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Entrance to Willamette Valley Vineyards

Lavender and vines along the entranceway to the hilltop facility.

My dragon spawn turned 21 recently. It’s so hard to wrap my head around the concept of this full-fledged adult being the same teeny wrinkly purple thing I brought home 21 years ago. I have realized that 21 years is not that many years. It’s nearly half my life, but dang, it went like a blink!

A small Tara with wooden sword at a Renaissance Faire

Tara and me at one of our first Faerieworlds festivals.

Our tradition, you may recall, is to go to The Enchanted Forest in Salem. I’ve had loads of fun with Tara and their awesome friends, visiting the theme park year after year and living out our childhoods with abandon on one brilliant July day. Right next door to Enchanted Forest is a winery that we had only spotted from the Interstate. This year, since Tara is of legal drinking age, their birthday idea was to visit the winery.

I called Willamette Valley Vineyards and explained it was a birthday visit and asked what a person might do there for fun, other than tasting wines. They suggested a tour, and I made a reservation.

Willamette Valley Vineyards is a first-class destination, which made this a serendipitous choice. Until we arrived, we had no idea what an enormous, visitor-centric place it is. Sadly, I neglected to get some photos of the main tasting room, but it’s huge and oh so beautiful. There are three bars with about 8 people tending, who can all help you with tasting a flight of wines, or purchasing, or eating lunch, or touring, or even booking a night’s stay because yes, this place also has guest lodging. I imagine it would be a wonderful stay.

The main buildings are at the top of a hill, and thus visitors are afforded incredible views in every direction. Just in case you want something even better than the view available in the dining and tasting rooms, there is a tower one can climb, which puts you another 50 feet up.

Tara celebrating their birthday in the tower.

View from the tower.


Molly and me, at our main gathering place during the tour.

The tour is also a tasting. We tasted 5 different wines, some award-winning, during the tour. Our guide, Suzanne Zupancic, put us at ease and made us feel like she was our friend right away. Suzanne led us through the different stages of wine production at Willamette Valley, to include the history of the vineyard’s existence, and the bottling station and of course the barrel storage. She told the story of the founder, Jim Bernau, who grew up knowing wines because his father was an attorney for the first vineyard in Oregon after prohibition. She explained how the winery is solar powered, doesn’t irrigate, and instead of typical pest control, partners with a raptor rescue organization to use owls to control the rodent population!

She explained some general concepts to help us in choosing a wine, such as when a wine is sweeter, there is generally less alcohol. Knowing this, a quick glance at the label can help you choose what you’ll like. She talked about Oregon’s famous pinot noirs, a thin-skinned grape that has caught the wine world’s attention. She taught us about cooperage, the craft of building wine barrels, and how to understand the labels on the outside of the barrels. She also explained why so many barrels are stained red. It’s because the wine slowly evaporates and the only way to maintain its integrity is to top off the wine frequently, and not allow any oxygen inside the barrels. Topping off tends to end up with a little bit of wine spill, that drips down the side and stains the barrel. She explained that Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot benefit from aging, but others do not.

Barrels of white wines.

A door leading from the red wine barrels section.

Me with as much wine nearby as I could ever wish for.

It’s not a flattering photo, because everyone is squinting in the bright sun.

Suzanne also told us about Bill Fuller, a legendary winemaker in Oregon. He left California’s Napa valley in 1973 to take advantage of the ideal geography in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. His Tualatin Vineyard 1980 Pinot Noir and 1981 Chardonnay took home “Best of Show” in both red and white categories at the 1984 London International Wine Fair, a feat unduplicated by any winemaker in the competition’s history. Bill Fuller’s winery merged with Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Mr. Fuller began working with Willamette Valley Vineyards in 2013.

She also explained about the remarkable geologic processes that made the Willamette Valley so rich for agriculture and particularly for grapes. The history includes a historic sea, volcanic processes, and the Missoula Floods. Tara, a geology major at Oregon State University, was interested in this portion of the tour.

Brynnen, Tara, me, Molly

After the hour and a half long tour, and five wines, we were all ready for some food! We ate from their gourmet menu and sat out on one of the many outdoor patios to eat it. We were joined by bees. Interestingly, the staff handed us fabric softener sheets to place on the table to keep the wasps away. It was a little effective. At lunch, I gave Tara a gift I had made of childhood photos through the years. Tara read the book outloud to all of us.

Tara opens up the memory book I made as a birthday gift.

Tara reading their birthday book to us.

Finally, we were ready to go and purchased some of our favourite wines from the day. I said goodbye to the kids who were all headed back to Corvallis.

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.}

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