A side trip to

Wine Country of Oregon and Washington

November 2013

Setting the Stage

Several factors came together to suggest a somewhat unusual trip. Our younger son and his family (including two 10 month old twins) are living in the Seattle area, I had a free "companion ticket" that I could use into Portland but not Seattle, and we had previously talked about visiting some of the areas around the Columbia River Gorge and the surrounding wine producing areas. So we made the decision to fly into Portland, OR, spend a couple of days in the Willamette Valley wine area, then drive along the Columbia River Gorge and on into the Yakim valley of southern Washington. After a few days there we would continue up to the Seattle area to spend Thanksgiving with our son and family. It seemed like a good plan and overall it worked out well.

I should make a disclaimer here, if you have not seen it before; I am very far from a true wine critic. I know what I like but I may not know the difference between tannin and acid taste. These reviews are more about the tasting experience as a pleasent pasttime rather than being a traditional review of the wines. If you are looking for meaningful analysis of a wine's nose or finish or what fruit(s) it tastes like, you should probably look elsewhere.

Initial travels
Friday, Nov 23

The flight to Portland went well, arriving a little early. Even more impressive was the unusual weather on the approach in to Portland. The sky was cloudless and the air was very clear. The flight attendants acted as tour guides and pointed out the various mountain peaks in the area, including Mt St Helens, Mt Hood, and Mt Rainer, and they could all be seen at the same time from our airplane, although from different sides. In other words, the weather was perfect, if perhaps a little cool, but more on that later.

Approaching Portland we had a great view of Mt Hood.

After arrival we picked up our rental car and headed to McMinnville to check in at the Comfort Inn. It was relatively new and as comfortable as its name implies, with a reasonable room and an included breakfast. We would be here two nights. But, this part of the trip is about tasting the wines of Oregon and Washington, so let's get to that task…

The Comfort was, well, comfotable.

The Plan for the Wine

When planning the trip I found that there are many vineyards and wineries and was having trouble deciding which ones to visit. Then I realized that both the Willamette and Yakim valleys each had about 5 or 6 AVAs (American Viticulturall Areas). Each AVA should be a bit different from the surrounding areas and offer different growing conditions and therefore, different wines. By selecting one or perhaps two wineries in each AVA, we should get a good selection of the local wines and, since the AVAs are somewhat dispersed geographically, we would get a good tour of the whole area by traveling between and among them. With this plan in mind, we set out.

Oregon Wine

Coeur de Terre

The Coeur de Terre Winery and tasting room.

After checking into the Comfort Inn, we still had quite a bit of time, so we headed to the McMinnville AVA and our first stop was the Coeur De Terre Winery. They focus on organic farming techniques and sustainable methods. Although they say they specialize in their Pinot Noir (as do most Willamette Valley wineries), the first wine we sampled was a Riesling and it was indeed memorable. Apparently they wanted to emphasize that not all Rieslings are sweet, so they made this dry… not just dry but "bone dry" (their words). It was actually a bit of a shock. They did have a only "slightly dry" Riesling that was good as well as a nice Pinot Gris and the previously mentioned Pinot Noir, which was good. We figured that we would be finding plenty of Pinot Noirs, so we took a bottle of the nicely crisp Pinot Gris.

Inside the friendly tasting room.

The tasting room was comfortable and the host, originally from France, was pleasant and informative. Another group of 6 young people came in while we were there, as well as a single woman. The group said that they had just come from Youngberg Hill Vineyards a little up the road and on our way back toward McMinnville and that it was a pleasant place to visit. That seemed to be a good omen, so.....

Youngberg Winery

We found our way to Youngberg Hill Vineyards which appeared to be a larger operation than Coeur De Terre. The approach to the Winery was impressive as you drive up a long driveway up to the Winery and related Bed & Breakfast.

The Youngberg winery and B&B sits on a hill overlooking the vineyard.

The combination of tasting room and B&B provided a large and comfortable setting. A deck overlooking the vineyard and valley provided a beautiful, if chilly, place to enjoy the wine. Looking to the left you could easily see Mt Hood, which must have been a good 70 miles away. The owner of the winery was conducting the tasting. (We found that this is a very slow time for the tasting rooms, so many of them did not have their usual tasting staff but instead relied on the owners or winery staff.) We had noticed the various ages of the vines along the driveway and asked about this and the owner described the various plantings and different varieties of grapes in the different soil and sun areas. The tasting was very relaxed as we and the owner talked with several other people there.

