Aug 6, 2014

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Mercer Estates Tasting and Lunch at Portland’s Andina

Just say the word, Andina, and my heart starts to race.  Andina is a Peruvian restaurant located in Portland’s eclectic Pearl District, and it’s been my favorite restaurant in Portland since my first dining experience there in 2007.  And if you know Portland, that’s a pretty big deal – Portland is busting at the seams with restaurants that are out-of-this-world delicious.  But there’s just something incredibly special about Andina.

Andina sign

Andina’s sign hangs out over the sidewalk along NW Glison Street in Portland’s trendy Pearl District.

Aside from the touching 1960s love story of a Portland man and a woman from Peru (the beginning of what is now Andina), a combination of welcoming ambiance, vibrant cuisine, infused-culture, eye-catching art, stellar service, and a wine list that makes my jaw drop every time I go,  I have  many reasons for adoring Portlandia’s Andina.

Andina looking over railing

Looking over the railing into the downstairs courtyard at Andina. Gas lamps “outdoor seating” and private dining area make this restaurant extremely unique.

Encompassing two floors, the upper floor houses the entrance, kitchen, main dining area and bar; and a quick lean over the railing at the entrance exposes a courtyard below with additional seating housed in private dining areas.  The wood flooring, super high ceilings, exposed brick walls and huge windows that look out over Portland’s bustling NW Glison Street is truly welcoming.  While the decor is streamlined and sleek with a slightly modern look, the ambiance retains a certain rustic yet refined elegance.  Downstairs, the courtyard is the center of attention which presents a perception of strolling along a romantic alley filled with bistros and shops.  These bistro-like areas are clandestine dining rooms with their own entryways and bay windows that look out over the courtyard.  One of these rooms downstairs is called The Pearl Wine Shop, and inside the arched entryway is where we had our Mercer Estates lunch and tasting with Mercer’s impressively knowledgeable, yet down to earth, winemaker Jessica Munnell.

Andina pearl wine shop

One of Andina’s private dining areas downstairs boasts the name The Pearl Wine Shop – perfectly suited for our gathering.

The table was set just beyond the solid wood arched doorway of the  The Pearl Wine Shop.  Inside was a cozy room with slate tiled walls, a gently arched ceiling, wine racks and a long rectangular chandelier made of candles in all different sizes.  The mood lighting created the ambiance, and the large farm table had an elegant splash of color with a few small vases of non-intrusive fresh flowers – I was excited for what was to come.

Andina dining table

A perfectly cozy, intimate setting for a winemaker’s tasting and lunch.

I arrived just a few minutes early, so I had some time to talk with Jessica prior to the rest of the writers arriving.  Jessica’s only been with Mercer Estates since 2012, but with the welcome glass of 2013 Mercer Horse Heaven Hills Spice Cabinet Vineyard Rosé ($15) in hand, I instantly knew she had to have a pretty extensive background in the industry.  This 100 percent Grenache Rosé was pure bliss in aromas and flavors, with alluring grapefruit, pineapple, raspberry and strawberry notes that were perfectly balanced by lovely acidity – ending in a delicate and extremely well rounded wine.  Jessica said she stood at the press and tasted the juice until she got to the tannins, and from there she treated and made it like a white wine.

andina mercer rose

The 2013 Mercer Horse Heaven Hills Spice Cabinet Vineyard Rosé is as beautiful in the glass as it is on the palate.

Yes, Jessica, who doubles as a mom of two kids – seven and four years old, does indeed make stellar wine.  She holds a Masters in Enology and Viticulture from Washington State University and has traveled to wine growing regions all over the world in an effort to better understand wine.  Before becoming winemaker at Mercer Estates, Jessica’s prior experience includes viticulturist and winemaker positions at the world-renowned Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.  She was also enologist for Snoqualmie Vineyards and worked harvest at South Australia’s Bleasdale Vineyards.  When I asked more about the Rosé, I was pleased to find out the fruit was sourced from a vineyard I was a bit familiar with: last year, I was lucky enough to be invited to stay at the breathtaking Mercer Estates Ranch House, perched on a hill that overlooks the jaw dropping Columbia River Gorge.  Between the house and the river below were rows and rows of vines, aptly named Spice Cabinet Vineyard for the many varietals that are planted there.  Little did I know, as I gazed out over those rows of vines, that a year later I’d be sipping an elegant Rosé made from the Grenache of that very vineyard.

