The Mind-Bending Wines of Golden Cluster #WinePW

Tasting the wines of Golden Cluster by Jeff Vejr at Les Caves Wine Bar in  Portland Oregon left my mind bent and my palate absolutely delighted. Here we take a closer look at three of the may wines we tasted, paired with grilled cheese sandwiches!


I love wine tasting. That’s pretty obvious by now. Very rarely, however, does a tasting experience leave my mind bent, flipped, completely turned inside out, and absolutely delighted. That’s how I felt after tasting with Jeff Vejr and his Golden Cluster family of wine brands. 

It was mere happenstance that I ended up on this tasting journey. Greg and I just returned from a road trip around Oregon and Washington. By coincidence, we overlapped for one day with my friend Ron and his girlfriend Amy in Portland. Ron is hands-down my very wine-geekiest friend, and I think that says a lot coming from me, a proud wine geek. He looks at things in very out-of-the-box ways and goes deep into research. (You can read an article he wrote about intersections between Beethoven and wine here.)  We always have a lot of fun drinking and eating together, and I always learn a ton. Such was the case on this particular evening. Ron had made an appointment to taste with Jeff Vejr at Les Caves, the wine bar he co-owns in the Alberta Arts District of Portland. When we realized we’d be overlapping, he arranged for us to join in the fun. And it was A LOT of fun. 

Note: Our tastings were comped, but no other compensation was received and all opinions are my own.

Les Caves Wine Bar

Let’s begin by setting the scene. Les Caves is a cozy little spot located in what was originally the boiler room of the Victoria Theater (1910 -1965). After the theater closed, the building went on to be used by a series of churches of various denominations up through the mid-2000s. Nowadays, if you make your way around back and down a couple of flights of stairs, you’ll find this tiny, elegant, rustic wine bar. 

We were there the weekend before it was due to reopen after Covid, and they’d used the downtime to renovate the space and add a new outdoor area as well, one flight up from the original bar area. 

A Guided Tasting of Golden Cluster Wines Paired with Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Jeff guided us through an extensive tasting of his wines. We enjoyed the first few wines in the original bar space and then moved up to the new outdoor area for the rest. We got to enjoy them alongside a selection of tasty grilled cheese sandwiches Les Caves has on offer. 

We tried three grilled cheese sandwiches: 
- The Alsatian with Muenster, smoked uncured ham, and mustard powder.
- The Georgian with mozzarella, adjika paste, and paprika.
- The Italian with Provolone, organic roast beef, and Italian seasoning. (Currently, their menu shows a variation of this one called the Bologna with mortadella.)

Every single wine was interesting and enjoyable. It also became clear very quickly that Jeff has an extremely curious mind and each wine was an exploration of grape, clone, historical vineyard site, or experimental technique, and sometimes multiple explorations were all going on at once in a bottle. (It made total sense why Ron was attracted to this spot.) 

Jeff started Golden Cluster in 2013, after visiting David Hill Vineyard & Winery in Forest Grove, where he encountered Semillon vines that were over 48 years old at the time. Semillon was one of his first grape loves, and while he’d been in the process of starting other wine projects, he decided to change tracks to work with those grapes. The name is an homage to the grape, which is known as the “golden” grape and makes “golden” wines in Sauternes. (The name also pays homage to Charles Coury who planted the vineyard in question, but that's a longer story.)

Previously, he’d spent time working at wineries in Europe dealing specifically with old vines. During our visit, he described himself several times as a history buff, and that love of old vines fits right in. He also worked or assisted at various wineries in Oregon and Washington while preparing to start his own project.  In an interview on Les Caves de Pyrene, Jeff gave further background on himself:

I am a 3rd generation American, who was raised in the fiercely independent state of New Hampshire. Growing up on a self-sustaining farm taught me the value of taste, hard work, the beauty of seasons, and an appreciation for the history all around me. These lessons and experiences have culminated in my wine project called Golden Cluster here in Oregon.

Golden Cluster is now actually a group of brands, some with only one or two wines in the line. In a way, each represents a theme of exploration. Those other lines include Coury, Dionystic, Müller?, Olmo, On Wine Hill, Ordeaux, Oregon Brand, Syrahcha, The First Row, and Vinous Obscura. 

Over the course of the evening, we tried about thirteen, and each one was its own special unicorn. There were wines made from rare grapes, some I’d never heard of,  and some made in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible. Jeff mentioned that he takes a lot of inspiration in coming up with new techniques for handling wine from chef friends and techniques they use in the kitchen. A lot of the techniques he described ran in the face of everything I’ve been taught about wine. 

