Food & Drink Grapefight at the Pinot Corral



Value vino - great wines for under $15

I am now the proud, if somewhat worried, possessor of a shoot of Dijon clone 115 pinot noir on a phylloxera-resistant root. It's not the phylloxera, a root louse that has devastated the vineyards of entire countries, I'm worried about, but the admonitions of Oregon winemaker Pat Dudley. "It's not easy to grow pinot noir, even if Oregon is the perfect place," she said, warning that "it wants to take over ... don't turn your back on it." I think I'll content myself with buying the wines, especially after the full-court wine press at the Oregon Ambush, a recent presentation of Oregon wines offered by several of the state's finest wineries at the San Antonio Country Club.

Although most of the shoots given away by the Ambushers will never bear useful fruit in Texas, this remember-us gift was in sync with the charismatic-messianic attitude of the nine Oregon wine ambassadors that made up the congenial group. From first-generation pioneers to spiky-haired GenX-ers, they made a verbal and visual case for Oregon's preeminence in the realm of pinot noir, pinot gris, and chardonnay, the grapes they have deemed most suited to their soils and climate, then proceeded to drive the point home at a comprehensive tasting.

Considering the state has 14,000 acres of grapes and 250 wineries, it's good there were only nine producers on hand. Each had wines worthy of consideration, but unity of presentation doesn't imply uniformity of style, and there were some inevitable favorites.

Bethel Heights Vineyard's cooler location produced an impressive 2003 pinot gris blended with some southern valley fruit for opulence and texture. The 2003 pinot noir, on the other hand, was light, bright, and full of red-cherry fruit. Erath Vineyard's pinot noirs, both the 2003 and the Estate Selection 2001, emphasized pinot's smoky-bacony side. At Chehalem, their honeyed 2004 pinot grigio was actually more full-bodied than the Inox Chardonnay, sealed with a screw cap to retain its bright acidity.

With über critic Robert Parker as one of the owners (and retail prices at around $75), I suppose I should have been more impressed with Beaux Frères; but on first tasting I preferred the winery's less ambitious 2003 Belles Soeurs for its brilliant, tart cherry qualities. Returning later to different bottles of Beaux Frères, 2001 and 2002, the acid that had overwhelmed me was no longer apparent (either the earlier bottles or my palate had been the problem), and the wines did co-owner and winemaker Michael Etzel proud. David Edelsheim should be equally proud of his Adelsheim Vineyard 2003 Oregon Pinot Noir - a wow! nose paired with a silky texture - and the elegant 2003 Yamhill County Pinot Noir whose lengthy finish was worthy of a Russian novel.

Willamette Valley Vineyards' 2004 Pinot Noir - whole-cluster fermented in the manner of a Beaujolais - would be great chilled of a Texas summer evening; Rex Hill Vineyards' 2001 Pinot Noir, with its Cyrano nose of meaty bacon, was a stunner; and King Estate Winery's 2003 Domaine Pinot Gris was all lovely fruit and elegance. I finished with Firesteed, the state's biggest producer of pinot noir. It is low-priced but more than worthy of inclusion in the fraternity. Now, if Texas winemakers could just get their collective act together to such impressive ends - something to do with Wine Wranglers, Grape Punchers, Cellar Shoot-outs ...

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