Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hood River Wine Tasting in the Columbia Gorge

From the What's the Difference Between Zinfandel and Primitivo Anyway Department

The wine tasting trip began with a bang. We passed the tallest waterfall in Oregon, Mulnomah Falls (pictured in the post below), and the I-84 took us along the Oregon bank of the surging Columbia River. The dramatic landscape continued until we arrived in the small town of Hood River, where signs advertised wineries with clear driving directions. I most wanted to visit Marchesi Winery, which features Primitivo, Barbera, Sangiovese, and Dolcetto wines, along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio. Unfortunately, our wine tasting trip hit a road bump: the winery is only open Friday-Sunday. Bummer.

Cathedral Ridge Winery was just a couple minutes away, offering a massive selection of wines and a tasting of any 6 for $5. It was nice to see Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel, and others alongside Pinot Noirs. Next, we visited Pheasant Valley Winery (also $5 for 6 tastes), which also offered a large selection of wines. Interestingly, the winery was getting ready to bottle its first vintage of Primitivo. I asked the guy behind the bar why the winemaker decided to label the wine "Primitivo" instead of "Zinfandel." "The vines are certified Primitivo vines," he explained, which is a pretty curious concept: Zinfandel and Primitivo are genetically identical grape vines. I've always assumed that the real difference between them is the fact that Primitivo vines are grown in Italy and Zinfandel vines are grown, primarily, in California. This was a rare opportunity to get to taste a Primitivo wine made from a vine sourced from Italy (likely from Puglia) then raised in Oregon's the highly unique environment (check the bottom part of this blog post to learn more about Oregon's strange growing environment).

Luckily, our man took off into the winery with a glass and returned with some unfiltered Primitivo. "It's going to taste a little thicker since it hasn't been filtered," he explained. Tasting it side by side with winery's Zinfandel, the differences were clear. The Primitivo was medium bodied and jammy with dark fruit, while the Zinfandel was lighter, spicier, and brighter. I don't think the Primitivo had a larger body simply because it hadn't been filtered. So, the different vines, the Zinfandel from the US and the Primitivo from Italy, clearly resulted in different wines even though the vines were genetically identical (Even wines and vines for ya?). If you make it to Pheasant Valley, make sure to try the 2007 Estate Organic Pinot Noir, which is drinking excellently right now.

If you're ever wondering where to eat in Hood River, I can't recommend the White Buffalo Wine Bar & Bistro enough. It is a hole in the wall with class, cafe-style tables with wine-store style wine racks on every wall, and everything it serves is made from scratch. They recommended a strange but good red blend by Erin Glen Vineyards called Tantrum ($22) and the chicken pot pie had a lattace-work of homemade crust. Mmmmm. "We have to make sure the servings are large enough because a lot of truck drivers pass through," explained our waitress. Now that's what I'm talking about!

We ended it all with a drive along the Historic Columbia River Highway and a short hike.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tips for Wine Tasting in the Columbia Gorge and Hood River

The Columbia Gorge is a mammoth valley of waterfalls and neon-green moss-covered cliffs. The northern bank of the Columbia River is Washington and the southern bank is Oregon. From Portland, the closest place to taste wine in the Gorge is in Hood River, which is a small town of 6,500 people (home to the Full Sail brewery). It's an hour ten by freeway I-84, and the drive is as scenic as it gets. I think we saw -- at the very least -- 10,000 waterfalls. There are many more wineries further along the 84, but they require a longer drive, and there are enough wineries in Hood River for a full day or two of wine tasting.

The wineries in Hood River utilize many grape varieties, whereas most of Oregon's wine country focuses almost exclusively on Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. The Gorge's wineries feature Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, and other varieties. The Willamette Valley is closer to the coast (Pacific Ocean) and cooler than the area around Hood River, making it nearly impossible to ripen grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon (though there are exceptions!). Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned grape that loves to suffer (think dramatically changing temperatures, hail, frost), making the Willamette Valley the perfect location for such torment. Thick-skinned grapes take longer to mature, and they get this chance in the Gorge. There are plenty of Pinots in the Gorge too, and I also came across several Italian varieties, including Barbera, Dolcetto, and Primitivo wines. Unfortunately, I didn't get to taste all of them (in my next post, I'll share my tasting experience).

When planning a wine-tasting trip to Hood River it's good to know a few things. Here are the tips:

1) Most wineries charge $5 for a tasting, and this tasting fee is waived with purchase of a bottle
2) Many wineries are closed from December-February
3) Some wineries only operate on the weekends from March-May and September-November, so make sure to check their scheduled hours before heading up on a weekday
4) Some wineries are by appointment only
5) Note that there are wineries on both the Washington and the Oregon sides of the river near Hood River (the Washington wineries almost all require appointments)

You can find a good map of the wineries here. Below is a list of the area's wineries:

Wineries on Oregon Side:


Cathedral Ridge (popular winery, open most days, $5 tasting fee, Winemaker Michael Sebastiani grew up in Sonoma Valley, California, offers wines made from many different grape varieties)

Marchesi (Hood River is the same latitude as Piedmont, Italy, and Winemaker Franco Marchesi uses many Italian grapes, including Dolcetto, Barbera, and Primitivo)

Phelps Creek ($5 tasting fee, open most days, focuses on Pinot Noir)

