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(Ed. Note — Alas I’m three weeks late with what was supposed to be a real-time chronicle of my trip to Oregon for the 2012 Wine Bloggers Conference.  Realizing re-entry in to the work-a-day world would leave no time at the keyboard for wine related musings I started this piece while on the shuttle bus to and from King Estate on day one of the pre-conference excursion.  Unfortunately I didn’t keep up and this one got by me.)

Highlights from the 2012 Wine Bloggers Conference Eugene Pre-Conference Excursion

Or, If You Find Yourself in Oregon, Several Must Visits…

For the ten years prior to our family expansion in May 2011, I traveled nearly every week for work.  After flying over 1,400,000 (which, sadly, means very little these days to my airline of choice) and spending over 1,000 nights of my life in hotels, any form of travel that requires trains, planes or hotels holds little appeal to me.

Though the excitement and sparkle of travel has long since faded, there are exceptions — traveling to Oregon is one those exceptions.  Portland’s funky vibe and eclectic food and drink scene, and having some of the most notable Pinot producers in the US (and globally) just an hour south, make the multiple-connections, TSA pat downs, inevitable flight delays for the cross-country flight well worth it.

Needless to say, I’ve been looking forward this westward trip since Portland was announced as the host location for the 2012 Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC).

Finally, after months of anticipation and a long day of flight delays that started at 8am eastern time, I arrived in Portland last night (Tuesday) around 10pm local time.  Since my official first day of WBC would begin the next morning with a 5:30am wakeup call, I resisted the temptation to join a group of fellow WBC’ers downtown for a night of exploring the virtues of local beer, and retired early.

By the time my iPhone serenaded me at 5:30am Wednesday morning, I had lost all enthusiasm for a morning run and opted for more sleep before heading over to Budget rental car facility to meet my roadtripmates — Dan (affectionately known as the Designated Driver :)) and Michele Haid (on Twitter: @WineHooch) — for the 120 mile journey south to Eugene to join 20 other bloggers for the ‘Go Local: Wine, Farms and Food in the South Willamette Valley’ pre-conference excursion.

Unlike my previous two trips to area, which were quick two-day weekend trips, these six days will be about deep immersion in to the region and the elegant, earthy, raspberry pinots of the Willamette Valley.

No road trip in the heart of Oregon Pinot Noir country would be complete without a couple of winery stops before a full day and evening of amazing food and wine.  Our first stop of the morning was Seufert Winery (on Twitter: @SeufertWinery), located in a modest yet charming one-story building on a Mayberryesque street in the sleepy town of Dayton.  Owner and winemaker Jim Seufert (pronounced sI-fert) is described as a Pinot talent scout, sourcing fruit from top vineyards throughout the valley for his single-vineyard Pinots.

Seufert wine slinger and resident Pinot Geek, Jim Fischer, greeted Dan, Michele and I for our morning tasting.  Jim graciously poured seven different single-vineyard Pinots — ranging from the cooler and wetter (at harvest) 2007 vintage to the warmer 2009 vintage — while sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of each vineyard and viticulture area.  The 2007 Momtazi Vineyard Pinot ($35 | 13.3% abv) was my favorite of the bunch — red raspberry, rose petal, spice and salty beach breeze on the nose with notable mineral and cherry flavors in the mouth.  As the name suggests, this Pinot was made from fruit from the biodynamically farmed Momtazi Vineyard located in the McMinnville AVA.

An interesting note about the Seufert Pinots— I picked up the same mineral and saline components in each of the seven Pinots we tasted. Interesting since each Pinot was made from grapes from different vineyards sites throughout the valley.

Anyone who possesses mad knowledge of all things Oregon Pinot and sports a retro calculator watch rocks in my book.

Why visit Seufert:  Single-vineyard Pinots, and lots of them… along with homespun charm in an urban setting.

Since we made back-to-back appointments and still had a two hour drive south to Eugene to catch a 3pm shuttle for the official start of the Eugene Pre-Conference Excursion, we unfortunately had to taste and run.

We thanked Jim for his hospitality and set the GPS northbound to Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards (on Twitter:  @LangeWinery ) in the town of Dundee for our second tasting appointment of the morning.  Michele’s GPS provided us the opportunity to take the scenic route along a rolling and dusty gravel road.

Lange was not on my initial list of wineries to visit until last week when I received an email from a Virginia wine friend that just relocated to Oregon to work at Lange.

Located in the Dundee Hills appellation, Lange Estate Winery and Vineyard was founded by the husband and wife team of Don and Wendy Lange.  Along with their son Jesse, who serves as General Manager and Winemaker, the Lange’s will celebrate their 25th vintage this year.  The Lange’s currently have 45 acres under vine, planted to Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, and produce about 18,000 cases annually.

