A view from Cristom

Words and photographs, Jesse Jackson IV |

Expectations are a strange thing. The higher they are, the more difficult they are to meet. So often, it would behoove us to lower our expectations, in order to avoid disappointment. Why, then, do we set ourselves up for failure? It is this writer’s opinion that we want our presumptions to be surpassed. There are few better feelings than high hopes exceeded - no reward without risk. In fact, one could argue that contrary to the incomparable Sade Adu’s masterful Never as Good as the First Time, there is nothing as good as expecting great and getting better than you’d hoped.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working with local craftsman Daniel Wright, of Fort Worth’s W Durable Goods, on a bespoke wine bag and carryall for a long awaited trip to Willamette Valley, near Portland, Oregon. For those unaware, Willamette is home to more than its fair share of absolutely incredible vintners producing world class pinot noir and chardonnay. A shared longitudinal axis with Burgundy, France contributes to what some may describe as ideal climate conditions for wine making, and more often than not, the potential of the terroir is fully realized - at least as it relates to the producers with whom we were fortunate enough to have appointments. More on that in a moment. For now, back to the bag.

I discovered Daniel’s work as W Durable Goods as one discovers nigh anything these days; that is to say, The Algorithms blessed my feed. In this instance, I’m glad they did - working with Daniel was a fantastic experience. After giving him very general direction, Daniel plied his expertise in working with the materials to create something absolutely beautifully fit for purpose. As the commission was for two bags, the idea was to complete the first prototype and wear test it in situ; in this case, that meant directly to the appointments we had lined up for the trip. I am thrilled the timelines lined up the way they did - having the opportunity to speak with the winemakers we did perfectly represented so much of what I love about craftsmanship and craftspeople; filling the bag with the wines brought both worlds together. We left filled to the brim with creative and entrepreneurial energy. By sharing some of these experiences, I hope you, dear reader, leave with some of what was given to us.

A brief word on our accommodations for the trip. We were fortunate enough to be afforded the opportunity to stay at La Cabotte - Domaine Drouhin Oregon’s cabin, where they house interns for harvest season. The space is large, sparse, and cleanly appointed - but you don’t stay there to stay inside. The view is breathtaking. The cabin sits at a higher elevation than its surroundings within the vineyards, you’re afforded a 280 degree view of the valley below, and you can see out for hundreds of miles towards the Southern Oregon Cascades. A fantastic place from which to set context as to where you are and where you’re going within wine country.

Our first appointment upon arrival in The Valley was with Clare Carvey, the farmer and artist who is one half of the duo behind Big Table Wines. The wine was impressive, as was the case with the majority of appointments we had - a fact due in its entirety to the taste of our inside man, Mr Jared Givens - but was truly struck me was the totality of the experience, the clarity of the intent behind the space Brian and Clare curated in order to showcase their vision for the way their wines should be experienced.

Upon entering Big Table Atelier, the workshop and tasting room located in Carver, Oregon, we were greeted with a series of painted depictions of still life’s, sunsets, and animal portraits Clare herself paints and sells. Walking through the hall towards the back of the building, a large table adorned with a few wine bottles and glasses came into view, and after an exchange of pleasantries with the ladies working, we sat.

In walked Clare, with lunch following soon behind - a welcome sight, after a ten hour plus day of travel; travails quickly forgotten as Clare began to regale us with the stories of her brand of viniculture. Wines from The Wild Bee Chardonnay, to the Laughing Pig Rosè set the table, and when the more limited production wines like the aptly named Elusive Queen or the Eola-Amity Hills Chardonnay hit the glass, we were sold. The craft, the love and the attention that each wine receives before going into the bottle is evident in the wine of Big Table Farms, but what struck me was the same could be said of the labels.

Clare is an artist, and her background in graphic design shines through in the drawings she does for each wine, and the care she takes in hand pressing each label on high quality paper. Every little thing has significance - a refrain we were soon to hear time and again. A consistent theme that emerged rather quickly throughout our appointments was the sense of shared struggle, of discovering what it is one hopes to say and building the courage of your conviction to chase that thing, come hell or high water. All told, Clare and Big Table Wines set the bar very high - which, as we’ve mentioned, can be a blessing and a curse.

