...in a meadow of vines, greeting the unexpected, the weird & the wonderful.

May 20th, 2014, 3pm

It was 23.3°C with scattered clouds. The wind was calm.

After a lifetime of drinking, selling and cooking for the pleasures of the table, finally I met the land of fabled vines…the first of a series of explorations.

This is the first wine I drank from visiting an Oregon winery, this pretty library release of 2007 Chardonnay from Kramer Vineyards! If I’d have laid a bet against the future, no way would I have picked that my entry into Oregon wine tasting bought directly from a Willamette Valley vigneron would have been a Chardonnay. No way! I have always been an ABC drinker (Anything But Chardonnay!) in my intrepid wine sleuthing the world over, which has led me to discover how much I adore Ribolla Gialla, Viognier, Tocai Friulano, Godello and Treixadura from Galicia, and also Albariño from coastal Galicia (where Randall Grahm in a #largepublicwinetasting just recently had to endure hearing the grape called Al Burrito!), and Chenin Blanc, just to name a few of the even more plush white wine grapes of the world that I would gladly choose to drink merrily before I’d select a Chardonnay.

So why was I even driving up the hill overlooking the tiny hamlet of Gaston, OR, ascending past Elk Cove who have impeccable pioneer wine cred in the state having begun in 1974, to find Kramer Vineyards? Well, 2nd generation winemaking scion (isn’t scion a cool word for a daughter, too? And laughably, I am driving a Toyota Scion so white and dependable that my sister and the kids had named it ‘The Igloo’ which has been passed down to my determined hands to navigate the twisty roads and marvelous sights yet to be seen in all my forays, so ‘Scion’ seems to be just the correct word for Kim Kramer, the daughter and principal wine geek extraordinaire behind these lovely wines) Kim Kramer is at the helm of these vineyards, making very lovely Oregon sparkling wines from a cast of grapes both oddball, such as a nimble Müller-Thurgau that in a proper universe could be the house bubbly for spicy fried chicken always and every time, and the more classical sparkling, as in a Brut hewing closely to the style of Champagne. Of course, I like Kim Kramer because she is intense enough to know that she wishes she had all seven grapes permitted to be grown in the famed vineyards of Champagne, including the “so obscure you might never know if you taste them” varietals of fromenteau, arbanne, and petit meslier.* Kim Kramer not only knows these grapes exist, but among her dreams is to somehow find a way to plant these heirloom relics amidst her Chardonnay, to stress her vines, to magnify, to celebrate, to dream of the dream for all that Oregon sparkling wines can be.

Paragraphs like that are why I need an editor, but since this is Facebook, Twitter, or my blog, my only goal today is to entertain my friends with a rough draft of history as I discover these Wines of The Wild West that make Oregon so special. I began my Willamette inquiry with Kim Kramer precisely because she understands the impulse to turn woolgathering into action. I really like that she sees the same point as I do of “why can’t Oregon be a leader in the field of killer sparkling wines,” and she has decided to leap the bull of “why not?” like a Minoan acrobat, twirling her wines into things of finesse & flavor that should be short-listed on anyone’s don’t miss list of “Oregon winemakers with flair.”

Kramer Vineyards has been tending to their 20 acres up the hill from Gaston since 1983, when Keith and Trudy Kramer bought the property, with 18 acres of vines perched along hillsides at 725 ft elevations, learning & puzzling over how to coax the best from their meadows of vines. Details of the program are easily found at www.kramervineyards.com, but facts aren’t as fun as riding over the twisty roads and meeting the wines on their own home turf, and with Kramer there are two options.

There is a tasting room easier to find along the main streets of Carlton, at 258 Kutch St. (503. 852.3045 on Thur thru Sun from 11 AM-5 PM) where a full flight of Kramer’s sparkling wines are at the ready. But for me, as a novice yet intrepid explorer, who got ruefully turned around circling the Hillsboro airport subverted toward a Suburban Heck of the heretofore unexpected commercial magnitude this side of Nowhere (or Houston, Texas) in an endless track of BIG BOX conspicuous consumption cheek-by-jowl with hidden away Indian grocers and halal butchers and street signs advertising for Raw Goat Milk with herd shares available…well…yes…as I was saying…getting to rural Hwy 47 was a triumph, and finally making my way to the top of this hill to a quaint tasting room overlooking a sloping meadow of vines just showing the green fuse of Spring…yes, a perfect destination for me. We don’t see vineyards despite the veritable oceans of wine that we drink & sell in New Orleans; so despite my studies and observations, this trip was a first for this proletariat chef to greet working vines, as these Willamette vines, young as they might be are already gnarly & knotted with time and the wine-darkened labors of bearing witness to terroir, are just about the biggest treat for me to learn in PDX.

