Early this year, I thought I would be in Ohio in October. Later, I had hoped to take advantage of incredible discount airfare offers and take an October vacation to Melbourne Australia; but my decision to attend my 30 year year high school class reunion, combined with next year’s Pokemon World Championship returning to Kona, Hawaii a year earlier than anticipated, caused me to postpone my Melbourne trip.
With time on my calendar blocked out for the trips that I wasn’t taking, I chose to travel to Oregon for another trip that I had wanted to take, and call it a mini vacation. My Oregon trip would run from Wednesday, October 7 through Tuesday, October 13.
Rather than drive my 207,000 mile Ford Aerostar work purposed van for the trip, I rented a Kia Rio. The money saved from improved gas mileage would pay for the rental, and I would save wear on my van. Most importantly, the Kia had an aux plug so I could play songs from my iPhone/iPod over the car’s stereo system.
I am used to flying. I fly often for work. Driving made me more aware that I was not working, and the drive from my home in Ukiah to my first stop in Newport, OR took 11 hours and covered 600 miles.
I used to follow the Grateful Dead, I built my work, my show schedule, around the show schedule of the Grateful Dead. I used to be able to squeeze a 2 week vacation into a 4 hour show; my batteries completely recharged.
On the drive to Oregon, I was listening to the Grateful Dead as I passed through the town of Weed, CA. I found my funny bone tickled by the serendipity of the moment.
Other driving fun came as I drove my tiny car through the curves and twists in the mountainous areas of Hwy 20 and the I-5. I pushed my little car and imagined myself The Stig as I raced through the passes.
North of Salem, I left the 5, and drove through amazingly beautiful farmland. Christmas tree farms, ornamental tree farms, and sustainably grown produce farms on my right and left as I drove into the Willamette valley, before crossing the Willamette river and driving into Newberg, OR.
I was stunned by the quantity of farmland, the freshness of the ingredients available to the local population.
Just before 6PM, I checked into my room at the Shilo Inn of Newberg. My room on the third (top) floor was completely acceptable, with a big comfortable King size bed, a nice deep tub, and a nice large – but ugly upholstered brown – couch. The couch was ugly enough that it might, in a completely different environment, actually look good. With a mini fridge and microwave oven, I could chill bottled water or pop popcorn. Who could ask for more?
My junior high school friend, Michelle, stopped by after she finished working, and we looked at yearbook pictures and caught up with each other. Let me say that the years have been kind, and Michelle looked great. We talked, while sharing some Rodney Strong Chardonnay that I had picked up, until most every restaurant in Newport was closed.
Hungry, we went to Shari’s, a Denny’s-like restaurant that pushes pie in a huge way. I had a simple breakfast for dinner, and found that all breakfasts come with pie. I tried an Oregon pie, made with marion berries, to my disappointment. In fairness, there was mostly gelatinous colored flavored ooze, and very little whole fruit in the pie, so while saying the pie was terrible, it would be unfair to judge all marion berries by this, my first taste, as equally horrible.
After dinner, not ready to call it a night, we went to a local drinking establishment; sort of a combo bar, pool hall, music venue, downtown. We had a couple of drinks and talked to nearly closing time.
We agreed to meet the next day, and called it a night.
The next day, Thursday, I had a pretty good breakfast with eggs, sausage, sour cream stuffed hash browns, gravy and wheat toast with lots of decent coffee at the restaurant Michelle had recommended to me. Conveniently, the restaurant was right in front of my hotel.
I love to eat alone, and read either a newspaper or whatever book I have at hand. Over breakfast, I finished Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.”
Michelle met me at the hotel early in the afternoon, and we set off in the Kia to explore the greater Newberg area.
Our first stop was back out to the farm land I saw coming into town the day before. We stopped at French Prarie Gardens near St. Paul, where I looked at marion berries, gala apples, yellow and white super sweet corn, pumkins, squash, cucumbers, fingerling potatoes, and green beans. Canned fruits, jams, breads and pies, and pork, delicious, life sustaining pork. I bought some potatoes and beans for Michelle and her family.
I loved the area’s dedication to sustainable farming and winemaking. Having visited a working farm, we set off to visit a working vineyard and winery. We drove back through Newberg to neighboring Dundee and up, up, up into the hills to Domaine Drouhin.
