Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Connection--Firesteed Cellars

          In 1998, Shellie and Bryan Croft were driving along a vineyard road in the Willamette Valley.  The Crofts were viewing possible vineyard sites while working for other employers.  At one point, Shellie vividly remembers turning her head to look over her shoulder.  She viewed an aging farmhouse in the distance.  At that moment, a shock of electricity went up her spine.  She had a moment of clarity viewing that home.
            She then turned back to the conversation in progress, the tingle up her spine dissipating as quickly as it started.
            Some part of Shellie must have known that years later, she would be living in that home.  She and her husband would be raising their children in the middle of those vines, calling that vineyard their farm as they tended to the fruit that would be Firesteed Cellars' wines.

Most winemakers feel a connection to their wines--a deep, profound link to the grapes, to the land.  Bryan and Shellie Croft of Firesteed Cellars have this connection; it comes from living on the land, raising their children in the middle of the vineyards, and watching the vines grow every day of every year.  However, Shellie sensed this connection so many years before.
Shellie got her start in wine during college in Chico, California, where she worked in the service industry to make money for school.  One weekend she found herself in Napa working a golf tournament.  By 1990, she was working there full time as a tasting room staff member for Silverado Vineyards.  At the same time, Bryan was a UC Davis grad who was also working at Silverado Vineyards.  The two met, fell in love, and got married in 1998, the same fateful year of seeing their future home.

They eventually moved north to Oregon and were working at a custom crush facility owned by Wayne and Mickey Flynn.  Firesteed was one of the custom crush accounts.  In 2000, Howard Rossbach bought the facility from the Flynns and turned the entire production area to Firesteed Cellars, with no more custom crush clients.  Rossbach retained Bryan as his winemaker and Shellie as the cellar rat, making this upcoming fall Bryan’s twentieth harvest in the wine business.
Firesteed makes nearly 85,000 cases of wine near Rickreal in the central Willamette Valley, every year using less and less outside-sourced fruit and getting closer and closer to being only an estate-grown producer.  Of course, Rossbach and the Crofts specialize in the Valley’s best growers:  pinot noir, pinot gris, riesling, and gewürztraminer. 
Shellie starts our tour in the lab to help us get to know these Firesteed favorites; she considers this area her domain.  We then follow her to the vineyards, literally just days away from bud break at the time of our visit. Though she considers this Bryan’s area of expertise, he is away that day lecturing at OSU.  I’ve seen the pictures of Shellie’s hard work in the vineyards, right by Bryan’s side, so I know she is very knowledgeable in this realm, as well.

We make our way back to the production area and then barrel room, to the exact spot Shellie suffered quite an injury several years ago when falling off a barrel stack while working.  Though this wound has healed, at the time of our visit she was nursing a cracked heel, another winery injury from this fall’s cellar work.  It is a reminder of the genuine hard labor it takes to make wine; this is not a profession for the weak or faint-of-heart—Shellie and Bryan are neither.

Amidst the barrels, Shellie lets us taste her “Shellie Chard,” the 2015 chardonnay still sitting on its lees.  This barrel is actually for the Citation label also produced by Firesteed; these wines are small-lots using only fruit from the Erratic Oaks vineyard, the spot Shellie and family call home.  The inspiration for Shellie’s chardonnay is a very early wine tasting experience she had in Napa.  She was blind tasting chardonnays, and one--with its light oak and unmistakable fruit--seemed so remarkable to her.  She remembers it as “Wine C,” which turned out to be a Kistler Chardonnay.  It is what set her palate for every chardonnay since.

All the Firesteed wines are excellent examples of their terroir.  I first fell in love with the Firesteed Riesling, made in a wonderfully dry style that still shows the characteristic apple and floral  notes with just a slight hint of petrol—my favorite.  Next, the Firesteed Pinot Gris is a quintessential example of the Oregon style—light with zippy acid and white fruits. 
I had my first taste of the Firesteed Rosé (from pinot noir, of course) after my visit:  a beautiful shade of pink--with hints of strawberry, grass, and honeysuckle--that makes me long for summer and a patio.  Finally, my other long-time favorite is the Firesteed Pinot Noir.  Filled with bright cherry, fresh strawberry, slight mint, and wet earth, it is has become my go-to pinot, an outstanding example of an Oregon noir at an amazing price point. 

