A while back our friends Inna and Igor – fellow wine afficionados – proposed a novel idea for a wine tasting: a side-by-side tasting of the same varietal – in this case, Pinot Noir. What made this proposal particularly novel is that all four wines would be from the same producer, Etude Wines. We have visited Etude on two occasions and posted about our very first visit there last summer (Wine With A ‘Tude.). On our visit to Etude we sampled Pinot Noir from vineyards in Napa Valley’s Carneros region. Our friends’ proposed tasting would consist of four Etude Pinot Noir wines that were new to us: one from Sonoma Coast, two from the Santa Barbara area, and one from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
We didn’t spend too much time thinking about the proposal, quickly agreeing to the idea and setting a date for the tasting. When we arrived at our friends’ house we saw right away how seriously they were taking the tasting endeavor.
Not only were the wines poured but there was a tasting sheet to write notes and comments and tally scores. Like all athletic endeavors, wine tasting needs the right level of hydration and nourishment.
When we took our seats at the table each of us sized up the wines and took a few minutes reading the labels and tried to find some nugget of information that would give us an edge in the wine tasting challenge. For the record, the four wines were:
2014 Etude Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills (Santa Barbara County)
2014 Etude North Canyon Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley (Santa Barbara County)
2014 Etude Yamhill Vista Vineyard Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley (Oregon)
While there were no financial stakes in this great wine taste-off, pride was certaintly at stake and each of the four participants was hoping to show off his or her wine acumen and ability to distinguish aromas and flavors. For the first several minutes only murmurs could be heard as we lifted the glasses and tried to make sense of the different color shades in each glass. Hmmm, the first one looks slightly darker than the second, perhaps that signifies that it was grown in a hotter climate and the grapes ripened more? Then came the sniffing excercise – trying to identify aromas that would distinguish the four Pinot Noir wines from each other.
Looking back, we have to laugh a little bit because we set ourselves up for quite a challenge: identifying which wines came from which region even though 3 of the 4 wines are from California and two of them were from wine regions separate by just a few miles. Finally we got to the tasting, which resulted in more murmurs and mutterings under our breath and furious note-taking. After each wine we confidently assigned it to a region only to furiously cross it out immediately after tasting the next wine and confidently jotting a region down next to it. By the fourth wine almost every confident prediction had been changed to something else, changed back, and then changed again.
When we finally made our collective way through the four Etude Pinot Noir wines and made our “matches” to wine region, the time came to uncover the bottles and reveal their geographic identity. Despite all of our cumulative years of wine tasting, the best effort in the wine tasting match was 2 out of 4, with at least two of us guessing only 1 out of 4. Stubborn people that we are, we decided to do a second round of tasting, mixing the wines up again and trying to apply the lessons learned from the first round. Memory is somewhat hazy after the amount of wine consumed but I recall that no one did better in the second round than the first. Naturally, we concluded that another round of tasting would be a good idea, for some reason expecting that the cumulative effect of the two previous rounds of tasting would promote greater accuracy. Round 3 was no more impressive than than the earlier efforts; clearly none of us is ready to take on the Master Sommelier exam just yet.
Rather than proceed to a round 4 we decided instead to polish off the remaining Pinot Noir and enjoy them just for their own sake, with no competition involved. To top off the afternoon we enjoyed a fantastic lunch paired with one of the Croatian wines that we will soon be introducing to the United States market.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We spent nearly a week in Oregon at the end of September, a trip motivated by the need to drop our son off at the U of O. We decided to add a couple of days to the trip and visit some wineries and wine regions we have not been to before. One of the benefits of writing a wine blog and having an active presence on Twitter (@topochinesvino) is the connection to new friends across the United States and around the world. Over the past six months or so, we have developed friendships in the Twittersphere with a number of winemakers and winery managers up and down the state of Oregon. We built our non-campus activities around in-person visits to their wineries to learn more about their wines and what led them to this often challenging way of life. We think we’ve made some lasting friendships from our visits in addition to tasting some of Oregon’s top-notch wines.
Over the course of our 6 days in Oregon, we had a wide range of adventures and experiences:
We saw an Oregon football game (our first together) in the very impressive Autzen stadium in Eugene.
We stayed at two very different but lovely B&B’s, both of which have vineyards and are producing their own wines.
Despite having visited Oregon multiple times, we discovered a part of the Willamette Valley (the southern region) that was new to us.
In between winery visits and campus activities, we were able to enjoy some superb restaurants.
On the drive home, we encountered two wine regions that until recently we did not know existed: Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley.
We will be posting about all of these experiences over the next several days, with of course lots of photos to accompany our stories. For now, we leave you with a few pictures to whet the appetite for what is to come.