After leaving Big Table Atelier, our next appointment was at Flâneur Wines - conveniently located directly next to the Big Table Atelier. The tasting room was immaculately appointed - it was immediately apparent that money and time had been poured into the space, perhaps even more so than the Big Table Atelier. Unfortunately, the storytelling aspect of the experience was missing. There is little that compares with the opportunity to discuss wine directly with the viniculturists and vintners themselves, and even the best efforts of an underprepared salesperson may pale in comparison. This is not always the case - in fact, we later had an experience with an incredibly knowledgeable saleswoman that rivaled some of our best overall - and that dichotomy further highlighted just how important the mise en scene is to enjoyment of the wine.

There are certainly great wines that stand totally on their own, but even the greatest actor, sportsman, or musician is elevated with the proper ensemble, and the same holds true for great wine. Nonetheless, our first day in Willamette was made by our experience with Clare, and our hopes were set sky high for our next appointment, with Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra. As we came to find out, even the loftiest expectations can be surpassed in the presence of greatness.

The morning of our second day, we broke fast at Red Hills Market - a small neighborhood bistro in the town of Dundee, a fantastic value proposition with food that punches well above the asking price. Red Hills Market had the additional benefit of being centrally located for our appointments, and we visited each subsequent morning.

After a few spirited rounds of Three Thirteen, we left and headed towards what we later understood to be the highlight of our trip.

The tasting room at Antica Terra is located inside of a nondescript warehouse somewhere in the town of Dundee. If you didn’t know where it was, there would be no chance of finding it. As we pulled into what looked like an abandoned strip mall, a garage door rolled up, and out walked Maggie Harrison. Maggie had already been built up in our minds by our erstwhile sommelier-on-vacation, and from the moment she said hello, what I can only describe as her aura enveloped us, and we were transported to a place outside of time. Upon entering, the garage door rolled back down, and we walked through the throng of oak barrels towards an interior garage door, which was rolled up, revealing an exquisitely prepared table scape surrounded by tens of barrels and hundreds of bottles of wine, from the floor to the ceiling. As we approached the table, the garage door rolling closed once again behind us, Maggie took her seat at the head of her table - a bottle of a 2012 Côte de Bèchalian ready to be opened and served as an aperitif to a most invigorating conversation.

What transpired over the next six hours profoundly impacted my understanding of wine and the women and men who make it. Surprisingly, it had very little to do with the wines themselves. To be clear, Antica Terra produces exceptional wine - perhaps the best I’ve had to this point along my oenophile journey. The enlightenment came through the conversation, which revealed a shared desire to pursue beauty over profit, the ability to articulate a clear path forward and follow it, to have a vision that sustains you and your family. Maggie embodies so many of the qualities I admire in a creative, and from now on, I imagine I will taste that personal connection in every bottle of Antica Terra she has a hand in.

In fact, imagination may have little to do with it. My favorite bottle of the trip was a bottle she had a hand in, her last as an assistant winemaker at Sine Qua Non - a 2001 Pinot Noir produced in Ventura, California with grapes from Yamhill County, an AVA upon which I would soon tread.

Describing what I tasted in that bottle may be a bridge too far for such a relatively inexperienced palate, but I will say the structure and integration combined to create an elegance that was an absolute joy to behold. Thus ended our journey at Antica Terra. After having had our minds so thoroughly blown, the group decided it would be best to retire to our quarters to discuss what we witnessed over a home cooked meal - whole salmon and vegetables prepared on the grill - and a good night's rest; after all, our journey through wine country was not yet halfway through.

We awoke the next morning still riding the high of the afternoon prior; it would not be a stretch to say it took more than a few days for the enormity of the experience to sink in. Regardless, or perhaps due to, said experience, we were very much looking forward to what the day had in store. After our traditional breakfast at Red Hills Market, we were off to our next appointment at Evening Land. Evening Land is a highly lauded producer of wines in Oregon as well as Burgundy, helmed by sommelier Rajat Parr, winemaker Sashi Moorman, and Charles Banks. While Evening Land produces wines with grapes from multiple vineyards, we were most excited to visit Seven Springs, their 70+ acre estate in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. It was to be the first vineyard walk of the visit, and we were ecstatic to be able to finally see the terroir from which these wines stemmed.

