It's a rainy Wednesday evening in early summer, and Les Caves in Northeast Portland is packed. No spots at the bar, tables completely full, couples canoodling on the elevated couch.
It's a testament to the vision of co-owner Jeff Vejr, who's turned this subterranean Alberta Arts wine bar into one of the best vinous experiences in Portland.
But Vejr isn't just a curator. He's a winemaker, too.
Each year, Vejr releases an annual compendium of wines under the Golden Cluster label. The project focuses on historic vineyards and esoteric, deeply rare grape varieties like savagnin rose, flora and garanoir. If most wine drinkers—indeed, most wine writers—are unfamiliar with these bottlings, that's the point for Vejr, whose work as a vintner deftly integrates Oregon wine history with modern energy, like a fashion designer drawing on vintage aesthetics to inspire new releases.
This year is shaping up to be the strongest yet for Golden Cluster, whose wines have long been hotly sought after in the United Kingdom thanks to a partnership with influential importer Les Caves de Pyrene (no relation to the Portland winery bar). In summer 2019, Golden Cluster has dropped a tight collection of deep, tangy wines that are orange in hue, a result of skin contact in the white winemaking process.
"It's our most popular category at the bar," says Vejr. "People are so interested in this category, and not just super-nerdy somm types. Grandma from Lake Oswego wants to know what orange wine is about."
Well, tell Grandma to get ready—here are three new orange wines from Golden Cluster that will blow her mind.
2018 Apini (50% fiano, 50% semillon, from $25)
This wine makes use of Oregon's first planting of fiano, a grape hailing from the Campania region of Southern Italy. About five years ago, Vejr and experimental vintner James Moss teamed up to plant the grape in the Columbia Gorge, and now Golden Cluster has made it into a wine that tastes uncannily like Ukrainian medovik, a kind of spiced honey cake. Waxy, with hints of floral chamomile, Apini is almost sticky in the glass. This is legit one of the best American orange wines out, and it's still just a baby.
2018 Peach-Skin (100% viognier, from $25)
A lovely summer cocktail of an orange wine, effortlessly light and quaffable. Vejr made this one using viognier grapes from Yamhill's Deux Vert Vineyard, allowing it to ferment outside for 12 days before pressing into acacia wood puncheons. You should be drinking this with backyard barbecue, or as an aperitif before moving on to something more bombastic.
2018 Müller? (100% Müller-Thurgau, from $22)
The name is a Ferris Bueller pun, but the wine is no joke. This is an Oregon riff on the Müller-Thurgau grape most commonly found in Austria, but if the thought of sugary Germanic winestuffs makes you nervous, there's no reason to fear. In Vejr's hands, this is an easy-drinking, orange-ish wine, crisp and clean, given about eight days of skin contact and partially vinified in Novum brand clay pots. The wine is made with the inclusion of frozen grape stems, a process Vejr stumbled upon—and perhaps self-invented—to help provide friction in the grape-crushing process and increase yield. Asked if this was a trick he learned in some winemaking school, Vejr replies, "I never went to winemaking school."
DRINK: Les Caves, 1719 NE Alberta St., 503-206-6852, lescavespdx.com. 5 pm-midnight, Monday and Wednesday-Saturday, 5 pm-10 pm Sunday. See goldencluster.com to purchase wines direct.