Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Fall harvest is my favorite time of the year in Oregon. The air dips chillier, the leaves become brilliant, and produce abounds in a multitude of rich, deep colors and shapes. We get to eat apples that taste like apples (really! they smell like apple candy!), and better yet, pears picked at supple ripeness. The sun still beams through the clouds and yellowing trees, and it seems as if all in nature is plump and plentiful.

The best part of fall for me this year though, was wine harvest and all of the action that it inspires. Not only is wine country abuzz with round-the-clock checking, tasting, picking and monitoring of grapes for ideal plucking times, but the whole wine world ignites with activity. Come September, while the former vintage’s wine is being bottled, industry tastings begin, and harvest events ensue (lavish lunches and wine dinners). I felt so lucky to get a taste of all it this year.

At the restaurant, we pour Ken Wright chardonnay by the glass. I previously thought of this wine as a high-end glass for high-end people, but meeting the man behind the wine quickly turned this opinion into a deep respect for his winemaking. A successful and well-known Northwest winemaker, Ken generously invited a group of us out to spend some time at his winery to observe the harvest process.

Our education began where winemaking does, out in the vineyards, on a warm sunny day. The pinot noir grapes were fattening on the vine in their tight little bunches (fruit so tightly pressed together that you see no stem and can hardly pull the grapes apart). A wise and weathered farmer, Ken described to us the subtleties of geography in the Willamette Valley region, and how the flavor that blooms in the fruit of the grape (and subsequently shows it’s distinction in the wine) is actually a result of the nature of the soil deep beneath the dirt.

The Willamette Valley is the area typically referred to as Oregon’s “wine country” (and thus, which characteristics the world thinks of when they think of Oregon pinot noir). What Ken Wright taught us is that whatever happened when the earth was still forming, changing and moving, affects the flavor of the wine that we drink now, depending on where in the valley the vines are planted. That is what the French refer to as “terroir,” or the taste of the land as evidenced in the wine. I found it so fascinating that these these subtle taste differences are directly connected to variations in soil type.

The differences in the valley soil basically come down to this:
“Willakenzie soil” (in the Carlton and Dundee areas) is a sedimentary soil that covers the valley floor, comprised of prehistoric oceanic sediment (mineral, shellfish, sand, etc.). Wines from grapes in these vineyards tend to have more of a mineral character, with hinds of spice, clove and red fruits (raspberries, cherries, strawberries, etc.). “Jory soil” is the basaltic (volcanic) material that makes up the hills in wine country—the Eola, Chehalem and Dundee Hills. This soil is more rocky, and when you open a bottle of pinot from these regions, you can most likely expect more concentrated fruit, of the dark variety (black cherry, blackberry, etc.). These prehistoric soils lie at least three feet below the top soil, and that is what the farmers have to nourish, this deep layer, through irrigation, fertilizer, and tilling. All of this care and technique to facilitate the development of flavor in wine before the grapes are even picked!

After absorbing all of this knowlege, we were led back to an outdoor pavilion in front of the Tyrus Evans tasting room, and treated to an incredible lunch that Ken’s wife Karen had prepared for all of us and the winery hands. It was so simple, but so delicious—a bed of spinach topped with cannelini beans and grilled shrimp, dressed only with a drizzle of good olive oil and a wedge of lemon. The Wrights are longtime friends with Nancy Silverton of La Brea bakery in Los Angeles (they told us how bread used to be brought up to them in suitcases), and we had their warm rolls from there to sop it all up. I must say, that sunny afternoon in wine country couldn’t have gotten any better, until we stopped at Argyle to taste some sparkling wine on the way out of town...