The Youngberg tasting room is one end of the B&B.

He had several different Pinot Noirs of different vintages and from different blocks in the vineyard and you could definitely taste a difference, although they were all good. They also had a Pinot Blanc and a Pinot Gris, but since we already had a Pinot Gris from Coeur De Terra, we chose one of the Pinot Noirs (the Natasha Pinot Noir, named after one of his daughters) to take with us.

That evening

After visiting Youngberg we headed back to town for the evening. After resting up a little, we drive into town (McMinnville) and walked around, looking for a suitable place to eat.

Mainstreet of McMinnville.

It was a rather cold and windy walk and we ended up at an Italian Restaurant, Nicks. It was an interesting meal that some would probably consider cutting edge Italian cuisine. The antipasto included a little sausage and cheese, but also things like chicken liver pate, which is not one of my favorites.

Anne Amie Vineyard

Like Youngberg, Anne Amie sits on top of a hill overlooking a vineyard.

Saturday, Nov 24

The next morning we had breakfast at the Comfort Inn and for a little exercise, we walked into town for a good cup of coffee then toured a nice park they have. It was a chilly walk, but we definitely got some fresh air. Then we headed out to visit some wineries.

Anne Amie Winery

The first winery of the day was Anne Amie in the Yamhill AVA. It was a very complete winery and tasting facility and it had already attracted a fair crowd by the time we got there. It was a very organized tasting room with multiple tasting stations and hosts at each station.

The busy tasting area of Anne Amie.

As with most of the other wineries they had Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, as wells as some others like Pinot Blanc. We left with a slightly dry and fruity Riesling. The primary thing of interest about Anne Amie as it turns out is the "Cube Project". One of the tasting leaders explained it to us; three wineries in three different areas have harvested the same variety of grapes (Pinot Noir) for three years and have interchanged the grapes so each year the three wineries each produce three wines, for a total of nine wines per year. The idea is to see how much effect the soil and growing conditions versus the effect of the winemaker. We tasted a couple of the wines that resulted from the project and the differences were subtle, but definite. What made this interesting to us is that one of the other wineries, Bouchaine in Napa Valley, is one of the wineries we visited the prior year. So we have visited and tasted at two of the three wineries involved in the Cube Project. To make this even more interesting, about two weeks after our return home from this trip, the next issue of the Wind Spectator magazine had a feature column about the Cube project.

Mystic Winery

After leaving Anne Amie we drive quite a ways to the EOLA - Amity Hills AVA. When we found Mystic Wines, it was about the opposite of Anne Amie; very small and personal. The tasting room was located in the entry of an old house, with a fire going in the fireplace in the "living room". A couple of the family members were in the vineyard between the winery (house) and the road, planting some more vines. From the small front porch you could clearly see Mt Hood across a valley., but still more than 70 miles away. Matter of fact, the winery was located on "Hood View Road".

You can see Mt Hood from the porch of Mystic Wines.

They seem to only produce red wines, including Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and, of course, Pinot Noir. Since Sarah tends to be a bit unusual in this area, we left with a bottle of 2008 Sarah, which was also very good.

Trisaetum Winery

We had initially intended to visit a different winery in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, but they were having what appeared to be a very social and large "weekend before Thanksgiving" event that didn't look that fun for outsiders, so we started looking and ended up at the Trisaetum Winery. They were also having somewhat of a special event, but much more approachable. Trisaetum appeared to be a rather new vineyard and winery and very much designed for hosting social events. The tasting was spread throughout the winery with the participants moving from one tasting station to the next. For example, there were two tasting stations located in the barrel room, each pouring one wine.

The first tasting location was in the fermentation room

There were two tastings in the barrell room.

The final tasting was in the art gallery.

As with many of the Willamette wineries, they focused on Pinot Noir and Riesling wines with multiple variations of each with several "Single Vineyard" Pinot Noirs from different vineyards. Part of the winery was an art exhibit with a couple of artists showing their (to us) over priced works. Perhaps we had already had too much Pinot Noir by this time to adequately appreciate the wines here, but we just didn't connect with anything and the tasting hosts either didn't know enough about the wines to discuss them or perhaps they were getting tired as it was late in the day. In any case, we left without buying anything.

Since we had a relatively big lunch we did not feel hungry for a large dinner. We opened one of the bottles we had collected and had some cheese and crackers and fruit in our room and called it a day.

