McMINNVILLE — A core area of McMinnville, just outside downtown, is emerging as a new destination for wine lovers. Or at least it seemed so today on the kick-off of the Memorial Day weekend wine tours.
The Grainery District, which also holds the town’s year-round Saturday market, was home to a half-dozen or more winery tasting rooms, luring wine tasters out and about Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
With a grain elevator as a landmark, the place is easy to find, but a more concentrated wine-tour stop would be difficult to find anywhere.
“Since it’s in town here, we don’t get a lot of snooty” visitors, said Amy Wesselman, whose Westrey Wine Co. anchors one end of the corridor, adjacent to the venerable Eyrie Vineyards, established in 1970.
Panther Creek Cellars bookends the other end of the district, which Wesselman said is often affectionately called the “Wine Ghetto.”
Find a list of wineries on the tour here: http://bit.ly/jvogIS
The former industrial area — a stone’s throw from the Portland & Western Railroad tracks — includes Remy Wines, Dominino IV, R. Stuart Co. & Winery, Lumos Wine Co., and Anthony Dell Cellars.
“We’re pretty casual around here,” said Douglas Anthony Drawbond of Rickreall, co-owner of Anthony Dell with Joy Dell Means.
The handful of early afternoon visitors did indeed appear relaxed as they enjoyed the Anthony Dell brand while listening to the light acoustical backdrop provided by Salem guitarist Sean Carlson.
An Eola Hills winemaker of mixed municipal allegiances that include Amity and West Salem, Drawbond tips a toast to the “Wine Ghetto” moniker, and to its character.
“A ghetto is just a place where like-minded people hang out,” he said, noting an additional name attached to the district is “The Pinot Quarter.”
A number of these mid-valley wine-community denizens are sprouting a legacy as they grow their grapes. Wesselman splintered off from her long-standing Lett family neighbors at Eyrie Vineyards, while Drawbond and Means set out with an upbringing at Witness Tree Vineyard, in Spring Valley just north of West Salem in Polk County.
Wesselman said the verdict is still out on who coined the “Wine Ghetto” designation; her husband David Autrey and the late David Lett each have a claim to the name.
The veteran vintner’s son, Jason Lett, wasn’t as concerned with names as he was with the operation of “Elva,” a machine he used to serve well-aged Eyrie vintages — pinot noirs from 1980, 1985 and 1999.
“We go all the way back to 1975 with these (vintages),” he said, “and it’s hard to crack them open on just any old weekend.”
Nor serve them haphazardly. Elva, a bottling mechanism from the 1970s, is now engineered to serve, holding eight bottles while controlling the temperature of each and using argon gas pressure to push the wine to the glass.
One advantage that the Wine Ghetto gang had today — at least when compared to Witness Tree Vineyard — was weather.
Miraculously, while much of the west hills were being saturated, at mid-afternoon McMinnville enjoyed a day without so much as a drop of rain.
“On a nice day, they would be taking advantage of our nice lawn out here and picnicking,” Witness Tree winemaker Steven Westby said, as the skies dripped all around the tasting area.
Visitors nonetheless enjoyed the day at Witness Tree, snacking, sipping and soaking in the light jazz sound of John Nilsen’s trio. Linda Weissner of Salem said she came specifically for the music.
“I twisted their arms to join me,” she said, gesturing to her Salem friends Kay Riedl and Haruko Kitayawa, who didn’t appear to be in any duress as they sampled wine and took in the Nilsen sound.
Meanwhile the sodden countryside mixed with pelting midday hail wasn’t about to keep wine enthusiasts away from a taste of the tropics.
At 900 feet above sea level in the West Salem hills, the sleety precipitation was no match for the Cuban cuisine of tapas, complementing Cubanisimo Vineyards pinot noir, pinot gris and rosado served up early as a salsa band set up.
Proprietor Mauricio Collada seemed iconoclastic dressed in tropical garb amid a hailstorm, but his smile blended well with the clientele, who seemed to regard the precipitation as but a minor annoyance in what otherwise was promising to unfold as a bright Memorial Day outing through western Oregon’s wine country.
The Cubanisimo style mixes that Oregon with a tropical ambiance, despite the unseasonable weather.
“It’s Oregon, this ain’t Miami,” Collada said with an accepting smile. “Usually what we bank on is the crowd will start falling in love with the music, and the (tapas) will complement the good wine.
“The flavor of what we celebrate is great Oregon wine with the Cuban style, Cuban ethnicity, Cuban foods,” he added.
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