Learn About Wine: The Stars of Oregon and Washington

First with the disclaimer; I am a Junior Wine Executive, having graduated from Ian Blackburn’s excellent Learn About Wine School Credential Program.  I am predisposed to love any and all events my debonair mentor puts together… so it is a good job they are awesome!

Ian has made a name for his annual “Stars” wine tasting events,  but this was his first ever Stars of Oregon and Washington.  I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a special luncheon at McCormick and Schmick’s in Beverly Hills, where a select group of wine makers from the region sat down with members of the press and blogosphere to eat, drink and illuminate.  We tasted seven wines and each wine maker gave a little talk about various aspects of the region, their art and the business.  It was a very lively lunch filled with passionate exchanges as everyone shared both a love of their region and a great pride in the quality and purity of the wines.  I was sitting opposite Scott Jenkins from Duck Pond and found him so fascinating it brought to mind an Alanis Morrisette lyric, “It’s like meeting the man of my dreams… and then meeting his beautiful wife!”  Scott and Lisa Jenkins were hosting the Duck Pond table at the event proper.

WildAire pinot noirPrior to this luncheon, my knowledge of Oregon wines was scant.  I had heard that good Pinot Noir could be acquired there but the region was beholden to whims of weather and if you didn’t keep a firm eye on the year, you could be opening a bottle of swill.  This notion was dispelled almost immediately as I tasted the wines and learned that each region is a mass of microclimates and the area as a whole produces a diverse selection of grapes.  The wine makers ranged from a tiny 1,000 case Pinot Noir producer (WildAire Cellars) to one of the largest Oregon producers (Duck Pond — 120,000 cases), to a producer glowing off the previous day’s 97pt rating in Wine Spectator (Domaine Serene).

I have become used to the opulence of California wine so it was very interesting for me to dive into tastes more reflective of the Old World where the wines may have a less rewarding mouth feel but boy do they work amazingly with food.  Though I found some of the Pinot Noir I tasted a little too austere for my palate, I was delighted with the overall variety and quality.

Duck Pond Pinot GrisI loved the Duck Pond Pinot Gris 2009, from the Willamette Valley.  Pear and Jasmine on the nose, nice acidity with a little oak for structure without being overpowering.  A lovely wine for a Summer night dinner at a ridiculously low price point, $9 — $12.  Duck Pond actually specialize in high quality affordable wine and I might mention I won a case of their Red Blend, 2008, in the TJ Martell silent auction later in the day.

Artisinal Wine CellarsSmall producer, Artisanal Wine Cellars, poured a very satisfying 2008 Pinot Noir, Chehalem Mountains, Adam’s Vineyard.  The wine maker, Tom Feller sources his fruit from small growers and makes only 2,000 cases.  A nose of anis and cinnamon gives way to a burst of raspberries and spice in the mouth. Yummy.

Domaine SereneGoing into this tasting, I knew I was going to be tasting a 97 pointer.  Woo Hoo!  The pressure was on.  Would I recognize this wine as a cut above the rest?  Would I have rated it the stand out of the lunch had not Wine Spectator done it for me?  All I can say is that Domaine Serene Pinot Noir, Grace Vineyard, 2008 was a symphony of black cherry elegance in a perfectly balanced orchestra of the senses.  You are not likely to be able to find it though.  Such is the power of the mighty rating , that wine maker Allan Carter was down to his last 200 cases not 24 hours after the review came out.

Alexandria NicoleAlexandria Nicole poured a big, voluptuous blend of Cab/Merlot/Cab Franc/Malbec/ Syrah (Kitchen sink not included), “Quarry Butte” 2007.  The vineyard is located high above the bluffs on the Columbia River, near the town of Paterson, Washington. Oak, eucalyptus, dark fruit and fig all wrapped up in a blanket of smoke.  Quite a mouthful, but I enjoyed it.

Cougar CrestDeborah Hansen is like the Grand Dame of Walla Walla wine making.  Feisty, knowledgeable, eloquent and engaging.   At lunch, she poured her Cougar Crest Estate Winery “Anniversary Cuvee” red blend, but at the Stars of Oregon and Washington tasting event itself, I discovered what to me was her real gem, Cabernet Franc, Estate, Cougar Hills Vineyard, 2007.  I could not find my tasting notes but I know that I kept going back to her table for another pour.  Let that be your best guide!

Helen Melville