The connection Shellie and Bryan have to Firesteed wines can be sensed in every sip.  Shellie knew this connection was meant to be nearly twenty years ago when she spied her current home for the first time, years before Howard Rossbach appointed her husband to be the winemaker at Firesteed. 

Raising their children in the middle of the vineyard at Erratic Oaks gives Bryan and Shellie Croft a deep appreciation for the vines that make Firesteed Cellars' wines.  The terroir is reflected so well in Bryan’s wines because he lives in that spot, in that place where his wines actually begin.  The distance between the land and the glass has never been as short as it is for Firesteed wines.  

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hidden Gems—Willamette Valley Surprises

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places! 
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

Deciding where to's not as easy as Dr. Seuss makes it sound
This is often a problem when traveling…for me anyway.  I’m a Type A personality.  Anal-retentive.  A bit of a freak planner. 

Sometimes too much so.

Planning every second of every trip is something I used to do, and something on which I have had to work as I age.  And I’ve done pretty well, if I do say so myself!
I no longer make plan after plan and appointment after appointment.  Mostly because I have had some of my best travel experiences through unplanned stops based on the recommendations of others. 

This is my newest way to travel:  less planning and more spontaneity.

Though it is much harder than it sounds--for me--this plan of action paid off on my recent adventure in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  I’m calling these unexpected treats off-the-beaten-path, hidden gems.  And they were great surprises!

McMinnville was the first surprise.  Okay, so this isn’t off-the-beaten-path or hidden, but having McMinnville as the home base for the majority of the trip was such a splendid turn of events.  My husband and I stayed just blocks from the adorable downtown area in the cutest historic rental (check for options), making navigating the region quite easy.
Our first treat came in the form of amazing restaurants in the historic city center, most on or near Third Street.  Spanish-inspired dishes awaited us at LaRambla, a quaint, tapas-style establishment.  To say the food was amazing was an understatement.  Our table of four shared lamb nachos, the fondue special, mussels in wine sauce, and fried empanadas, all paired with a great bottle of Domaine Serene Pinot Noir.  Though we were completely stuffed after the meal, we did share a glass of port-style, local wine from the extensive wine list which featured many Oregon options, as well as other wines from around the country and world.
Nick’s Italian Cafe was the next Third Street surprise.  It was another highly recommended spot by the locals, so we knew we couldn’t miss.  More delicious culinary options awaited our small group.  The crab lasagna was absolutely amazing, so amazing that it was featured in Saveur Magazine, along with Nick, owner of the establishment for all 39 years it has been in operation.  Another amazing wine list where we enjoyed a Willamette Valley wine (and Oregon beer) helped make the meal complete.  After, we moved to the back of the restaurant where the locals hangout.  Eventually, my husband started visiting with a friendly patron, who just happened to be a wine maker there for a cocktail.  Then our group was joined by Nick himself, conducting his evening check on his business.  A hidden gem for sure!

Downtown McMinnville was filled with shops and eateries of all kinds, but we found a great jewel in R Stuart & Co for wine.  Honestly, our group of four stopped there because it was open, and we weren’t yet ready for dinner.  However, these breaks often turn into the best experiences, and this was the case here.  We sat at a table looking out on bustling Third Street while we sipped on the three different lines of wines R Stuart produces in McMinnville.  The Love, Oregon brand had beautiful labels on the outside of the bottle with great wines on the inside.  My favorite was the Love, Oregon rosè, perhaps the prettiest bottle of wine I have seen for some time.  However, the R Stuart reserve pinot noirs were simply splendid examples of what the grape can do in the Willamette Valley.