However, just a few minutes before we were set to depart, we received some rather disappointing news. Due to ongoing infrastructure improvements on the property, the singular road leading to the on-site tasting room was out of order, and we would be unable to visit. While we of course took the unwelcome news in stride, the mood of the morning took a slight turn as we worked to wrangle those pesky expectations and clear our minds in order to continue to enjoy the journey. After some quick thinking on the part of our hosts, we were invited to join their team at the tasting room located in Newberg. Expectations. This idea was driven home time and again during our trip, and the impact our expectations had on the way the wine was experienced was fascinating to observe, even as an active participant. Anticipating one thing and experiencing another during our first tasting of Evening Land’s product psychologically tainted the wine, leading to an ultimately forgettable initial impression. Fortunately, this part of the story does have a happy ending; one we will revisit in short order. For now, however, we will move forward to the next appointment - a visit to Cristom, deep in the Eola-Amity Hills.

Cristom was a revelation. After an incredibly scenic drive through pristine Oregonian countryside, through acres and acres of vineyards and farmland in equal measure, we arrived at a farmhouse that wouldn’t be out of place in Architectural Digest - perfectly at place in the land on which it was built, elevated to the highest degree. We tasted on a patio overlooking the estate, surrounded by an astonishingly well manicured garden with views all the way to the Southern Oregon Cascades. It would be unfair to the singular quality of the wine to say it was an afterthought, but it certainly fell towards the background as we drank in the tableau laid before us. As the tasting drew to a close, we felt we needed to be enveloped within the landscape, and asked if it were at all possible to take a tour through the estate - to put our hands and feet into the soil, to see the newly flowering vines. After some brief conversation, our wish was granted, and out came Margo Caramella.

Margo has played a number of roles at Cristom, but on this day, she was our guide through the estate. Perhaps it was the latent desire to have a good time that was unfulfilled by our previous appointment, but our walk through the Cristom vineyards could not have been better. As we wound our way up the hillside, past the sheep filled enclosure and the exposed geological stratification of the terroir, we were regaled with the tale of the historical events that lead to the key characteristics of the valley - the Missoula floods, the winds blowing through the Van Duzer corridor - and we were fully enveloped in what felt like the soul of the region. We were fortunate enough to drive by a few soil pits dug by geologists from Oregon State in collaboration with Cristom in an effort to better understand their land, and we stepped down into the pits to put our hands in the soil. In retrospect, it may have been even better to take the vineyard tour prior to our tasting, but even in the order in which we did things, it was a magical excursion.

Following the morning appointments which drifted into the early afternoon, we decided to grab an early dinner at The Allison’s Jory, so named for the volcanic soil found in the region. The restaurant was quite good - again, exactly what we hoped it would be - but even more remarkable was The Allison itself, which made quite the impression on our group. In fact, our next trip may just have a stay there on the itinerary. The grounds were well maintained, the lushness of the gardens simply sublime. Sculptures abound within the estate; serenity captured and shared with those searching for it.

Sated after our meal, we returned home and found time to change and grab a quick nap before heading into the city for our dinner reservation at Canard, the more casual sister restaurant to Le Pigeon, in downtown Portland. Unfortunately, the meal was unremarkable - perhaps due to the ambiance, which, due to being seated on what could be mistaken for park benches on the side of the street, was sorely lacking. One saving grace could be the wine list, upon which one could find deal after deal due to the ability to buy at a lower cost from the ports of Portland. Nonetheless, after our meal, we headed back to La Cabotte and turned in for the evening, looking forward to discovering what the following day had in store.

As it turned out, the last day was both the busiest and arguably the most interesting day of the entire trip, both for the quality of the appointments as well as the diversity of the experiences offered. During breakfast, we once again received a phone call that set the tone for the rest of the day. Evening Land had managed to secure time for us to take that vineyard tour in the afternoon, road construction be damned. We were prepared to hike our way if need be, and thankfully, so were our hosts. However, as that appointment was not until the late afternoon, we had some time to fill.

Fortuitously, being in Willamette, we were spoilt for choice on how to do so. Our first excursion of the day, to Domaine Roy & Fils, was an unexpected one - and, unbeknownst to the team there, they capitalized on that lack of expectation and set a very high bar for themselves, winning a fan for life.