Situated atop a hill, Lange Estate Winery provides expansive views of the Cascade Mountain range and valley floor below.  Adjacent to the tasting room is an inviting patio surrounded by vineyards gently sloping downward to the valley floor.  A serene and bucolic setting reminiscent of the views of rolling hills and the Blue Ridge Mountains one can take in from similar winery patios in parts of Virginia’s wine country.  The patio is no doubt a nice place to enjoy a glass of Pinot on a warm spring evening or crisp fall afternoon.

Me and Jesse Lange, General Manager and Winemaker

Our tasting started with Lange’s Pinot Gris and the 20 Chardonnay, followed by three Pinot Noirs.  Like most Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, I found these to be uninteresting, however, the three Pinots exhibited the elegance and balance I’ve come to expect from Oregon Pinot Noir.  My favorite of the three was the boldest of the bunch — the 2009 Freedom Hill Vineyard.  Lange has sourced fruit from the Freedom Hill Vineyard since 1990 and produced this single vineyard Pinot since 1996.  A damn fine example of Oregon Pinot goodness — aromas and flavors of dark cherry, over ripe raspberry, spice, subtle blueberry and hints of earth followed by a seductive finish.

The three fruit-forward Lange Pinot Noirs we tasted provided an interesting contrast to the lighter, minerally Seufert Pinots.  Would be interesting to taste Pinots of the same vintage side-by-side again in a blind tasting.

Why you should visit Lange:  Excellent Pinot and a patio with beautiful views — an ideal way to slow down and relax with friends.

Interesting factoid:  Lange is credited with being the first winery to produce a neutral-barrel French oak-fermented reserve Pinot Gris.

Like our visit to Seufert, our time at Lange was too short.  In just 40 minutes we tasted, chatted, soaked up some knowledge, took pictures and was back in the car headed south to Eugene for the official start of the Pre-Conference excursion.

Thanks to Dan’s keen driving skills coupled with Michele’s GPS finding a paved road, we made it to the hotel in Eugene just in time to check-in and hop on the shuttle bus for the official start to the 2012 Wine Bloggers Conference.  The first stop of the Eugene pre-conference Excursion was Heidi Tunnell’s Barn in Creswell, OR for pre-dinner appetizers and wine.

Given Heidi’s culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America and her experience background, I was looking forward to beginning the WBC Eugene Excursion at Heidi’s.   Raised in Eugene, Heidi supports local farmers — many meals prepared with fruits and vegetables grown on a farm just down the road from her barn — and local wineries to provide a truly local experience.

From the yurt that Heidi lives in located near the entrance to the property, to the 1930′s truck once driven by her grandparents, to the 19th century restored barn, Heidi’s property radiates an inviting countrified vibe.  The tin-roofed, red barn sits at the near-center of her family’s farm, which was acquired by her great-grandfather for 50 cents an acres in the 1940′s.  At one point, the property included 1,000 acres, but now the family has about 300 acres remaining.

As we arrived, Heidi greeted our group of eager, hungry and thirsty bloggers with a glass of Kandarian Cellars Blue Eye Sauvignon Blanc — which paired perfectly with the 90-degree afternoon — followed by chickpea cakes with herbed yogurt sauce.

Our next course was my favorite, bite size BLTs — made with house cured bacon, local tomatoes, lettuce and mayo — paired with a glass of chilled Meriwether NV Brut sparkling wine.   With notes of toasted almonds, pear and yeast, this refreshing sparkling wine was my favorite of the three wines we tasted at Heidi’s.  Made from 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, this Cuvee is aged at least four years on the yeast.

After filling up on as many BLTs as one person could reasonably justify eating (four in my case), I could only manage a few bites of our final appetizer course — blue cheese and pecan cracker with Heidi’s own farm raised beef paired with a glass of the Capitello 2008 Pinot Noir (on Twitter: @CapitelloWines).

Gracious with a quiet demeanor, Heidi lets her culinary skills do the talking.  After sampling three appetizer courses it’s easy to see why and how Heidi won the 2011 Iron Chef Eugene competition.

Planning a trip to the Eugene area?  Be sure to check out Heidi’s schedule of Barn Dinners for acelebration of local food and wine.

Thank you Heidi and Josh for a memorable visit — you are gracious hosts!

Our next and final stop of day one of the WBC Eugene Pre-Conference Excursion was King Estate Winery (on Twitter: @KingEstate) for dinner.   Since I wasn’t able to visit King Estate during my last visit to the area in 2010, I was looking forward to taking in the beautiful views I’ve heard so much about, learning more about the King Estate’s story, tasting Pinot (maybe even a multi-vintage vertical or clonal tasting), and enjoying a delicious dinner and conversation with new friends.

