Reflections from a Soter and Antica Terra Excursion

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.

Soter Vineyards 2010 Brut Rose

Soter Vineyards 2010 Brut Rose

“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.

SoterPinot
Matt wandered to their nearby edible garden with his glass of 2012 Estate Pinot Noir, and we followed after a few minutes.

“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.

“Good point.”

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.

sortingtable

Sorting grapes at Antica Terra

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.

Winemaker Maggie Harrison experiments with nail scissors

Winemaker Maggie Harrison experiments with nail scissors

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.

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Three Oregon Wineries: Visiting Through Vignettes

MAYSARA

It was our second weekend in Oregon.  My girlfriend Carla and I had taken a trip to Wandering Aengus Ciderworks in Salem to fill our growler with Anthem Hop Cider.  We were becoming hungry and exhausted after we left, and we were making our way to Mcminville for a winery visit before heading back to Portland.

Maysara Winery is the first place featured in Katherine Cole’s book Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers,  and the portrait she painted of Moe Momtazi’s uncompromising and genuinely radical vision for his namesake vineyard had captured my attention and kept me scratching my head about such an unusual form of viticulture until I reached the book’s index.

We stopped at a café a few miles from the vineyard for a roast beef au jus to sate our appetites, and turned into the inclined dirt road an hour before Maysara’s scheduled closing time.  Each row of vines had colorful flowers in front of them, a practice we later learned was intended to attract insects and keep them away from the grapevines.

The winery and tasting room appeared majestic and medieval, with tall ceilings and large stones on the walls.  We met Naseem, the middle daughter in the Momtazi family business and National Sales Representative for Maysara.  She poured seven wines for us, five of them Pinot Noirs, each its own wild animal with unique subtleties of flavor.  We walked out with the white (a Pinot Blanc) and two of the reds: the 3 Degrees and the Asha Pinot Noirs that had an ample balance of soil, bramble, and fruit to please my finicky palate for this elusive grape.  On our drive back, we saw a sign for Anne Amie Vineyards.

“Oh, Anne Amie,” I said.  “They make such a great dry Riesling.  I wish we had time to stop there.”

“Maybe next weekend, mi amor,” Carla said softly, patting my back.

ANNE AMIE

It was our third Saturday in Oregon, our only remaining full weekend in the State, and we were driving back from Chatoe Rogue, a farm owned by Rogue Brewery that grows hops and barley for use in their microbrews made in the coastal city of Newport.  Once again, our last stop on the way back was a winery.

We had checked the website for Anne Amie Vineyards and learned they would be hosting a movie night that evening, which allowed us to make our way back leisurely without worry of their tasting room closing.

The sky was full of cirrus clouds made gold by the bright sun touching the tips of the vineyard’s rolling hills of vines and its perennial bushes on its patio.  Carla and I walked in the tasting room and were told the movie would start at 8, so we tasted a few wines and bought a cheese plate to enjoy with their Viognier.  It was a bright and beautiful example of such a friendly white grape, full and layered with floral tropicality that cooled our lips as the sun shone over us.

We drained the bottle well before the movie was even close, and opted to take another one home in addition to their dry Riesling.  The simple pairing of herbed goat cheese, Viognier, and an approaching sunset over their vineyard had provided enough entertainment that evening.

View from the patio at sunset at Anne Amie Vineyards

MONTINORE

It was our last Saturday in Oregon, and we would be leaving the State before the afternoon closed.  Our last stop was again a winery, one that had also captured my interest in Katherine Cole’s book, and had been the subject of a previous post: Montinore Estate

The site was the most beautiful winery we had yet seen.  We were again confronted by roses in front of the vines, a densely packed bunch of low-lying green specimens covering a wide expanse of rolling hills.

“Interested in a tasting?” the Attendant said as she rose from her chair behind their bar.

We chose ten wines to taste and with every few, I walked around the room, sipping and browsing the diverse array of products they were selling.  I sipped the first Pinot Noir she had poured, and recalled the last night I went out to dinner with my parents at FIG in Charleston, South Carolina where I had tried a glass of the same wine for the first time.

“What’s this?” I asked, picking up a large bottle full of brown liquid labeled “VERJUS.”

“It’s basically the best thing ever,” (the Attendant) said.  “It’s the juice of unripe grapes.  I use it in everything, for salad dressings, poaching pears, cocktails.”

Carla gave me her first look of longing at the bar.  “Are we buying it?” she asked.

“I guess we are,” I responded.

We tasted through another few wines and were at our last, their Pinot Noir Ruby Port.  She poured it for us and I raised my glass and smelled it.

“Wait, let me get you some chocolate,” she said from the back of the bar.  She presented us with two small paper sample cups with a thick chocolate reduction.  “This is our Pinot Noir chocolate sauce.”

Carla gave me her second longing look, and I consented yet again.

We walked out with the majority of what we had tasted, and I filled the gaps in the box with some additional loose bottles of beer and wine we had bought earlier.  I snapped a few pictures with my new iPhone of the flower-lined vine rows before getting in the car to begin our drive to Seattle.  No VIP tours, no sample bottles, no business lunches, not even an industry discount anymore since I have shifted my focus back to the tea world.  Just good wine worth devoting the time for our taste buds.

