Matt and I had met about six years ago when I sold tea to Stephan Pyles, where he served as Executive Chef at the time. I had last seen him when travelling to Dallas for a wedding in 2012, a few weeks before FT33, the restaurant he now owns, opened. A self-taught chef and father, he is the type I always assume to be extremely busy, and I made a trip to Portland during Feast under the assumption that I might only get to meet him for a beer late one night, and spend the rest of the weekend with other friends there. The prospect of making an afternoon excursion to two wineries in Willamette was nowhere on my proverbial radar.
I slept later than my one-year-old human alarm clock usually allows on a Saturday, and was instead greeted by a few text messages. Matt would soon be heading to Willamette with Jeff, his General Manager, and Emily, a writer he knew from San Antonio, and that I could join them if I would like.
The drive to Carlton took about forty-five minutes, and we were greeted at Soter Vineyards by a former server from Matt’s restaurant, carrying four glasses of their 2010 Sparkling Brut Rosé.
“Can we just get a bottle of this rosé?” Jeff asked.
“Yeah, I second that,” I chimed in.
It had been too long since I had sipped a sparkling rosé, and I cannot recall when I last tried a vintage sparkling rosé. It was unusually warm and sunny for the weekend preceding the Autumnal Equinox in Northern Oregon. The tiny bubbles hit my throat with a flavor that evoked pure tranquility and an inner smile as we gazed over the landscape of Mineral Springs Ranch and entertained ideas of moving to this part of wine country while tasting through somewhere around ten wines, a few of them side-by-side vintage comparisons.
“Here,” he said, handing us borage flowers. “Taste these and think about oysters.”
“But borage tastes like cucumber,” I remarked.
“And what’s a West Coast oyster taste like?” he responded.
After returning to the table and going through one last vertical tasting and their Proprietary Red, we purchased our favorites to load in the trunk and make our way to Dundee, where the plan was to sort grapes at Antica Terra.
Perhaps one of the most simultaneously educational and more calming forms of manual labor I have performed, the sorting tables were moving harvested fruit into a large container to soon get pressed. We were trying to remove and discard any stems, unripe specimens, and insects from the separated clusters of Pinot Noir.
Matt and Jeff had disappeared from the sorting tables early on, and Emily and I made no effort to find them, as we were entranced by this process. Carpets of grapes slid past my hands at the speed of a swimming dog, swift enough to make it challenging for me to keep up but just the right speed to notice many defects. Here was a first-hand (pun fortuitous) experience of the imperfections that give character to an artisan product where technology is only present to encourage human assistance. I could not possibly pick out every earwig and green berry, but at this moment I was intently focused on finding as many as I could grab.
“What difference does it make if some bugs end up in the vat?” I asked.
“Well,” the guy across from me responded, “I did some Chardonnay awhile ago. And for that, we just put the whole clusters in, so everything went in the vat. I mean, you’d really need a lot of green fruit and bugs to taste a difference after the juice ferments.”
The conveyor slowed, and we saw that Matt and Jeff had returned, and a text popped up on my phone from Matt that they were with the winemaker, Maggie Harrison, working on an experimental batch of grapes.
I chuckled. “I just received this text,” I said, raising my phone to show him.
“Oh,” he smiled. “We were in a room snipping grapes off stems with nail scissors so they could go through carbonic maceration. She’s probably only going to get a barrel or two out of the experiment. This woman has an insane attention to detail.”
After a toast with the winemaker’s favorite whiskey, we were on our way back to Portland, where we spent an hour shooting billiards and playing with a digital jukebox before sharing a multi-course meal at Davenport, an energetic spot on a Friday night. Though the end of my evening came late, it was a day that made me feel recharged. We had all committed to making the journey to Portland on this particular weekend, and then committed to yet another couple hours in the car together to immerse ourselves in two wineries for a few hours. The visits were a way of removing ourselves in a setting where we could focus on nothing but conversation and the taste or appearance of grapes. At its best, artisan wine encourages me to sharpen my senses and absorb an individual moment, a sentiment that felt very much prevalent in the environment of Soter and Antica Terra.