The weekend could have been spent relaxing at home, nestling against a mountain of must-try wines, conducting what I call contemplative case studies.
Instead, I found myself suddenly consumed by the journalistic fever of Woodward and Bernstein — racing 111 miles north to rainy Roseburg.
I needed to follow the mysterious trail of Rogue Valley wines going rogue. My reporting curiosity would take me into a multimillion-dollar home, a casino ballroom and my secret source's Volvo. My life was never threatened, but occasionally I was thirsty. Mercifully, I survived. Investigative journalists are willing to take these kinds of risks to uncover the truth.
It seems — though few except my secret source, whom I'll call "Oak Throat," will confirm it — that wines being judged for the Greatest of the Grape festival are not all made from grapes grown north of the Rogue River. Some southies have sneaked in.
Greatest of the Grape, which will have its gala dinner March 3 at Seven Feathers Casino Resort, was started 42 years old by legendary wine pioneer Richard Sommer. The annual event began as a chance for Sommer of HillCrest Winery, Scott Henry of Henry Estate Winery and a handful of other Umpqua Valley growers to shine a light on their cornucopia of grapes.
Today, 28 wineries submit one wine to be professionally evaluated a few weeks before the gala, where winners are announced. These coveted spots at the judging table are offered first to the 26 Umpqua producers. By my math, that means there are two extra spots.
If any Umpquas decline, organizers invite more Rogues. This year, Daisy Creek Vineyards shot in with its 2009 Malbec ($24), LaBrasseur Vineyard with 2010 Marli Joy Rhone-style white blend ($17), RoxyAnn Winery with 2009 Viognier ($20), Troon Vineyard with 2009 Old Vine Meritage ($32) and Trium with 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon ($38).
I was slipped an Excel spreadsheet that showed not only names of chefs who will prepare dishes paired with wines to vie for the gala's People's Choice votes, but also the dish they plan to present. "I'm giving you inside stuff," whispered Oak Throat in her cozy car.
A promise to my secret source not to disclose too much about the surprises in store prevents me from saying much. But expect the malbec to accompany Italian sausage meatballs and marinara sauce made at The Vine Restaurant; the Rhone-style white with prosciutto-wrapped dried plums and goat cheese by Jasmine Catering; the viognier with shrimp and scallops in phyllo dough by Alexander's Greek Cuisine; the meritage with suckling pig galantine by Seven Feathers; and the cab with Kobe beef Wellington and cabernet demi-glace by Joe Monkey Caffe.
Fueled by my secret source's leak and this newspaper's mileage reimbursement program, I continued to hunt down potential informants.
I arrived at a fabulous Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house on the Umpqua River. Inside, owners Rob and Lesa Ray were hosting the covert judging operation. Their house was chosen by organizers because of its "neutrality," as the Rays are not competing in Greatest of the Grape. My crack reporting and a glance out their front window, however, did yield this nugget: The Rays have planted 12 acres of grapes and are quietly preparing their Cooper Ridge pinot noir and tempranillo for next year's competition. I thought I could use that tidbit to pry them open.
Over a toast of Argyle sparkling wine, which Rob Ray said flows from his tap — and I believe him — I quietly asked the smiley couple to release confidential information. They declined but refilled my Champagne flute.
In a pantry off the kitchen, I found the three wine stewards who had bundled the bottles in paper bags for the blind tastings. They politely asked me to leave once the judging started. Kevin Kohlman, a gentle giant of a grape grower, announced to everyone, but mainly, I believe it was directed at me: "I stand tall and have a rough background. I can put anyone in a headlock." I slid out the back door.
That evening, over filets in Seven Feathers' ballroom, I buttonholed the three judges. I assumed their guards would be down after a day of sipping and spitting. Surely, they would disclose the winners.
Judge Jim Gullo, editor of McMinnville-based Oregonwine.com, said nothing, except that he has written a memoir called "Trading Manny," and he will be visiting Rogue wineries in the spring.
Judge Laura Ness, aka "Her VineNess," admitted she was coached only to say, "They were all lovely wines." When I approached her blind side, I heard her say to hopeful wine producers, "When you learn the winners, you'll know that some styles have broader appeal."
Judge Robert Small, chairman of the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition for 14 years and owner of Dr. Bob's HandCrafted IceCreams, let it leak that 16 reds and 12 whites competed. Only one flight was the same varietal, a pinot noir. The judges weren't told what the grapes were, forcing them to vote, said Dr. Bob, strictly on "the yummy factor."
Out of frustration, I put the pressure on Dorothy Williams, the event chair for the past three years who, hours earlier, told the judges, "What's said in this room stays in this room." Surely, she didn't really mean it.
"Couldn't you just tell me how the Rogue wines did?" I asked her. Williams, who worked for Robert Mondavi from 1979 until she and her husband retired and moved to Roseburg in 1991, leaned in. I held my breath, my typing fingers itching to fly.
"All is kept undercover until it's announced at the dinner. That's what makes it exciting," she said. I could see she wanted to say more. I waited. Finally, she added: "Buy tickets before they sell out." I took that to be code for something.
Greatest of the Grape tickets are $75 and benefit Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Association and viticulture and enology scholarships. See www.umpquavalleywineries.org.
NEW: Journalists love scoops. In my long career, I have reported behind the Berlin Wall ("Hey, currywurst has ketchup!"), in Castro's Cuba ("Hemingway didn't like the daiquiris at El Floridita") and aboard the Goodyear blimp as it hovered over celebrity sunbathers on Santa Monica Beach ("Look at those nasty tan lines!").
After these successful explorations and a fitful night's sleep in Roseburg, I decided to stake out the new, $6.8 million Danny Lang Teaching, Learning and Event Center on the Umpqua Community College campus, which houses Southern Oregon Wine Institute and is available to rent for events. I was prepared to sneak in through a service entry only to find the doors opened and Scott Henry, an early donor, leading a tour.
"This center has been a dream for the industry and the community for a long time," said the man who invented the Scott Henry Trellis System. "And it will be very good for the economy, for our area and north and south of us. We're tied into the Willamette Valley and the Rogue region. It's going to be wonderful for everyone. Education is always important."
TASTED: Linda Kistner of Abacela Winery is making sourdough bread from a starter created with a yeast from the vineyard's tempranillo clone 1 and baked in a "horno," a Spanish clay oven. I tried it with the albarino ($18), but Kistner said it goes with every Abacela wine. Seems as if I'll be busy in Roseburg for some time now.
Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.