By Karl Klooster • Staff Writer • 

Aging elegantly

Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, is standing in a long ticket line with Annie, played by Diane Keaton. As he’s whining and complaining, he gets into a discussion with the guy standing next to him.

For reasons I can’t recall, the subject turns to renowned Canadian philosopher and thinker Marshall McLuhan. The guy says something about McLuhan obviously meaning such-and-such, and Singer vehemently disagrees.

It remains a no-win argument until Allen looks up and says: “Hey, there’s Marshall McLuhan right over there. Let’s go ask him.”

This memorable piece of filmmaking makes us recall all the times we knew we were right, but had someone else stubbornly continue to disagree. Having no way to definitively prove the point was exasperating. Wouldn’t it have been vindicating if a question had come up just a few feet from the person most qualified to verify or clarify?

Just such an opportunity arose during the recent gathering of wine buffs, all enthusiastically engaged in the blind tasting of 1985 Oregon pinot noirs. It arose, however, from joint curiosity rather than heated disagreement.

Our hosts were Portland attorney Dick Stinson, who has been an avid appreciator, collector and promoter of the industry for a quarter of a century, and his wife, Judy Erdman, who got caught up in the whole wine thing because of her husband and is now just as into it. And we were tasting well-aged pinots only available from the maker itself or a private collector with a very well-stocked cellar.

To know these wines have been well stored over those 28-plus years, resting in the cellar of the producer since the day they were vinified is about the best assurance you can get. Next best is resting in the cellar of a private collector, as the serious collector will ensure his wines are kept at a cool and consistent temperature.

The 12 pinots tasted that evening were supplied by three people — Stinson, Erath winery founder Dick Erath and Amity Vineyards founder Myron Redford. All but one came from the 1985 vintage, the 12th being a 1987.

When not at his home on the Prince Hill Vineyards property in the midst of the Dundee HIlls, Erath spends time on his Cimarron Vineyard near Willcox in western Arizona, where he has planted a wide range of vinifera varieties to test what does best there.

After 40 years of operating Amity Vineyards, Redford announced his retirement at their annual harvest party in November and put the winery up for sale. He is entertaining offers but nothing suitable has as yet arisen.

The Annie Hall moment came after the 1985 pinots had all been tasted, and some other wines had been opened for our interest, evaluation and enjoyment. Among them was a 1981 Erath Vineyards merlot, which assiduously stated on the label that it was a blend of 82 percent Washington merlot and 18 percent Oregon merlot.

I was discussing the wine with one of the inveterate tasters in attendance, James “Doc” Wilson. It turned out to be in terrific shape, with still-apparent fruit, varietal character and good balance.

Not incidentally, Doc buys wines for Jake’s Famous Crawfish, iconic flagship of the nationwide McCormick & Schmick restaurant empire founded by Portlander Bill McCormick in 1979.

However, the label didn’t say where the grapes came from. It just provided the Washington and Oregon percentage breakdown.

Our heads simultaneously turned to the adjacent table. Before you knew it, we were hovering expectantly over the Marshall McLuhan of the wine world.

“Let’s see,” Erath said, hesitating only momentarily. “The Washington merlot was from Sagemoor Vineyard in the Columbia Valley. The Oregon merlot came from my Chehalem Mountains vineyard, planted in 1968. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure Sagemoor started up that year, too.”

Subsequent investigation proved him correct. Two Pacific Northwest pioneers hooked up with each other back in those early days, when growers and winemakers were far fewer, and shared a camaraderie that totally ignored something as inconsequential as a state boundary.

As for the pinots of primary focus at the tasting, predictions about aging potential always pique the curiosity of wine buffs. And the two pioneers in attendance concurred that 1985 was an outstanding vintage.

Redford said the 1985 vintage yielded Oregon’s most age-worthy pinots to that point, and held the honor for 14 years before being equaled if not exceeded by the 1999 vintage.

Yet another pioneer, Susan Sokol Blosser, has been quoted as declaring without reservation that 1985 was her “all-time favorite vintage in Oregon.”

The 12 pinot noirs, tasted blind in four flights of three wines each, were: Amity Winemakers Reserve, Arterberry Reserve and Arterberry Cellar Reserve; Peter Adams, Elk Cove Reserve and Ellendale; Sokol Blosser, Oak Knoll and Knudsen-Erath; and Yamhill Valley Vineyards, Erath/Leland 1985 and Erath/Leland 1987.

As expected, the fruit had given way to more mature attributes in a variety whose time of optimum drinkability is generally considered to have been at least a decade earlier.

A couple of the wines showed some oxidation, imparting a sherry or Madeira-like character, and a couple exhibited some reduction, introducing sulfur-like characteristics.

But these flaws were evident only to a limited extent, and none to the point that the wines were objectionable. In fact, tasters pronounced all 12 wines quite drinkable, if not exceptional.

Notably, the Amity Winemakers Reserve displayed elegant complexity and flavor, with just a hint of maderization. The Ellendale retained deep color, youthful fruit and spicy accents, while being slightly reductive.

The evening’s universal favorite was the 1985 Erath/Leland, whose multi-faceted aroma, lush fruit flavor and still lively acidity made for a beautifully balanced wine.

I didn’t have a 1985 pinot noir to contribute to the cause. In fact, my modest stash of Oregon pinot doesn’t stretch back any further than the late 1990s. But I did have something I’d been wanting to share with just such a group of experienced and appreciative tasters.

In California, cabernet sauvignon is king. But back in the 1970s, very few California wineries were producing truly outstanding examples of the Bordelaise variety.

Among them was Beaulieu Vineyards, founded in 1900 by French nobleman Georges de Latour. It was overseen for 35 years by the iconic Russian-born winemaker, André Tchelistcheff.

Tchelistcheff created and crafted the founder’s classic Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which quickly became the benchmark for California cabs.

After his retirement in 1973, the so-called “Dean of American Winemakers” continued consulting. Dick Erath, whose winery benefited from his advice, said he played an important role in advancing the Oregon industry.

A wine that survives its fourth decade in good shape is a rather rare commodity. But my ‘70 Beaulieu Vineyards Private Reserve did not disappoint.

Though delicate on the palate, its soft, silky mouth feel was accompanied by all the components that have defined the best examples of this wine over the decades.

A compelling lushness of black currant, mingled with hints of tea leaf, underlaid by an earthiness signifying terroir or sense of place. It provided a fitting finale to a memorable evening.

Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 503-687-1227.

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