Tag: pinot blanc

A B&B That Serves Wine for Breakfast

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Bluebird Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast in Willamette Valley

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.

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Sue Shay, Innkeeper, Bluebird Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast

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.

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Vineyards on Bluebird Hill Farm estate

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

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A view of the b&b from the bottom of the property
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Not all of the Christmas trees were removed!
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A Lot of Sass In Willamette Valley

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Are we in the right place?

A couple of months ago we “met” an Oregon winemaker named Jerry Sass on Twitter.  At this point we can’t remember if he followed us first or the other way around.  But either way, after checking out his website we liked what we saw in terms of the winery’s story and the approach to winemaking.  We sent Jerry a note telling him that we would be in Oregon in late September and would love to stop by and meet him in person and check out his wines.  We agreed on the Friday after move-in day at the University of Oregon, which was our reason for being in Oregon.  We set the GPS for the address that Jerry gave and set off from our bed & breakfast; when the GPS said we had about 1 1/2 miles to go, we turned onto a dirt road and proceeded slowly up a rough gravel road.   At least, it was rough for our Prius.  On either side of the road for nearly the entire drive  were Christmas trees – thousands and thousands of them, some just planted and others towering over the new plantings.  “Are we in the right place?” we wondered.  It was difficult to imagine that a vineyard and a winery were going to magically appear among the giant Christmas tree farm.

Finally, we came upon a mailbox by the road whose address matched the one that we had entered into the GPS.  We pulled into the driveway and drove towards some buildings, hoping to find some sign of Jerry.  We felt a bit more confident that we were in the right place as there were many acres of grapevines surrounding us.  We arrived at the first building and peered in at two people working inside.  They both looked a bit surprised to see someone driving into their operation; we waited for a wave, but they just stared at us.  We turned the car around, puzzled, wondering if we screwed up somehow.  Luckily, the two guys in the building came out and asked us, politely, if we needed help.  “Is one of you Jerry?” we asked.  The younger of the two men answered:  “I’m one of the Jerry’s.”  “How many Jerry’s are there?” we inquired. “Three,” he told us.

One of the Jerry’s then said, “hey, are you the wine bloggers from California?”  “Yes, yes, that’s us!” we replied excitedly, happy to know that we were expected.  Apparently there was some confusion as to which Friday we were coming.  We parked the car and introduced ourselves formally to Jerry Sass III, the son of the Jerry that I had been communicating with, and Kevin, a local neighbor that has been helping out at the winery.  We found out that the “other Jerry” would be back soon; in the meantime, “young” Jerry invited us into the winery building and asked if we wanted to taste some wines. And when we say “some” wines, we really mean every single wine that they had on hand in storage.

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Now this is a tasting!

It is important to mention that we arrived at Sass smack in the middle of harvest and crush.  Several days before, they had harvested multiple blocks of grapes, which were now sitting in tanks going through the initial stages of fermentation.  The following morning, they were due to harvest additional blocks of grapes.

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The barrel room at Sass Winery

During the day we were there, Jerry and Kevin were also “punching down” some of the fermenting wine, which is hard, time-consuming work.  Despite the chaos, Jerry Jr. and Jerry III took us through their entire array of white and red wines and spent nearly three hours telling us about their winery, their grape growing methods, and how they approach the art of making wine.

Frequent readers of this blog know that we prefer wines that are farmed organically and  dry-farmed when possible (ie, they do not use any irrigation other than rainfall).  Moreover, we have a strong preference for wine makers that follow a minimalist approach in the cellar – less new oak in the aging process  and judicious use of secondary (malolactic) fermentation for the white wines.  Without question, Jerry’s approach to vines and wine fits in with ours.  For one thing, Sass Winery is a member of the Dry Roots Coalition, a group of grape growers committed to dry farming; in light of climate change and lower rainfall in the West, this is an increasingly important commitment.  A further commitment to the environment is Sass Winery’s certification as a Live Certified Sustainable wine operation.  This certification applies to both vineyards and wine operations and signifies that qualifying wineries meet strict standards of sustainability.  Today, being organic and sustainable makes good business and marketing sense, but that is not why Jerry does it.  He is a purist, someone who believes in the “right” way of doing things, the “natural” way.

