January 2nd, 2004

Atacama

That didn't go so well.

Sadly, I still haven't seen Walla Walla.

Long story short, we just managed to get to the hotel in Portland last night. Thankfully, Dan had the foresight to suggest we take his car [a Honda Element] and not mine [a VW Passat]. His is 4WD and has mud + snow tires; mine isn't and doesn't.

About twenty miles before we hit the Columbia River the snow finally got to be so heavy and cold that it started sticking to the roadway.

Ten miles before the river, traffic had slowed down to maybe 30 mph with just one lane relatively snow-free. There were lots of accidents, folks in SUVs swerving all around the other lanes, terrible visibility... you name it.

South of the river, we slowed down to about ten miles an hour... and just barely made it to the hotel before everything completely fell apart on the roadways. Checked in, got the heaters going in the rooms, and hung out at Applebee's watching the Rose Bowl. It was happy hour - yippee! - so margaritas were $2.49 and all appetizers were half off. Score! Had some pretty awful booze and food and headed back to the room for a nap.

After my nap - and finfinfin has such an eerie way of calling me right when I fall asleep in hotel rooms in Lake Oswego, not that I'm complaining... but I digress - we got up, drove over to Trader Joe's to find it was closed, filled up the car, bought teh ghey black & white peanut M&Ms, and went back to the hotel.

Scrambled over some fences and down some precarious snowslopes to get to The Olive Garden next door to the hotel - there were no footpaths between any of the neighboring chain establishments, which made walking around very tricky - and sat down to dinner. Which, quite frankly, sucked. Maybe it's just that I've had knicolini's red sauce (and other wonderful food), but dammit, this was such garbage. You'd think you couldn't fuck up a pizza, but... The Olive Garden can. At least the wine was OK, even if it was both (a) priced about $16 over the retail cost, and (b) was poured by a teenager who could barely get the cork out of the bottle, much less pour the wine without holding a glass against his chest using the other hand.

On the other hand, the company was good, Dad paid for the meal (thanks Dad!), and we had the leftover pizza for breakfast AND lunch the next day.

After a night's bad sleep at the hotel, and after much Web surfing in the room, we awoke with a plan: As travelling east to Walla Walla was totally impossible due to chain requirements, rock slides, freezing rain, high winds, snow drifts, etc., we knew that Saturday night was right out. Even more annoyingly, as temperatures were supposed to drop precariously tonight (Friday) and it was supposed to start snowing again - heavily - we had to leave Portland before sundown. Worst of all is of course that the hotel rooms for all three nights had been paid in advance. If I'd only known the weather would go to shit... but I didn't. Sometimes, as they say, they fuck you at the drive-thru.

So we stopped at G. I. Joe's to find chains - no go - and Starbucks for my parents' brekkie. We then scooted down to Yamhill County to start seeing some wineries. As it turned out, the fuckers don't really open until 10 - and, of course, we got there at 9 thinking they'd have reasonable opening hours. We plowed out into the snow to get to Erath by 10 - and found they opened at 11. Grrrrr. We then embarked on a hair-raising back-country dirt-road ice-fraught nightmare to get to WillaKenzie... who open at fucking 11. Grrrrr.

At this point, I dunno, I was all, like, fuck this. Let's just get somewhere that's actually open? So we turned around and headed back towards Carlton, where I was dying to get my hands on some of Andrew Rich's wines. Wouldn't you know it, though - the final insult. Open from Feb.-Dec.. What the fuck? Open every month but the one we arrive?

So we went to the nearest place I'd picked out ahead of time in MapPoint: Château Benoit. It's a big, older operation that changed hands five years ago. Man, their vineyard manager is hawt, but the guy doing the tasting was very friendly and a real pleasure to talk shop with. As for their wines... hard to say. It sounds like they're very much in transition from something ordinary and affordable to something upmarket and not so affordable. I enjoyed their pinot gris a lot - nice subtle oak thing going on there - but everything else was, heh, ho-hum. The riesling was too sweet and too expensive; it sounded like perhaps it was just the vintage that made it so ordinary. He talked lovingly about the 1998s, but of course they were sold out. So... maybe this is one to watch in the future, but I doubt it.

http://www.chateaubenoit.com [the winery as it is right now]
http://www.anneamie.com [the upcoming rebranding]

I think the rebranding exercise will probably suit them great - the new label is expensive looking and seems to vaguely resemble Far Niente, which may or may not be a good thing.

