Pinot, Pinot, and more Pinot Noir

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A beautiful view of a stand of tall trees through the Alloro vineyard

McMINNVILLE, OR. – I normally advise people not to do more than three winery stops in a single day. So on my first full day in Oregon’s Willamette Valley I was able to stick to that rule but stretched things a bit on the last stop.

Alloro Vineyards, Vidon, and Stoller Estate filled my first day of tasting capped off by a great evening at Nick’s Cafe in McMinnville. Wayne Bailey, owner and winemaker of Youngsberg Hill Winery and Inn, hosted me, marketer Carl Giavanti, and a personal friend who owns a small winery north of Chicago. It was a great day.

I was most anxious to visit Alloro Vineyards up in the hill of Willamette Valley just outside of Portland. Two blind tastings with friends rated Alloro the best of four or five small production wines tasted earlier this year.

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Alloro’s Fitzpatrick

General Manager and winemaker Tom Fitzpatrick is meticulous in overseeing winemaking operations. We chatted in the winery and tasting room. He uses carbonic maceration in the winemaking process which really shows off the fruit.

 

The wines are reasonably priced at $40 for the entry level estate wines. I found the Pinot to be well-balanced, bright fruit, and perfect to sip or with food. Alloro also does Chardonnay, a dry Riesling and a dessert wine.

I  talked with Fitzpatrick about Oregon’s warming growing season and about price pressures with the Valley’s booming success. His thoughts and comments will be feature in a future post.

After a quick lunch stop at the Alison Spa and Inn, we headed to Vidon Vineyards, always a favorite stop. Don was off to California trying to sell wine so we spent time with Don’s winemaker David Bellows. Bellows holds a in PhD in Molecular Biology from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. That’s some serious winemaking science.

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Vidon winemaker Bellows

David, resplendent in his Slipper Noodle t-shirt (Indianapolis iconic blues bar), tasted us through a vertical of Vidon’s classic 3 Clones wines – a 2013, ’14, and ’15. We also barrel tasted the 2017 Apollo Chardonnay which was outstanding – perhaps one of the best Oregon Chardonnay’s I’ve had in previous visits. The wine is part of a series of wines highlight Don’s time with the NASA space program.

Bellows was very insightful on the challenge of the warming climate and what it could mean to Oregon wineries. His thoughts will be included in the future post mentioned above.

The ‘we’ throughout the post represents myself and Carl Giavanti. Carl helped arrange interviews with several of these winemakers whom I interviewed via email earlier this year. I wrote a series of pieces about the challenges of the small guys fending off the big-money investments happening in the Willamette Valley. Carl was my guide throughout the day providing valuable background about each winery and the Oregon industry.

Our last stop was “for comparison’ purposes” contrasting the small wineries to Stoller Estate. Stoller recently was honored with USA Today’s “Best Tasting Room in America” honor. From Stoller’s website: “Our tasting room and winery combine environmental sustainability and high-efficiency design, and harvests 100 percent of its energy through a 1180-panel solar panel installation. Notable design features include a green roof, skylights, salvaged timber, and an EV charging station for electric vehicles.”

Stoller produces 68,000 cases of wine under multiple labels compared to the typical 2000-3,000 case operations of the smaller wineries I’m visiting on this trip. Communications Director Michelle Kaufmann was our host for the tasting and share all of Stoller goals of sustainability and growth.

I’ll write something independent about Stoller. Their efforts are setting the bar for how one grows, treats employees, and build a brand with integrity and  purpose.

Today, we’re off to Lenne Estate, JL Kiff, and back to Youngberg Hill for a tasting with owner/winemaker Wayne Bailey.

A quick taste of Downtown Portland

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An ‘adult’ chocolate-covered donut.

PORTLAND, OR. – Oregon is a feast for the senses, your cultural point of view, and the palate. Sometimes the Rose City is all three sensory sensations at once.

I spent Sunday night in downtown Portland before heading out to Willamette Valley wine country a little later this morning.

Sunday night dinner was with an old Wabash friend, David Newhart, at a somewhat traditional French bistro. This morning I’m up early and visiting the city’s six-location Blue Star Donuts. Portland is known for Voodoo donuts and they’re pretty

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Donut maven carmelizing sugar on a cake donut. The smell is worth walking in for!

darn good. So I decided to try this upstart ‘donuts for adults’ shop downtown.

