Taste of the Great 2008

December 2009

By Karl Klooster

Juice from Oregon’s 2008 wine harvest hadn’t even started fermenting before the effusiveness began to fly. “The fruit is fabulous.” “A classic vintage.” “The finest yet.” “Takes Oregon Pinot Noir to a new level.”

But this giddy end-result didn’t come without a good deal of angst. In a scenario approaching near epic proportions, the end of the ’08 growing season posed a make-or-break proposition. Continued rain could have meant total ruin.

This time, however, Mother Nature smiled on northern Oregon growers, allowing the long, painfully slow maturation to proceed without undue weather interference, and creating the conditions for wines that will undoubtedly be discussed for years to come.

Hearing how good they are is one thing. Experiencing it for yourself is quite another. You can admire a beautifully designed and engineered automobile from afar. Still, it’s a pale substitute for actually getting behind the wheel.

And that is the serendipity of the annual ¡Salud! Barrel Tasting and Big Board Auction held at Domaine Drouhin Oregon on Friday, Nov. 13.

The event’s admirable purpose is to fund the Tuality Healthcare program for seasonal vineyard workers and their families. The big bonus for wine buffs is having 42 of Oregon’s top Pinot producers all pouring together in one place.

To be sure, ¡Salud! presents a once-a-year, one-of-a-kind opportunity. But the trick, even for the most determined, was actually being able to sample a majority of the wines over the course of a three-hour period, from 3 to 6 p.m.

It’s all about logistics. The wines were divided into four groups—A,B,C,D. Bidding closed every 20 minutes for each group between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Interested bidders obviously wanted to taste the earliest closing wines first.

That’s where the most challenging bit of logistics came into play. Tasting tables were positioned on three levels of DDO’s hillside, gravity-fed facility. And wines in each group were also spread out over all three levels.

In the case of Group A, for example, that meant tasting two wines on level 1 (the entry and tasting room area), three on level 2 (the fermentation floor), and five on level 3 (the barrel cellar), before 5 p.m.

If that were one’s sole objective, it would certainly be possible within the two hours between the event’s opening and Group A’s 5 p.m. closing to climb the lengthy staircases and negotiate your way through the throngs to seek out the desired tables.

But what if you wanted to also bid on wines in the other three groups? This would require a whole lot more stair climbing, crowd negotiating and table seeking.

Not that I’m complaining, you understand. I had a terrific time, talked with a lot of fascinating folks and made a couple of round trips up and down the stairs that resulted in the swirling, sniffing, savoring and only minimal swallowing of 33 out of the 42 wines.

In other words, this was in no way a negative experience. Organizers do a wonderful job in setting up a complex undertaking.

I wanted to sample as wide a spectrum as I possibly could before the wines ran out. I arrived too late in a couple instances, but still managed to sample as much as anyone could have given the circumstances.

From a quality standpoint, this was a trip to Pinot Noir heaven. Though almost all of the wines need a few more months in barrel, their promise is truly phenomenal.

In numerous instances, the overall impression remained incomplete in that more time is needed for all the components to develop. But the hard edge and awkwardness of youth couldn’t hide the fabulous potential simmering just below the surface.

To name personal favorites would only be to say that some are already showing a mid-mouth flavor lushness that the others will ultimately take on.

There’s so much depth to these wines, hints of flavors both plummy ripe and nuanced in layered complexity, loads of tannin but silky and resolved, lively acidity in beautiful balance. And, here’s the kicker: only medium-level alcohols.

It used to be that 12 to 12.5 percent were considered respectable alcohol levels. Now it’s 13.5 to 14 percent, or more.

But if you want Pinot Noir to express its finest qualities, high alcohol content is not desirable. So winemakers are absolutely delighted with the 13 to 13.5 percent levels prevalent among 2008 Oregon Pinots.

The magic word in great wine is balance. That completes the picture perfectly.

Wrapping up the event, top case bids included $2,050 for Ponzi, $1,800 for R. Stuart, $1,550 for Cristom and Beaux Frères, $1,350 for Ken Wright, $1,300 for DDO, and $1,250 for Bergström and Soter. Total gross revenue was $138,700.

The formal dinner and auction held Saturday evening at the Governor Hotel in Portland offered up 29 live auction lots, a three-part mini live auction and 38 silent auction items.

Auction revenue for the two days, plus sponsorships, brought the grand total this year to $608,000.

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