Eugene Weekly : Wine : 8.30.07

Magical Birthday Tour
Benton County puts out for the happy occasion
by Paula Hoemann

What to do for yet another birthday? Like many women, my friends and I love to share our lives and stories over a glass of wine. We’ve also toured all the local wineries more than once. Inspired by a map of the Benton County Wineries in EW, I thought it was time we explored a less known area of Oregon and try some new (to us) wines. I set about renting a passenger van, roping in Captain K, a good friend and non-drinker, as our driver and inviting my best friends on a tour guaranteed to make us fall in love with Oregon all over again.

Photos: Brennan Crehan

After circling Eugene to load the van with friends and picnic supplies, Captain K drove us up past Corvallis and Philomath to Cardwell Hill Cellars for our first tasting of the day.

That tasting room sits on a sunny southern slope outside Philomath, and our first picnic of the day was on their partly shaded deck overlooking rows of lush grape vines backed by Douglas firs.

Owner Dan Chapel poured a wide selection of wines for us and waxed eloquent about the grapes, the process and Thomas Jefferson. He introduced us to two programs we saw all day at other wineries: Salmon Safe and LIVE.

For a vineyard to be certified Salmon Safe, it must follow careful standards designed to reduce or eliminate any erosion and runoff from hillside plantings that lead to silt and foreign substances entering streams, thus damaging the salmon habitat.

LIVE, or Low Input Viticulture and Enology, also has rigorous standards, inspired by European viticulture practices, whose objectives include seeing the vineyard as a whole ecosystem, promoting sustainable farming practices and reducing reliance on synthetic chemicals … and, of course, producing fine fruits, which we greatly enjoyed in the featured wines.

Cardwell Hill Cellars grows primarily pinot noir grapes and has just planted some pinot gris grapes. For now, they purchase grapes to make into their very yummy pinot gris (my love for wine is purely amateur; you won’t find terms like mid-palate, finish, legs, highlights or some such. I stick with terms like “yummy” or “smooth” or “ew”). Although we enjoyed all their wines, I bought a cold bottle of their 2006 pinot gris to have with our lunch, refreshing on such a hot day.

Later, as we were packing up our picnic and piling into our van, the Corvette Club arrived at the vineyard on their “mystery tour.” We were surrounded by 25 bright and shiny Corvettes; we had come and gone just in time.

Our next stop, Harris Bridge Vineyard, really should have been a last stop as Nathan Warren and Amanda Sever create exclusively ice wines. But on the map it was a perfect distance and direction from Cardwell Hill, down a gently winding gravel road through a small valley framing Mary’s River. The vineyard itself sits next to Harris Bridge, one of those old covered bridges so coveted by Oregon calendar makers. But truly the location is lovely, with big oak trees shading a lawn complete with bocce ball set and friendly dog, Tucker.

As Nathan poured, we learned that ice wine is made from frozen grapes, pressing the sugars and acids out as a concentrate, leaving the frozen water to be discarded. The wines produced are therefore sweet and rich and just right for dessert. As we sipped on the liquid confections, we imagined the perfect dessert for each: chocolate with the 2:1 pinot noir, peaches and cream with the 2001 Library Pinot Gris, strawberry shortcake with the 2005 Short Line and the group favorite, blackberry cobbler with the 2005 Sarah’s Stories Pinot Gris. According to Nathan, they all go well with hot tubs.

By now we were very grateful for our driver, and the van was lively as we headed back toward Philomath to try Spindrift Cellars, the only stop on our tour not at a vineyard proper. Matt Compton loves growing grapes and manages more than a few vineyards in the area, from which he selects the pick of the crop to make Spindrift Wines. This is literally a winning combination: We tasted some super yummy award winners. Norm Galvin poured a selection of pinot gris, pinot noirs, sparkling wines, chardonnay and rosé. They’ve recently partnered with Domaine Meriwether to expand the selection of wines they offer, and the 2006 Domaine Meriwether Pinot Noir Rosé struck me as the perfect near-“red” for a warm summer evening.

What with the idyllic settings, the bountiful food and wine, the bocce ball game and Mary’s River wading, our day was speeding by much too fast, and we had to make our next stop, Tyee Wine Cellars, our last. So Captain K piloted us through scenic green valleys to the Tyee Tasting Room, where we met Brian Weil, student of viticulture, lover of wine and harried employee facing a vanload of tipsy Eugeneans near closing time. But with fine humor he poured us a selection of wonderfully dry wines while we became acquainted with Big Mac, his 8-month-old boxer pup. We loved the pinot gris, the chardonnay and the pinot noir, some of which we bought for our closing picnic under the big old apple tree.

The light shifted into golden evening; the birthday cake was delicious and the Buchanan family very patient. We picked up a calendar and admired the venue, planning to return for one of the outdoor concerts.

I heartily recommend a day like this one: good friends, good food, wonderful local wines and friendly winemakers. Be sure to get your own Captain K to drive for you — and we recommend leaving the ice wines for the end of the tour. They go better with the birthday cake anyway.


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