Oregon Wineries: from the journals of Sommelier Wayne Walker

One of my overall goals was to visit a smaller production winery where wines are few in number, but high in quality. Hence my highly anticipated pilgrimage to The Witness Tree Vineyard, a 52 acre sight kneeling at the foot of the hillside pedestal where the real Witness tree has stood for over 200 years. It is owned by Dennis and Carolyn Devine.

It produces 6,000 cases of wine a year, primarily Pinot Noir; however, it does produce a very good Pinot Gris and a respectable Chardonnay. I tasted 7 wines including a very interesting dessert wine called Sweet Signe that is actually made by freezing the grapes then pressing them. The resultant concentrated slush is melted and becomes the must that is then fermented and aged into wine that tastes a lot like Late Harvest White Blends from Ontario.

My Pinot Noir experiences were:

“Chainsaw Pinot Noir” 2009 crafted from a field of Chardonnay that had been chainsawed to the stems and then had Pinot Noir grafted onto the trunks of the old vines (a la phylloxera grafting techniques that saved the wine industry in the 19th century from being wiped out in Europe). As well a 2008 Estate Pinot Noir that benefited from a very good harvest year. A 2007 Vintage Select that is the true expression of Witness Tree terroir and the 2008 Benchmark PN that needs a little more aging to give it the required PN finesse.

And for me the winner is…the 2007 Vintage Select whose grapes were selected from all around the Witness Tree, both upper and lower blocks and whose dark, ripe depth of flavor rode high on a balanced, intense, silky structure. Besides, it is fabulous with Wild Pacific Cedar Plank Salmon smothered in Maple Syrup!

After my benchmark visit to the Eola Grail, I drove about 1/2 mile around the corner on Zena Road to the very baptismal-looking St Innocent and its impressive water fountain in the courtyard.

A very impressive, well-groomed, 72 acre vineyard that produces 8 to 10 thousand cases a year. Here, as almost everywhere in The Aeola Hills designation, Winemaker and President, Mark Vlossack is philosophically dedicated to having the terroir of the region reflected in the wines made here, particularly as they contribute to the pleasure of food.

Again, the focus is Pinot Noir with, again, a good Chardonnay and a very impressive Pinot Blanc. Temperance Hill, Vitae Springs, Zenith, Justice, Shea and Freedom Hill were all different Pinot Noirs I tasted from different sites and different vintages. My favorite? I have about 4, all for different reasons. But if you’re going to corner me into a choice, I would say it was Shea over Justice by a nose. I’m a sucker for big, ripe fruits, floral hints and sweet spice all delivered on a caramel, creamy, layered finish. And to pursue Mark’s raison d’être, this is a no-brainer match for one of my favorite full-on red meat dishes…lamb shanks with mint sauce served with green beans, caramelized onions and boiled potatoes smothered in creamery butter with fresh ground pepper!

One hour and 45 minutes South on the winding Territorial Road outside of Eugene, a sharp turn out of the foothills off a blind curve and King’s Castle appears on a mountain above you. With 470 acres of vineyards, notwithstanding orchards, berry patches, vegetable gardens, flower and herb gardens, wetlands and oak savannah, driving up the mountain to the Winery is like leaving Lilliput and entering Brobdingnag! Big is everywhere.

With 1,033 Certified Organic acres, King Estate can produce anywhere from 120,000 to 200,000 cases of wine a year and all of it is naturally irrigated. This has all been achieved in 20 years (Founded in 1991) by the King Family who still own and run the property. Three winemakers with very different backgrounds collaborate to produce some very good wines despite the quantity of production. A busy restaurant that features foods using on site produce and a tasting room that puts you in mind of pilgrims at The Holy Grail, is also a part of a royal welcome at King Estate. Tours through and around the facility reveal that the production process is so large and successful that tastings, dinners and even weddings take place in the production and aging areas, much to the delight of the participants.

Despite its size, it produces some very fine wine. Sourcing grapes from lesser known areas in Southern Oregon where sun hours and heat is noticeably longer and warmer and also tapping the warmth of Walla Walla in Eastern Washington, King Estate produces some very good Cabernet blends and a very nice Syrah under the NxNW (North by Northwest) label. Of course their real winner is their Domaine Pinot Gris. Their Signature Pinot Gris is even better. Similar profile: more intensity.

I was fortunate enough to taste all of these as well as some Signature Pinot Noir and the more economical Acrobat wine series that are a great value for Oregon Pinot Noir. By this time in the Odyssey I was incapable of discriminating any one wine as better than another, but as I was leaving I saw a couple drinking a bottle of 2009 Signature Pinot Noir with a menu item called Grilled Chinook Salmon with Champagne Marinated Apricots. They looked satiated and the aromas coming from their table were amazing! You can find the recipe on King Estate website.

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