What I Learned in a Wine Cave

After a visit to this wine cave in Oregon, I could be a sommelier…well, not quite.

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Rows of barrels lined the walls of the cool, damp cave, each one stamped with a special number and filled with a distinct varietal. In between the barrels sat a perfectly set table, featuring seven place settings each with four wine glasses and a tasting menu. Plates of cheese and crackers waited to be sampled. We took our seats and prepared our palates.p1000208

This was not my first time in a wine cave. I actually visited one in the south island of New Zealand about four years ago with my parents. Lack of novelty aside, this experience was much different. I’m somewhat embarrassed to attribute it to my age, but that’s a definite factor. At 26, I lacked the patience, the knowledge and the sophistication (as in my aesthetic taste) to fully appreciate the wine and the unique room in which I was consuming it. Add four years, and much like the wine that surrounded me, the aging process was complete and I felt ready.

This time, however, I was at a vineyard in the Willamette Valley, located just south of Portland, Oregon; and I sat alongside my best friends from high school. The wine tasting was part of our annual girls trip, and was an absolute necessity when visiting this region of the country. My friend organized a whole day of tastings at different vineyards. Our first stop was Trisaetum (tris-say-tum), founded in 2003 by Andrea and James Frey. The winery is known for its award-winning Pinot Noirs and Rieslings, which are produced in small batches from their three estate vineyards.p1000199

Our private tasting took place at Ribbon Ridge, the second of the three vineyards and home to the winery and barrel wine cave. The 100-foot long cave housed barrels with wine that had been aging anywhere from eight to 22 months, depending on the vintage.

After hearing a short background on the winery and its founders, we began with a pour of the 2014 Estates Reserve Dry Riesling (94 points – editor’s choice – Wine Enthusiast). What makes it a reserve is that one barrel from each of the three vineyards (usually the winemakers favorite ones) were combined to create this vintage.

I’ve always said I’m not the biggest fan of Rieslings, but this wine surprised me. I’d love to say it’s because I could taste the hints of fruit and the complex length of flavor, but if I could say that, then I wouldn’t need a tutorial on wine. I simply enjoyed the taste and smoothness – it doesn’t get more straight forward than that.

What I did discover about this wine is that not much was made – less than 100 cases – so we were very lucky to get to try it. It pairs well with Ahi Tuna and pretty much any type of cheese. It’s been dubbed a porch pounder, because in the warm summer months it goes down way too easily. And it was selected by President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle for a White House State Dinner in 2016. The more you know.p1000209

Our second pour was the 2014 Ribbon Ridge Estate Riesling (94 points – cellar selection – Wine Enthusiast). The minute the liquid touched my tongue, I was able to discern the increase in sweetness from the previous wine. It was a small victory, and one I shared with all my friends. We eagerly asked questions about the differences, jotting notes down on our tasting menus (pairs best with spicy food) as if we were back in school preparing for an upcoming quiz. It’s exciting to see that we’re all still curious.

The 2014 Ribbon Ridge Estate Pinot Noir (94 points – cellar selection – Wine Enthusiast) came next. When I drink wine, I usually choose reds (doesn’t that remind you of a certain beer commercial?). And Pinots are by far my favorite. We were told this vintage was termed a “crowd pleaser,” because most people enjoy it, no matter their tendencies with wine. I was certainly pleased when I tasted it, I think they got the nickname right. Ribbon Ridge is a warmer vineyard, and as a result it produces warmer wines. The fact that the soil is rich with marine sediment means the vineyard develops wine with darker fruit flavors, like blackberry and blackcurrant. 2014 was a warmer year, and as a result, this vintage packs a lot of punch. So far, it had my vote as top wine, but we weren’t done tasting yet.img_6903

The next one we tried was the 2013 Coast Range Estate Pinot Noir (90 points – Wine Spectator). I know what you’re thinking, the lower point score must mean it’s not as good of a wine as the others. Our Trisaetum expert assured us that wasn’t the case. While the ratings are great to have, they are not always indicative of the quality of the wine. Experts rate wines on characteristics like balance, complexity, taste, and length, but each palate is different and not everyone judges wines the same. Wine is subjective. Which is probably why I’m perfectly happy sipping a glass of three buck chuck from Trader Joe’s (okay, I’m embellishing slightly, but you get the idea).

