Oregon's Willamette Valley is a beautiful place to visit with lush, rolling hillsides and surrounding farm communities. This time of year is especially nice in because harvest is happening, and it's the time of year when the sun is out for more than one day in a row. I lived in Portland for 17 years and I can say without a doubt, when the sun is shining, Oregon is the most picturesque place in the U.S. A drive through the Willamette Valley is filled with hidden roads around the bend or over a gentle slope, passing country markets and pumpkin patches along the way.
During my time living in Oregon, I fell in love with the Pinot Noirs. Not hard to do...if you've ever had a good Pinot Noir, it's magic in a bottle. But if you get it wrong, Pinot Noir can be disappointing and uninspiring. I find it to be one of the most dramatic grapes in terms of end result. With grapes like Cabernet or Merlot you can get more consistency year in and year out whereas Pinot Noir is much more temperamental. You can't handle it the same you handle Cabernet—it requires a more delicate hand. In fact, wineries often use gravity flow instead of pumps when transferring Pinot from one place to another because it's that sensitive. You'll notice the average price point of a decent Pinot is higher than other grapes, in part because of the extra handling required.
Pinot Noir is a wonderful grape, and it grows exceptionally well in Oregon's Willamette Valley in part because Oregon is situated along the 45th parallel. The climate and terroir in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley provides ideal growing conditions for the finicky grape. When I met my wife, she was an Australian Shiraz drinker, but then I took her to Oregon and introduced her to good Pinot Noir—now she's hooked! Pinot is a very food friendly wine that goes with so many different kinds of foods it's not even funny. Well, maybe a little bit funny.
After driving up I-5 I arrived in McMinnville, Oregon and checked into McMenamins Hotel Oregon. I headed up to the Rooftop bar to get on my laptop and get some work done. As I sat at my table enjoying a pint of Oktoberfest, I plotted out the next day's itinerary. At the table next to me were two guys who had been working harvest that day. They were nice enough to provide some pointers.
I awoke the next morning to find a silver tint to the clouded sky overhead. Looking out my hotel window over downtown McMinnville was like a trip back in time to 1950. The old fashioned downtown has a tree lined Main street with old fashioned appliance stores and warm cafes. After getting a fresh baked item from Red Fox Bakery, I headed out to Oregon wine country.
In the south part of the Willamette Valley you'll find long time producers Cristom and Bethel Heights. Both are family owned, and both have been making stellar Pinot Noir since the 1970's. I walked into Bethel Heights to be greeted by a warm aroma of homemade cooking. Right there in their tasting room, one of the founders was making Salmon Chowder (with BACON) for the crew. Another day of harvest was complete and the troops were hungry. I tasted through the Bethel Heights lineup, finding myself going back in time to when I first discovered Pinot nearly 15 years ago. Their whites were good, but their reds were better. I was especially interested in the Southest Block Pinot Noir. That, and the Justice Vineyard Pinot Noirs were every bit as good as what I remember. I took all sorts of great footage of their winemakers picking through grapes that had just come in, but that was lost in the transfer. The view from Bethel Heights tasting room was unreal. You step out onto the balcony and about 10 feet below is the downward sloping vineyard that seems to go on forever. The owner/winemaker mentioned 2009's vintage as not only very good quality, but there were large crops. That's means there's going to be plenty of good Pinot Noir to go around for everyone when the wines are released.
Next stop was Cristom, one of my top 3 favorite producers in Oregon. Cristom has vineyards that were planted back in the 1970's which is cool because older vines means more complex wines. The first wine I tasted was the 2006 Pinot Gris, which is made entirely from the 5-acre estate vineyard Emilia. You drink their Gris and it reminds you Oregon makes exceptional wines besides Pinot Noir. This Gris was floral and fun to take for a spin. But I was there for the reds. The Louise, Marjorie and Eileen Pinot Noirs didn't disappoint. All three remind me ofI used to party with back in college who were always the fun girls invited to every social function. Each one has its own personality, but together they all share a common bond. Each year those sisters continually find the balance and walk the line between good girls and frisky while making their parents proud. I left with more bottles than I had intended :D
Last stop was Sokol Blosser, located smack dab in the middle of Oregon's wine country.
I spent the afternoon with Kitri and Jeff from Sokol Blosser. They took me to the Dundee Bistro, a place that used to have an after meal bacon dish. Sadly, the bistro no longer served that. After lunch (photos are lost) we went next door to the Ponzi tasting bar. There we were able to taste through all sorts of different Oregon wines. Again, I left with more bottles than I had planned but my wife and I are going to drink well for a while :)
Kitri and Jeff were great hosts, and gave me a tour of the winery, barrel room and vineyards. Sokol Blosser is not only one of Oregon's oldest wineries, with some of the oldest vineyards, but they also have the first LEEDS certified winery in the U.S. and practice sustainable farming habits. You might know Sokol Blosser best from their Evolution white wine sold in just about every liquor store across the U.S. The most recent version of Evolution is like the old style—not too dry. We tasted through different vintages of Pinot Noir from different vineyards but the one that really gave me the OMG! reaction was their 2004 Willamette Valley Cuvee. WOW! Everything a Pinot Noir should be. Silky, sexy a great dancer but looks great in an evening gown. A real classy version of a high society wine.
Before heading back to Napa, I visited some friends in Portland and spent the day Saturday frequenting farmer's markets. Besides having incredible Pinot Noirs, Oregon has just about everything else you could want if you enjoy food and wine. There's local seafood, cattle ranches and local organic produce farms within an hour's drive from Portland. This was a fun little weekend and when I come back it won't be soon enough. Cheers!