Just look at pic above. No ordinary chocolate donut – the chocolate was a deeply rich ganache with chopped almonds. Crazy adult flavors like pumpkin spice pana cotta, passion fruit cake and tons of others. Or  how about lemon  poppy seed  buttermilk. (which might be my second donut!)

The donuts are delicious. They use all natural and organic ingredients. And as you might expect, they come at an adult, gourmet price of $3-4 each – that’s right – each! Locals will tell you to try this new kid on the block. I’m convinced.

On the flip side, I really was anticipating dinner last night at Bistro Agnes. The spot was opened by two heralded James Beard award-winning chefs. I can’t say i was disappointed by I was not wowed by this strategically located downtown home of traditional French dishes.

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Petrale Sole Meuniere

I had the French onion soup, just call me a cliche’, and it was very nice. The soup had a rich flavored beef broth which could have used a few more onions, croutons, and even a couple small bites of beef. The gruyere topping was the hit of the dish. Delicious. David had the smoked salmon carpaccio, Radish, cucumber, and dill was an excellent cold appetizer.

My dinner went south with my main course. I love fish and have always found French-prepared white fish to be delightful.  I ordered the Petrale Sole Meuniere featuring sauteed green beans, potato puree, brown butter, and capers.

The fish was nicely seared and cooked perfectly but the brown butter (and it was swimming in butter) along with the capers made the dish salty and difficult bites at times. The green beans were flavorless. With $13 on the soup, $27 for the fish, and $14 for a very nice glass of Sancere, it wasn’t terribly expensive. I was just hoping for more on the delivery.

With that said, it’s refreshing to see chefs concentrate on the classics – and by no means was it a bad meal. I’d love to go back and give Bistro Agnes a second try.

 

Visiting my favorite wine country

PORTLAND, OR. – No matter how often I fly to the west coast to visit Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine country, I just never get tired of it.

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Hotel Deluxe a great little find near Portland’s famed Pearl District.

This trip is really more ‘wine business’ related than a trip  with three wine buddies in the fall of 2016. I wrote a short series of stories this spring about a handful of small Oregon wineries, the challenges, and how those small wineries thrive.

At the invitation of the marketer helping promote those wineries, I’m visiting for some Monday/Tuesday visits with those wineries and hitting a couple of others as well. Alloro, Lenne, Vidon and maybe Stoller along with JL Kiff are on the two-day itinerary. I’ve booked Wednesday on my own to visit personal favorites Winderlea and Lange wineries. I’ve left a slot open intentionally.

I am anxious to talk to the winemakers about climate change and the impact warmer temps could have on Oregon’s famous lighter-bodied Pinot Noir. We might chat about the explosion of interest in Rose’ and the continued emergence of Oregon Chardonnay. I’m interested in price pressures as Oregon wine gains more and more acclaim.

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My wine writing life: a great panini and a keyboard.

I arrived in Portland about 2 local time. I’m staying at Hotel Deluxe, a very cute and funky place downtown I stayed during my first visit about a decade ago.

I’m meeting up with a young Wabash College alum friend for dinner tonight. We’re going to Bistro Agnes, a French restaurant, which boasts two James Beard award-winning chefs.

I’m going to try to post after the restaurant visit tonight. Right now, a very nice smoked turkey panini and a glass of Durant Pinot Noir. Well, you do have to jump right in you know!

Huber Restaurant changes Starlight

Huber’s Orchard and Winery has always been one of my favorite day trips. The trip was never complete without a stop at Joe Huber’s restaurant, featuring some of the best commercial friend chicken ever!

So the news was a big shock, and initially confusing, when it was announced this week the restaurant will be auctioned off later this year.

There was a certain amount of confusion in Indy media about the sale. It seemed to get straightened out as the day wore on today. The wildly popular and successful Huber Orchard and Winery continues in business as always. It’s the restaurant going up for sale.

The New Albany News and Tribune has a good story up online tonight. A big thanks to a former protege’ Jason Thomas for sharing his paper’s latest update.

Closing down column after 10 years

When grape-sense-logoGrape Sense debuted as a newspaper column in the fall of 2007, I never had any idea or hopes that it would run more than 10 years and result in over 250 columns.

The column has been responsible for meeting all sorts of people in the wine community. But, more important to me, it also has introduced me to wine enthusiasts in each of the communities where the column is published in the newspaper or on a website.