We tasted three wines made by winemaker Véronique Drouhin-Boss:
Arthur: 2006 Drouhin Family Estate Chardonnay, Dundee Hills, Oregon;
Pinot Noir, 2006 Williamette Valley, Oregon; and
Laurène: 2007 Drouhin Family Estate Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Oregon
Look, I drink a lot of Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs, and 2007 was perhaps the best vintage for the appellation ever; Wine Spectator is certainly suggesting as much. The 2006 Willamette Valley wines are from a terrible vintage, rain damaged, and the 2007 wine was released too soon and was very closed in the nose and mouth.
Domaine Drouhin’s winery sits high up in the hills, surrounded by beautiful vineyards with an unparalleled view of the countryside below. The winery is handsome, and affords views of the winemaking going on. Caps were being punched, the skins being pushed down into the darkening flavoring juice. I wanted to enjoy the wines. I couldn’t, I didn’t; sadly, the wines I tasted were just not good, or ready.
Michelle and I had a late lunch back in Newberg’s downtown at Cancun, where we enjoyed a fajitas for two special with margaritas. The food was good. So were the drinks. So was the company.
One of the things we talked about was the strange absence of a restaurant in the area taking advantage of all of the amazing food being grown or raised in the lands around the town.
I would love to visit the farms and cook with fresh ingredients and BGH and antibiotic free meat.
After lunch, we crossed the street so I could buy a new book at the combination coffee shop/book store. I found a copy of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In The Rye.” Perhaps the most referenced novel in American literature, I had never read it, so I bought it.
I started reading “Catcher” that night, sprawled across my big comfy king size bed. I read until tired, and then went to sleep without an alarm clock set for the next day. When I woke up, I read at breakfast, and then came back to me room and read until there were no words left unread.
What a completely overblown novel “Catcher” is. It has been suggested by a Salinger apologist that the novel is dated and has perhaps not aged as well as other stories. I think it is a plotless whinefest from the point of view of a spoiled brat punk. I really do not “get” whatever I was supposed to get, but I am very much not a fan.
I ate bulgogi with kimchi at the Vineyard Steak House downtown. The food was alright, but the decor was better. This is the location that should be taking advantage of all of the amazing produce and meat from the neighboring farms to make great fresh food, not merely acceptable food.
That Friday night, after dinner, I went to the local drive in movie theater to see Julie and Julia, a lovely film that blends food, blogging, and a little romance. I loved this movie; but really, I’m a foodie, you’re reading my blog, and I am a huge romantic.
The weather for my vacation has been perfect, blue skies, clear air, warm sun, gorgeous.
On my last day in the north part of Oregon, in the morning, I visited Sokol Blosser and tasted another not ready to be tasted 2007 Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills.
Next I drove the half hour or so into Portland, and drove some of the hoods, crossed back and forth across the river several times using different bridges, and then went to Aloha, another town on the outskirts of Portland just because of the name. On the way, in Beaverton, I saw a farmer’s market I wanted to stop for, but I also saw sign carrying anti abortion activists, so I skipped it.
On my way from Aloha, about which I can only say it is cooly named, back to Newberg, I drove through more farm land, stopped in Scholls to walk some farms, then played The Stig again as I drove to the top of a mountain range in my way.
At one point, I found myself at the entrance to Bald Peak State Park where years before I made love to a Yamhill girl as November snow fell outside my rental car. I was surprised to find myself back in a place I had been directed to years before, kind of time being stapled on itself in this place. Nice unexpected memories.
After a nice and relaxing four days, I went to bed reasonable early; my plan was to arise early and drive to Grants Pass.
Intent wedded to action, I got up early Sunday morning and drove the 4 hours or so to check in early to my room at the Redwood Motel in Grants Pass, and then on to the Applegate Valley and Schmidt Family Vineyards.
I arrived as the vineyard gates were opened by the owner Cal Schmidt and drove up the drive through the vineyards to the tasting room. I was here to taste wines because one of my favorite people, Nancy Howard Cameron Iannios, works as both the tasting room and wine club manager here.
I have to pause to point out the obvious to anyone who reads my writing with any frequency; I don’t say things just to be nice, I am willing to tell the mean truth when warranted, and about wine, I am a bit snobby.
I was prepared to visit Nancy, taste the wines at Schmidt Family Vineyards, and make some vague complimentary comments about the area. I have tasted a lot of wines from Oregon. I travelled to, and tasted wines at, festivals in Astoria, Salem, Newport, and Portland in several successive years. While tasting the occasional palatable wine, and rarer exceptional wine, overall I find the wines of home to be superior.
