The Scenic Route 2021
Remember that trip we took in August? The Scenic Route 2021, where we visited a million wineries (okay not a million, but it was quite a few!). We caught you up on Day 9 at Caprio Cellars in Walla Walla last week. Now we continue our journey from L’Ecole No. 41 in Walla Walla back to the Willamette Valley to Utopia, Lenne Estate, and Bells Up.
We were invited to visit L’Ecole No. 41 as media guests, as we have been working with them this year tasting and pairing with their portfolio of wines.
Utopia Vineyard, Lenne Estate & Bells Up Sponsored our visit as media guests, also. Our tastings were free and they provided us accommodations at the Utopia Cabin. No other compensation was received and all opinions remain our own.
Visiting L’Ecole No. 41
On Day 10 we were up early having breakfast in Walla Walla and then headed out to spend the morning with Constance at L’Ecole No. 41. She took us out to their Seven Hills and Ferguson’s vineyards and then back to the Schoolhouse to taste through some of their wines! You can read more about their vineyards and wines here.
- Perigee by L’Ecole No. 41 – A lesson on aging wine
- Washington Merlots from L’Ecole No. 41 paired with Fig and Shallot stuffed pork loin
We returned to the Schoolhouse, their tasting room in the Old Frenchtown School and did a tasting with Constance downstairs in the old cafeteria/auditorium.
Heading to Utopia
We were then back on the road hustling to get back to the Willamette Valley to meet some folks at the Utopia Cabin for a casual dinner with Dan Warnshuis, the owner and winemaker of Utopia. After Carl Giovanti whipped us up a delicious dinner, Dan walked us down the hill to the winery and showed us around.
We were lucky enough to be their guests at the beautiful cabin and took in the stars before heading to bed.
The next morning we were up and out early to visit Lenné Estate and meet with owner and Winemaker Steve Lutz. We trudged up the hill to the Kill Hill Block of the vineyard. Man is it steep! Steve filled us in on the history of the estate and the poor pea vine soils, before leading us downhill to their stunning tasting room.
The tasting room looks like a French cottage, it is enormously charming and quite honestly my favorite tasting room I have ever been in. Lavender grows on the side as well as trees and gardens…you really are transported. We sat out on the front deck to take in the vineyard views and enjoy a stunning charcuterie board while Steve talked us through the wines.
We had tasted some of the Lenné Estate Wines earlier this year including their Scarlette’s Reserve Chardonnay that we paired with Sea Bass and an Aromatic rice dish and their Kill Hill Pinot Noir paired with Filet Mignon.
So I was familiar with some of the story of the winery, the soils, and the vineyard, but none of that prepared me for how steep Kill Hill really is.
As we walked the vineyard Steve shared his philosophy on winemaking. They primarily use only commercial yeasts here. As you can imagine, I nodded politely during this part of the conversation, as I am a big proponent for wines using indigenous yeast. Steve say he finds that the native yeasts are just not efficient, they do not produce enough carbon dioxide and the ferments take longer.
I tend to think of yeast as part of terroir. Perhaps the yeast strains here are not as strong as in other places. It is noteworthy that he is also making his wines in commercial facility that is not on site. That in itself changes what you can do with indigenous yeast.
His style also leans away from native yeast. He fights oxidation, looking to keep his wines fruit driven. The native yeasts do make for longer fermentations so more oxidation and they bring in flavors other than fruit. So for his style wines this is a way he can control the fruit.
The grapes from his poor peavine soil are small with thick skins so they don’t worry about tannins.
I will say that while we were tasting we tried the Sad Jack. This wine is named for his late dogs Sadie and Jack. He was working with winemaker Drew Voit. The wine is all of the 777 clone of Pinot Noir and was indigenous yeast in a wild ferment.
The 2018 was delicious with that little bit of savoriness that I love. Even Steve admitted that this wine was growing on him. It is not his style, for him it is the difference between fresh and cooked fruit. You know, I like variety, but I’ll admit that of the tasting, the Sad Jack was my favorite, it’s my style. All of the the wines are delicious, personal preference will have you leaning one way or the other.