Today will be the last regular Grape Sense wine column. I will be offering the newspapers that carried Grape Sense occasional columns on Indiana wineries, holidays and other times when people are looking to read about wine.

It’s not that I’ve run out of ideas or a lack of motivation to continue the column. It feels more like the column has simply run its course.

I want to write good pieces about Indiana wine in a more thoughtful way. I want to offer suggestions at the holiday and season changes that make sense for you regardless of your budget.

Grape Sense has always been about education or helping you make wine decisions beyond your normal comfort zones.

I hope many of the Grape Sense newspapers will continue to carry the features.

This column was largely responsible in the early years for trips to Mendocino and Paso Robles to learn about wine making and vineyard practices. I was part of three press trips to France in 2012 which never would have happened without the newspaper column.

At one point the column reached 23 newspapers with circulation in excess of 350,000 Hoosier, Illinois, and southern Michigan homes. The core group has been with me for a long time. I started with the Crawfordsville Journal-Review and Frankfort Times – newspapers I had worked at during my long print career. I loved knowing wine lovers in Marion, Anderson, Terre Haute, Seymour, New Albany, Monticello, Columbia City and many more enjoyed reading about wine.

I hope I can continue to provide occasional stories worth your time and trouble.

In the end it’s about increasing your wine enjoyment, at a price you can afford, and drinking wines you like. I hope we’ve helped a few people achieve that goal.

Any time you have a wine question I’m happy to answer for you.

I hope you see Grape Sense back in your community for several years to come; it just won’t be on a regular schedule.

Thanks for reading Grape Sense!

Lots of new good eats in Indy

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Indianapolis continues to be a food hotbed and even if you only get into the capital city a time or two a year there is something for everyone. And lots of new places to try out.

grape-sense-logoBeholder, the brainchild of Milktooth super chef Jonathan Brooks, is now open and wowing local upscale diners. Brooks has been lauded by Food & Wine magazine, Eater magazine, and mentioned in many other national food publications. Food scene people know Brooks.

His newest venture is something of a gambler’s visit to Indy’s old eastside just beyond the entertainment and restaurant laden Mass Ave. Beholder sit on 10th St., near historic Woodruff Place’s Victorian homes. Brooks is risking name, reputation and a lot of dollars that Beholder can become a destination restaurant that will draw people to the sometimes seamy east side. The immediate neighborhood is changing in the area, and a big thanks goes to Beholder.

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Chef Jonathan Brooks

The restaurant has a modern ubran décor and an eclectic menu which can change day to day. Brooks takes his diners on an amazing array of tastes and textures throughout the meal. My dining partner and I enjoyed eggplant tartar, rye pasta with chicken liver pate’, pork tenderloin slices with pickled onion, BBQ octopus and more Since a year or so ago Grape Sense has occasionally delved into food and even Indy-area restaurants.. It was amazing – even some of the things we didn’t think we’d like!

Two glasses of bubbles, two appetizers, one medium plate, two glasses of wine, two entrée, and one dessert came to $185. That’s certainly a high-end price but within the range of dinner for two, with wine, at other top Indy dining spots. Beholder sets a very high bar.

There are lots of other new things to try. The big news of early summers was the arrival of Kimball Musk’s two new Indy dining spots – the more upscale Hedge Row on Mass Ave and Next door at College and 46th. Must is known not just as the brother of Tesla founder Elon Musk but as an entrepreneur and philanthropist.

His business focuses on community, local ingredients, and even bringing affordable foods to food islands like the College Avenue location.

Fried Chicken seems to be new again, often with a hint of spice, Martha Hoover’s food empire just keeps growing. The woman known for the fabulous, and nationally recognized, breakfast at her flagship Café Patachou is all in with her son on fried chicken. Crispy Bird is the small restaurant just off Pennsylvania Ave at 49th.

Another chicken-serving hot spot is The Eagle on Mass Ave. Eagle’s chicken comes out each time tasting like it’s freshly fried and with a hint of spice. Beer is a big deal at the Eagle so the combination draws mature diners and lots of young patrons. It has a youthful vibe that makes it simple fun to enjoy the dish grandma used to do so well.

