All posts by Jeff Kordik

The Oregon Trail

Back in June, my wife suggested we visit Oregon’s Willamette Valley in search of new world class Pinot Noirs. Luckily, Portland is a short plane ride from the Monterey Bay.

Portland’s a great little food and beverage city. There are a couple of wineries in town, but craft brewed beer is king. We spent two days in the city, ate from one of downtown Portland’s famous food carts, and enjoyed our share of local brews and pub food.

Midweek found us in McMinnville, a small city in the heart of the Willamette Valley with a charming, historic downtown. We were able to secure a cute French style flat that rents nightly. From there, we explored much of the Dundee Hills, which is to Willamette Valley Pinot what the Stag’s Leap District is to Napa Cabernet: the best of the best.

The roads leading up to the various hilltop vineyards are gravel. You’ll also end up with a layer of red dust on your vehicle that will make it easy to recognize fellow pinotphiles when you get back to town. It’s worth the drive just to see the views from the vineyards that stretch for miles, but it is a journey best taken by rental car.

Dundee Hills Oregon Wineries

While in the Dundee Hills, we tasted at two of our long time favorites, Torii Mor and Erath. On their recommendation, we visited Buena Vida and Winderlea, who also make excellent wines. Because of the differences in climate and soil, Pacific Northwest Pinots are distinctively different than their California cousins. I once took a ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island to visit a couple who grew two acres of “cold climate” Pinot. That kind of fruit produces an “earthier” wine. One of the Pinots at Torii Mor has such a mossy bouquet that it is described as “forest floor”.

One of the Pinots at Torii Mor has such a mossy bouquet that it is described as “forest floor”.

Oregon wineries also distinguish themselves from their neighbors to the south by their choice of glassware: the Oregon style has a short extension at the top of the bowl. Georg Riedel designed this glass expressly for a group of Oregon wineries and now nearly all use it in their tasting rooms.

Erath Wine Tasting Room

Wine tasting is everywhere. While we were in McMinnville, we stopped by the Evergreen Aviation Museum to see the Spruce Goose and found a tasting room inside the museum. Our first clue should have been the vineyards we drove through getting to the parking lot.

As if driven by manifest destiny, we continued on to the rocky Oregon coast. We found a great inn right on the cliffs at Depoe Bay, with deck mounted hot tubs overlooking the Pacific. If you visit, you can get a decent bowl of chowder at nearby Cape Foulweather and go next door for – you guessed it – wine tasting at the Flying Dutchman, who really make wine right there on the cliffs.



Behind the Bar

If you are a sports fan near my age, and I won’t tell you what that is, you might recall a sportswriter named George Plimpton. George felt that it wasn’t enough just to cover professional sports; if you really wanted to understand the game, you had to see it from the inside. So one season Plimpton trained with the Detroit Lions as a backup quarterback, and then wrote his most famous work, Paper Lion.

A few weeks ago my friend Mary Kay Alfaro, co-owner of Alfaro Family Vineyards, inquired if I would be interested in helping out for a couple hours in her tasting room. An image of Plimpton immediately came to mind, but without the danger of getting sacked by 300 pound linemen, so I agreed.

If you are a regular reader you know that I always treat the folks behind the bar with respect, but I had no idea of the difficulty until I tried it myself. Sure, I can wield a corkscrew, and I know the difference between a chardonnay and a pinot noir. But like a quarterback, the pour person has to keep track of everything that’s going on. We poured seven wines that day, in a specific order, so you have to remember who’s had what. You also keep track of who has paid for their tasting and who is in the wine club (they taste free).

Amidst the pouring, you get asked a lot of questions, ranging from detailed ones from veteran wine enthusiasts to basic ones like “why is white wine white and red wine red?” At what elevation is the wine grown? What is the sugar content when the grapes are picked? Who designs your labels? Can I try the Lindsay Paige again? What’s the discount on a case? Every question must be answered as patiently and accurately as possible; this isn’t a computer store or a car lot where you can just make stuff up.

Luckily, a more experienced “tasting room associate” was there to run the cash register; that might have pushed me over the edge. Like George Plimpton, I survived the experience, a little wiser and with some stories to tell. Mary Kay thanked me graciously and even offered to pay me. I was happy to return home with material for a column and a nearly full bottle of Garys’ (the one I’m opening in the photo), which was payment enough.

Napa Roots

My love of wine goes way back. But it never flourished until I first visited Napa. The Napa Valley is ground zero for world class Cabernet Sauvignon, the first varietal that made me realize just how good wine can be.

Even if you’re a casual wine drinker you may know names like Mondavi, Beaulieu (BV), Sterling, Beringer and Domaine Chandon.

Merryvale ProfileThough I’ve been to all of those, I’ve come to prefer the small and medium sized producers, where you can get the personal touch. Ron, our host at Merryvale in Saint Helena, is a perfect example.

We stopped by Merryvale because we wanted to try some of their limited production wines. Ron started by pouring a few of their more widely distributed labels. You can buy the Merryvale Starmont Cabernet and Chardonnay in many supermarkets, and both are a good value. I’m always trying to get a photo or two, so while Ron was engaged with the Official Wife of the Wine Columnist (OWWC), I decided to sneak through the big doors marked “Employees Only” and get a shot of the barrel room.