Andina mercer winemaker Jessica

Mercer Winemaker, Jessica Munnell, tells us about the Mercer Canyons 2012 Chardonnay

Once everyone else arrived, we sat down for the lunch and tasting.  One look at the menu, and I knew we were in for a very special treat.  Before our “Primero” (meaning first course) arrived, we were served fresh baked bread with three different types of dipping sauces.  Enamored by the vibrant colors and description of the sauces, I forgot to write down what they were; however, I clearly remember one was mild in spice, one was medium, and one was spicy.  Their spice levels didn’t really matter, however, because I loved each sauce equally for different reasons – and they all paired beautifully with the Rosé.

andina bread and chips

Andina’s basket of fresh bread and three distinctively delicious dipping sauces.

Jessica poured us the next wine to be sampled: 2013 Mercer Horse Heaven Hills Culloden Vineyard Viognier ($18).  A super memorable Viognier for so many reasons, this one was tough to put down – I could drink it all year long.  It’s my kind of Viognier: it was fermented in stainless steel tanks, it didn’t undergo malolactic fermentation, and it is crisp, clean, pure and refreshing.  Jessica mentioned that she likes to focus on the mouthfeel using great balance and delicacy, and her focus paid off in this vibrant melon-centric balanced Viognier that has gorgeous acidity which does not overpower the delicate fruit characteristics, but rather livens them up with a palate-pleasing crispness.  Our Primero arrived while sipping the Viognier, and with four selections of beautifully plated cuisine served family-style, the cebiche (ceviche) of green mango and poached prawns in a passion fruit leche de tigre was an outstanding pairing.  All of the Primero bites were delicious, but that Cebiche really clicked with the Viognier.

andina cebiche

The flavor packed Cebiche was full of lively spices, fresh seafood and an array of scrumptious vegetables.

For our entree, also known as Segundo, we were to choose from three dishes that all sounded equally divine.  Lucky for me, I was sitting next to my wine writing pal Kelsey Ivey of  The two of us could not decide between the same two dishes, so we shared each dish: Lomo Saltado ~ wok-fried Cascade Natural Beef Tenders with onions, tomatoes, oyster sauce, garlic and ají, served with yukon gold “papas fritas” and garlic rice; Arroz con Mariscos ~ a Peruvian paella of ají amarillo-infused rice topped with a seafood medley.  The divine flavors of these dishes cannot be described in words, a visit to Andina is a must.

While we ate and chatted with Jessica, we tried several more exceptional wines from Mercer Estates from their different tier levels.

Andina steak

The wok-fried steak was sublime with the 2010 Mercer Estates Merlot

2012 Mercer Canyons Columbia Valley Chardonnay ($11) :  Lightly sweet aromas of honeycrisp apples and pears are highlighted by light mineral tones and wet stone. The mouthfeel is lush, but a zing of lemon zest on the finish leaves the palate refreshed.  Notice the name here, “Mercer Canyons,” a line of wines produced to honor the pioneering history of the Mercer family (who started farming on the same property in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills in the late 1800s).  Consisting of  a Chardonnay, Riesling, Red Blend and a Cabernet Sauvignon, these screw cap bottled wines are each under $15 dollars, aiming for the national market at really approachable prices.  Have no fear, the Mercer quality is wholly evident in these wines, they’re just simply made to enjoy everyday.  And we all need our everyday wines – no dinner table should ever be wine-less.

andina mercer merlot

My favorite of the Mercer wines we tried at Andina, and most certainly, one of the most complex and delectable Merlots I’ve ever had.

2010 Mercer Estates Columbia Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($42): Designated as one of the Ultra Premium wines (produced using the very best vineyard blocks and barrel lots), dark fruit aromas with highlights of dusty earth, leather, fall spices and Telicherry pepper simply drew me in.  Intense aromas softened on the palate with the silky mouthfeel, but the complexity was strong and evident.  Fine and perfectly integrated tannins are combined with fresh, zesty acidity, leaving the palate with a robust elegance – two words I’ve never thought of putting together; yet, somehow they work together when describing this wine.

andina eagle and plow label

There is more to this 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon than meets the eye.