Rose’ sales madness continues

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As a wine columnist, there is always news pouring into the inbox. Some topics spark an entire column idea while others are worthy of note to anyone interested in wine.

grape-sense-logoIt seems like stories about Rose’ sales flood my inbox on a weekly basis. The statistics are mind boggling to the point of disbelief. For example, rose’ sales make up just 1.5 percent of the U.S. wine market. But sales increased 53 percent in volume during 2016-2017. Nothing increases 53 percent in any business in such a short period of time!

And despite its popularity there are still misconceptions. Go into any wine specialty shop and look at the rose’ display. Rose is most often made from Pinot Noir in the U.S. Still it’s not hard to find Rose made from almost any grape grown in the vineyards. In Indiana, for instance, Chambourcin red grapes can make a great Rose. Some Hoosier wineries will use sweeter grapes to make a sweet rose’. That grape is often Catawba.

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Lots of Rose’ styles to choose from.

But sweetness is where a bit of the confusion begins. There are wine novices who immediately think sweet when they see pink. If a wine shop display has 15 rose’ wines then probably 15 of them are in a dry style. White zinfandel, which is usually pink, is the genesis of the misconception.

Still, even in dry rose’ sales there are a variety of styles. Rose’ made from grapes like sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Malbec, Syrah and any number of other grapes can have a much bigger mouth feel than a light rose’ from Provence.

French rose’, arguably the world’s finest, has a huge range of styles. Tavel, from the Rhone Valley, is usually made from grenache. Yet, it’s not terribly unusual to find a Rose’ based on Syrah for a bigger flavor.

Traditional Provence rose’ is usually made from grenache, cinsault, and mourvèdre. Provence rose’ has become the standard. They are the light summer drinkers you see at the beach, on street side cafes, and increasingly at home picnics.

Arguably, Chateau d’Esclans Whispering Angel fueled the rose’ rush. It has a mouthwatering flavor and texture. It hit U.S. shores in the mid-teens and now is often found around $20-$25. Whispering Angel sales have exploded in the U.S. There was a great headline in Vinepair, a wine news publication, that read “It went from Provence to Nantucket to Everywhere.”

Rose sales were concentrated on the coast but now have saturated the country. Just how popular is Whispering Angel in the U.S.? The wine debuted in 2017 in domestic markets. In 10 years, 2007-2017, sales increased 40,000 percent.

Your local wine shop will have the best Rose’ selection. Try the rose’ wines of Provence but experiment. Try the mineral-driven rose’ wines of France’s Loire Valley, a personal favorite. And, there are plenty of rose’ of pinot noir wines from U.S. producers.

Rose’ goes great with a salad, charcuterie, and fish.

Think pink this summer.

Join Howard Oct. 9-13 in Oregon

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Spend three days tasting the wines of the Willamette Valley, plus one day visiting the beautiful Columbia River Gorge with lunch in Hood River.

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Youngsberg Hill Inn, McMinnville

Our trip starts with your arrival Tuesday, Oct. 9, with a hotel booked in your name in Portland. We’ll visit wineries, the Columbia River Gorge, and wrap up Saturday night back in Portland.

Included: Portland Hotel Tuesday and Saturday, luxury B&B in the valley, ground transportation, tasting fees, and all meals Wednesday morning through Saturday lunch.

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Taste with the winemakers

Transportation to/from Portland is not included.

HH’s Oregon Trip or write Howard at hewitthoward@gmail.com for a brochure.

The deadline is just days away. Join us for an incredible wine trip in the Willamette Valley.

Help wine retailers help you

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It can be intimidating for some to walk into a retail wine shop with hundreds of bottles and a price range of $7 to $300. Even a small shop may have 500 to 700 different labels of red and white wines.

grape-sense-logoYou may not know the technical terms or understand the strange wine-speak used by dedicated winos. You may not even know what you like or want to try. That’s all okay if you’re in a shop where retail consultants have a patient ear and ask good questions.

Be prepared to work with retail wine sales people and you’re much more likely to walk away with a bottle you’ll enjoy. There are things you can do to help that retail sales person find you a great bottle of wine at all price points.

IMG_1186First, think just a little about what you like. Do you like your reds big and bold or light on the palate? Do you prefer whites with a big mouthfeel, smooth and rich? Or do you prefer clean and crisp white wines and flavors?

Talking about flavors is a good start in any store. The other question you’re going to get is “what are you prepared to spend?” That is where you need to be honest and don’t inflate your answer, and spend more, than you are really prepared to pay for a bottle of wine.

