In preparation for Memorial Day weekend, we check out a couple of local wineries: Bethel Heights and Left Coast Cellars. Both wineries, lie within the Van Duzer Corridor, the gap in the coastal hills bordering Salem that allows Pacific Ocean air to flow eastward into the Willamette Valley late in the day, creating the ideal climate for growing Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and the famously complex Oregon Pinot Noir. The Willamette Valley’s hot summer days intensify the sugar in the grapes; the cool evenings help retain acidity, factors that, working together, create world-class wines.
At Bethel Heights Winery, we chat with Mimi Dudley Casteel, owner and general manager. Bethel Heights is a family-owned vineyard, and the tasting room boasts a big farmhouse table, a fireplace, and a sweeping view of Mt. Jefferson. Mimi pours us the wonderful wine made from their oldest block of Pinot Noir – two different vintages for comparison; common practice at Bethel Heights tastings.
Mimi’s father and uncle, Ted and Terry Casteel, purchased 56 acres of old orchard land in the Eola Hills in 1976; they were lucky enough to find land already planted with a few vines. “It’s really a big deal to have old vines in Oregon, vines that grow on their own roots,” Mimi tells us. Today, almost all the vines in production in Oregon are grafted onto philloxera- resistant rootstock, but when starting the vineyard, Mimi’s family saved money by planting cuttings from the vines already growing. Some of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines at Bethel Heights are over 30 years old, ancient by the standards of the Oregon wine industry.
Mimi takes us down to the vineyard, where we walk among the old vines – thicker than an arm, gnarled and mossy. Mimi makes her own compost and treats each vine with compost tea. Bethel Heights incorporates many organic practices in their farming, and they are certified as sustainable. “I try and look at the whole picture when I make these decisions,” Mimi says. “In the end it’s about making the best possible wine.”
In the coolness of the cellar, barrels are stacked three high. Bethel Heights Chardonnay is barrel-fermented in neutral oak, its Riesling and Pinot Blanc in stainless steel, and its Pinot Noir in oak.Mimi thinks 2011 will be an outstanding year. “After harvest, there is always a surprise. Magical things happen. Some of the best things that happen in winemaking are out of your control.”
Our next stop is Left Coast Cellars, where we talk with Luke McCollom, the winemaker and viticulturist. Left Coast grows Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Viognier; all the grapes that go into their wine are estate-grown, which makes them somewhat unusual in the Willamette Valley.
Left Coast keeps a number of beehives, part of their work towards maintaining a bio-diverse ecosystem. They also maintain a woodlot of oak trees, compost their grape pumice with manure from a nearby dairy, and have planted a number of hazelnut trees, injected with black truffles, which they hope to harvest and sell.
We hike up the hill and he shows us his latest project: in dozens of raised beds, over 20 thousand small cuttings are standing in a mix of compost and sand, putting out tiny leaves. Where Bethel Heights rooted their own vines in the 1970s from economic necessity, Left Coast, a younger operation, is rooting vines, because, today, due to high demand, it is often difficult to purchase grafted stock. Luke explains that these vines, a mix of different Pinot Noir clones, will be “field blended,” an ancient practice in which the different grapes are planted randomly in the same field, and harvested and fermented together, producing a wine of depth and complexity.
Luke takes us into the barrel room, and gives us each a glass. “I want you to taste something really unusual.” In 2011 a number of their Viognier vines were hit with a heavy frost while the fruit was still on the vine Luke turned this minor disaster into “ice wine,” a sweet dessert wine that can only be made with frost damaged grapes. It smells like flowers, and tastes light and sweet, but not too sweet. We taste wine from a barrel of Chardonnay and a barrel of Pinot Noir. I love the experience of barrel tasting. Standing in the cool cellar sipping the still-cloudy wine on a warm afternoon – what could be better?
Both Bethel Heights Winery and Left Coast Cellars are open on the Memorial Day weekend and will provide music, food, and wine tasting for their visitors.