Oregon, but not forgotten: A Visit to the Willamette Valley

We had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Oregon in May 2009, visiting downtown Portland and spending time in the Willamette Valley. While wine regions exist in Oregon’s other valleys, namely the Umpqua and Rogue, it is the Willamette Valley that has achieved the most fame. This wine region is producing spectacular wines and while we have left the area, the memories of its wines are certainly not forgotten. Despite its youth as a wine-producing state, Oregon has become nearly synonymous with quality wine. Yet, only a few decades ago, early settlers were laughed at by their peers. In 1966, David Lett was a newly minted UC Davis graduate determined to plant a vineyard and begin making wine. He found what he felt to be suitable land in the Dundee Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, founding the Eyrie Vineyard in 1970, and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

David was joined by other wine pioneers shortly thereafter, setting the stage for this nascent wine region. Seeing similarity between their terroir and that of Burgundy (heartland of Pinot Noir), they set about crafting wines that emulated these icons while respecting their own unique soils and climate. Perhaps the most ringing endorsement of their success was the investment made by top Burgundy négociant and producer, Maison Joseph Drouhin, when it established Domaine Drouhin in Willamette in 1988. Today, Oregon ranks as the fourth largest in U.S. wine production and its wines are highly acclaimed both here and abroad. In fact, Oregon Pinot Noirs are considered to be among the best New World Pinot Noirs.

Situated only one hour south from Portland, the Willamette Valley is home to varied volcanic soils and a cool climate. The Valley is divided into six sub-appellations: Dundee Hills, Ribbon Ridge, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinneville, Yamhill-Carlton District and Chehalem Mountains. Beyond world class Pinot Noir, the Willamette is also known for its Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and sparkling wines. To a lesser extent, some producers are working with Rhone varieties – Syrah and Viognier – most of which is sourced from the warmer Rogue Valley in southern Oregon. The majority of Willamette’s wineries are open to the public for tastings and sales and readily welcome visitors.

 

Thus, we arrived in Portland, OR on a Wednesday evening, ready for a long weekend of wonderful food and wine. From the airport, downtown Portland is easily accessible via public transportation and, once there, easily navigated on foot, trolley or bus. As a relatively major city, Portland is home to a wide range of neighborhoods as well as museums, historic sites and other points of interest. Due to our limited time in town, our cultural visit was restricted to the Rose (gratis) and Japanese Gardens ($8.00/adult), both of which were beautiful. The Japanese Garden was particularly lovely for its amazing view of Mount Hood.|

East of the city, visitors can escape to the “wilderness” and enjoy white water rafting, hiking and other outdoor activities. We spent a half-day rafting down the Clackamas River (www.riverdrifters.net; $60/adult), which was full of fury with the recent snow melt, but a lot of fun. We then returned to Portland and splurged on dinner at Paley’s Place (www.paleysplace.net), a local favorite that specializes in locavore cuisine, with a wine list to match. We were impressed by the food as well as with the excellent customer service and knowledgeable waitstaff, who not only expertly advised us on our wine selection, but also on the cheese selections at dessert.  

Saturday morning found us at the local craft market (known as the Saturday Market, www.saturdaymarket.org), which is host to hundreds of vendors peddling their wares from candles and clothing to jewelry, pottery and glass art. This outing was followed by a visit to the Portland Farmers’ Market (www.portlandfarmersmarket.org), where we stocked up on local produce, fresh strawberries, smoked fish, artisan bread and a host of other homegrown food. The reason for this latter stop was that, instead of staying at a hotel or bed and breakfast, we had opted to rent a cottage in Carlton while staying in Willamette. This arrangement provided us with a good excuse to buy a few bottles of wine each day to enjoy with dinner prepared on the grill at “home”, without worrying about driving while intoxicated.

 

Carlton, we were told, is the “center of the Willamette universe.” Compared to New York City (or even Portland), it is a very small town, but there is some merit to that statement. Carlton is home to a number of wineries and tasting rooms, along with several restaurants and wine and cheese bar, The Horse Radish (www.thehorseradish.com). Aside from being a great place to stock up on Oregonian and international cheeses, The Horse Radish features live music on Friday and Saturday nights and not just local bands; on the night we were there, the musical duo was from Arizona.

 

Excited to have arrived in the valley, we walked up to the Zenas Wines’ (www.zenaswines.com) tasting room. Zenas produces three of its four wines with fruit sourced from the Del Rio Vineyards in the Rogue Valley and its Riesling with Willamette Valley fruit. The Southern Oregon wines include a Meritage (Bordeaux-style blend), Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Named for Zenas Howard, an early (1856) settler in the Rogue Valley, the winery is currently owned by his descendents.

We then headed out to Anne Amie (www.anneamie.com; $5.00 tasting fee/ $10.00 for the Reserve flight). This property was formally known as Chateau Benoit Winery, but was purchased by its new owner, Dr. Robert Pamplin, in 1999. Dr. Pamplin has been focused on elevating the quality and reputation of his winery ever since and is producing primarily Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc on its L.I.V.E. certified sustainable vineyards. The tasting room is located at the top of a hill and provides beautiful views of the vineyards and Pacific Coast Range.

 

We kicked off the following morning at Penner Ash (http://pennerash.com), which focuses on both Burgundy (Pinot Noir) & Rhone (Syrah and Viognier) varieties. Founded by winemaker Lynn Penner-Ash in 1998, along with husband Ron, Penner-Ash has evolved from an initial 125 production to 8,000 cases annually. Another hilltop tasting room, the vistas are quite incredible as one walks amidst the lush landscaping.

