Memorial Day weekend is always a wonderful time in the Willamette Valley to get out to some of the local wineries and experience the ambiance of oak forests, the solitude of scenic byways, and the camaraderie of wine tasting with friends; all while having the ubiquitous Coast Range in your periphery.
My wife, our friend, Julie Stauffer, and I all decided to bike to a few wineries this past Saturday, and what a beautiful day for biking. It was a little over 70° F, with spotty clouds providing a bit of sun cover and the illusion of safety from sunburn – which, unfortunately, none of us were able to completely avoid. The ride included three favorites as far as wineries in the Salem area are concerned: Van Duzer Vineyards, Firesteed Winery, and Left Coast Cellars. Each winery has its personal idiosyncrasies that make it a favorite for Salem wines, and I’ll discuss briefly why each of them has earned this title in my humble opinion.
Our ride began in Salem, where we met at Riverfront Park and headed west on highway 22. Biking on highway 22 is not exactly a pleasant biking experience. There is a bike path on the north side, but it is riddled with cracked and bumpy pavement. Option 2 is riding in the wide bike lane on highway 22, but a two-lane highway is not exactly the safest space for a bike-rider, and with a group of riders, it is easy to lose concentration, so exiting highway 22 as quickly as possible is important. Just past Oak Knoll Golf Course, there is a pedestrian overpass that leads to Rickreall Road, a quiet farm road that is much more pleasant to ride on, so naturally, we took this option. Eventually, Rickreall Road intersects with 99W in Rickreall.
Once on 99W, getting to Van Duzer on a bike gets tricky. You can go straight down 99W and eventually turn on Smithfield Road, a 3 mile gravel road that slowly works its way up to the entrance to Van Duzer. We decided to take 99W until it met with an onramp to 22, and took 22 to Perrydale road. Although slightly more busy, 22 to Perrydale road cuts the gravel-riding almost in half – the combination of Myers Road and Smithfield road only add up to about 1 ½ miles of gravel riding – a nice compromise to enduring the busier highway.
Van Duzer Vineyards
Van Duzer Vineyards is one of my favorite wineries in the Salem area because of its wine quality; I also love Van Duzer because of the vineyard’s location. The wine is perhaps the best in the area, with a variety of selections to choose from. Of course their pinot noir is the most diverse wine on the vineyard, but they also have Pinot Gris, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon (somewhat rare in our area), and even some specialty wines, like port and dessert wine.
However, what keeps me coming back is the beautiful location. Van Duzer is perched at the top of one of the Willamette Valley’s numerous bluffs, and provides views of nearby rolling hills as well as the looming tops of the Cascade Range. And Van Duzer has taken the liberty of providing its clientele with a picturesque patio to sit and relax, with a glass or bottle of their wine of course, and soak in the views provided right outside their tasting room.
Perhaps it was the ‘liquid courage’ we had just finished at Van Duzer, perhaps the sun was affecting our sense of reason; whatever it was, our bike trio decided it would be best to traverse the three-mile gravel section of Smithfield Road to get back to 99W and continue our winery-hopping escapade. In truth, the gravel road is very well-maintained, and other than the occasional speeding car that leaves you coughing in their cloud of dust, the ride is very pleasant. Once on 99W, it is a quick jaunt over to Firesteed.
Firesteed is one of my favorite wineries because of the bargain wines for purchase and because of the consistent hospitality of the staff. Firesteed has three estate wines – Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling – but also has a higher quality ‘Citation’ label, which includes chardonnay and of course Pinot Noir. They occasionally have a wonderfully drinkable and affordable red table wine for sale as well, but this is currently sold out in their tasting room. My wife and I always have a bottle of their Citation Chardonnay; it is one of our favorite wines in the area.
Quality of wine is, of course, very important, especially the more invested one becomes in the pastime of wine-tasting. However, more important to me, a humble wine enthusiast, is the experience I have when wine-tasting.
[Begin angry tangent:]
A common frustration I have when out tasting is a fleeting effervescent glance I receive when I enter a winery for the first time. Now maybe this uppity look of superiority is because I’m a 20-something year old, often on a bike – and the inherent implication of this reality is that I’m most likely not going to bring home a case of wine or become a life-long wine club member. And as the synapses in the seller’s brain are firing off these unconscious epiphanies as I walk in, the previously mentioned ‘effervescent glance’ reveals a slight look of distaste on their face, as if the dreaded ‘barnyard’ aroma wafted into their senses as they swirled a glass of one of their newest wines.
I don’t appreciate this glance, especially because if I’m out wine-tasting, I’m doing it to experience the wine; if I wanted to just drink and be done with it, I’d buy the wine at a discount grocery store.
This tangent has an intended trajectory, which is this: Firesteed has the most hospitable group of tasting room staff. They are unassuming, knowledgeable, and entertaining, all valuable features that enhance the experience of their wines. And I think the experience associated with a wine can actually enhance the taste. When I drink a wine from Firesteed, the memory of the friendly staff and enjoyable atmosphere makes the synapses in my brain fire off unconscious epiphanies (sound familiar?) that flood my senses, associating the wine’s quality with the quality of my experience, making its initial bouquet and eventual taste as it makes contact with the different zones in my palette that much more pleasing. Basically, Firesteed has an inextricable savoir-faire that leaves other wineries in the dust.
[Angry tangent over.]
Left Coast Cellars
Just down the road from Firesteed on 99W is Left Coast Cellars, a very progressively minded winery with an excellent selection of wines and as they say on their site, a “commitment to the strengths and benefits of biodiversity, [striving] to be the best possible stewards of the land.” This commitment is noticeable as soon as you begin the scenic ascent up to the winery, where close to the entrance sits a row of large solar panels. As you wind your way up to the entrance of the tasting room, a mixture of beautifully manicured flowerbeds, rugged natural meadows and dense oak forests floods your vision, enhanced further if experienced at the slow, methodical pace of a bicycle.
The winery boasts a host of unique locations to stroll through while wine-tasting, all within easy walking distance of their tasting room, including a beautiful pavilion where they age their wines, an intimate little structure tucked away behind the pavilion held up by the foundation of a sturdy oak trunk, a concrete cellar where they eventually plan on aging some of their higher quality wines, and of course, their tasting room. What makes their tasting room unique is the small bistro where they have some excellent food options for purchase that pair well with their wines. Left Coast Cellars is a must-see winery stop for anyone tasting in the Salem area.
Overall, spending a day “pedaling for pinots” is well worth your time. I’m sure that I don’t have to mention the intimacy with your surroundings that biking facilitates, or the exercise and camaraderie that ensue through biking in groups, or how gratifying it is to earn the next tasting – pedaling to it by bicycle. It is worth the effort and planning. Give it a try some time.