Busted! I apologized to our host as he summoned me from the barrel room while explaining that the winemaker worries about bacteria contaminating the wine. “If you want a picture of some wine barrels, we have empty ones over here,” Ron said as he led the OWWC and me into a cavernous warehouse stacked to the ceiling with racks of empty oak barrels. “While we’re here,” Ron said, “let’s check out the library.” A library is a climate controlled stash of bottles from every vintage a winery has chosen to keep. In California, they can go back 100 years, which is actually longer than you can expect even a Cabernet to remain drinkable. The Merryvale library contains large format bottles of many high end wines, including the Profile Cabernet, Ron explained as he launched into an animated dissertation about the history of Merryvale.

Merryvale Tasting Room Napa

We ended up tasting a lot of great wines that day, some retailing for over $100 a bottle. If you make a point to get to know your pour person and express a real interest in wine, you’ll get better service and maybe the opportunity to try things that are too rare or too expensive to be on the regular tasting menu. There’s a lot more to report from our recent trip to Napa, so please come back in June and we’ll be Wining Again

Alfaro Family Vineyards

If you read our December newsletter, you know that the farmers of the Santa Lucia Highlands produce some of California’s finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. One of their customers is Richard Alfaro of Corralitos, known locally as the founder of Alfaro’s Micro-bakery. After he sold the bread business, Richard decided to “do something different with yeast.” He and his wife Mary Kay bought 70 acres of land, started growing grapes, and embarked on a journey to create two new wineries.

Alfaro Family Vineyards makes wine using estate grown fruit. Meanwhile, Richard enlisted his childhood friend Joe Martin, a graduate of the highly regarded UC Davis viticulture school, to join him in the creation of Martin Alfaro, where they would make wine from purchased grapes. Two of my favorite Martin Alfaro wines are the Sleepy Hollow and Garys’ Pinots. The top Alfaro Family estate wines, the Lindsay Paige Pinot and Chardonnay, are among the best of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Richard also bent the rules a little by planting a block of Merlot. This is uncommon in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but Merlot was a favorite of Mary Kay’s dad, “Billy K” Kempker. The effort paid off with a silver medal in the 2010 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The Hemmingway-esque photo of Billy sport fishing in the Gulf of Mexico makes this one of my favorite label designs.

Alfaro Family Vineyards

The Alfaros produce about 4000 cases per year, so you can find their wine in many local restaurants and markets. But the operation is small enough that if you stop by the tasting room on a Saturday, there’s a good chance you’ll meet Richard and Mary Kay, as I did this past weekend.

There are many more great wineries right here in the Monterey Bay area, but first we’ll be taking a brief detour to the Napa Valley, which you can read about in April.

Santa Lucia Highlands

If you read my last column you know that the Santa Cruz Mountains provide a nearly perfect climate for cultivating Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Outside of Burgundy, France, there’s just one place better: the Santa Lucia Highlands. The Highlands lie near the southern end of the Monterey Bay and separate the posh coastal communities of Monterey, Carmel and Pebble Beach from the Salinas Valley.

Several of the best growers, including Rosella’s, Sleepy Hollow, and Garys’, focus on farming and sell most of their fruit to other winemakers. You can find these names on many excellent labels. The apostrophe at the end of Garys’ is not a typo; the vineyard is owned by Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni, hence the plural possessive. Oh boy, wine and grammar!

The roads up to the Santa Lucia Highlands are treacherous, so a half dozen of the wineries have tasting rooms in Carmel Valley Village. You can park the car and walk to all of them. Parsonage and Bernardus are two of my favorites, with excellent wines and friendly staffs. If you’re in the area, you can take a day trip to Carmel Valley and check them out. The photo above is taken in the tasting room at Joullian, on the way into the village from the coast. Joullian makes a number of tasty Chardonnay’s, including a Sleepy Hollow.

They also make an inexpensive blend called “Retro Rouge” that’s a great deal by the case. The tasting notes state that it pairs well with “fish tacos, osso bucco, or anything hot off the barby.” That works for me.

So where do we go next? Cabo San Lucas for some fish tacos, or should we explore more Santa Lucia Highlands winemakers? Join us in February to find out.

The Monterey Bay (Pilot)

I’ve spent most of my life living on California’s Monterey Bay, where recreation can mean hunting down a good wave, a special Pinot Noir, or some tasty seafood to put on the grill.

King salmon is a local favorite, and it’s hard to beat grilled salmon steaks with a little dill and lemon butter, especially if you pair it with a good local wine. The Monterey Bay is surrounded by top quality vineyards and winemakers. Corralitos, nestled in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, boasts warm, sunny days followed by frequent afternoon fog off the bay. It’s a perfect microclimate for Pinot and Chardonnay. The wine pictured at the top of the article is one of my favorites: Dylan David Pinot Noir, a Dijon 115 clone, estate grown and bottled by my friends Craig and Cathy Handley of PV Vines. Try a bottle if you can get it in your area. If not, salmon also pairs nicely with Chardonnay. La Crema, located in Sonoma County, is widely distributed and consistently one of my favorite labels.