Oregon Wine & Sake

The M winery. First stop on our quick tour.
Apolloni Vineyards. First stop on our quick tour.

Did you know Oregon makes great wines? Pinos, in particular. I moved here in 2007 and Friday was my very first visit to an Oregon winery to do some tasting. A co-worker got a couple of us together for a quick tour on the federal holiday. Yes, for Veterans Day, we went out drinking.

During the day I picked up a winery tour map for Washington County, west of Portland (so you must mentally add the other nearby wine regions to the following figures). Along the mapped route are 31 highlighted wineries within a 30 minute drive of the city. Twelve breweries are also noted on the map, a relevant fact since Portland is famous for it’s beer. Portland sits in Multnomah County, which boasts 55 breweries (and probably more by the time I finish this post). There is one Oregon saké brewery, and you’ll hear about that shortly.

Big house on a hill. The vines have lost their leaves this late in the season.
Big house on a hill. The vines have lost their leaves this late in the season.

Morning fog cloaked the low hills in the Forest Grove area, and we enjoyed mysterious misty scenes on the way to Apolloni Vineyards, 30 miles out Highway 26 from downtown Portland. We were impressed at first with a huge, gorgeous home on a hill of vines. I assume it belongs to the Apolloni family, who have named their vineyards after their children. The tasting room is nearer to the base of the hill, and is also used as the winemaking area for their Italian-style wines, showcasing the famous Oregon Pinot Noir.

In the early 2000s I lived in northern California and was introduced to wine tasting when the experience was free. Possibly tastes were charged in Napa back then, but I toured the most in Mendocino County. A taster could do so properly, by swishing the wine, spitting the rest out, and dumping the remaining contents of one’s glass into the bucket. The vineyards were spread quite a distance, and to drive all the way to Pacific Star (my favourite in those days), I needed to be sober.

Things are different now and you pay for your tastes. Luckily, in humble Forest Grove, Oregon, the charge was acceptable. Still, at $10 per flight, I was not going to waste a drop. There was no spitting and no pouring out. I got happier and more chatty as the day went on, as you can guess. Thank goodness for my friend and co-worker who had not only planned the whole day but also volunteered to be designated driver.

Winemaking, aging, and tasting come together in the Apolloni winery.
Winemaking, aging, and tasting come together in the Apolloni winery.
Our flight at Apolloni
Our flight at Apolloni {photo MN}
Inviting wicker furniture beneath a mostly leafless maple.
Inviting wicker furniture beneath a mostly leafless maple.
Autumn-yellow leaves on some of the Apolloni vines.
Autumn-yellow leaves on some of the Apolloni vines, and candy-pink berries in front.

We were offered a nice variety of wines, beginning with their Pinot Gris, including a recently popular 2014 Pinot Noir Cuvée, and finishing with the dessert wine 2013 Viognier Dolce Vino. All our questions were answered and we happily browsed the gifts for sale and admired the oak casks as we tasted. Outside once more, I had to take photos of the scenes around us.

Our next stop was spontaneous, based on the recommendation of the wine stewardess. In minutes we arrived on another hill at Shafer Vineyard Cellars. Curiously, the sign also said Miki’s Christmas Shop, and at first I ignored it. The views here were outstanding, and I was unable to walk into the building without first climbing down a slope and snapping a few photos.

The view from the parking lot at Shafer Vineyard Cellars.
The view from the parking lot at Shafer Vineyard Cellars.
I imagine this area hosts more people in warmer months.
I imagine this area hosts more people in warmer months.

Finally we made our way inside, where the steward was playing Leonard Cohen, in tribute to the unparalleled Canadian poet/singer who left us with so much melancholy. He was eager to tell us about the German-style wines at Shafer. These vines were planted in 1973 and have recently passed on to new owners. I assume this means there will be a shift in character out at Shafer, so I’ll stop by again in a couple years. Our flight included mostly whites, and leaned toward sweet wines.

German-style wines at Shafer Vineyard Cellars.
German-style wines at Shafer Vineyard Cellars.
Scrumptious cheese plate.
Scrumptious cheese plate. {MN}

We asked so many questions about the difference between the Gewürztraminer and the Müller-Thurgau, he gave up and said he would include his favourite Shafer wine in our flight, though that was not one of the wines that he had planned to offer.  By the time he poured it, other tasters had walked in and we all fell in love with the 2014 Müller-Thurgau, and purchased several bottles.

A bit peckish, our designated driver spotted a menu on the wall and couldn’t resist the cheese plate. I didn’t think I was hungry, but my friends insisted I join in and the cheese was irresistible. While we munched and sipped, another group came in and said hello, then went directly to a door in the back and disappeared. “What’s back there?” we asked the steward, who told us about the old style German Christmas shop that is apparently open year-round. Before we left, we had to take a look. The bonus after all that shopping is that if you spend $25 or more, your flight is free.

Quite unexpected, this local favourite shopping spot was tucked in the back of the Shafer tasting room.
Quite unexpected, this local favourite shopping spot was tucked in the back of the Shafer tasting room.
Every traditional German Christmas decoration is here.
Every traditional German Christmas decoration is here.

Our driver explained that we could make it to the 1:00 pm saké brewery tour if we headed there next, and we voted to switch to saké!

SakéOne is in Forest Grove, Oregon and began in 1992 as a saké import company. By 1997 local saké was brewed and bottled, taking advantage of the right kind of Coast Range natural water. It is the home of the award-winning Junmai Ginjo Genshu saké Joy. The company has won more awards than the other five American saké breweries, placing it at the crest of the first wave of saké production which surely must be followed by more, if the explosion of wine-making and brewing in the region is any indication. dsc_0023

Mack – we’ll call him the saké steward – took us on a tour of the nearby facility. Outside the building he gave a bit of the history of the original owner and the choice of location and the vision of the company. We gazed at murals on the walls as he spoke. “These days,” Mack said as he finished, “while we maintain traditional methods, we have changed a few things. We do wear pants.”