Pheasant Valley (really liked this place, $5 tasting fee, offers wines made from many grape varieties, including Primitivo)

Wineries with Downtown Tasting Room/Bars in Hood River:

Naked Winery

Springhouse cellar


The pines


Wineries on Washington Side:

Gorge Crest

White Salmon

Major Creek Cellars

Demi Anni Vineyards

One last note on climate: Oregon contains patches of temperate rain forest, which are in turn part of the largest section of temperate rain forest in the world, which runs from California up to Alaska. This means that many parts of Oregon are exceptionally wet (think 130-150 inches of annual rainfall) with mild temperatures. The vineyards around Hood River get around 30 inches of annual rainfall, which is a friendlier amount for grapes; grapes suffer from molds and parasites when climates are too hot and moist. Right across the river, on the Washington side, the average annual rainfall is around 50 inches. In other words, this region of micro-climates is very peculiar and the Hood River grape growing environment is very unique, making equally dynamic wines. In particular, I noticed that the Cabernet Sauvignons have a pleasant herbaceous quality.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Red Wine and Radiation: Finally We One Up The Beer Snobs

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The radiation hit us yesterday. The Oregon coast, the entire state, every Oregonian is experiencing the effects of nuclear mutation... nuclear exposure. Fortunately, my girlfriend and I are the last "normal" survivors, thanks to red wine. We drink red wine every day and it has protected us against the radiation. Thank god for all that resveratol, that stuff in wine that's awesome! It is like an invisible shield that goes all around us so that when we drink wine all of life's problems disappear, including radiation exposure. Originally, reading the BBC, I noted that red wine leads to immortality. Now I realize that it leads to perfection.

(Above photo is of my friend Sue, or it was before she drank that hefeweizen...)

When I say "normal" using quotes that's because normal has a new meaning in Portland, Oregon. It used to be normal to drink microbrews and hang out at dive bars. Now it's normal to drink red wine because all of those people are zombies. I'm afraid even the most fervent I.P.A. drinkers have succumbed to radiation. Us "normal" red wine drinkers are holing up in the Domaine Drouhin Winery in Dundee where we plan to indulge in the best vintages while wielding shotguns until help comes from Montalcino. If you are a red wine drinker and you have not turned into a zombie, you can try to reach our compound but we must warn you: We drink first, ask questions later.

PS> If you show up with sake you will not be allowed anywhere near us.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How to Plan a Blind Wine Tasting Party

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I will drink Life to the lees
-Alfred Lord Tennyson

Last Friday, my good friend Christy had a blind wine tasting party. A blind wine tasting puts your palate to the test, and it turns out that it’s a lot of fun for wine drinkers with all levels of experience. For the person who’s new to wine, a blind tasting lets you learn what type of wine you really like, not just the wine you think you like. For the more advanced wine lover, the blind tasting lets you test your skills, which is a lot of fun (if not a little humbling).

The most important thing to consider when hosting a blind wine tasting party is whether or not you want to be included in the game. Some of the more structured tasting games -- which include comparing oaked and unoaked Chardonnay or comparing Alsatian Riesling and German Riesling -- require a person who knows the answers. I once led a blind wine tasting, and while it was well structured, I didn’t get a chance to test my knowledge because I had to prepare all of the wines. So be warned!

Either way, a blind wine tasting party rocks. Here are a few tips:

1) Tell everyone to bring a bottle of wine and give a price range in advance

2) To mix it up: Tell the ladies to bring white and rosé wines and the guys to bring red wines.

3) Have lots of finger foods on hand (note that some frozen hors d’oeuvres, such as mini spanikopita or goat-cheese blintz, are quite good and will keep you and your friends happy)

4) Use good wine glasses

5) Cloak and label the wines creatively

6) Suggest that people take notes to see if they’ve guessed correctly

7) Make sure to announce the results

Here are some structured wine tasting games:

1) Oaked vs. Unoaked: Grab two wines that feature the same grape (wines from the same winery are ideal but not necessary): one is aged in oak barrels and one is not. Chardonnay might be the easiest grape variety to compare. See if your guests can taste the difference.

2) The Terroir Game: Sometimes a wine and the region in which it is produced are inextricable. Burgundian reds are known for their terroir, but who's got that kind of money? Instead, pit a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand against a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley in France, an Alsatian Riesling against a German Riesling, a Primitivo from Puglia against a Zinfandel from California (primitivo and zin grapes are genetically identical), etc. and see if you can guess which is which.

3) Guess the Grape Variety: When you have a bunch of mono-varietal red wines from all over the world it's difficult to guess which grape is which. However, if you narrow it down to five possible choices, the game is a lot more fun. Choose a few of your favorite mono-varietal wines and see if your friends can figure out which is which.

If you know how to throw a truly great wine party, you shouldn't keep all that knowledge to yourself. Comment!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Dangerous Travel Stories, USA Today

I wrote an article for that highlights that eerie feelings we sometimes get while traveling. It recounts a couple travel experiences that made me feel more than a little uneasy -- dangerous situations on night trains or walking down dark streets surrounded by drunks, stuff like that -- and I wrote it with the hopes that other people would share their stories. As it turns out, the article got picked up by USA Today. It's called "Have You Experienced Danger in Paradise," and you can read it here, or if you want to read the original on, click here. If you have any stories of your own, it'd be cool to hear them.

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