Cork Stories was designed as a platform for friends, even strangers, to share their personal experiences (and love) of food, wine and travel. So, I am excited to welcome our first guest blogger – Abby Cucci. Abby and I are fellow Supper Clubbers (see “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” post), wine lovers and marketing pros. She recently visited Oregon’s Willamette Valley with her boyfriend, Craig and shares their incredible journey, including favorite restaurants and three important facts about the Willamette Valley. ~Enjoy (with a glass of wine), Terrah Kocher
Let’s get just a few things straight:
#1: Oregon is simply stunning.
The scenic beauty of Oregon rivals anything I’ve ever seen. The drive into the Willamette Valley provides jaw-dropping views of lush rolling hills, rows of vineyards carefully tucked in, with sprawling snow-capped mountains set behind it. Photographs don’t do it justice (especially not with our camera); it is something you’ll want to see for yourself.
We were told we were “lucky” to experience such amazing weather with 75 degrees and nothing but blue skies the day we toured the wineries. Clearly, though, the rain has a major payoff—the thriving green landscape is breathtaking. One local exclaimed, “THIS is what we wait for! This is our reward for six months of rain.”
The views from our Bed & Breakfast, The Joseph Mattey House, were well worth the trip in itself. Not to mention the fact that everyone here knows a great deal about wine and you can’t help but join in on the enthusiasm. Jack and Denise, our lovely B&B owners, had several bottles available for their guests’ enjoyment.
#2: Oregon produces amazing wine.
Surprisingly, the modern history of Oregon wine dates back to the 1960’s—not very long at all considering the competition. There are some 300 Oregon wineries today, almost all producing Pinot Noir, with 72 grape varietals and 16 approved wine growing regions known as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), the largest of which is Willamette Valley.
There is so much to learn—but don’t let that intimidate you. Craig and I are wine lovers, but we surely aren’t experts. A familiar theme we heard throughout our visit was, “Start with knowing what you like.” We all know what foods we like, why can’t we expand this notion to our wine palette?
Speaking of food, the culinary journey of Willamette Valley matches their pinot varietals. We were fortunate enough to dine in two award-winning restaurants: The Joel Palmer House and The Painted Lady. These establishments—like most in town—tout organic, local seafood, produce, meat and wine. While the backdrops of both places are beautifully restored Victorian homes, their menus are quite modern.
At the heart of The Joel Palmer House are mushrooms—and it’s no coincidence that their earthiness pairs perfectly well with the 500+ Pinot Noirs they have on their wine menu. For dinner, I enjoyed the mushroom tart followed by the beef stroganoff. The tart was unlike anything I’d ever had before—rich in color and taste, and complete with a perfectly flakey and tender crust (lard, perhaps?); it was a fungi-lover’s dream.
The Oregon Pinot Noir we ordered—The Joel Palmer House label—was strong enough to stand up to the stroganoff, yet it was low tannin, with a blend of red fruit and earthy notes, well-suited for Craig’s sturgeon, as well. Caught the day before by the chef’s father (and founder of the restaurant), Chef Christopher Czarnecki served this dish with quinoa (a light, fluffy grain alternative to couscous, en vogue with cutting-edge chefs) with matsutake mushroom duxelle and cayenne aioli. The solution to properly preparing this characteristically tough fish is to marinate it for more than 24 hours in olive oil, spices and herbs—and the outcome was worth trading plates with Craig halfway through dinner! Chef Czarnecki was kind enough to speak with us at our table with as much care as if we were regulars, walking us through the wine selection, offering insight and expertise on the menu.
I must admit, it was with slight apprehension that I selected the stroganoff. With all due respect to my mother, this was a dish I grew up with and had (foolishly) decided I didn’t like. It turns out, I love it! This was a perfectly rich and flawlessly balanced dish that incorporated Painted Hills Oregon Beef (served rare), wild mushrooms in a delectable cream sauce, and served over a bed of rice.
At The Painted Lady the following evening, they solely offer a tasting menu and you choose one dish from each of the four courses. I ordered the vegetarian tasting menu, while Craig went with the main tasting menu; however, don’t consider for a second that my path was any less flavorful. The elegant plating is worth noting, as well as the outstanding service, professional and friendly—and experts on wine. Both Craig and I went with the suggested wine pairings per course, as well, which was absolutely delicious and added an element of surprise and fun as each bottle and pour was presented. And, of course, it was amusing to see familiar wineries after a day spent wine tasting around Willamette Valley. A few highlights from our culinary adventure at The Painted Lady: Craig’s Roasted Rabbit Roulade on Butternut Squash and Cauliflower Puree, and my Spinach and Artichoke Crepes with Wild Mushrooms and Red Wine Soubise Sauce, both paired with the 2009 Aryes Pinot Noir of Willamette Valley. The small plates made it perfect for sharing (if we were kind enough to do so). Our evening ended with a gorgeous chocolate soufflé and port wine. Scrumptious!
#3: While painfully obvious, let me remind you – Oregon is in the United States.
If it’s the mystique of another country you’re after, then a trip west won’t fit the bill. For us, it felt amazing to, in essence, claim Oregon: This is our country. How extraordinary! And the people of Oregon do an outstanding job welcoming each and every visitor. In fact, we are already daydreaming of our return. In the meantime, we have many bottles of wine to savor our memories. When I asked Fred Gunton, our wonderful tour guide of A Nose for Wine, how to choose a favorite, I believe he put it best: “Experiences make great wine. That certainly weighs into your choice and enjoyment.”
A few wineries we visited (and loved!):
What is your Cork Story? Email Terrah Kocher – Terrahk@gmail.com to be our next guest blogger.