Roses at Montinore Winery

Last Week at Owen Roe

The air is laden with clouds and light rain, the most common weather in this part of Oregon.  I am getting closer to St. Paul, about an hour outside of Portland, passing roadside produce stands and fields of peppers and corn.  My destination is Owen Roe Winery, a boutique winery that sources grapes from Washington and Oregon to make artisanal wines with wide Texas distribution through Glazers.  Texas broker Chuck Weintraub suggested I visit them during my trip to the Pacific Northwest, as he sensed I would be drawn in by the location and his longtime friend, winemaker and former Dallasite Aaron Berlin.

The winery is tucked away with a small black and white sandwich board of a sign.  I am introduced to Aaron upon my arrival.

“So you’re coming from Dallas?” Aaron asks rhetorically.  “You look like you’re straight out of the Pacific Northwest.”

I scratch my chin, my face unshaven after three days at my college reunion in Walla Walla.  “Yep,” I remarked.  “Texans don’t know what to make of me, because most of them I know don’t make it up to the Pacific Northwest.”

We walk toward an alcove with a table of wines to taste.  When he pours a glass of Kilmore Pinot Noir, I ask about the origins of the winery name.  Named after Irish Gaelic soldier Owen Roe O’Neill, Irish owner David O’Reilly was inspired by O’Neill’s loyalty to his kin, a mindset he strives to utilize at his winery.  Aaron describes examples of this generosity, such as the opportunity for staff to make their own wine using the facilities, and lunch prepared by an on-site chef each day for staff and visitors.

Owen Roe O'Neill, Irish Gaelic soldier and source of the winery's namesake

We taste the remaining wines, ending with the recent release of 2010 Sinister Hand, a Grenache-based blend that shows with a restrained and juicy gentleness, just emerging from its shell with youthful vigor.  He asks if I want another glass of something before he shows me the production facilities, and I revisit the Kilmore Pinot Noir.

“I’m excited you like that one so much,” he remarks.  “I was nervous about this vintage…”

2010 Sinister Hand, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre

We remove bungs from barrels of white wine, mostly chardonnay.  The odor is initially overwhelming, an ammonia that numbs my entire palate for the glass of wine in my hand.  Intense aromas of banana, overripe mango, and passion fruit come through, manifesting themselves restrainedly together in the bottle, free of lees and wood, when we return to taste some newly opened bottles from the production facility.

He shows me projects from former on-site chef Jesse Skiles, now crafting wines for his label Fausse PisteOne vat holds grapes macerating in their own juices, and another is equal parts Syrah and Viognier piled in individual layers as an experiment to see how separating them in such a way will affect the flavor.  I taste raw viognier grapes, juicy syrah grapes, and somewhat more rough-skinned merlot, all of them sweeter than I would have predicted, hinting at the concentration that may come through as they ferment.

We hop in my rental car and drive ten minutes to one of their vineyards producing grapes that currently go into their Sharecropper Pinot Noir.  Aaron is worried many of the grapes have been consumed by birds and pests, since they had not covered the vineyard with netting yet.  He is pleasantly surprised when we arrive.  The grapes are tart, not quite ripe, and few seem to have been lost to the unwanted predators.

One of Owen Roe's nearby vineyards with Pinot Noir grapes

We head back, and I taste the Sharecropper Pinot Noir with a lunch of pasta mixed with brussel sprouts, corn, and braised pork shoulder.  I then head downstairs to speak with Aaron one last time before I depart.  I ask him what prompted him to leave Dallas for Oregon and how he specifically became the winemaker at Owen Roe.

Unable to survive solely as a musician, he explained, he eventually took a job at specialty wine store Pogos and started reading some magazines about wine.  “I thought ‘this is cool,” he said.  “People drink good wine often; they eat well.  I’d like to be a part of it.’ ”  He left Dallas in 1998 and took a job at Argyle Winery for three years before securing his current position at Owen Roe.  Though it took awhile to regain financial stability, he explained, “I’m happy now.”  Twenty minutes passed quickly, and I shook hands with him and headed to the airport.

 

“So,” Chuck said as we took our seats at a table with Randal Grahm (of Bonny Doon Vineyards, the focus of my upcoming post), “how was Owen Roe?  I bet it was nuts with production going on…”

“It was actually very laid back,” I responded.  “A very casual visit.”

“I want to hear all about it.”

As I reach the end of this chronicle, I wonder what I can tell Chuck that will intrigue him so.  My visit felt relaxed and everyday at its core, with no big surprises or monumental stories.  Perhaps Aaron’s comment when we first met alludes to my slight confusion about what excites people so much.  In all my college years living in wine country, many of the wineries do not lend themselves to tours, and merely want to produce good wine and sell it all on-site.  Owen Roe is an exception insofar as their wines have wider exposure, yet their facility feels like a departure from their unique packaging.  The winery and its team are a no frills bunch simply trying to get the most out of what they do, and bring that same spirit to one another, day by day.  Perhaps this mentality seems natural to me, but may be more unusual than I realize.