One of the titans of California, and later, Oregon, winemaking is Tony Soter. After successes consulting to Araujo, Niebaum-Coppola, Shafer, Spottswoode, Viader and Dalle Valle he scaled back to focus on his Californian venture, Etude and, more recently, his Oregon property Soter Vineyards. Last week his winemaker at the Oregon property, James Cahill, worked the crowd at Bailey’s Prime Plus in the latest in a series of impressive wine dinners that the restaurant has hosted.
I was an invited guest and had the opportunity to talk to Cahill directly about some puzzling questions that surround Oregon wine. For example: In Europe, the most successful Chardonnay is found growing in the same region as the most successful Pinot Noir (the French region of Burgundy). Yet in Oregon, world-class Pinot Noir has been accompanied by generally average to forgettable Chardonnay. Cahill agrees with this widely leveled view. He attributes the situation to early plantings of the wrong clone of Chardonnay grape. He explained that early growers took a lot of their cues from California Chardonnay growers (who, after all, were a model of success). That included the Wente clone of the Chardonnay grape. It did poorly in Oregon’s cooler climate. Later plantings using Dijon clones, he noted, had started to produce impressive Chardonnays.
Cahill showed an impressive sparkling wine, the NV Soter Vineyards ‘Beacon Hill’ Brut Rosé, Yamhill-Carlton, Oregon ($29) made from the same Pinot Noir vines as the winery’s red Pinot. The objective here was a Champagne style sparkling wine and success is complete. Serve this in lieu of the expensive French bubbly either as a toasting tipple or throughout the meal.
Also impressive was the 2007 Soter Vineyards, ‘Little Creek’ Proprietary Red Blend, Napa Valley, California ($125). Tony Soter’s last California Cabernet before he picked up sticks and moved north. This is an imposing blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. It is way too young to be enjoyed to its fullest right now. Best to put it away and try again in a decade (then each decade thereafter?).
One facet of this dinner that drew it apart from its predecessors at Bailey’s was the installation of Michael Ehlert as acting chef for the night. He is normally kept in a small pen at the back of The Chesterfield (a den of ill repute and great cocktails in the town once occupied by that great civic leader, Jack Ruby). From that pen he serves some of the most sensitively prepared French food in town. His efforts at the wine dinner from Bailey’s impressively equipped kitchen boasted a Pheasant Galantine with Traditional Accoutrements, a Crisp Polenta, Fiddle Head Ferns and Escargot de Bourgogne and finally a Beef Bourguignon so robust that it stood up to the Soter Red Blend.
This was a very instructive and enjoyable event. Bailey’s holds these winemaker dinners once a month. Call the restaurant to reserve places at the next one.