Sunday, Nov 25: Mc Minnville, OR to Yakima, WA

Touring the Columbia River Gorge

As windsurfers, we had heard many stories of windsurfing in the Columbia River Gorge and wanted to take a look, although we did not expect to actually see any windsurfers in the cold weather. After breakfast we left the Comfort Inn, drove up to the Columbia River and headed east. The scenery is impressive with the river and high bluffs and mountains on both sides. Occasionally we would get glimpses of Mt Hood or other mountains. We stopped at a couple of parks and overlooks for sightseeing but almost froze; the wind was blowing through the gorge and the air was a bit damp with the temperatures in the 20s so it was COLD, even with decent coats on.

The falls were beautiful, but the air was too cold to enjoy it.

We drove along the southern side of the river until we got to the town of Hood River, where we stopped to take a look at one of the primary windsurfing sites and then have a cup of Starbucks coffee.

In the summer months there would probably be windsurfers all over here.

We then crossed the river on the bridge at Hood River and continued eastward on the north side of the Columbia River. Again, the views were impressive and we stopped a couple of times to enjoy them. It was about noon when we got to our first winery of the day in Washington.

Maryhill Winery

Maryhill is in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA near the town of Maryhill, WA. They have a fairly large complex, with the winery, large gift shop and a very nice outdoor amphitheater. They run a series of concerts and other activities in the warmer months and much of the winery seems to be oriented toward this feature.

Maryhill Winery complex included this tasting room and shop, The amphitheater is behind us. .

They offered many different wines, too many in my opinion. They did have a couple of relatively unusual verities that I had not expected. I understood that they grew mostly Sangiovese in their own vineyards and bought the grapes for most of their other offerings from other local vineyards. My impression was that, although all the wines were good, there was nothing that seemed really special or unusually good. It seemed like the old problem of trying to do so many things that you end up doing nothing really well. That and the focus on the entertainment and hospitality business tends to detract from the winemaking.

Maryhill Tasting room and gift shop.

We left with a Barbara wine as I was a bit surprised to see that variety and I have come to like it. I don't think we tasted another Barbara during our trip

Columbia Crest

Probably the largest winery in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA is Columbia Crest. It is in the town of Peterson and there is not much else there, not even a normal gas station. (We were running low on gas so we checked into this.)

The Columbia Crest visitor center and winery is impressive.

I had checked into things ahead and found that you could get a special wine pairing tasting, with different cheeses to go with the different wines. I had made a reservation for this for 2:00 and we arrived right on time. I guess the fact that there were very few other people there and we had made special reservations caused them to really treat us well. They set up the tasting and cheeses while we looked around and then one woman spend most of her time with us.

It was a large facility, but almost deserted when we visited.

After we finished that tasting, she invited us to try some other wines also. The wines were all very good; I did not realize that Columbia Crest made so many different lines and price points of wine. We also found out that Columbia Crest is actually an offshoot of Chateau St Michele and that even 14 Hands, another wine we frequently drink, is also part of the same corporate structure. I was mostly impressed with some very good reds, including some good Cabs. Although it is not normally my style, I was also impressed by a slightly sweet Viognier. We left with a sparkling Rose to take for Thanksgiving (for our son who is not a wine drinker) and a H3 (Horse Heaven Hills) Red Blend.

This is a small part of the barrell room we toured prior to the tasting.

Although we normally enjoy the smaller wineries more, we were impressed by Columbia Crest and enjoyed our visit there very much.

After leaving Columbia Crest we drove north, away from the Columbia River, to Prosser, WA and then up the Interstate, NW to Yakima. Here we stayed at a new Fairfield Inn. It was very clean and provided a good breakfast, but the room we had was rather small, with room for little more than the king bed, a desk and a chair. For dinner we went to a Mexican restaurant that was highly rated in Trip Advisor and the food was pretty good, but the seats badly needed reupholstering or replacement and the service was somewhat spotty.

Monday, Nov 26 Yakima Valley

The next morning we wanted to get a little exercise before heading to a winery but the temperature was about 18 F and we were not prepared for that. We went next door to a Target and bought knit caps and gloves and then took a nice walk on a walkway along the Yakima River.

The walk along the Yakima River was pretty, if rather cold at 20 degrees..

Tierra Blanca Winery

The first winery we visited in the Yakima Valley was Tierra Blanca (white earth) In the Red Mountain AVA. This is a good sized winery with extensive hospitality facilities but there was only one other person there for a tasting while we were there.

The outside of Terre Blanc was impressive.