Pratt verdict: If you can get the pinot gris for $10, it's worth it. Anything else, at any price point, is probably not worth your time... unless they really do get serious about the riesling in a future vintage, which it sounds like they're seriously considering.

Oh, and I spat. So, I then drove every on a bit further to Sokol-Blosser. I was annoyed to see that they wanted money to taste anything they sold, so I refrained. I did however smell their Evolution brand blended white wine and their pinot noir.

http://www.sokolblosser.com/

Pratt verdict: Fuck these clowns. The pinot smelled fine, but $30? Forget it. And if you want a blended white wine, stick with something reasonable like Bonny Doon Big House White. Don't blow $14 on this crap. What a ripoff.

Nice branding strategies though.

Anyhow, we then headed further down the road, returning to Dundee. Now, in the meantime, Domaine Drouhin had called to say they were canceling on us due to weather problems. I wasn't entirely surprised, but I was also somewhat irritated that they didn't even say something like, well, if your car can get up here, we'll do the tour... it was just, uh, well, I barely made it up here, you probably can't, so the tour is off. We did drive up to Archery Summit only to find that they're all By Appointment Only, but the road seemed fine. Drouhin was just a bit further up, but... well, screw 'em. For the $40 (!) they wanted for a tasting, we can just buy a bottle of their good stuff and enjoy it a lot more, I'd think.

If it's any good.

http://www.domainedrouhin.com/home.cfm

Pratt verdict: It might be good, but it's $10 to taste any of it and the tasting room staff wussed out at the first sign of snow.

A bit further up the road was Argyle. Now, I'll admit I've always had a soft spot in my heart for these guys. One of the best wines I'd ever had was their 1994 (?) Nuthouse Riesling, which we'd tried in 2000 or so. It was the first aged riesling I'd ever had and God damn was it good. A true revelation.

At the tasting room [oh, and by the way, it's $4 to taste their sparkling wines, or $5 to taste their reserve wines, grrrr], the first thing I asked was "can I please buy some more?" - and the answer was no. The vines are there but they got grafted over to chardonnay in 1997. However, they've since planted new vineyards with riesling and are going to give it another shot, beginning with a few dozen cases from the 2003 harvest. He did however graciously suggest that either Chehalem or Belle Pente would be good to try in the meantime.

I spent the $4 on the sparkling wines, and I didn't spit. [Damn it, it's too hard to spit sparkling wines.]

http://www.argylewinery.com/

Pratt verdict: Great winery, great people, beautiful branding/packaging. If you can find it, their blanc de blancs is absolutely heavenly and their extended tirage brut is great as well - but given that they cost the same as a great small producer Champagne such as Barnaut from Bouzy, is it really worth it? The low end pinot noir was pretty good as well. I'm v. hopeful they'll produce more riesling in the future. Oh, and they use screwcaps, which rocks. Bonus info: Brian Croser of Petaluma helped found the place in the 1980s. This might explain the excellent riesling.

Finally, it was back up the hill to Erath, but only after I called to confirm they actually were open. Here we spent a leisurely half hour going through a LOT of different wines with their friendly tasting room staff - after all, we were probably the only visitors they'd get all day long, and their stuff was really, really tasty - AND reasonably priced. It got to the point where I was more interested in getting to the price list than to tasting anything else.

http://www.erath.com/

Pratt verdict: Dick Erath started a good thing. Beautifully made, interesting wines for honest prices. Pinot blanc was fantastic, pinot gris lovely, chardonnay totally not traditionally made but very very tasty. All pinot noirs interesting at every price point; the "cheap" ($14) one way better than you'd expect for that much money. Riesling kind of like a spätlese - might be good in ten years, not so great right now.

Dan joined the wine club and bought a case. The riesling is a science experiment we'll return to in 2010 at the earliest; the chardonnay and pinot blanc is waiting for warm weather this summer. The pinot noirs will probably hide away for special occasions.

This is the kind of winery you wish you'd happen across every time you go tasting. It reminded me a lot of the something like a less-big Peter Lehmann: honest, ordinary farmers doing their thing, guided by a sense of fairness and drive rather than by marketing weenies. I liked this place a LOT. Thanks, Dan, for treating us to a case of it!

And from there it was back home via some shopping here and there and the good teriyaki place. Not much to report other than we got home just BEFORE it started snowing, which was very, very fortunate.

I'll probably take Dan to Walla Walla for my birthday next year, so until then, this is probably the last wine tasting post you'll have to suffer through. Thank you for your patience.