Moving away from the lively town, we headed to more local-favorite wineries.  One such spot was White Rose Estate.  Nestled in the rolling vineyard hills was this picturesque destination.  A small producer of pinot noir, it could be easily missed…but it shouldn’t!  The tasting room was a unique find in, and of, itself.  After stepping inside, I felt I had entered a treehouse, suspended in mid-air.  The steep, enclosed roof added to the ambiance.  There were no windows, but there was also no need. The amazing pinot noirs deserved all the attention here.  Another special aspect was the out-of-house bathroom—no, not an outhouse, just out-of-house.  It added to the whimsical feel of being in another place and time, a place and time with fabulous Willamette Valley wines!

Not necessarily unknown or concealed, Sokol Blosser made my list for a special reason.  Yes, the wines here were amazing; yes, the service was top notch; yes, the surroundings were splendid; and, yes, the establishment was quite historic.  All of these were motives for visiting, but there was another, lesser-known purpose as well:  tasty food enjoyed in the outdoor areas.  Sokol Blosser has an in-house chef who creates great specials.  The customary cheese and charcuterie board pleased with every bite, but the chef’s house-made hummus and pita bread made a lunch with an amazing view.  These specials change daily, so multiple trips would be wise to enjoy all Sokol Blosser has to offer.

Further south in the Willamette was another hidden gem—Left Coast Cellars.  One late afternoon, my hubby and I were looking for a quick bite to eat.  Left Coast was another recommendation from natives, the highest honor in my book.  We parked and admired the breathtaking grounds.  Inside, we ordered a house-made sandwich to share as a late lunch.  We noticed a gray-haired gentleman working in the kitchen as we started our tasting.  We sipped on two different sparkling options, moved onto white wines, and ended with several excellent pinot noirs.  Our light fare arrived, and we enjoyed the food with the wines.  Soon, the gray-haired gentleman came out after noticing our Wyoming license plate.  This man working in the kitchen just happened to be a former resident of our neighbor state, Colorado...and the owner of the entire organic Left Coast Cellars property!  We had quite the visit about his background and the farm.  This was the last stop of our week-long stay, and that it was such an exceptional surprise seemed only fitting for our whole trip, a trip where the unplanned destinations seemed meant to be.

be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shae,
you’re off to great places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting. 
So…get on your way!”

Dr. Seuss may have said it best about traveling through life—there are so many places to go.  But many of these great places shouldn’t be found by planning every step of the way.  Many of these treasures will only be found by going off the usual path, being spontaneous, and listening to others.

Don’t by Type A, don’t be anal-retentive, don’t be…the old me.  Learn to go with the flow and enjoy the twists and turns life throws your way.  The best laid plans can be good now and then, but the hidden gems of travel just might be some of the greatest memories of a destination. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Classic--Ponzi Vineyards

As we wound our way up the gentle hillside, the overcast sky was barely letting the sun through.  However, the looming rain clouds provided one of the most beautiful views:  lush, green knolls in every direction we looked.

We passed houses and farmland, and then entered the sloping vineyards just before we glimpsed the gorgeous facility.  Modern, with a rustic feel, the wood and glass seemed to fit into the hill itself, part of the environment as if it had always been there.

But it hadn’t.  This was actually Ponzi Vineyards' new tasting and production facility.  Though these structures were only recently completed, it is the quintessential example of Willamette Valley wine—a family-owned winery that cares about the environment so much that it feels as if it is actually a part of the environment.

Dick and Nancy Ponzi were Willamette Valley winemaking pioneers.  They came to Oregon from California in 1970 looking for the perfect place to grow pinot noir.  Vines were planted and worked by the Ponzis, and as the children grew, they helped their parents work the vineyards.  The first commercial sale of wine was in 1976, and the entire Ponzi family has been involved on some level ever since.

Today, Dick and Nancy’s daughter Luisa is the winemaker, having learned the ropes from her parents and at school in Beaune, France twenty vintages ago. Luisa’s husband, fellow winemaker Eric Hamacher, and their children are active in the business and even live with views of the valley’s vineyards.

Luisa’s sister Anna is the president at Ponzi Vineyards.  She is the marketing force behind making Ponzi’s wonderful wines known around the world.  Anna’s family is also active in the winery life, especially her architect husband Brett, who helped design and build the new tasting room that opened in 2013.

