By Kaitlin Ohlinger, Foodable Contributor
Oregon’s wine country is booming. With the 2012 vintage came a deluge of press, and in turn, wine tourism is up. In July of this year, USA Today published an article declaring that Oregon had matured into a world-class food and wine destination. Oregon’s little secret was out. So… what comes next?
In no way was Oregon failing at hospitality prior to its moment in the national spotlight; quite to the contrary. The Willamette Valley offers laid back, friendly surroundings complete with hospitality professionals who truly love their area, and it shows. But with increased exposure, a shift inevitably occurs in what visitors are looking for. Those that want a wine vacation in Oregon are seeking the experience. Yes, they love the wine and if we’re lucky, they want to know about soil types and a host of other fascinating facts about Willamette’s microclimates. But the experience they have takes the center stage; not necessarily a negative. Then the question becomes: how does a winery elevate the guest experience?
Maybe it seems like an obvious choice, but offering a small menu or food pairings at a winery is not a simple task. In addition to a dizzying array of permit regulations, incorporating food is almost a “go big or go home” kind of decision. A level of scrutiny is almost guaranteed. Fortunately, plenty are prepared to rise to the occasion. A close look at Soter Vineyards new culinary program proves just that.
Winery Partner Michelle Soter has long been holding the reigns of their biodynamic farming practices, and was a driving force in expanding the culinary program. The crux of their program rests on the bounty that lies directly on their 240 acre property. Just over two acres of heirloom and open-pollenated vegetables, berries and tree fruit provide the ingredients for their Provisions Tastings, offered by appointment Friday-Monday at their Estate property. The offerings vary, and fluctuate with whatever happens to be most plentiful on the farm that week. Staff members look forward to their weekly emails that detail what will be offered for that week’s Provisions Tastings.
These changes evolved slowly. Hospitality & Events Director Julia Bandy-Smith recalls, “When we started hosting parties and sharing meals with our customers, it used to be we talked about our food like a marathon- sourcing ingredients from 26 miles away. We then looked at a 10K model and then finally, from just from our own farm. For us, the food we grow is an extension of the wine we grow. Everything is grown biodynamically. We want our property and it’s inhabitants to live long, healthful lives and that means food done responsibly.”
Ranch Manager Nadine Basile (who is possibly the hardest working person in the Valley) shares the winery’s core philosophy: “Great wine is meant to be consumed with great food; the two are intertwined. Growing and working with quality ingredients is of value to us and an important part of our work at MSR (Mineral Springs Ranch) having the food to support our wine and the wine to support our food.”
Culinary Director Jon Lindenauer has the kind of star-studded resume that will definitely raise an eyebrow or two. A CIA graduate, he racked up time in quite a few heavy-hitting kitchens (Jean-Georges, Les Celebrites, Lespinasse), consulted for Food Network’s “Iron Chef” and served as the Chef de Cuisine of Bon Appetit magazine. Jon has readily embraced the sundry of fall produce available to him. He cites the wide variety of mushrooms (chanterelles, lobster, black trumpet) and bitter leafy greens as favorite ingredients: “Greens are versatile, and add such a great bitter note and texture to other fall ingredients. [Mushrooms] have an earthy/umami character that beautifully pairs with our Pinot Noirs.”
What Challenges May Come
What challenges arise from having an entirely local food supply? Chef Jon and Hospitality Director Julia seem to agree: the biggest challenge can also be the biggest asset. Jon relishes in receiving produce literally minutes after it is harvested, at its peak condition. To a certain extent, the products speak for themselves and need little intervention to show their stuff. At the same time, things like pests and unforeseen weather catastrophies create a different set of problems. Says Julia, “We look at those parameters not as limiting but as a part of the creative process. For us, it doesn’t start with a menu or great idea. It starts with the farm and the season. For some, that might be a limitation but for us, it’s limitless.”