This purism, which is combined with a decidedly stubborn streak, is evident in Jerry’s selection of vines on the winery property.  The vast majority of vineyards in Oregon, the rest of the United States, and across the world, are planted on “root-stock.”  This means that a vine was grafted above ground onto an existing vine that is rooted in the ground.  Why do almost all grape growers use rootstock?  Because there is a pest called phylloxera that has, on several occasions, wiped out hundreds of thousands of acres of vines across the world. To combat the pest, which lives underground, grape growers use a phylloxera-resistent rooted vine and graft onto that vine the wine they want to make (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, etc.).  There are those, Jerry among them, that believe using rootstock and grafting vines onto the rooted plant changes the nature of the plant itself and, therefore, the grape that is produced.  As a result, on the 6 or so acres surrounding Sass Winery, 100% of the grapes are “own rooted,” which means the vine was planted in its own roots.  Despite the potential risk of phylloxera, Jerry continues to farm his own-rooted vines because he believes it impacts the integrity of the grapes grown and the wine made from those grapes.

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Vineyards at Sass Winery

Okay, enough about the grape growing and philosophy; how was the wine, you might ask?  We truly loved all of the wines, both the whites and the reds.  With several of the wines, Jerry allowed us to taste multiple vintages so that we could taste the differences caused by unique growing conditions facing them in different years.  Over the course of our visit, we tasted the following white wines from Sass: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.  In our home wine region of Napa Valley, we get our fair share of Sav Blanc and Chardonnay, but we enjoyed tasting Jerry’s take on both of these varietals.  Our favorites among the whites, though, were the Pinot Blanc and the Pinot Gris, two varietals that are not so common in Napa and Sonoma.  Both of these wines are fermented in stainless steel and neutral oak, giving them a crisp finish with little to no residual sugar, but nicely balanced acidity and fruit.  We are not sure if Rosé is a white or a red wine, but we’ll cluster it with the whites for purposes of this narration.  Like the other whites, the rosé is fermented in stainless steel; it does not undergo any malolactic fermentation in order to keep its flavor crisp.

Listing the Sass red wines is easier: Pinot Noir, lots of Pinot Noir.  Lest you think there was only one red wine to try, though, Sass makes several different Pinot Noir wines from the winery estate property as well as the Walnut Ridge estate.  We tasted the Sass Willamette Valley Pinot, the Walnut Ridge Pinot, the Emma Block Pinot, and the Vieux Amis Pinot Noir.  They were all very strong examples of Oregon-style Pinot Noir:  strong cherry aroma and flavor with earthy/mineral tones and some floral notes as well.  Our favorites among the four, though, were the Emma Block and the Vieux Amis; they stood out as having the most depth, balance and finish.

You might think that after tasting 9 different types of wine (and multiple vintages of several) that we would be too toasted to drive.  Thankfully, we learned how to spit at our Napa Valley College class last year, so we were both feeling fine after the tasting.  We left Sass Winery with a case of wine (and a 13th bottle just for good luck), our purchase a clear sign of our appreciation for the quality of Sass wines.  Actually, we left with 13.75 bottles – Jerry told us he did not want all of the wine we opened to go to waste, so he popped a cork into the open Sauvignon Blanc and told us to enjoy it at our next stop, lunch in Salem.  We are believers that good people can win in life, and the Jerry’s are evidence of that.  Hospitable and friendly, stewards of the land, and makers of first-class wine.  We feel like we met someone in Jerry Sass that we will want to stay connected to for a long time.  Certainly, we’ll be back soon to visit.

Just two days later, we had the chance to stop by the Walnut Ridge vineyards, which are owned by Jerry’s partner in Sass Winery, Jim McGavin.

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Jim McGavin at Walnut Ridge Vineyard

There is a tasting room at Walnut Ridge that offers only Sass Wines.  So for the second time in a span of a couple of days, we had a Sass tasting.

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Love these Oregon prices!

During the tasting, we heard about the adventure Jim and his wife Wendy have been on, coming to Oregon from Southern California to grow grapes.  After our tasting, Jim bundled us into his trusty pickup truck and drove us around the 8 acres of vineyards.  We stopped a couple of times on the trip, once to taste some grapes and once just to take in the amazing views from the hill on top of the property.

 

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 11, 2016

 

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More barrels outside
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Two Jerry’s