He sometimes finds ways to use grapes that anyone else would consider to be irrevocably flawed . .  . and yet the wines worked. This really spoke to me, as I’m the type of person that finds all kinds of bizarre ways to use things that would typically be considered trash in the kitchen to make new things. (Most people would probably consider my freezer a trash heap from all the bags of random scraps waiting for reincarnation.) He finds a way to make delicious wines with grapes that would be trash or compost and pays the growers that would’ve likely lost income. 

It would be overwhelming for both you and me to spotlight all of those wines and what makes them all bizarre and interesting in one post, so I’m going to limit myself to three wines here. 

Golden Cluster 'COURY' Old Vine Semillon Willamette Valley 2018 

Price:  $28 ABV: 14.24%     Grapes: 100% Semillon

Tasting Notes: Lots of stone fruits, dried flowers, and powdered honey on the nose. The wine was super complex and layered on the palate with more stone fruits some, dried, along with some tropical fruits, ginger, curry powder, and hints of deeper citrus tones like Meyer lemon and orange skin. Despite the nose and honeyed notes, this is a dry wine. In many ways, it reminded me of Savennières, wines from the Loire Valley made from botrytized Chenin Blanc grapes that are vinified to dry. 

Mind-bending Properties:  Grapes that make you go EEEWWW!? 

The grapes come from a historical vineyard with own-rooted vines. Sadly, this particular vintage had a lot of issues. This wine was affected by botrytis late in the season, but that’s not weird for Semillon. In Sauternes and the other sweet wine regions of Bordeaux,  Semillon is prized for its susceptibility to botrytis, or noble rot, which under the right conditions, dries out the grapes and concentrates the flavors and makes them more complex. Noble rot is one thing, but powdery mildew is another thing completely – this is one fungus that is never prized. And yet the grapes for this wine were heavily infected. The lead-in for this wine on the Golden Cluster’s website describes it this way:

A wine that shouldn’t exist, but does.  This 2018 Semillon is an anomaly. It will probably never be repeated.  It is one of my proudest moments as a winemaker, because I did not give up on it. 

Jeff painted a picture of these grapes as they fermented which made them sound like complete sludge. We’re always told that great wines are made in the vineyard and this does not sound like an auspicious start. So what do you do if you have grapes like these but you’re determined to make a wine from them? Wash the lees. I’d never heard of lees washing before, and I believe Jeff told us that he basically made up the name, so I don’t think this technique has spread far beyond Golden Cluster’s doorstep. Basically, he added the lees from completed, clean Muller-Thurgau and Pinot Gris fermentations to the wine and dumped the Semillon lees out, repeating the process twice. He told us that that process changes the porcini mushrooms flavors you would get from the powdery mildew infected grapes and converts them to dried fruit notes. The website also notes that the process “works wonders to damaged fruit without having to result in using any of the 'chemical' solutions often used as a last resort.”  Whatever he did, it worked. This was a beautiful and fascinating wine. 

It was also completely different from the 2019 version of the wine, which did not suffer the same problems. That vintage was more in line with a dry Hunter Valley style Semillion from Australia and was much brighter and lighter on the palate, with stone fruit notes that tended more towards white peach, and the mixed citrus notes had tart hints of grapefruit mixed in.

You can read more about this wine and how it was made here.

Grilled Cheese Pairing: This wine worked with all of the grilled cheese options, but I think the Alsatian was my favorite. 

Vinous Obscura Grand Bazzar Willamette Valley 2019

Price: $25 ABV: 12%    Grapes: 14 unique varieties 

Tasting Notes: Orange skin, honey, honeysuckle, candied grapefruit, and tangerine on the nose. These all continued on the palate, along with dried golden flowers, sumac, turmeric, and hints of game. 

Mind-bending Properties: It's a mysterious, beautiful mess. 

It’s an orange wine made from 14 different grapes (unspecified) all coming from the same vineyard (redacted), some botrytized, made in a dual fermentation. There’s a lot to wrap your head around there. This is another wine that supposedly looked terrible during fermentation, but he didn’t want to quit on it. He decided to handle the aromatic and non-aromatic grapes differently. The aromatic grapes in the mix were left in contact with their skins for 14 days. The non-aromatic grapes did not see skin contact. He compared this to his version of an Arnold Palmer, each half contributing a different aspect to the whole. I do love an Arnold Palmer.

