. We share some of our favorites here.
Less than a month after moving into our new home, we decided to plan our first vegetable garden. In addition to peppers, corn, sage, dill, eggplant, cucumbers and rosemary, we planted tomatoes. Lots of tomatoes. The locals started to take notice.
Our hot summer generated some beautiful, plump tomatoes and we were looking forward to a very long growing season. We figured we would be harvesting well into November. Mother Nature had other plans.
A freak hailstorm hit Napa Valley, pelting our homes, cars and plants for about 20 minutes. I am sure we will get very little sympathy from our friends in the Midwest who endure bowling-ball-size hailstones and storms that last hours. But hey, we’re not used to this!
I assured my wife and my mother-in-law (who had just that day planted a bunch of seedlings on the right of the planter box) that everything would survive, recover and thrive. It was a lie. The tomatoes were done after this storm and the rest needed to be replanted in the following days.
The hailstorm was the second-worst event that Mother Nature threw at us our first year. The worst was the 2014 Napa Earthquake which caused hundreds of millions of dollars in loses for homes and businesses.
We bought a lovely hutch for our small but cozy wine room. Because we lived in Los Angeles, we were aware of the risk of earthquakes and the need to secure furniture. Our wine hutch was bolted to its base, and both pieces were bolted to the wall behind. Unfortunately, the wall moved quite a bit in the earthquake and thus so did the wine. Prior to the quake, the hutch held 110 bottles (two per slot, 5 columns by 11 rows); after the quake, it held six. Some bottles remained intact on the shelf below. Many others fell to their death.
We didn’t have the stomach to count the number of bottles that broke, but our rough estimate is that approximately 50-60 shattered after hitting the floor or having other wine bottles fall onto them. We were proud of some of our “babies,” though, for surviving the traumatic event.
My favorite bottles is the one in the lower left-hand corner of the picture; this bottle hit the wall opposite the hutch, probably bounced a couple of times, and landed upright. I imagine this as a really cool gymnastics routine. Tada!
The 50% survival rate for the wine bottles was not, sadly, experienced by our collection of cognac and Armagnac in the living room.
After taking in the destruction in the wine room, we made our way to the living room to see how bad things were there. There, the loss rate was closer to 90 or 95% and there was a brown river of liquid making its way along our brand-new tile floor.
If you look closely you can see the rug that used to be white but is now brown, saturated with cognac and Armagnac.
Everyone was okay after the earthquake and we felt very blessed not to have had much structural damage in the house. But the earthquake, coupled with the freak hailstorm, made us think twice about our move. As someone in Napa said to us, “If I see a locust, I’m out of here!” Luckily there were no other biblical pestilences in 2014.
Almost ten years ago we visited a prominent winery in Northern California to taste some of their wines. We were motivated to visit by the fact that one of the world’s top-rated restaurants (Napa Valley’s The French Laundry) had recently added one of their wines to its impressive wine menu. During the course of our tasting, we asked about their wine-making practices and we learned that they were organic. As it turned out, they were certified organic, which means that they follow certain practices but also comply with a set of complex federal requirements. We assumed that their organic status was something that they would promote on their labels and in their advertising. We were wrong. Why wouldn’t a winery promote its natural, healthy approach to growing grapes and making wine? “Consumers equate `organic’ as sub par,” we were told.
As Loretta Lynn sang in the 1970’s, “We’ve come a long way baby.” Today, consumers are flocking to natural, organic and biodynamic wines made without artificial pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers and other additives. This upcoming weekend, there is a two-day wine fair in San Francisco celebrating and showcasing dozens of California’s natural wine makers. This event, Califermentation, will be held at TerroirSF, a wine bar in the City that caters to organic and natural wines. From 12-4 pm both Saturday and Sunday, there will be at least 20 wineries a day pouring wine for ticket holders. In addition, there will be seminars both days on topics of interest both to wine makers as well as wine consumers. Saturday’s seminar topic relates to the use of sulfur dioxide (a preservative) in wines. Sunday’s seminar topic is on the challenge of sourcing organic grapes in California. One of the speakers for this session, Tracey Brandt, is a co-founder and co-owner at one of our personal favorite natural wineries, Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, California.
