Once again, we stumbled onto wonderful wines

By Dan & Krista Stockman

With February doing its worst to depress us, our thoughts turn to warmer days with sunny skies and, well, of course, wine.

Last summer, to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, we spent a week in Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine country. Like other major wine regions, there are far too many wineries to visit them all in a week – even for professionals like us. The Willamette Valley is home to nearly 700 wineries; there was no way we would get to even a decent-sized sample of them. But we had to start somewhere, so we made a list of wineries we wanted to visit based on research, recommendations and names we recognized. Even then, our list was far too long for the time we would be visiting: We had never been to Oregon, and there was a lot we wanted to see and do, leaving a limited amount of time for wine tasting.

On top of all that, we knew visiting during a pandemic would make the experience very different and even expected that some places might not be open. What we didn’t expect is that experiences would, in many cases, be better than visiting in pre-pandemic times.

One of our first visits was to Coelho Winery where owner Dave Coelho shared his family’s story as we tasted several of his wines.

Dave started as a farmer in California, farming tomatoes, corn and sugar beets. In 1991, when times got tough, he and his wife Deolinda decided to uproot their family – the oldest of their four children was in kindergarten – and move north. Dave found a job working at Amity Vineyards, one of the first wineries in Oregon, and soon bought 40 acres to start his own vineyard on the Willamette Valley floor.

The Willamette Valley is large, but unique, in that on the west it is sheltered from the stormy Pacific coast by the Coast Range mountains, and from the desert-like climate of eastern Oregon by the Cascade Range on the east – giving it a long, mild growing season with lots of sun, warm days and cool nights. This makes it the ideal place for growing cool-climate grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and, of course, Pinot Noir, for which the valley is famous. Most of the vineyards are on the eastern slopes of the Coast Range, but some – like Coelho’s – are on the valley floor, and the winemakers know which areas and which soils develop which flavors in the grapes.

At first, the Coelhos sold their grapes, and it would be several years before they decided to sell their own wine. In 2004, they bottled their first vintage of Pinot Noir and the winery only grew from there. The Coelhos now have three vineyards and a gorgeous tasting room.

Always a farmer first, Dave is intimately involved in the day-to-day operations of the vineyards and believes in a farm-to-bottle process. When he serves his wines, he wants to fruit to be the star.

And from the wines we tasted – everything from Pinot Gris and Chardonnay to Pinot Noir and obscure Portuguese varietals – he is taking every advantage of the terroir. But of course, as it is at almost every winery in the Willamette Valley, Pinot Noir is the star: Coelho currently has 17 different Pinot Noirs in its online shop.

His Pinot Gris is acidic and minerally and great with food, as is his Chardonnay. If you’re used to California Chardonnays, where the hot sun produces fruit-bomb style wines, Oregon Chardonnay – like French Chardonnay – can show you what the grape is really capable of in terms of complexity. Coelho’s is much more like a white Bourgogne, and he is careful not to hide that complexity under tons of buttery oak flavors

“We want the expression of the fruit to shine through,” Dave told us. “If you want a lot of oak, go have a Cabernet Sauvignon or chew on an oak board or something.”

The 2016 Coelho Vineyard Pinot Noir was acidic and light – as a Pinot Noir should be – but also intense with complex cherry notes and a hint of strawberry on a dusty dry structure. The 2016 Zeitoun Vineyard Pinot Noir was darker and deeper, though still intense, with hints of bricks in the finish. The Delfina Vineyard Pinot Noir was even deeper and darker, with blackberry and hints of coffee. All of them were stunning.

The Coelho family traces its roots to Portugal – Coelho means “rabbit” in Portuguese, hence the bunny in the logo – and Dave also makes Tradicao, a traditional Portuguese blend of six grapes, which he buys from a grower in California’s Central Valley between Lodi and Sacramento, where the hot, dry climate is similar to Portugal. For an event, the winery bottled some of the six grapes individually and let tasters create their own blends – we got to taste through several of them, and all were amazing, but somehow even better when combined. Dan fell in love with the Touriga Francesa, and almost wept when we learned we couldn’t buy any because we had just tasted from the last bottle.

We’ve always said that wine is about the place it’s from, the time it was grown and made, and the people who made it, and when you visit a winery, you get to experience all three of those things in a profound way that can never be replicated in a wine aisle. We also have a habit of falling in love with the winemakers we meet at the wineries we visit – their passion for their art and understanding of the science and their desire to share the results with the world is amazing – and Coelho was no different.

We walked out astonished that of nearly 700 wineries in the Willamette Valley, we had had the good fortune to find our way to this one, and hoping for the day when we’ll be able to go back.

Don’t forget

Saturday, Feb. 27, is Open That Bottle Night, the night when you open those bottles you’ve been saving because the memories are just too special or the occasion never quite right – the time to open and enjoy them before they go bad.

What will we be opening? We haven’t decided yet, but two bottles are definitely in the running: New Day Meadery Semi-Sweet Black Raspberry Mead, which we got from our wonderful friends Tia and Brett at their Indianapolis meadery way back in December 2010, and a 2014 Klinker Brick Old Ghost Old Vine Zinfandel – the Old Ghost has been one of our favorites ever since we first had a bottle of the 2003 vintage on Open That Bottle Night in 2009. We had it then because Krista was so certain she would fall in love with it (she was right) she just couldn’t bear the thought of having it gone. Once she tasted it, though, she knew we made the right decision: A wine in the glass tastes so much better than a wine in a sealed bottle. And it tastes far, far better in the glass than when it has turned to vinegar because you wouldn’t open the bottle at all.