 

From Penner-Ash, it was off to Adelsheim (www.adelsheim.com). Among the early pioneers, Adelsheim was established in 1971 by Ginny and David Adelsheim and several of its labels feature portraits of family members and friends of the winery. The newly renovated tasting room also offers outdoor seating, where one can enjoy a bottle of wine with a picnic lunch (we picked up our lunch ahead of time in Carlton at the Filling Station).

Our next stop was Daedalus Cellars (www.daedaluscellars.com), a small, family-owned and operated winery which specializes in Pinot Noir, but also makes small amounts of Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay and Grüner Veltliner. Additionally, Daedalus produces a second label, Jezebel, with grapes sourced from throughout the state for wines intended to be drunk early in their life. The tasting room is rather small, but is conveniently located on the main drag (99W in Dundee).

 

Exclusively devoted to Pinot Noir, White Rose Wines (www.whiterosewines.com) was planted in 1980. Its vineyard is a high-elevation sight on top of the famous Dundee Hills, permitting views of Mount Hood in the distance. Owned by Greg Sanders, the winery has developed several different wines, with four of the six wines named for Greg’s children.

 

We capped off the day at Carlton Winemakers’ Studio (www.winemakersstudio.com), which is a joint venture among several different wine producers. Launched in 2002, the studio is currently home to ten artisan vintners and serves as a great incubator for up and comers; past alumni include Penner-Ash, Soter Vineyards and Ribbon Ridge Vineyards. The facility itself is designed to maximize daylight and is produced from recycled and sustainable materials. On the day of our visit, we tasted wines from several producers including Hamacher Wines and Andrew Rich.

The second full day of tasting began at Bergström Wines (www.bergstromwines.com; $25.00 tasting fee). Founded by John and Karen Bergström, the couple’s five children and spouses now co-own the winery with their parents, with son Josh Bergström presently serving as winemaker. Known for ultra premium wines and a focus on vineyard expression, Bergstrom produces several limited production, vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs.

The next stop on our itinerary was WillaKenzie Estate (www.willakenzie.com; $15.00 tasting fee, refundable with $25.00 wine purchase), where we were greeted by co-owner, Ronnie LaCroute, who graciously provided us with a tour. As Ronnie likes to remind folks, “Dirt matters.” Therefore, it is no surprise to learn that WillaKenzie is named for a type of soil that originates from the pushed up sea floor found in the Yamhill-Carlton and Ribbon Ridge areas. Among the larger properties we visited, WillaKenzie is situated on a 420-acre, former cattle ranch and practices sustainable viticulture.

 

We ended our tastings at Amity Vineyards (www.amityvineyards.com), where we met with owner, Myron Redford, who began making wine in the Eola-Amity appellation (the southernmost Willamette AVA) in 1974. Myron has an extremely diverse portfolio at Amity, ranging from his EcoWine® range of organic and sulfite-free wines to the Reserve and single-vineyard wines.

 

SELECTED TASTING NOTES
Anne Amie, Cuvée A Amrita 2007, Willamette Valley, OR, $16.00
Named for the Buddhist equivalent of ambrosia, Amrita is a white blend of Pinot Blanc (47%), Muller-Thurgau (25%), Chardonnay (15%), and Riesling (13%). Aromas of tropical fruit and grass give way to a dry palate with citrus and herbal flavors. 1,700 cases produced.

Adelsheim, Pinot Blanc 2007, Willamette Valley, OR, $22.00
This Pinot Blanc shows citrus, mineral and pear aromas. On the palate, it is dry with medium acidity, medium body and notes of citrus and minerality.

Daedalus, Lia’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Chehalem Mountain, OR, $25.00
After spending 500 days on the lees, along with 18 months in neutral oak, this wine displays aromas and flavors of yeast, citrus and toothpick.

 

White Rose Wines, White Rose Estate 2006, Dundee Hills, OR, $75.00
Produced from 30 year-old vines, cropped at only 1 ton per acre, this wine is very concentrated on both the nose and palate. Aromas of floral and earth give way to more fruity flavors of raspberry and cherry. 198 cases produced.

Bergström, de Lancellotti Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Chehalem Mountains, OR, $65.00
The de Lancellotti Vineyard bottling shows floral, raspberry and stone aromas and flavors, which combine with an earthy undercurrent that persists throughout its long length. 455 cases produced.

WillaKenzie Estate, Pierre-Léon Pinot Noir 2006, Willamette Valley, OR, $38.00
With a beautifully perfumed nose accompanied by a note of fresh raspberries, this wine continues to deliver on the palate with raspberry, earth, minerality and an undercurrent of wet leaves.

Penner-Ash, Syrah 2006, Oregon, $32.00
Produced in the northern Rhone Valley tradition, this Syrah is co-fermented with 1.5% Viognier. The nose is a mix of plum, berries and floral. Its dry, medium+-bodied palate has a nice, ripe tannic grip with flavors of plum, spice and leather, culminating in long length.

Amity Vineyards, Late Estate Harvest Riesling 2004, Willamette Valley, OR, $15.00 (375 ml)
This late harvest Riesling offers peach, apricot and honey aromas on the nose, joined by developing and floral notes in the mouth. A true dessert wine, it provides significant sweetness on the palate, which is beautifully balanced with vibrant acidity.

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