Our next stop was Bells Up, in the Chehalem Mountains. Dave & Sara Specter welcomed us and we headed out to the patio to take in the vineyard view. Michael was able to get the drone in the air and capture some vineyard shots.
They had prepared a delicious lunch for us to accompany our pairing. It felt like you were being welcomed into their home.
As we got into talking about the wines, Dave brought up musical analogies. You’ll remember our previous tastings of wines from Bells Up earlier this year.
Most of their wines are named for Musical pieces. Dave was a French Horn player. He describes the shape of the wine in musical terms.
As we sipped the Titan he explained that the goal with the Titan is for it
to roll like a wave across your tongue. I want this to rise to have an apex in the mid-palate and then have a long slow decrescendo off the back side
If you are familiar with the French Horn you will understand thinking of the shape of the music. A french horn has but 3 valves, the sound is dependent on embouchure (the shape and tightness of your lips as you blow) and how you allow the sound to be released from the horn. Often French horn players keep their hand in the bell of the horn to adjust how the sound is released, muting it or going “Bells Up” and letting the sound belt forth without impedance.
The Titan named for Mahler’s most approachable Symphony is a 45-minute piece with rises and falls, like rolling hills and meadows that pull from the landscape of Austria Germany. The wine should similarly rise and fall on your palate.
Dave’s goal is for each wine to be a different shape. With so many Pinot Noirs in the Willamette Valley, Pinot fatigue is real. He wants his guests to be able to clearly see the difference between his wines.
With the 2019 Candide, Dave looked for more fireworks. This is named for Leonard Bernstein’s Operetta. The wine is Pinot Noir from 2 clones. 2/3rds Wadenswil from Nemarniki Vimeayrd and 1/3 Pommard from the Bells Up Estate.
As I tasted it, the landscape of this wine felt more vertical, looking up to fireworks overhead, compared to across the rolling hills is an accurate description of the differences.
We also tasted the Villanelle, the Jupiter (watch for our complete tasting in the new year). Our final tasting was the Firebird Syrah that they source from Walla Walla. This paired with the grape pie that Sara had made. This dessert is a local favorite, made from a seedless table wine grape that is sweet so the fruit needs no sugar. It smells like blueberry and blackberry with notes of cardamom and is absolutely amazing with the Syrah!
Back to Utopia – I mean, who wouldn’t?
While our companions headed off, we headed back to the Utopia Tasting room to meet and Interview Dan. He showed us a bit out in the vineyard, but quite honestly, this was August and the heat in the Willamette was excessive. We quickly headed back into the cool tasting room and found a quiet spot for our interview.
Dan is the President of the Ribbon Ridge Winegrowers Association. The AVA was founded in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the growers came together to form an Association. Dan joined the bunch in the 90s. Most of these pioneers held similar beliefs in farming, but they were each headstrong and independent and it wasn’t until 2015 that they came together to put together their Statement of Principles, setting forth the path for water conservation, sustainability and philanthropy.
We discussed all this and more and you can expect to see much more of our interview with him in the new year.
Before leaving we tasted through some of their other wines and left with a bottle of their Paradise reserve which we will share with you on our 12 Days of Wine Celebration.
To learn more about Dan and the Utopia Wines, check out our earlier post Oregon’s Utopia – a bit of perfection in the Ribbon Ridge AVA
We spent another glorious night in the Utopia Cabin before setting off to our next adventure at Youngberg Hill, that too, we will share with you in the New Year.
If you are interested in staying in this beautiful cabin check out their page at https://www.utopiawine.com/vineyard-cabin-escape-vacation-rental
Next up on Crushed Grape Chronicles is our 12 Days of Wine Celebration!
Join us December 13-24th for 12 Days of wines and pairings perfect for celebrating the holidays!
Each Day there will be a new video and a new recipe for a one bite pairing to go with the wine. These spoonfuls of deliciousness will be great for serving at holiday parties!
Watch our 12 Days of Wine 2021 page for all the videos as they release!
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.