Cal and Judy Schmidt have built something magical. A trio of lodge styled buildings, crafted with great care and skill, are set in the middle of spectacularly serene and colorful gardens, complete with a lake and gazebo. The grounds have walking paths, shade trees of muti hued foilage, chairs and benches.
I love it here. The Applegate valley is beautiful, surrounded by forested hills with the Applegate river passing through it. It is rural, unspoiled, green, lush. Sustainable winemaking and farming.
Stone, wood, waterfalls, chickens, foods, flowers. Wine.
On top of the external beauty, there is also the lingering memory of the wines made here that I have tasted.
I don’t like the wines of Oregon’s Williamette valley, I find them weak and think that Sonoma County’s Russian River valley produces far superior Pinot Noir.
Southern Oregon’s Applegate valley is clearly not the Williamette valley. Here at Schmidt Family Vineyards, I have tasted wonerfully flavorful Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and two delightful blends. I generally prefer reds over whites, and am incredibly fond of both the Merlot and Syrah.
This masterpiece of imagination and execution didn’t happen by accident, and I know of few endeavors more risk laden than winemaking; so I can only applaud the courage of Cal and Judy Schmidt for creating everything I am experienced at their winery and vineyards.
I must say that I am envious of Nancy, that she gets to come to such a beautiful place to work.
Nancy arranged for her husband Aris to take me to some other wineries in the Applegate Valley to taste wines.
Without exception, I tasted wines made from grapes yielding enormous, and surprising, flavors. Sadly, I didn’t taste any wines made as well. Often I would find a wine with so much promise in the nose, and feel cheated when the mouth delivered a completely different experience. Disconnect. The area has a ton of potential. Cal is proving the strength of the grapes with the quality of his wines.
I heard more than once a note of bitter jealousy at wineries that did not know I had come from Schmidt Family Vineyards. The other wineries would be better served emulating the successes of Schmidt Family Vineyards rather than sewing discord in the valley.
After a lay down back in town at my motel, I joined Nancy, Aris, and their beautiful four year old daughter Lia at Taprock, a restaurant with an incredible view of the Rogue river. The food was no where as good as the view, and the incredible view paled before the company.
On Monday, Aris picked me up at the motel and took me out to a field to watch Petra, Aris’ perigrine falcon, fly.
Grants Pass, OR is a beautiful place to live. I was impressed to see a downtown intact. So many towns are losing their core independent businesses to big box stores that spring up just outside of the city limits, and outside city tax responsibilities.
For lunch, only because it was directly across the street from my motel, I ate at the Hong Kong Restaurant, even though Aris gave it a bad review. Oh, I should have listened to Aris. Most memorable was the sweet and sour pork: miniscule bits of pork surrounded by deep fried batter, served with a bright red gelatinous sweet, but not sour, sauce – cherry pie filling. Just weird.
After lunch, I went to the movies with Nancy and Lia to watch an animated movie with meatball raining on an island community. It was mostly fun just to watch Lia, a sweet little girl.
My farewell dinner with Nancy, Aris, and Lia was at Wild River Brewing and Pizza where I had a good IPA and fish and chips. Simple and delicious.
I again woke early to start driving, this time home, on Tuesday morning.
In Ashland a neon sign in the darkness beside the 5 proclaimed the “Knights’ Inn Motel, Restaurant” and a vinyl sign “Lounge”. I pulled off the 5 to find breakfast. The Wild Goose Cafe opens at 6 AM, and I arrived just about then. When ordering I was offered my choice of specials. Chanterelle mushroom with swiss cheese omelet or Pecan Pancakes. I chose the mushroom omelet, a cup of very good coffee, and a marion berry muffin.
It was surprising to me to find my best meal, with the highest quality ingredients, at what looked quite a bit like a converted Denny’s restaurant.
The chanterelles were delicious, the coffee was great, but the nicest surprise of all was to find the previously disrespected marion berry tasting delicious in a beautifully moist and warm fresh muffin.
At the beginning of the year, I expected to be in Ohio the second weekend of October. While I did spend my weekend in a state than begins with the letter “O”; Oregon is very different but was a welcome substitute, and a perfect backdrop for a great mini vacation. Melbourne, Australia is a foodie Heaven; it isn’t fair to compare meals tasted against meals not, but I still thank all that is holy that in Ashland I found a shockingly good meal on this trip. I had a terrific time.
Thanks to my hosts Michelle, Nancy, Aris and Lia.