Counter Culture

Willamette Valley Vineyards’ new Chef’s Counter dining experience

Lunch guests gathered around the counter. ## Photo by Zach McKinley/Sproutbox
Winery chef Jarred Henry explaining his food pairings with counter diners. ## Photo by Zach McKinley/Sproutbox
Diners learning about each wine and food pairing. ## Photo by Zach McKinley/Sproutbox
## Photo by Gail Oberst

By Gail Oberst

Although definitely not your grandpa’s lunch counter, the warm personal service in front of the grill feels similar. The Chef’s Counter at Willamette Valley Vineyards’ Estate tasting room kicks up the lunch experience about 10 notches. It includes four small plates, each paired with a different wine, while watching chef Jarred Henry create dishes that resemble art, yet taste like home.

We five long-time girlfriends gathered for this lunch adventure on a weekday. Before Veronica Ball, winery ambassador, greets us at the fireplace for a pre-funk “splash,” I prompt my crew to ask questions, say what they think. No problem, they assure me. We immediately start gossiping about Nadine, who is late. We’re besties so it’s what we do… in addition to drinking wine.

Over the next two hours, Ball maintains a level of energy long forgotten by us old gals. We begin with a 2017 Tualatin Estate Chardonnay, describing its life in the barrel, and its honey, crème brûlée notes. That’s when my pal asks the first of many deeply insightful questions: Does that mean it’s from Tualatin? I cringe, but Ball is kind. “The wine is named after the Tualatin River, the watershed in which the grapes were grown,” she said.

She also delivers an informative verbal primer on Willamette Valley Vineyards’ history, its many vineyards, a quick overview on reading Oregon wine labels, and tips on tasting, which she reiterates during lunch. As Ball is an instructor with a bottle of wine in her hands, we are attentive students.

We are shown to our chairs at the counter, along with five other lunch visitors. Ball pours us a taste of the 2018 Elton Chardonnay, inspiring a guest to make the first toast of the afternoon: “Here’s to skipping work!” Ball describes the wine grown in the Elton Vineyard. For novice vinophiles, Willamette Valley Vineyards supplies an info card complete with a tasting chart, description of the pairings and space to note your opinions. A handy price list of the featured wines is on the back of the menu.

Chef Henry prepares the dishes, personally presenting a plate to each diner. Ball is a delightful teacher, describing the wines paired with each course. Dishes and pairings vary with the season, chef Henry explains. “We’re lucky to live in crab country,” he said, after describing the crab salad, grilled cornbread, lemon cream and caviar served with the Elton Chardonnay (see recipe).

“Sip, eat, sip,” Ball directs us as if teaching a very fun gym class. She suggests we decide if the wine and food flavors are complementary or contrasting. Between mumbles of “Mmmm,” and “Oh,” my girls argue about whether it is one or the other. “There’s no right answer,” Ball said, deftly averting a rift in our girl gang.

Pours and plates appear and vanish: Pan-seared ancho halibut paired with 2018 Elton Florine Pinot Noir, a surprising red wine-fish marriage; but fish seasoning and the soft wine seem made for each other. A 2017 Pambrun Merlot is paired with fire-roasted chicken oysters– the oft-ignored dark meat circles on chicken thighs– with white truffle potato pave, sundried tomatoes and artichoke hearts. I look toward my girlfriends waiting for some penetrating questions and encounter smiles, nods, chewing sounds. Elaine has cleaned her plate so completely, you would never know there had been food on it.

I turn to Ball, who has just introduced me to Brandon Norton, the winery ambassador manager on the team (with Ball and Henry) that chooses the seasonal menu. “Oh, to be a fly on the wall as they decide the new seasonal menus,” I said to Ball. She laughed and pointed to the mezzanine above the dining area. “We make a lot of noise. People probably wonder what is going on!” she said. Each team member brings their expertise to the table a few times a year as they eat and drink their way through new possibilities for the Counter. The aim is “… to get people intrigued, right off the bat, by highlighting new releases, library and cellar wines as well as the chef’s oeuvre, his collection of specialties and experiments,” Ball said. Forget being a fly on the wall, I thought. Oh, to be on that team!

