2010 Memorial Day Weekend Willamette Valley Wine Tour

| June 6, 2010 | 4 Comments

Every year on the weekends around Memorial Day and Thanksgiving, vineyards and winemakers in the Willamette Valley invite the public to taste their latest wines in their cellars or tasting rooms. Many of these are boutique wineries that cannot operate tasting rooms year ’round, so this is your chance to discover newer and smaller producers.

Wine tasting ranks almost as high as outdoor activities in Oregon and it does get you out in nature, too, off the main roads and into the rolling hills of the vineyards.

Kid's Tree Fort with Flag at Vitae Springs Vineyard

We find it appropriate that we have two weekends with a theme of gratitude: one to offer gratitude for the life we have here and the great bounty of our continent, and the other to remember those who gave their lives in protecting the freedoms we enjoy. The displays of respectful reminders ranged from the charmingly simple child’s tree fort with an American flag at Vitae Springs Vineyard to a restored vintage Chevrolet truck fitted with wine barrels and parked under a flag at Left Coast Cellars.

Left Coast Cellars' Vintage Chevrolet Truck with Barrels under the Flag.

Wine has been an important and enduring part of civilization since about 6000 BC. Beyond its rich history as a beverage to accompany a wide variety of the world’s cuisines, it is used widely as a flavoring agent in food preparation and is an integral part of many religious observances. Growing the grapes and making wine is a skilled craft that is not for the faint of heart or those with meager pocketbooks. A bad year, unfortunate weather, inadequate or too much rainfall can take a heavy toll on a whole year’s work.

While tasting wines at festivals, wine bars and wine-tasting dinners has the benefit of allowing you to sample many wines, visiting wineries and vineyards allows you to also make a connection with the places the grapes are grown and the wine is made. For wine is a living thing. And you’ll may be surprised by what you will see and experience when visiting wineries in Oregon.

Our small party this year included Steve and Tina Martin along with the two of us. Tina valiantly offered to be our designated chauffeur, and we were most grateful for her stoic and unselfish sacrifice.

Steve put together a glowing itinerary of four vineyards in the southern part of the valley. The roads in the northern valley around Dundee and Newberg are congested on regular weekends, and can be very slow going on these biannual wine-extravaganza days.

We began our day at Mahonia Vineyards in South Salem. Until today, none of us had heard of Mahonia Vineyards and it’s practically in our backyard. Steve enjoyed the surprise of an unexplored vineyard and especially enjoyed the 2008 Chardonnay with hints of pear. Like many small producers, Mahonia focuses on growing the grapes and relies on consulting winemakers Russ Raney of Evesham Wood and Aron Hess of Rex Hill and Daedalus Cellars to craft their wines.  Because wine is an expression of grape variety, climate, soil, terroir and the winemaker, having two winemakers made it an interesting tasting experience. Pinot Noir from the same vineyard, the same year, the same soil, climate and terroir tastes very different when made by different winemakers. We found the Pinot Noir made by Russ to be floral and light, while the Pinot Noir made by Aron was peppery with more pronounced tannins and more in the style of wine made in the Dundee Hills, farther to the north.

After a pleasant visit, some wonderful wine and hors d’oeuvres, we pointed the car toward Vitae Springs Vineyard in South Salem. Besides their wines, we were treated to some pulled pork from a whole pig that Joel and Michelle VanVolkinburg had roasted in the ground for 14 hours. Joel’s parents, Pam and Earl, started the vineyard in the mid-’70s. They developed their love for wine while Earl was stationed with the U.S. Air Force in the Mosel Valley of Germany. Vitae Springs focuses on producing small lots of Grüner Veltliner, Riesling and Pinot Noir. Joel manages the vineyard and his wife, Michelle, handles marketing. It’s a family operation except for the winemaking, which is contracted to Joe Dobbs of Wine by Joe and Dobbs Family Estate.

Pulled ground roasted port, pickled red onions, apple-pear relish, brie and blue cheese at Vitae Springs Vineyards

Next we ventured west to Rickreal, across the Willamette River, to sample the wine at Illahe Vineyards. We all agreed that this was our highlight stop of the day. Illahe’s philosophy in vineyard management and winemaking is to be in sync with nature. They’re LIVE certified, which means they take a holistic approach to vineyard management, adhering to international standards of sustainable viticulture and enology practices in grape growing and wine production. The vineyard is also designated salmon-safe, which means they use vineyard practices that protect the watershed and makes sure it’s clean enough for native salmon to spawn and thrive.

Owner Lowell Ford first planted grapes in 1983 at their Glen Creek Vineyard in Salem.  He was one of the first in Oregon to experiment with varietals like Grüner Veltliner. In 2000, he bought the 80-acre Illahe Vineyard, which was a pasture at the time. Oregon may be known for Pinot Noir, but you can definitely taste Lowell’s love of white wine in Illahe’s wide selection of white, including Grüner Veltliner, Viognier, Riesling and Pinot Gris.

In the 1990s, Lowell spearheaded the development of the Northwest Viticulture Center at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, where he worked as the Dean of Students. Lowell is still on the board of directors at the Viticulture Center and a lifetime donor. When we were visiting, Lowell and his son Brad were both there. We asked Lowell about the name Illahe and the symbol that’s branded on the wine labels. Lowell said it is a Chinook word used to describe land for centuries in Oregon and the Northwest. The symbol is a tonal Chinook representation of the word.

