Oregon is best known for wines from several distinct areas, most of which either run north to south between the Coastal Range and the Cascade mountains, such as the Willamette and Umpqua Valleys, or at the north of the state running along Columbia Valley sharing the Washington border. Our hotel is right on the coast, as we wanted to see the dramatic beaches, coves and unspoiled beauty that I have often seen in photographs. The fact is, that grapes just don’t grow along this coastline. It is too cold and wet for them to reach maturity and ripen enough to create viable wine juice, however there is one winery that does make the wine right on the coast, albeit from grapes grown in other parts of the state. That winery is called Flying Dutchman and located 19 miles south of Lincoln City, on a rock promontory that sticks out into the Pacific, high above a natural rock formation called The Devil’s Punchbowl. In fact, this is the most western winery in USA and I met with Assistant Winemaker, Dan High who led me through a tasting and explained the wines to me.
Their distribution is tiny and all of it is sold out of the winery but if you call them, they will ship bottles for personal consumption to any state. They buy grapes from 5 notable vineyards in central and south Oregon and are going through the pressing and fermenting process for the entire month of October. The reds are fermented outside in open-top fermenters where they claim that the salt spray from the ocean acts as a natural flavor enhancer and preservative, allowing them to use very little sulphur (the lowest in the state). The salt also apparently helps with color extraction and the slow cold-soak adds complexity to the mix. Following fermentation, Dan or Winemaker Richard Cutler put the reds in oak barrels for aging (combination of French and Hungarian oak, mostly about 2 years old) and the finished wine is not bottled for several years. They are able to be patient and let the wine age a little before release. While these wines are not necessarily representative of the rest of the state, they are certainly serious products that have won many medals at State level competitions. The prices are reasonable too and there is no sales tax in Oregon.
I loved the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape variety that is not immediately associated with Oregon. It didn’t have the power of a California cab, and it is not trying to be one. It is a great food wine with structure and soft tannins, no noticeable greenness and full black-fruit flavors.
I also tried the 2004 Pinot Noir. My favorite grape of all is a hard one to grow and yet it does well in Oregon with the right handling. This example is soft and delicious. A very feminine wine stylistically that I would think many American palates would find too thin. Not too vegetal on the nose, but distinctively a Pinot Noir.
I brought home a bottle of Pinot Blanc/Riesling blend having tasted it at the winery. Perfect with the seafood that is so abundant here.
As I drove back north to the hotel, I stopped at a lookout to photograph the promontory on which Flying Dutchman Winery is situated and you get an even better impression from that vantage point.
A few miles later, I was driving through the seaside town of Depoe Bay when I saw a “Winery” sign. I stopped to explore. The tasting room is quaint to say the least, so small that it doesn’t even have room for a fridge to chill the whites, and the ceiling is covered with dollar bills that have been signed by the many tourists who have come in and tasted the wines. Depoe Bay Winery is actually a sister tasting room for Nehalem Bay Winery, further north. Laura, the hostess in charge for the day was delightful. She usually works at the other tasting room and lives in Portland and so was not as familiar with this area, but she talked me through the wines and told me the story of the winery. The owner and winemaker is Ray Shackelford who bought the winery in 1991 after a chance meeting with the original owner in a bar. Ray is an interesting guy who is in Cambodia at the moment working in an orphanage. But his passion for wine is evident in their offerings that include many varietals and some blends as well as fruit wines.
Just like Flying Dutchman, Depoe bay Winery only sells the wines from the tasting rooms. They are not even available in restaurants, which I think is a shame. Come on local restaurants, support the wineries that are literally up the road from you and offer your patrons the opportunity to buy a bottle with your fantastic seafood!
Finally this evening, we decided to check out a place that looked fun. It is a wine bar/art gallery in Lincoln City called Wine 101. After getting yelled at by a particularly ungracious owner of an adjacent store for parking in “her” parking space (although there were no signs to this effect), we went into the wine bar that was abuzz with patrons of our age, all enjoying conversation, wine and music from a gifted guitarist. The host, Lee Gray, turned out to be a real character and as we got to know him, we found out that he is quite a celebrity himself. Wearing a black apron and a black beret, Lee wears his hair in a braid that goes to his waist. He smiles with one missing tooth and is just as congenial a host as you could ever wish for.
Another patron showed us into an adjoining wine cellar where we were invited to buy any bottle to be served at the bar. These bottles were all at retail pricing and there was a great selection, not only from Oregon but also California and Europe, with prices staring as low as $12 a bottle.
We picked a bottle of 2009 Bruno Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley that at $17 was a bargain, took it to the bar where Lee opened it and brought complimentary homemade herb bread and an amazing dip of hempseed and roasted red peppers. We also ordered an appetizer of baked Brie with Dungeness crab and nettles. Lee had run out of nettles but had made it with wild watercress instead. It was delicious!
On a TV behind us, a video was being played of a Canadian Food Network show about foraging for wild mushrooms; the star of the show, none other than our host, Lee. Turns out that Lee (whose birthday was yesterday like mine, although he is 10 years older) is a gourmet chef who specializes in finding and growing unusual, wild food. He learned that skill in the 80s when he decided to live in a sea cave. In addition to being a wild mushroom authority, he knows a lot about shellfish, herbs, seaweeds and things like ferns. On the bar were jars of his own pickled kelp and fiddlehead ferns, which I tried. On their own they are an acquired taste, but I could imagine them with a plate of antipasti and they would be great. We finished with rum-chocolate filled strawberries and drank our pinot, chatting to locals and people from further away.
In addition to being a chef, TV personality, wine bar tender and host, Lee is also an artist. His work is displayed in another back room and is very eclectic, ranging from pencil drawings, (mostly nudes) to sculptures (mostly female forms) made with glass and found pennies and to Native American style ceremonial weapons. Lee is one fascinating guy!
Every person there had his or her story and this was a wonderful experience. We smiled the whole time. Everyone made us so welcome and as we said goodbye, Lee hugged us both.
This was definitely one of the human highlights of the trip and one that we will remember a long time.