The fact that I wound up bagging my first trophy from these gnarly vineyards, as 500+ wineries dot the Oregon landscape like celestial stars forming a constellation of myths with plenty of the holy juice to consecrate the myths, with me driving back down winding roads carrying a gently aging Chardonnay is as unexpected as the reasons why this scion vigneron, Kim Kramer, honors her parents who decided to invest in this hill to create a meadow of vines that now are bending to the creative impulses of a daughter of sparkling wines, wines of equal measures made from magic and hard work, which were first discovered by the monks of St. Hilaire in Limoux, in France not far from the caves where wheels of Roquefort cheese were created by a secondary fermentation of the molds stabbed into sheep cheese that takes on a leap into immortality to the bluest of blue cheese tastes, so did secondary fermentation awaken rustic wines to the miracle of tiny bubbles that animate the ordinary sacraments of daily wine with unexpected joy & elegance. Sentence me to re-write this thicket into a multiplicity of sentences, if and only if, a ready supply of Kim’s wines that hold the bubbles are by my elbow; otherwise, let the unexpected contours of my discovery and my why of letting just this one Willamette place enchant you, My Dear Reader, with serendipity & thirsty desires. A library Chardonnay is what my permanent record henceforth shows as the wine that popped my wine country cherry! So be it…

I enjoyed tasting the array of not so very ordinary wines at Kramer’s hilltop tasting room. The day I was there, workers were pouring a new concrete patio to better overlook the meadow of Chardonnay vines, and before long there will be a wood burning oven for pizzas & maybe even a rustic daube scented with roasting vegetables and finished with Oregon truffles. Anything is feasible, once you commit to the dream…

Highlights of the tasting, besides the sparkling Müller-Thurgau, were just as unexpected in a Barbera (say what?! delicious) and a Carmine, a hybrid grape that is comprised of the genetics of Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot that combines the unruly earthy scents of Carignan with the smooth as Cordoba leather textures of Merlot with the Cab along for the ride supplying muscle car flashiness. Or fleshpot mouthfeel perfect for a flask made from goatskin as a porrón; I submit that whatever ode to Dionysius isn’t wrong here in field tasting notes about the weird and the wonderful things, like a down & dirty Carmine, as a thing previously unknown when you taste wines some ways uphill in a meadow amidst the vines near Yamhill, hyperbole isn’t the point but pleasure, yes. Yes, indeed…

I enjoyed the knowledgeable company of Shantel, the tasting room manager of the winery, very much, as she is professional & funny & delighted by sharing the weird & the wonderful of Kramer Vineyards with those who make the trek uphill. I bought the library 07 Chardonnay because I hadn’t tasted it, after enjoying the other wines from this hilltop meadow, I was imbued with faith that this particular Chardonnay was worth exploring, and it was!

I didn’t look at the Oregon vintage notes for 2007, as I didn’t want a whiff of prejudice upon my palate as what to expect. I actually hate giving tasting notes, as it makes me feel like the jerkwad at the movie who loudly proclaims his analysis of the movie you’re about to see while you’re just buying the popcorn. Can’t stand that guy! I just don’t like a dry recital of flavor cognates, either, oh please severely reprimand me with a jug o’ baleful Yellowtail if I ever wax lyrically of pencil shavings and things that you don’t eat or caress in my wine scribing…unless I get psychedelic, then all bets are off!

I noted about the Kramer 2007 ‘Barrel Select’ Chardonnay these unkempt phrases:

A little bit hedonistic in tropical flavors, this Chardonnay is kept from being too flabby & florid (like me in a Hawaiian shirt) by a bracing minerality underneath the sashay of fruit consorting with mostly older oak barrels to be both plush & carrying the manners of a versatile geisha able to hold a wise conversation with a wide array of foods. I’d definitely drink more if I had more, willingly with milder Thai coconut curries to truffled rabbit pâté, from any Alfredo based creamy sauce to fish in a brown butter sauce with almonds (that’s Trout Amandine to them that ain’t from New Orleans, but the same sauce would be better than alright with some meaty grilled Pacific halibut rubbed with some spices, ya heard me?). To me, it’s a great white wine for comfort foods of Winter, but such a Chardonnay shouldn’t be exiled to the cellar once people start grilling everything they can during the Summer. It isn’t barbecued chicken dinner wine, per se, but chicken tagine from a wood-burning oven, hmmm… the supple textures and reasonable price make it the perfect 2nd (or 3rd…) wine of the night, once the food has been on the table awhile and the conversations are starting to flourish…and something elegant yet filling is required to extend a “wish it was endless summer evening” vibe.

So go get ya some of that 2007 Chardonnay, and some earthy Carmine, and some sparkling mischief from Kim Kramer in her meadow of vines, and invite me over. I might be willing to sing for my supper with a pair of tongs and a notion to cook Moroccan…and then you’ll see what I’d do to some halibut with almonds & butter….

  • Dear Reader, you get extra points if you know the other four principal grapes of Champagne, which is a bit tricky as one of the grapes is well known but merely a relic seldom used in Champagne…

Shu, Adrian and Stephanie said thanks.

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Chris DeBarr

Chef who believes in eating the world to save it. Wine & language & sharp knives are the tools of my métier. At heart, I'm a warm & fuzzy Dadaist.

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