Inside the facility, or kura, we were allowed to get a close look at how this traditional Japanese drink is made here in Oregon. Original ceramic tanks still in use are being replaced with stainless steel when they become unusable due to cracks or stain. The first stage of the process is in a warehouse room with two-ton bags of rice that are husked and polished to remove the unwanted pieces.

Rice is first husked and polished in this station.
Rice is first husked and polished in this station.
You can see the powder left from polishing.
You can see the powder left from polishing.
The polished rice is then piped to this station, next to 2-ton bags of rice.
The polished rice is piped to this station, next to 2-ton bags of rice.
“We’ve won a few awards,” Mack said with a sly smile.

To maintain the integrity of their product, we all donned booties and entered the rooms where a mold is added to the rice to turn it into sugar. In each part of our tour was a subtle smell of brewing, but here we breathed in the aroma of fermentation, which was not subtle! We looked deep inside the tanks with giant paddles for washing the rice, and in one tank we saw the starter brew with thick white and crumbly bubbles. We remarked that brewing saké appears to be a complicated operation, and Mack confirmed this by noting that it takes about a year to make the full journey from a grain of rice to bottled drink.

Mack explained the steps with the help of this panel.
Mack explained the steps with the help of this panel.
Smiling tasters.
Smiling tasters.
Our feet had to be covered to prevent unwanted contamination.
Our feet had to be covered to prevent unwanted contamination.
An enormous mixer.
An enormous mixer.
The cedar-lined room
The cedar-lined koji room, where the koji mold grows on the rice.
The fermentation room that smelled thickly sweet.
Inside the thickly sweet-smelling fermentation room.
Bubbling rice
Bubbling, brewing rice {MN}
Imported saké in the tasting room.
Imported saké for sale in the tasting room.
I tasted the
I tasted the “moldy rice,” which was chewy and sweet. {MN}

Back in the tasting room, our flights were only $3 (we chose a smaller flight) and our tasting questions were then answered by Lou, who tag-teamed into our service after Mack returned us to the tasting room. As well as the water-clear options, Lou proferred two types of milky sake, which they clarified is only less filtered, not “unfiltered” as some people call it.

By then we were sated and it was time to go home. We purchased a few bottles of Oregon saké (I took home the Momokawa Silver) and made our way through the beautiful countryside with ideas of what we wanted to try the next time.

{GREAT big thanks to Maria Nguyen for several photos that I was not able to get, and for having the fabulous idea in the first place.}

20 thoughts on “Oregon Wine & Sake

  1. All in all a wonderful experience, I’m sure, but I’m most impressed with the photos of the sitting arrangement under the maple. Ideally, I’d have this photo huge on the living-room wall, or even better, out on the lawn.

  2. Sounds like you found the perfect way to celebrate Veterans day. I’ve done a few wine and beer tastings but never a sake’ tasting. If there is a Christmas store in a 20 mile radius, I’m all in. Glad you enjoyed your day off..

    1. Fancy you should mention it, Marlene, but the German Christmas store made me wonder if you would like to visit it. Maybe I’ll think of a way to drag you out there with me because I want another one of those cheese plates! And maybe some more Muller-Thurgau. If I can’t make it by Christmas because of my trip, it’s open year-round, so maybe we could brighten a February day, if that’s how it works out.

  3. This is very interesting. I have never been on a tour before. The equipment looks so modern and high tech. There are vineyards in Canada, but not in the area I live. Something I should do is take a tour myself. 🙂

    1. I have been to some of Canada’s wine country! Since I’m from north Idaho, it’s a short journey to the vineyards around Osoyoos.

      I agree with your idea to go on a tour. I have toured a few wine caves in Napa, but they demonstrated mostly storage facts. This is the first real tour of a brewing (or winemaking for that matter) facility, and it was truly interesting. In fact, there were so many steps of the process, and so many facts to keep track of, I think I would like to do the tour again. I will also seek out a wine-making tour in the future.

  4. A fascinating tour; lovely shots of you. What I don’t understand is how the photos were all in focus and straight at the end :). May happiest tasting was of malt whiskies – but then that was in walking distance.

    1. Ha ha ha! A good question about the focus near the end. 🙂

      I think my ideal tasting tour would be of whiskies, as that is my drink of choice. I’m afraid on that trip I would certainly have to leave the photography to a steadier hand.

    1. A perfect spot! It was so lovely there my attention was caught immediately. On a warmer day I’m sure all of us would have been content to sit there and taste our wines. On a future visit, I’ll bring a picnic basket for sure.

      1. There are lots of small wineries near where I live. I need to start stopping by and photographing some of the my to share too. You guys have some great wines from up your way.

  5. Oh how fun! I do love going on winery or brewery tours!
    How great that you had a DD for you Veterans Day celebration 🙂
    Thank you for sharing your fun day, Crystal. That maple tree is so beautiful!

    1. It was a fun day with friends, something I know you can relate to. 😉

      Loved the freedom of having a DD, and also the freedom of having a whole valley filled with wineries, and no set plan of where to go next. It was just lovely. And November weather can be wretched at times, but it was not bad, so we were all grateful for that. I’ve only been on two tours now, once at a champagne winery in Napa, and this sake brewery. I enjoyed them both, and really should just do this more often. Very inexpensive entertainment!

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