Tickets for Saturday only are $45.00 and a weekend pass is $80.00, which seems like a real bargain compared to other wine festivals that we have attended in the Bay Area. We are looking forward to trying out some new wines and tasting some wines we have already tried. For those that want to learn more about Califermentation, we have attached the event flyer below. To buy tickets, click on the link below and find the “Buy Tickets” button. We hope to see you there!
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.
The mother (and mother-in-law) of this blog-writing duo was born and raised in Spain and did not come to the United States until she was thirty years old. She brought with her a fierce pride of her homeland; nowhere was this fierceness more evident than in her preferred beverage: red wine from Rioja. She refused to drink white wine at all (“Why would I drink a white wine when I could be drinking Rioja?”). In her later years, she also refused to drink any wine that was not from Rioja. For many years, finding Rioja in the U.S. was no easy task as the volume of imported Spanish wine was relatively low. “You know, there are some good California wines,” we would tell her. She would screw up her face with outrage and say, “Oh please!” We cannot even imagine what she would have said if we suggested she try Oregon wine; or, worse yet, an Oregon Tempranillo, which is the dominant grape varietal in red Rioja wines.
Over the past 10-15 years, the importation of Spanish wine has increased significantly, both from Rioja as well as other wine regions such as Ribera del Duero, Penedés and Rías Baixas. Today, store shelves have many Spanish options, led by a number of labels from Rioja. Similarly, wines from Spain appear on restaurant menus across the country. Americans have become more familiar with and are embracing the unique aroma and flavor profile of Tempranillo.
Around the same time Mama was bemoaning the virtual absence of Rioja wines at her local liquor store and supermarket, Earl and Hilda Jones had a similar question: why aren’t Rioja and Tempranillo part of the American premium wine scene? Living on the East Coast at the time, the Joneses wondered why Tempranillo and other Spanish varietals were not being planted domestically. Earl and Hilda dedicated several years to understanding the ideal growing conditions for Tempranillo and other Spanish grapes. Ultimately, they identified the Umpqua Valley in Oregon as a suitable location; after more exploration they found the site where they would plant their vines and build their winery. The climate in the Umpqua Valley is very similar to Spain, which may come as a surprise to those that have visited Oregon. However, the Umpqua Valley is in the southern part of Oregon, about 3 1/2 hours driving distance from Portland, and has a decidedly different climate than the northern part of the state.
The Joneses planted their first vines in the Umpqua Valley in 1995 and made their first wine in 1996. They named their winery Abacela, a derivation of an old Spanish and Portuguese word meaning “to plant a grapevine.” Since then, Abacela has grown in reputation for its Spanish varietals, earning international acclaim both for its Tempranillo and its Albariño.
At the end of September we were driving from Willamette Valley back to our home in California, roughly a 7 1/2 hour drive. We asked our B&B hosts if they had any recommendations for winery stops on the way home, and they enthusiastically recommended that we stop for a bit of wine and food at Abacela. When we input the winery address into our GPS, it indicated that we would be driving by at exactly lunch time, which felt like fate!
We arrived at Abacela hungry and thirsty (for wine). They offered a number of food pairing and wine tasting options. Because we wanted to have a “Rioja-type” experience, we opted not to try any of their international varietals (Merlot, Malbec, Syrah) and instead stick with the traditional red varietals from Spain. In our flight we had Graciano, Garnacha, and a couple different Tempranillos. We paired the wine with a traditional platter of Spanish meats and cheeses.
At the risk of Mama putting a spell on us from above, we have to say the wine was very tasty. In Rioja, red wines are generally aged in American oak barrels, which tends to impart a sweeter flavor (vanilla) and a creamier texture. At Abacela, the winemaker uses both French and American oak, including some new oak, which historically was not done in Rioja (older wineries often used the same barrels for decades). We mention this not as a criticism, simply an observation for those that care about things like this. The end result at Abacela, for all the wines we tasted, was a nice, balanced wine – nice fruit aromas and flavor with minerality and earthiness. We took home several bottles of Abacela and look forward to doing a side-by-side tasting of their Tempranillo and some Spanish Rioja that we have at home. In a future post we’ll share those results.
Don Essig has been the public address announcer at Autzen Stadium, the football home of the University of Oregon Ducks, for the past 46 years. In 1990, umbrellas were banned at Oregon football games after fans complained about blocked views. Fortunately for the fans who attended that first umbrella-less game, it did not rain that day. In his pre-game weather report, Essig tossed out a somewhat tongue-in-cheek line: “It never rains in Autzen Stadium.” Somewhat miraculously, it did not rain again at Autzen for 34 games, which made Essig’s line seem quite prophetic.