Having slowed the sip-eat-sip process at the counter with my many questions, Ball redirects me to the business at hand just in time for the fireworks. A dramatic finish to the Chef’s Counter event is Bananas Foster, set afire, the flames rising into the hood above the workstation. As my girls gasped and giggled, my thought was to wonder if that is where our shaved-headed chef’s hair went.

Distracted by this highbrow banana split on my tongue, paired with a bubbly 2020 Domaine Willamette Méthode Traditionnelle Brut, I forgot to ask him the hair-on-fire question.

My girls revived on the Estate’s deck outside, famous for its glorious views of the Willamette Valley, the south Salem Hills, and the Cascade Mountains to the east. I rejoined them after asking more questions of winery staff. In my absence, I suspect they had been talking about me.

The Chef’s Counter hosts eight guests beginning at 2 p.m. each weekday afternoon, at the Estate winery, 8800 Enchanted Way SE, Turner. It is a leisurely lunch; be prepared to skip about an hour and half of work, not counting the nap afterward. Reservations can be made online, or by calling the Estate tasting room, (503) 588-9463. Cost is $60 per person, with discounts for members and owners. Please note that dishes change seasonally.

The Chef’s Counter “experience” is available at the Estate winery, but wine and food pairings can be enjoyed during open hours at the Estate and several other Willamette Valley Vineyards locations. Check out tasting rooms in Bend and McMinnville, Domaine Willamette at the Bernau Estate in the Dundee Hills above Dayton, and the Lake Oswego, Happy Valley and Vancouver Tasting Room and Restaurants.

Chef’s Counter

Willamette Valley Vineyards
2 p.m. weekdays, $60
8800 Enchanted Way SE, Turner
(503) 588-9463

Serves 8

With aplomb beyond his 27 years, Jarred Henry hands me a small plate of crab salad-topped cornbread almost too gorgeous to eat. Henry, the chef at the Chef’s Counter, is one of two working under DJ MacIntyre, executive chef at Willamette Valley Vineyard since 2015.

Henry is a native Oregonian whose passion for food has boosted him from kitchen manager at an assisted living facility, to studying under chef Peter Dwyer of the Lincoln Culinary Institute. Before joining the winery in 2022, he was sous chef at the Cellar Cat in Albany, his hometown. His favorite dishes are combined with local cheeses and locally foraged mushrooms. Henry enjoys demystifying food and wine pairings for those who belly up to the Chef’s Counter. “Don’t be intimidated,” he said. “What you learn here can be recreated at home.”

To that end, Henry shared a recipe from the Chef’s Counter spring selections, which he said can be modified to suit the cook.

Corn Cake

7 cubes (28 oz.) butter
4 cups OO flour
10 cups corn, frozen
2 cups whole milk
5 whole eggs
1 ½ cups sugar
3 tablespoons salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda

Directions – Melt butter in a saucepan and add frozen corn. Cook until corn starts to change color to light brown, roughly 15 minutes.
Combine all dry ingredients.

Once corn is done, blend into a paste and transfer to a medium bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, stirring constantly.

Once incorporated, mix dry with wet, one cup at a time, until batter forms. Cook in a greased 9x13 glass baking dish. Bake at 350º F for 45 minutes to an hour, until done in center.

Lemon Cream

2 cups cream
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
½ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon salt

Directions – add salt and pepper to cream and reduce cream on medium-high heat until one-fourth of the liquid has evaporated. Add zest and lemon juice, stir until incorporated. Cool and store in a squeeze bottle.

Crab Salad

6 oz. crab
I teaspoon each chives, tarragon, chervil, minced
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
Zest from 1 lemon
Juice from 1 lemon
Pinch of salt
1/3 teaspoon ground ancho chili powder
1/3 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/3 teaspoon ground smoked paprika

Directions – Combine ingredients with lemon cream and serve on a slice of corn cake. Optional: top with caviar or tobiko.

Gail Oberst has been a Northwest writer, editor and publisher for decades. Among her favorite gigs was business editor for the News-Register, and editor pro temp for three months for the Oregon Wine Press. Inspired by the OWP, she founded the Oregon Beer Growler with her family, later selling it to Oregon Lithoprint. She continues to edit and write a wide range of articles for magazines, and weekly and regional newspapers. Recently, she published her first fiction novel, Valkyrie Dance, available on Amazon, and is working on her second, San Souci. She lives with her husband, Michael Cairns, a retired ecologist, in Independence, Oregon. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren.

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