Watching Sideways-that's the closest most of Bite Club's broke-ass friends have ever gotten to wine country.
And that's too bad. Oregon has more wineries and vineyards that anywhere in the country-well, except for California (like that counts)-most of which are located in the Willamette Valley, only 45 minutes outside P-town. And over Memorial Day weekend, the majority of them (even appointment-only venues) throw open their doors and encourage sippers to try their wines for a small tasting fee. That's right, cheap pinot noir. It's a frenetic weekend, kinda like First Thursday meets MTV's Spring Break-which means that even if you don't have the faintest idea what or who terroir or Robert Parker is, you can still raise your glass high and proud with the rest of the masses.
To make your first sippin' trip down Highway 99 less daunting, Bite Club is here. With the help of wine weekend veterans like Bruce Bauer, owner of Vino, the Sellwood wine shop, and Linda Kaplan, the co-owner of McMinnville's Panther Creek Cellars, we've compiled this list of tips.
1. Speak up. "Don't be intimidated when you're tasting," Kaplan counsels. "There are no dumb questions." When her husband, Ron, bought Panther Creek in 1994, Kaplan moved from Iowa to Oregon, barely knowing the difference between Gewürztraminer and grape juice. The freelance writer had to ask what the heck an "oenophile" was when her editor at The Des Moines Register called her one. (Psst: It means "connoisseur of fine wines.")
2. Pack a lunch. "Oregon pinot is made to go with food," says Kaplan, adding that "free cheese and crackers won't cut it." Bite Club suggest packing your own picnic, since the tables at wine country restaurants are often reserved weeks ahead. And even when the wineries put out a spread, says Bauer, "Don't look at the food offerings at tastings as all-you-can-eat buffets unless you want the winemakers to talk nasty about you afterwards."
3. Go early. Grape-heads from all over the nation will be milling around Yamhill County this weekend, miring small wine towns like McMinnville and Dundee in grape-induced gridlock. The best way to get some quality time with winemakers is to hit tasting rooms during lunchtime while other drinkers are chowing. "If you finish tasting early," Kaplan says, "you'll beat the going-home traffic jams."
4. Quality, not quantity. Professional winemakers are accustomed to tasting many different wines in the course of a day, but Kaplan warns beginners to limit winery visits in order to save their tastebuds. Bauer had more bacchic advice: "Most winemakers are pretty liberal in their leanings. You may get more generous pours if you don't mention your love for our current administration."
5. Learn the lingo. "Reserve" is a designation that may indicate a winery's better, possibly best, wine. And a combination of wines from different vineyards, or even sections of a single vineyard is called a "blend." For more hints, check out www.oregonwine.org's vino dictionary and bone up on its useful definitions. But Bauer offered Bite Club our best vocab word: A white wine that has a "too-sweet, out-of-whack" characteristic? You can call it "slutty."
Check out www.willamettewines.com for a full list of wineries participating in Wine Weekend, 11 am-5 pm Saturday-Monday, May 28-30.