Monday, July 7, 2014

Travels and Tastes of Oregon Wine country – Willamette Valley


I arrived in Portland to a cold, wet and dreary day, not the best start to wine filled weekend designed to admire Oregon’s beauty.  A clerk at the rental car company awarded us with a bright yellow car perhaps to distract us from the pouring rain.  As you might imagine the car was immediately christened “Sunshine” and in the hopes of such off we went south to the Willamette Valley. 


There was nothing else to do but find the most scenic route to the hotel, docking into one winery after another to avoid the rain.  But even the bad weather could not hide the sheer beauty of the farm country.  As far as eye can see there is a fertile farm land with sea of berry and hazelnut orchards.  Cattle and horse ranches all framed by the hedges of blue solder pines on the horizon.  The ornate rain clouds melting into their tops creating an austere landscape of grace and intimidation.

In all the travels through various wine countries I have never seen a more beautiful one, with each winery perched up on the vast hills offering views of their vineyards rolling down, melting into gardens and orchards.  There were wineries drowning in picturesque gardens and ones providing a bird’s eye view of the entire valley.  Every time we walked into a tasting room, we surely thought that the view cannot be topped only to be toppled at the next.

For the most part Oregon’s wineries are small in comparison to their neighbors to the south in California.  Most often these are family affairs, where it is not uncommon to meet the owner or the wine maker in the tasting room.  There are no busloads of Asian tourist and neon signs “Wine Here”, there are no conglomerate atmosphere. 

 Just an intimate feel of being a guest in someone else’s home, where the wines are names after the children in the family and the winery dog ( or cat) meets you in the parking lot and gives you a personal tour of the vines, then escorts you into the tasting room all for the price of a good belly rub.

When I die I hope I am re-incarnated as a winery dog anywhere in the world.  I couldn't imagine a happier existence than that. 
Of course you may choose to be reborn as a winery cat or a horse, I imagine their lives not too shabby either.  Roaming free, enjoying the guest’s company, lounging around on the sunny patio and chasing rabbits through the vineyards.


It were a pair of such happy Australian Shepherds that met us in the parking lot of the Wine Country Farm Bed and Breakfast and nosed us into the most magnificent view of all, the desk on top of a hill home to 10 wineries, which we would be calling home for the next few days.  

The landscape along made us sit outside in the chilly weather every night, warming up with local port, just so that we wouldn't waste a second of the fascinating and hypnotizing landscape. 

I came to call the hill on which we lived an enchanted one, as one day we never even made it down from it.  We just circled around on it, going from one winery to the next, with our legs getting more wobbly and minds losing their sharpness fueled by the exquisite Oregon Pinots.  You have to admire the Oregonian’s for sticking to the wine that works in their region.  All over the country, folks are trying to grow wines that just cannot be successfully produced in their climates. 

 Upstate New York tries desperately to grow big reds, instead of sticking with Rieslings and Cab Franks.  California wine growers try their hand in Rieslings which is a waste of time.  Not in Oregon, they know what works and stick with it and if you are hunting for a perfect Pinot Noir (whatever perfect means to you - wink to “Sideways”), you will find it here.
But you can only drink so much, at one point you need to find a healthier activity so we ventured out to the coast, driving through gigantic pine forests that reminded me of German fairy tales from my childhood.  Driving for hours I realized that the state drink of Oregon is not wine, it is espresso.  No, not coffee, but espresso, pure and simple.  If you do not live in Manhattan, it is fairly difficult for you to get a decent shot outside of Starbucks anywhere else in the country.  Apparently not in Oregon, as even the tiniest of roads are littered with shacks selling Espresso.  If you have a cardboard box, a cardboard sign and a good espresso machine, I suggest you move to Oregon, you will be in business immediately.

Oregon coast is considered one of the most beautiful places to visit in the U.S.  It is not a happy, warm cost smelling of suntan lotion and little kids playing in the warm serf.  
This coast is serious at making you feel like the tiny human spec that you are on this planet.  Gray cold waters of the Pacific slamming into majestic rock formations, harsh winds blowing conforming pine trees to their direction, only seals and seagulls are comfortable in the icy waters. 
Thick forests leading up to the cliffs, the hiker’s paths lined with wild raspberries and blueberries, the magnificent display of nature at the seal’s beach, are all truly worth seeing. 
And for a little break from the nature’s intimidating display a nice beach side kite festival.  Although I wouldn't call those kites gentle, some of them were bigger them my house.
And of course no trip down the coast is complete without the stop at a local fish shack.  With fresh sea food delivered straight from the boats this is a must eat.  
A clam chowder with fresh dungeons crab meat or just caught Pacific Salmon thrown on the grill minutes after it’s caught, are more than delightful. 

Which brings me to my favorite part, the food.  If wine is not your thing, or should I say, not your only thing, Oregon’s food is worth making the trip for.  With everything growing there, it is inherently fresh, seasonal and local… and absolutely delicious.   
My little walk along the winery road early in the morning, yielded a perfect little breakfast of hazelnuts and cherries from a tree which must be every kid’s dream, huge, climbable, wild and full of sweet cherries.
With just tiny, one hoarse, towns along a few major roads in the valley there are a surprising number of decadent restaurants from simple bistros offering local charcuterie and cheese for your wine exhausted palate to stared fine dining establishments where talented chefs are experimenting with Pacific North West cuisine at its best. 
One such restaurant is Joe Palmer’s house where a chef is featuring an all mushroom tasting menu, another was the Painted Lady where a 6 course tasting menu shocked me to the core and gave me cooking inspiration for months to come.

And of course an honorable mention has to go out to Portland’s food truck scene and fresh farmer’s markets.  
The food trucks are not mobile, but line the perimeters of squares and provide an array of innovative world cuisines from grilled cheese to Georgian specialties. 
And once you are tired of eating in Portland you can always get lost in the Powell’s book store or take a Zen break in the Japanese gardens.

If you ever dreamed of owning a winery and imagined waking on a farm where you are one with the vines, the sky and the trees, or if you simply enjoy bobbling from one winery to the next,
Oregon is the place for you.  Marvelous people, who insist that the weather is never bad, beautiful landscapes that you can stare at for hours and delicious wine capturing the harshness of the coast in its acid, warmth of the sunshine in its fruitiness and luscious comfort of being from this beautiful corner of the world.