February 18, 2007

2004 St. Innocent Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir, WIllamette Valley, Oregon

Some people are born into wine and others find their way to it. In that second group there are some who get there by happy accident, and others who carefully chart their path. Like the 10 year old who knows that he wants to become a lawyer (?) or an astronaut... and then becomes what they set out to do. Mark Vlossak, the founder and winemaker of St. Innocent was decidedly in that last category. His father is a wine distributor in the Milwaukee/Chicagoland area and Mark grew up being exposed to an appreciation for excellent wine. He made his way west and in 1988 began making wine at St. Innocent. It's a good thing he did, too, as few wineries rival the consistent excellence across all varietals that Mark and his team are able to attain... that, and despite the quality, effort, attention to detail, and reputation St. Innocent keeps its wines priced so as to remain within the reach of most of us.

If you look across the winery landscape of the Willamette Valley in Oregon there is an interesting phenomenon. Several of the wineries are owned or wines made by people from the Midwest. Panther Creek Cellars is owned by Ron Kaplan and his wife, originally from Iowa. Mark Vlossak heralds from Wisconsin. Domaine Serene is owned by the Ken and Grace Evenstad of Minnesota. There are other similar stories, but I love that folks from flyover territory head west and make killer wine. In all three of these cases, really killer wine. I believe that Panther Creek actually contracts with Mark Vlossak to make their wines, which is just smart thinking.

Over the years I have been fortunate to enjoy many of St. Innocent's wines. It had been awhile, though, and Cat and I were excited to open up this Shea vineyard Pinot Noir. The Shea vineyard is just outside of Portland, in the Yamhill foothills. As we have discussed here at winecommando previously, this is ground zero for growing and making incredible Pinot Noir. For us, this wine is quintessential St. Innocent, totally classic in style and very sophisticated. We readily admit that it may be premature to open this bottle, but part of the fun of owning and enjoying wine is to experience it as it ages, to chart its changes. We opened and decanted it, pouring just about an ounce each to taste immediately. The first thing we were both struck by is the color. In the center of the glass it is dark, almost a black red with more electric reds around the ring of the glass. The nose, just out of the bottle, presented bright cherry fruit with edges of autumnal scents, like raked leaves... a more distinct earthy quality. The palate was intense, but a little sharp. We let it sit for about three hours or so.

When we came back to it we found the nose to have softened. It was incredibly fragrant, still with that cherry fruit, but richer and deeper now. There was an herbal quality, almost like rosemary, but sweeter. All of this was complimented by a flowery, almost perfume like scent that, though subtle, gave the nose an interesting complexity. We found the earthy/autumnal quality almost unnoticeable. On the palate the wine was deep and intense. The fruit was of cherry and currants, hints of nuts... like chestnuts or walnuts (I have a tough time remembering which tastes like which). The palate was balanced with tannins present, but not out of line. We picked up more of that perfume on the palate, and it was almost like lilac. The finish was nice. This Pinot Noir will only get better, but it was very enjoyable for us now. It is a terrific food wine, and the intensity of the palate and its structure would give it the flexibility allow you to experiment with its food pairing, breaking away from convention. We paired it with seared salmon topped with a sweet Vidalia onion and balsamic vinegar chutney, and a mixed vegetable salad with white balsamic vinegar and a little olive oil.

cost - $37.99

winecommando rating (1-10) - 9.25

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