As expected, the views, dinner and conversation did not disappoint.  The King Estate winery, tasting room and wine bar, and restaurant are housed in an European-style edifice that sits atop a hill at about 700 feet elevation overlooking a beautiful valley of vineyards against a backdrop of rolling hills.

Founded by the King Family in 1991, King Estate includes over 1,000 certified organic acres of vineyards — the world’s largest contiguous organic vineyard — orchards and gardens.  Seventeen acres of King Estate land is planted to orchards that include apple, plum, pear, and olive trees; six acres of fruits and vegetables including blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, beets, tomatoes, truffles and a number of other veggies; and, 470 acres under vine planted to Pinot Noir (160), Pinot Gris (300) and another 10 acres with Chardonnay, Muscat, Riesling and G’vertz.  From these 470 acres of vineyards along with some fruit sourced from nearby vineyards, King Estate produces about 250,000 cases of wine annually.

Most interesting about King Estate’s 160 acres of Pinot Noir is the clonal diversity with 16 different clones of Pinot Noir planted.  This has to be one of the most clonally diverse Pinot vineyards anywhere east, west, north or south of the Mississippi.

With 160 certified organic acres of Pinot Noir, coupled with the clonal diversity and the fact that the viticulture team handles each section of every vineyard separately from fermentation to aging, it’s clear that King Estate takes Pinot Noir seriously!  It is this serious dedication to Pinot Noir why I (and several others) left King Estate that evening asking, ‘No Pinot… really?‘ Not one bottle opened, not one drop poured.  Interesting.

Why a winery like King Estate that ‘has invested tens of millions of dollars over the past thirteen years‘ to develop such an extensive Pinot Noir program would miss the opportunity to showcase their Pinot program to a group of digital wine media influencers is a mystery to me.

Instead of Pinot Noir, the evening featured a Pinot Gris from King Estate’s second label, Acrobat, the 2009 King Estate Domaine Pinot Gris (made from estate fruit), the 2009 Syrah from King Estate other second label, NxNW, as well as their estate desert wine, Vin Glase, made from Pinot Gris.

The Acrobat and King Estate Domaine Pinot Gris are fine as far as Pinot Gris go, however I’m wholly indifferent to wine made from this grape.  I equate Pinot Gris to friends that are able to cite chapter and verse every scene from any reality television show that includes housewives, bachelors looking for love, or dancing stars, yet haven’t cracked the spine of a book since 12th grade English — dull, one-dimensional, and best taken in small doses.

Pinot noir or not, our group had a great evening at King Estate and were treated to a delicious 3-course meal and impeccable service.  My meal — a mesclun greens salad to start, seared albacore tuna for dinner followed by an amazing French Meringue with local blackberries and basil ice cream for dessert — was delicious.

To end the evening on a high Pinot note, Michele, Dan, Shannon (on Twitter: @GrapeOccasions) and I purchased a bottle of the King Estate 2007 Domaine to take back to the hotel for a nightcap.

In the spirit of balance, I should note that, in addition to hosting our group of 22 for the pre-conference excursion dinner, King Estate sponsored the WBC Saturday night dinner for the entire conference of 350+, no small feat to be sure.  Well, King Estate did more than just sponsor the dinner, their culinary team prepared and served the dinner.  King Estate brought their culinary and service team, wine, and ingredients for a 5-course meal two hours north from Eugene to Portland to ensure the dinner was a memorable epicurean experience.  Mission accomplished!

The year’s conference marked my 4th Wine Bloggers Conference — three in the U.S. and one in Europe — and the Saturday night dinner hosted by King Estate was by far the best of any prior WBC Saturday evening dinners.  With the 5-course meal, wine pairings for each course, along with the integration of social media with a clever micro-site, King Estate set a seriously high bar for future Wine Bloggers Conference dinners.

Executive Chef Michael Landsberg and his team deserve a big ‘ol virtual congratulations and thank you for an amazing meal!

Thank you to Elizabeth and the rest of the King Estate team — your gracious hospitality was greatly appreciated.   A special thank you to Meg and Molly from Eugene Cascades & Coast, and Rose from Amtrak for making the Eugene pre-conference excursion a memorable experience.

Day 2 — Included a visit to Pfeiffer Vineyards, a wine tasting aboard Amtrak from Eugene to Portland, conference welcome reception and dinner at Pok Pok.

Great dinner companions on Thursday evening at Pok Pok… Joel Vincent, Leslie Sbracco, Fredric Koeppel, Lisa Mattson, David White, Tom Wark, Ed Thralls, Taylor Eason, William Allen, Me, Wilfred Wong. Thank you Lisa!

For a different perspective and more (better) photos the WBC Eugene Pre-Conference Excursion, please check out the following related posts:

WBC2012 in Portland is the fourth WBC I’ve attended — hope to see you in Penticton:

VerticalWBC

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