Upselling is as common in a wine shop as a clothing retailer trying to sell you socks after buying a shirt or blouse. A retail shop is there to make money and upselling is quite common. Be firm if not convinced the more expensive bottle will really suit your tastes and pocketbook.

Now that I have personal retail experience I like to find a customer the price point they are looking for and then, more often than not, suggest another bottle at a lower price and a bottle which costs more than they were originally seeking. More expensive wines are better for lots of reasons. But one of the bigger stories, perhaps untold, is the increasing quality of inexpensive wine. Quality continues to improve as more people enjoy wine with dinner and recreationally.

Some wine people, retail and writers, get hung up on the ‘hints of cherry and underlying flavors of black currants” and other such descriptors. Ask the wine retailer is it bold or light in flavor? Would they describe the wine as acidic – which can be a good or bad thing.

Remember almost all shops will offer a discount for quantity purchases. A 10 percent discount is not uncommon for a six or 12 bottle purchase, which will of course vary from store to store.

Then obviously take advantage of tasting events. The more you taste wine the better chance you have of finding wines you will enjoy.

It’s summer time so get to your wine retailer and stock up on whites, rose’ and don’t forget the bubbles!

Tips for smaller wineries to compete

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For the past two Grape Sense columns, the focus has been on a handful of small production Oregon wineries. This column wraps up the in-depth look at how they face marketing challenges against the big operations moving into the Willamette Valley. There are also some brief comments about their wine and how to buy their products.

grape-sense-logoCarl Giavanti is a winery publicist working in the valley with these ‘little guys’ assisting them in carving out a niche.

“I think the real story in Willamette Valley (and other small regions nationally) is that 85 percent of the wineries produce less than 5,000 cases,” Giavanti has written. “It’s micro production by any measure. They have only survived because of so called “Premiumization” and the recent fascination with the region. What will happen when the next economic downturn occurs, and as the distribution consolidation continues, or as vineyard and winery acquisitions accelerate (which is happening at a rapid pace right now)? Are there business parallels between what is happening in Willamette Valley and any other burgeoning American industry? Is large always destined to win? Is there a “Manifest Destiny” for these small craft producers?”

Carl_Headshot2Giavanti is a guy good at answering his own questions. There is no questioning its tough for these winemakers to clear their shelves at the end of each season. But smart marketing positioning and taking advantage of earned media seem to be the most direct route for the smaller winery’s success.

“It’s no secret there are generally lots of wineries in most wine regions,” Giavanti points out. “There are over 9,000 wineries in the U.S, and due to consolidation by the largest distributors, I estimate only 700 distribution companies, and they focus on large family or corporate winery groups, high profit margins and primarily order taking. The small production winery simply cannot compete.”

Boiling down Giavanti’s recommendations can be oversimplified to having a good story to tell and knowing your product niche. He tells the winery owners to: 1) build your own unique brand, have a strong authentic winery voice that clearly states how you are different, unique and what you promise to consumers 2) do media outreach, either direct or with a media relations consultant. Get your name, your stories and your wines out there! And 3) sell your wine direct to consumer. You’ll have the highest margins (even after marketing costs), enjoy the greatest loyalty and have the most fun!”

That’s pretty good advice for any small business.

The Wines

One of the remarkable things about the Willamette Valley is the overall quality of the wine and the five producers included in this story are no exception. Those making Chardonnay are learning quickly and producing Burgundian style – soft and rich – white wines. Ghost Hill makes a fabulous white Pinot Noir at an incredible low price.

Pinot Noir is the calling card for Alloro VineyardLenne’ EstateGhost HillVidon Vineyard and Youngberg Hill. The wines are slightly different in style which is one of the most interesting things about Oregon Pinot for real wine enthusiasts. All have varying levels of critical acclaim. Space does not allow for individual reviews but ordering six bottles of wine from any of the wineries will be well worth your Pinot investment. The wines average around $40-$50 a bottle. With price creep really taking hold in Oregon, these wines are a value buy. Contact the wineries directly through their easy-to-find website to place an order. And yes, they can ship to Indiana. For more specific recommendations, contact me at hewitthoward@gmail.com

And anytime you visit a wine region, remember the little guys!

For More

Go to the Grape Sense website at howardhewitt.net and look for a post with the headline “More from Boutique Oregon Wineries.” There are tips on aging Pinot, and background and philosophy on winemaking.