Of course, eventually it did rain, and has rained many times at Autzen Stadium, as we can attest from last year’s Cal-Oregon game where we had to drag out the coats we never wear in California. And the hats. The gloves. The scarf. The beanie. The rain boots. It rained very hard that day, which was just insult to injury as Cal lost by a wide margin and I went back to my hotel soaked to the bone.
For our second trip to Autzen, though, there was not even a hint of rain. We had the most beautiful blue sky with just a couple of puffy white clouds floating along.
The game we attended was the Ducks’ Pac-12 home opener against the Colorado Buffaloes, a game that coincided with move-in weekend for students. With all of the students back for Fall quarter and thousands of parents in town as well, the stadium was rocking to say the least. For the second year in a row, Oregon lost its first conference home game. Last year the Ducks lost Utah by a shocking score of 62-20 – a six touchdown deficit at game’s end. This year, the Ducks kept it closer, failing to score at the end of the game and losing a close one 41-38.
In both games, something struck us about the fans that attend Oregon games: they are some of the most intense, loyal and committed fans in football. No matter what the score, Duck fans stay engaged, they keep cheering their team on, they find something positive to focus on. Even down by five touchdowns last season, they applauded first downs and big gains knowing that the team could not possibly come back and win. At many stadiums, when a team gets down by 10 points, or 14 points, or worse, the stands start to empty out. Things are different at Autzen Stadium. Last year, at the end of the third quarter, down 54-13, sitting in a torrential downpour, virtually no fans had left the game. Admittedly, after one more score the fans started filing out, but long after they would have most other places.
This fan loyalty must be partially cultural, but also reflects just how difficult it is to get a ticket to a Ducks football game. There are only 54,000 seats at Autzen Stadium – far less than the 100,000+ capacity at other football powerhouses such as Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State or Alabama. Moreover, for students, getting a ticket to a home football game is nearly as monumental as getting a golden ticket in the Willy Wonka movie. About a month before the Fall term begins, a small number of student season tickets is made available via online lottery. Students, including our son, have multiple browser screens open at the Athletic Department website waiting for the stroke of 6 p.m. Pacific Time when the allotment of tickets are put on sale. Most students are unable to get tickets through this lottery process; their recourse is to put their name in for a supplemental lottery each Thursday where single-game tickets are available. With such a mismatch between supply and demand, we suppose that students understand how lucky they are to get a ticket.
One consequence of the high demand-to-supply ratio is that the visitor’s section is one of the most meager and inhospitable of any we have seen in college football. Many stadiums allot the visiting team an entire end zone, or several sections in one of the corners of the stadium. At the Colorado game, we thought for a moment that there were no visiting fans; but when Colorado scored we heard a tiny commotion coming from a group of stalwart fans cheering from the tiniest wedge of a section you could imagine. This was the same for the Cal game and the Utah game in 2015, which tells us that the Ducks simply don’t allocate tickets for the visiting team.
The combination of a hard-to-get ticket, and nearly 100% home fans, make for a raucous and energized crowd. During the entire game, the student section never sits down; the fans are jumping up and down and leading non-stop cheers. Our favorite tradition occurs at the start of the 4th quarter of every Oregon home football game: an entire stadium of fans singing the song “Shout” from Animal House. What’s the connection, you ask? Perhaps the most iconic college comedy of all time was filmed at the University of Oregon, with most of the fraternity scenes shot in an actual University of Oregon fraternity. Ever since the release of the movie, students at U of O have had a strong identity with the movie. Perhaps the strongest “Animal House” identification is with the song “Shout,” performed during the movie by Otis Day & the Knights. We shot a quick video of the assembled 54,000 fans singing the song, clapping and dancing along to the words (“a little bit louder now,” “a little bit softer now”).
Last season, during Oregon Basketball’s run to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, I witnessed the same thing at Matthew Knight Arena, home of the men’s basketball team. Although the basketball arena is a smaller venue, it is indoors so the energy of the crowd was even more frenetic than at the football game. We will try and get to at least one basketball game this Spring, and maybe one more football game this Fall.