In addition to the wonderful wines, their food table featured a salmon cheesecake. After we gave them much well deserved praise, the recipe was ours (see below), One of the wines we all were looking forward to tasting was their Grüner Veltliner, a food-friendly wine grown mainly in Austria and the Czech Republic. Charles was particularly taken by the bright, peachy viognier and quickly set aside two bottles for wine duty at home. This was a great value at $15. Vic’s mind was on the Grüner Veltliner which he remembered from a visit last year and was glad to have the opportunity to bring some home to enjoy later. This was also a good value at $15.

Perhaps the most outstanding pour we enjoyed on this day was the Illahe Vineyards 2007 Grand Reserve Pinot Noir. Only 25 cases were bottled at $75 a bottle. All agreed that it was absolutely outstanding.

2009 Illahe Vineyards Estate Grüner Veltliner

After a friendly and fruitful visit with the folks at Illahe Vineyards, the wine wagon headed north to Left Coast Cellars, a fairly recent but formidable presence in the valley. Founded in 2003, Left Coast Cellars crafts exclusively estate-grown Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Syrah. The first time Vic visited Left Coast Cellars a few years ago to do a story for the Statesman Journal, he asked the tasting room manager how the winery got its name. It turns out that the owner’s children are all left-handed, and the West Coast is sometimes referred to as the Left Coast. Hence the name. It’s right off the bustling main wine drag through the valley, Highway 99 West. But once you turn off the highway and start down the winding road past hillsides rimmed with vines and a scenic lake that doubles as a water reservoir for irrigation, you’re relaxed and ready for some fantastic wine. Like many wineries, Left Coast holds its Memorial and Thanksgiving weekend events in the wine-production building because the tasting room is way too small to accommodate the large crowds. The driveway to the winery and the parking lot were rimmed with Lupine, with their spikes of purple-blue flowers poking into the air like colorful paintbrushes.

When we got there, we could hear music from a jazz ensemble spilling out the large open warehouse door. Inside were tasting stations set up amid stacks of French oak wine barrels and gigantic stainless steel fermentation tanks. The atmosphere was festive and so was the wine!

Diane Stevenson pours a taste of Left Coast's Reserve Pinot Noir for Alan Gustafson.

Smoked Salmon and Onion Cheesecake
Adapted from a recipe in The Artful Palate Cookbook published by Relief Nursery
With warm thanks to Pauline Ford at Illahe Vineyards for providing the recipe.

Pauline Ford's Fabulous Salmon Cheesecake

  1. 5 tablespoons (75 ml.) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  2. 2 tablespoons (30 ml.) fine dry bread crumbs
  3. 3 tablespoons (45 ml.) butter
  4. 1 cup (240 ml.) onion, chopped
  5. 28 ounces (795 gr.) cream cheese, room temperature
  6. 4 large eggs
  7. ⅓ cup (80 ml.) whipping cream
  8. ½ pound (230 gr.) smoked salmon, chopped
  9. ½ cup (120 ml.) freshly grated Gruyère cheese (about 2 ounces or 60 gr.)
  • Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C)
  • Butter an 8-inch (20 cm.) diameter springform pan with 2½-inch (6.35 cm.) sides.
  • Mix 2 tablespoons (30 ml.) Parmesan cheese with breadcrumbs.
  • Sprinkle into prepared pan. Turn pan, coating with crumb mixture.
  • Wrap foil around bottom and up sides to top of pan.
  • Melt butter in heavy, medium-sized skillet over medium heat.
  • Add onions and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Cool slightly.
  • Using electric mixer beat cream cheese, eggs, and cream in large bowl until blended.
  • Fold in the onion mixture, salmon, Gruyère, and remaining 3 tablespoons (45 ml.) of Parmesan.
  • Season generously with salt and pepper.
  • Pour batter into prepared pan. Place cheesecake in large baking pan deep enough to hold 2 inches (5 cm.) of water.
  • Add enough boiling water to baking pan to come 2 inches (5 cm.) up the outside of the cheesecake pan.
  • Bake for 30 minutes at 350°F (177°C). Then decrease to 300°F (148°C) and continue to cook for 1 hour more.
  • Cheesecake should be firm in the center when pan is shaken gently.
  • Remove cheesecake from water bath. Turn oven off and return cheesecake to oven and let stand for 1 hour with the oven door closed.
  • Transfer cheesecake to rack and cool at least 2 hours.
  • Cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before serving. (Can be prepared 1 or 2 days ahead.)

Serve cheesecake slightly warm or at room temperature, cutting into wedges and serving on French bread rounds or crackers.

À votre santé!

— Charles and Victor

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Category: Appetizers, Wine/Wineries

About the Author (Author Profile)

Music, food and photography are at the center of Charles’ life. He performed with the Dallas Symphony, Dallas Opera and was assistant principal bassoonist with the Fort Worth Symphony for more than 20 years. When Charles and Victor moved to Baltimore, Charles created Lone Star Personal Chef and Catering Service and taught cooking classes at Williams-Sonoma. Now in Salem, Charles is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Mountain West Real Estate, taught cooking classes for children at the A.C. Gilbert Discovery Village, and owns and operates Charles Price Photography. Charles and Vic enjoy entertaining and frequently host dinners as fundraisers for local non-profits and charities

Comments (4)

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  1. Tina Martin says:

    Being the D.D. was my pleasure. It was a beautiful day and spending it with 3 handsome gentlemen is not bad duty! Thanks for securing the salmon cheesecake recipe, we are anxious to try it out with summer company.

  2. Charles says:

    Thanks Tina. I have ordered the book in which it was originally published. There could be other prizes in there.

  3. Thank you so much for such a lovely article! It was a pleasure to meet you all! We will hopefully see you again soon!

  4. What a lovely article!

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