2010 Mercer Estates Columbia Valley Merlot ($26):  This was a Merlot like none other, and one of the very best I’ve ever had.  Complex and full of incredible character, like dusty earth, blackberry, blueberry and dark cherry flavors, all the fruit was highlighted by mingled and elaborate spice characteristics.  Full bodied, rich and velvety in the mouth, the dusty characteristics and elegant acidity were what I loved most of all.  It was unexpected in a Merlot, and the depth of components were seriously stunning.  The Mercer Estates line of wines, which includes the Rosé, Viognier and Merlot, showcases the bounty of the Horse Heaven Hills and Yakima Valley with 17 wines total, ranging in price from $12 dollars to $32 dollars.

andina paper foe eagle and plow

All proceeds from the sales of Eagle & Plow benefit everyday heroes through the charities Children of Fallen Patriots, Friends of Flight 93 and The One Fund Boston.

Eagle & Plow Block 93 Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($100):  This 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon is full of bright red cherries and raspberries highlighted by campfire smoke, coffee and hints of licorice and fresh tobacco.  The mouthfeel is juicy and lush up front, but the dusty and elegant tannins takeover mid palate and build powerful characteristics that keep your palate wanting more.  With its intense depth, this wine will age beautifully. This wine is special for not only its gorgeous characteristics, but for the meaning behind its production.

“Launched in summer 2014, Eagle & Plow was inspired by two patriotic members of the Mercer team with connections to the events of September 11, 2001.  Rob Mercer served as a Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1990s and reactivated to serve in Iraq in 2007-2008.  Vineyard Manager, John Derrick, lost his best friend, Richard Guadagno, on Flight 93.  Eagle & Plow is sourced from Mercer’s BLOCK 93, a one-acre parcel with 911 vines, 40 of which represent the 40 lives lost on Flight 93.”  

All proceeds from the sales of Eagle & Plow Block 93 benefit everyday heroes through the charities Children of Fallen Patriots, Friends of Flight 93 and The One Fund Boston.  

Mercer view from room

The view from my room at the Mercer Estates Ranch House – overlooking the Columbia River. Summer 2013

When I stayed at the Mercer Estates Ranch house last year to attend a Horse Heaven Hills AVA media trip, we got together with a couple of the Mercer’s along with neighboring winery owners on the night of our arrival.  Sitting poolside at the Ranch House with a view of Spice Cabinet Vineyards and the Columbia River below literally took my breath away, and the wines we sipped while becoming acquainted were unforgettable.

Mercer Spice Cabinet Vineyards

Mercer Estates Spice Cabinet Vineyard – summer 2013

Horse Heaven Hills has a very arid and often windy climate and is home to both large (Chateau Ste. Michelle) and small (Martinez and Martinez) wineries that have staked a claim to stellar Cabernet Sauvignons.  Spending a few days at the Mercer Estates Ranch House gave me the opportunity to explore this region and some of its well-known, and lesser-known, wineries that are truly producing some outstanding, high-quality wines.  From Viogniers and Chardonnays to Syrahs and Malbecs, there’s a diverse selection that can’t be overlooked, in spite of their big, bold, juicy Cabernets that tend to get much-deserved attention from esteemed wine critics.

It’s not just the wine that made me fall head over heels for Horse Heaven Hills, but it was the people, as well.  The folks behind the mouthwatering wines are truly passionate about the land they farm (and the Mercer’s farm a large portion of the area with potatoes, carrots, onions and much more) and the wines they create – they love what they do and it shows.  They work together to strive for a unified region that reflects their camaraderie and togetherness, it was simply fun just being around them.  Add the beauty of the region to the wine and people, and it’s a little slice of heaven on earth.

andina swag bag

A swag bag of a different kind for us wine writers…fresh veggies straight from the Mercer Farm.

Unlike most swag bags that wine writers receive after impressive tastings like the one we experienced at Andina, our swag bag from Mercer Estates was full of freshly harvested potatoes, carrots and onions.  Straight fromthe Mercer’s  farm to my table, those delicious vegetables went to very good use.  I made some ambrosial dishes that I’ll soon be sharing in an article for my Pair This section.

Thanks to the fine folks of Mercer Estates and Trellis Growth Partners for the amazing lunch and tasting. A special thanks to winemaker Jessica Munell for sharing and discussing the truly impressive wines of Mercer Estates.