Domaine Roy & Fils gives every impression of being the result of that chimerical combination of money and taste, so often appearing with an imbalance of one or the other. This could be due to their history, with the founders being so closely intertwined with Beaux Frères and Robert Parker Jr., or it could be due to talent alone - either way, the presentation of the brand from the moment you drive onto the property to the moment the wine hits the palate was absolutely impeccable. It may be redundant at this point, but it bears repeating - the views from the winery patio were extraordinary, with sight lines hundreds of miles out. It was here, at Domaine Roy, where we were so pleasantly surprised with the passion and knowledge of Karla Vivanco, our hostess - passion and knowledge that rivaled that of the winemakers with which we had the pleasure of speaking. An in depth treatise on the specifics Karla shared with us is again beyond the point - what was important is the way we were made to feel and the manner in which the wines were presented, which was sublime. Our day was filled to the brim with meetings, and we had to cut our visit to the Domaine short, but I imagine we will certainly be back. The day was not yet done; as we left Domaine Roy & Fils, we headed slightly out of town and back towards Domaine Drouhin Oregon, who had been kind enough to provide lodging for us for the duration of our trip.

Domaine Drouhin has the most expansive property of all of the producers we visited, and almost certainly the largest pocketbooks. The Drouhin family has produced wines in Burgundy since the 19th century, and they brought that expertise with them to the Dundee Hills. The scale of the operation was tremendously impressive, but even more remarkable to me was that even with their scale, they retain the ability to connect on a personal level with the wines and the stories behind them. This connection was forged by our host for the afternoon, Ed. As you may imagine, Domaine Drouhin has the resources to employ folks who have dedicated a great deal of time and energy to oenology, and Ed was no different.

In fact, prior to his time at DDO, Ed was a professor who taught multiple courses on wine at a local college, and in addition, he spent many years at The Eyrie Vineyards. Eyrie Vineyards,founded by the first family of Oregonian winemakers, the Lett’s, introduced pinot noir as well as pinot gris to the region. I am confident that had we had the time, we could have spent all afternoon and well into the evening overlooking the estate and listening to the stories Ed could share - but, as you may recall, it was our last day, and there were things yet to be done. However, I couldn’t leave the estate without a souvenir of our time there, and we had many wines to bring back, so I ended up grabbing a wine suitcase to bring back home. Bag secured, we were off to our next appointment at Lingua Franca Vineyards to meet with another winemaker - someone who came highly recommended, and absolutely did not disappoint.

Andrew Riechers, the winemaker behind Audeant wines, embodied a continuation on the theme of uber creative, passionate people building brands and making wines that reflect their ideals. The Lingua Franca production house serves as a sort of co-working space for independent winemakers who are able to rent space and produce their wines; this setup brings a different sort of energy to the environment that we truly enjoyed. The primary thing this visit drove home for me was the importance of mentorship; identifying and leaning in to the folks with whom you have a shared way of seeing the world, learning as much as you possibly can, and figuring out how you carry that relationship forward as you grow into someone with something unique to say. Unsurprisingly, we found his wines to be special - following winemakers from the names we know to the names we don’t may turn out to be a path worth taking in the future.

Our final appointment of the day, as previously mentioned, was Evening Land. Rarely in life do we get the opportunity to make a second first impression, and just as rarely to give that opportunity, but this was one of those instances. The drive towards the vineyard was as beautiful as any we’d done the whole trip, although the end was much more dramatically uphill than we’d been previously. As we arrived at the turn in for the tasting room and made our way down the road, we came across a picnic table with a white chilling in a bucket of ice, and glassware for a tasting. As we started to walk towards the table, AJ, our host for the tasting, greeted us and walked us down the road - still under construction - towards the tasting room, where we had many of the wines from the previous day in different formats. Wines served in a 375 ml may have a different character than wines in a 750 ml, which are different still from wines served in a magnum, and we had selections all across the range.

Once again, the experience was not so much about the wines; the wines were gorgeous. The vineyard tour was also special, insofar as we were able to see a few really interesting plots and learn about the impact of a treeline on the vines, but as we’ve said previously, it’s much more about the relationship forged with the host and the connection they are so crucial in helping to form with what ultimately hits the glass.

Therein lies the through line with all the things we enjoy most at Necesidades del Oso. There has to be an element of craft, of artistry - a tangible byproduct of a skill set that may take years to acquire and many more to master. There has to be integrity, a coherent answer to the question why things must be done a certain way, using certain materials and methodologies. There must be an eye cast towards long term sustainability, transparency in pricing, and a living wage paid at each step in the supply chain. There must be consideration for all of the humans in the loop. The final differentiator, selfishly, is the ability to co-create something unique to the individual, bespoken for individual life circumstances - beautiful things fit for purpose. Daniel, of W Durable Goods, fit this bill to a tee. So too did Clare, Maggie, and Andrew, and in so doing, they surpassed all expectations.