The 2013 Pinot Noir comes from the first vineyard of the three. While the differences from the prior Pinot were slight, I could tell there was more fruitiness to this one. The wine is much brighter. with more acidity and ripeness, and even some earthy tones. While I didn’t observe those elements right away, certain profiles started to come out as the wine breathed. By no means was I an expert at this point, but I was getting more confident in my assessments.img_7119

Next up was the 2014 Artist Series No. 29 Pinot Noir. This is a limited release, available only to club members (thank you Stephanie!). Only 70 cases were made, and the label features an original painting from the winemaker/owner, James Frey. This bottling was made from a select number of barrels from the Wädensvil (vanes-ville), Switzerland clone. Basically, a vine was taken from the Coast Range estate and cloned, but not perfectly. Cloning keeps most characteristics of the original, but variations commonly occur. For the scientists in the room, this was fascinating. For me, the flavor was all that mattered, and this was by far my favorite. It was rich and bold, with slight hints of chocolate. We all loved this wine, and many of us even bought a bottle afterwards.

The 2013 Estates Reserve Pinot Noir (93 points – Wine Enthusiast) was blended from eleven barrels of the winemakers favorites from all three vineyards. It was aged for 18 months in French oak. I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what that means for the wine. Our teacher noted that longer aging made the aromatics more powerful (more notes for that imaginary quiz). You could really smell the hints of dark cherry, and we savored its boldness. p1000207

It’s worth mentioning that after six tastings, flavors do begin to mix and it can be tough to decipher the discrepancies between them all. Not to mention you’re feeling a little tipsy (thankfully the cheese and crackers soaked up some of the alcohol). We all did our best to cleanse our palates with water in between tastings to get a better sense of the wine, but sometimes eagerness can get the best of you. But I digress.

Our final wine was an additional pour called the 2013 Proprietary Red by 18401 Cellars (named after the address of the winery). This is a Trisaetum wine, but it’s a separate brand produced in Walla Walla, Washington. It’s a Bordeaux-style blend, with 54% Cabernet, 38% Merlot and 8% petit verdot. I know, it doesn’t really mean anything to me either. Still, I appreciated learning about what made this wine so distinct from the others, and the elements that went into it.img_7118

Before this tasting, I didn’t give much thought to the wine I drank. I based it solely on brands I recognized and labels that stood out on the shelf (and, let’s face it, price played a factor, too). This tasting opened my eyes (and my taste buds) to more than just what’s on the outside.

With each sip of wine and every bottle poured, I discovered something hidden, an aroma, a texture, a quality that I never would have noticed before, nor would have bothered to find. The nuances set each vintage apart, even though they come from the same soil. Each year presents challenges that can affect the vines, altering the profile. But those elements make each one special.

All of this could have been learned outside a wine cave. But the intimacy of that room, the proximity to the aging wines and the comfort of friends made the experience more fulfilling than I could have imagined.


If you go: Private tastings are 90 minutes and are available daily at 11:00am and 2:00pm. Current release wines and specialty cheese pairings are $40 per person, $25 per person for club members. Library wines, limited production wines, gourmet charcuterie and specialty cheese pairings are $60 per person; $35 per person for club members.

Want to visit other Oregon wineries? Stay tuned for my list of suggestions!

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On my first visit to Portland, Oregon, my friend put together an afternoon of wine tasting for us. One of the stops was Trisaetum Winery, where we had a full tasting in a wine cave. It was a wonderful experience and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Oregon's wine country.

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