Luisa and Anna’s brother Michael was active in the family business for nearly twenty years before he and his wife branched out to move to Italy and focus on another product:  olive oil.  

However, don’t believe for a minute that Dick and Nancy passed the winery to their children for a relaxed, retired life.  They are still active at the winery and have delved into other business ventures as well, including an early-Oregon craft brewery.  One of their accomplishments has been the Dundee Bistro and Bubble Bar, a restaurant with an outstanding food program featuring locally grown and raised products, known for excellent regional cuisine and an extensive wine list.    

The pioneer story makes this family-owned winery a classic, but so does the winemaking facility.  The winemaking was moved from the original, historic Ponzi vineyard site (which is still a working vineyard and winery) to the new facility—Collina del Sogno—in 2008, where 45,000 cases are made a year.  This is gravity-flow production; the grapes come in at the top level, move to the second level for fermentation, go to the third level for barrel aging, and end at the fourth level for bottling and storage.  Gravity does the work during these processes, meaning that the wine sees less oxygen and softer handling, leading to a high-quality wine. 

The new tasting room was opened in 2013 at the same site as Collina del Sogno.  The wood, concrete, and glass create a welcoming environment for tasting.  The windows let in clear views of the Willamette Valley while customers warm themselves near the indoor fireplace.  The Bocci ball court is just one place to spend time when the Oregon weather is beautiful.  The outdoor patios offer more amazing views of the greenery and vines below.  All of the winery offices are also located here, as well as a small museum area that chronicles the Ponzi Family’s story over the last forty-five years of making wine.    

However, all wine lovers know that the best wines start in the vineyards—Ponzi is no exception.  The vineyards are LIVE certified sustainable, “the world’s highest standard for sustainable viticulture.”  These environmentally-sound strategies can be seen almost everywhere:  from cover crops to compost, from organic pest control to eco-friendly glass.  Yet, the only other resource that is as important to the Ponzis as their grapes is their people, another vital part of a thriving winery.

The 2014 Chardonnay, aged in stainless steel, is a spectacular example of chardonnay’s tendencies to be a chameleon.  In the steel tank, the light, mineral characteristics show before the fruit, and then the tropical fruit shows through to the finish—a more Chablis-like example.

The 2012 Avellana is the other side of the chardonnay coin.  This wine, twenty-five percent aged in oak for twenty months, is full of butter and pear, richness and cream.  The tropical fruit finish ends the quintessential example of a quality, buttery chardonnay, all without being overdone or overripe.

Pinot noirs are showcased here, too, like the 2013 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, with the archetypal favorites of an Oregon pinot:  bright strawberry, deep cherry, crisp acid, and tasty eucalyptus.  From the bright color in the glass to the long finish, it is a perfect Willamette Valley pinot noir.

The Aurora Vineyard Pinot Noir uses fruit from the most prized vineyard site, situated at slightly higher elevations (300-600 feet) and planted in prestigious laurelwood soil.  This is a deeper, richer, darker wine with great fruit, but the wet earth makes this incredibly complex, while showing the characteristic signs of pinot delicacy.

Lest one think that Ponzi Vineyards is not a diverse producer, think again.  Indigenous Italian varieties are grown by the family, like arneis and dolcetto.  Rosés and sparklings are also made, and, recently, even a lightly-sparkling muscat was produced—a Moscato di Ponzi. 

Though Ponzi does make a select few unique wines from unique grapes, Ponzi Vineyards is the classic example of a Willamette Valley winery.  The Ponzis were early pioneers in the wine industry in the valley.  Still today, they produce excellent examples of the region’s top grapes.  The Oregon philosophy of caring for the environment is first and foremost for this winery, as is caring for the people who work there.  The gravity-flow winery is not specific to Oregon, but has become an Oregon mainstay.  The tasting room is new and modern, yet fits into its surroundings like it has been there for decades. 

Yes, Ponzi Vineyards is truly a classic—the perfect example of what a Willamette Valley winery can…and should…be.