You can read more about this wine and how it was made here.

Grilled Cheese Pairing:  I thought this was absolute magic with the Georgian grilled cheese. 

Vinous Obscura Paint, Dye, or Give Color Saperavi Columbia Gorge 2020

Price: $28 ABV: 13.5%    Grapes:  100% Saperavi

Tasting Notes: This wine was quite aromatic on the nose with hints of orange skin and cinnamon, mixing with fruit notes of grapes and berries, game, pepper, and purple flowers. All of these continued on the palate, with even more spice notes mixing in. Earthy notes of stones and clay hit on the finish. Despite the intensity of aromas and flavors, this was not a heavy wine. It still had plenty of freshness. 

Mind-bending Properties: There’s Saperavi in the US? Oh, and it’s matured in Oregon-made Amphorae. 

I learned a lot about this grape during our conversation. Saperavi is best known as one of the premier grapes of the country of Georgia. Jeff specified that the vineyard these come from (redacted) has the only Saperavi currently planted west of the Mississippi River. I’ve never seen a bottling from the US, period. The vineyard also has all five clones of the grape that are available in the US, four are included in this bottling, as the vines of the fifth are still young, but will be included in the future. 

Jeff mentioned that it is one of the oldest domesticated wine grapes and that it’s only one or two generations removed from the wild. I wasn’t able to confirm this but as Georgia has a claim to one of the oldest winemaking traditions in the world, so it seems like it tracks.

The wine’s name takes inspiration from the grape itself as Saperavi means “dye.” It’s a teinturier grape, which means that it is one of the few red grape varieties that has colored flesh, not just colored skins. As such, it produces deeply colored juice. 

In Georgia, wines are traditionally fermented and matured in qvevri, earthenware vessels shaped kind of like an egg with the narrow side pointed downwards that are intended to be buried in the ground. (Cement eggs are another style of fermentation vessel that has the narrow end pointed upwards. Jeff pointed out that they’re essentially opposites and distribute the lees – as well as grapes skins, stems, and seeds if left in – differently, creating different textures in the wines.) 

The material of the vessel also plays a major role. Clay and cement vessels have a different effect on wine than wood or stainless steel. Among other things, clay is porous so it allows for a small amount of oxygen transfer, unlike stainless steel, but it doesn’t add any overt flavor to the wine the way wood does. 

This American version of Saperavi is fermented in amphorae, which have a shape somewhat similar to qvevri, but with a flat bottom so they can sit on the ground. (Originally, they also all had handles so they could be used for transport.) These amphorae are made in the US, specifically in Oregon, by Andrew Beckham’s Novum Ceramics the first commercial producer of terra cotta Amphorae for winemaking and brewing in North America. These amphorae add an extra layer of terroir, since the vessel comes from the same region as the wine.

You can read more about this wine and how it was made here.

Grilled Cheese Pairing: This was the last wine we had that night, so I only got to have a nibble of it with the Georgian grilled cheese, but in my mind, it would’ve been great with the Italian as well. 

This was such a memorable evening. We arrived at around 7 PM and pulled ourselves out of there after 1 AM, and we could’ve kept on talking and sipping except that it had gotten so late. I highly recommend a stop at Les Caves. While the wine bar has many wines on offer, you’ll typically find at least a couple from the Golden Cluster Lines. 


The rest of the Wine Pairing Weekend  (#WinePW) Blogging Group is exploring Amphora-made wines this month. I admit only ones of these fits the bill, but I was extremely excited about the experience, 

Be sure to check out the rest of the group's posts:

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  1. Wow, there's so much to take in here! I love the bar, it looks gorgeous. And the Semillon and 'Grand Bazaar' wines sound so fascinating! I just love your notes.

  2. What a neat looking place to visit and learn. How lucky are you?!!

  3. What a fun evening with a fascinating host, friends and wine. When I arrive in Portland, I usually make a bee-line for wine country, but it sounds like I need to find Golden Cluster!

    1. Yes, absolutely! And actually my list of urban wineries to try in Portland is growing -- there are quite a few interesting spots within the city!

  4. What a beautiful place and an amazing tasting! I will have to look that place up the next time we are in Portland!

  5. wow, I wish I could have been there! I cruised through Portland on that Monday night after the conference... I would have gone there if I'd known about the place and it'd been open! really interesting about the lees washing... we have such a problem with powdery mildew around here


Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!