The young woman leading the tasting was very helpful and friendly and answered several questions we had about the AVA and the winery. She also provided us with a box to ship wines, which cane in very handy later. They offer an extensive set of wines in three different lines. Not all the grapes are actually grown in the Red Mountain AVA but we chose two wines to take with us which were. The Chardonnay is very lightly oaked and maintains a crispness while maintaining the Chardonnay taste while the Merlot we choose (out of many) was a 2005 vintage that had mellowed just a little and added a bit of character.

And the inside is just as impressive, especially with almost no visitors.

Although Tierra Blanca is a fairly large winery, we had a very personal and pleasant tasting experience.

Vineheart Winery

The second winery to visit this day was the Vineheart Winery in the Yakima AVA. This winery was somewhat off the beaten path and had a very simple tasting room. The wife in the husband and wife owner team came out from her house/office into the tasting room when we pulled up into the parking lot where we were the only visitors.

The dog was friendly and welcomed us to the tasting room.

She was pleasant and courteous but I got the impression that she quickly figured out that we were not going to buy much so she was somewhat ready for us to leave so she could get back to her work elsewhere. They raise most of their grapes for sale to other wineries and have relatively recently started making wine under their Vineheart label. This might partially be the reason they seemed to have quite a few blends with names like "Anne Belle White" and "Embarrassed", a dry blush wine.

The Vineheart winery was in the middle of several very large plots of vineyards.

We chose to take a Sangiovese with us and after we choose it the lady said the she thought it was most representative of the winery and AVA in general.

Bonair Winery

The nest stop on our Yakima wine tour needs a little explanation. Anyone who has read my trip reports ( www.hammocktree.us/ms/trips.html ) knows that we like to windsurf on the Caribbean island of Bonaire. When I saw a winery with a name of Bonair (no "e") in the "Rattlesnake Hills" AVA I figured me had to make a visit there, and it turned out to be delightful.

The entrance to Bonair winery.

The normal tasting manager had the day off and co-owner Shirley was running the tasting room. When we admitted our reason for choosing her winery to visit she was very interested for two reasons. First, her husband is a SCUBA diver and they had talked about visiting Bonaire in the near future, so we told her a little about the island. Second, her husband was one of the major promoters who got the Rattlesnake Hills area approved as an AVA and she was interested in our use of the AVAs to choose wineries to visit. So we had a very personalized and friendly tasting experience.

Shirley (our tasting hostess) and Gail Puryear, owners of Bonair Winery.

They offer reasonable selection of wines, including a couple of unusual ones, like a White Port and an Ice Wine. We tasted Chardonnay,Merlot, Cab., and a couple of blends and ended up selecting a 2008 Malbec to take with us. We told Shirley it they do visit Bonaire to make sure they visit the Capriccio Restaurant as they have an excellent (although mostly Italian) wine list.

The Tasting Room, Yakima

Our last tasting of the day was to be at the Naches Heights Vineyard but we got distracted and ended up at "The tasting Room Yakima" which offers wines from several wineries in the area (Harlequin Wine Cellars and Wilridge Winery). It and the Naches Heights winery share a parking lot and when we parked and got out of the car a cat came sauntering across the parking lot toward us and plopped down on the ground, inviting us to pet him.

The Naches Heights winery tasting room is behind Susan, but the cat led us into "The Tasting Room", to the right.

We took him up on the offer and he soon got up and headed to the door of a building that said "Tasting Room", so we figured it was the tasting room for Naches Heights winery. It was a while after we had followed the cat in that I realized our mistake. It turned out that the Naches Heights Vineyard tasting room was about 15 feet from where we had parked. We tasted a number of the wines but, after a day of tasting wines and a less than enthusiastic host, they tend to blur together at this point. I remember the wines as being competent, but generally a bid bland, sort of like I ended up thinking of the Pinot Noirs of Willamette Valley. Of the ones we tasted, the Melange Blanc (white blend) from Willridge winery seemed the most refreshing and different so we took that with us.

Wrap - Up

We had four days of tasting wines in two states, nine AVAs and 11 wineries. Truuthfully, by the time we finished they were all starting to run together. Next time I'll have to take a notebook of some kind to take notes to belp me remember the wines better. I do think our strategy of visiting wineries in different AVAs was a food one and worked well.

The next day we loaded up our suitcases and stash of wine and headed for what turned out to be a very fun Thanksgiving visit with our son and his family in Bellevue, WA and then headed home on Sat. Nov 30.

Contact me via mike@hammocktree.us