If you can make it to Portland, you're practically in Oregon wine country. Just another 35 minutes going south on Highway I-5, and you're at the northern tip of Willamette Valley (say Wih-LAM-it), Oregon's largest wine-producing area, known for its cool climate, watery influence (Willamette and Columbia rivers, Pacific Ocean) and LOTS of pinot noir.
Our first stop was home base, a bed-and-breakfast called The Inn at Champoeg (say SHAMPOO-EY), a private home-turned-inn in the farming town of St. Paul.
Perched on a knoll on the edge of Champoeg State Park, the inn offered a respite and quiet that otherwise doesn't come easily in an urban jungle. Birds were the audio, fir trees were the visual.
There are 127 wineries and tasting rooms listed on the area guide/map produced by the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, which means wine-tasting possibilities beyond your wildest dreams. Although it's been years since my visit to California's Napa Valley, I remember a pretense and fancy-pants mentality that was undetectable here in Willamette Valley.
Dotted throughout the valley, wineries are found not only high up on a hilltop but also connected by a few main roads (a heated topic of conversation among locals because of the constantly gridlocked traffic) through the main towns of Newburg, Dundee, McMinnville and Amity, to name a few. I immediately noticed that wineries are part of the local fabric as any other local business, so you might find a barber, bookshop or someone's home next door to a tasting room. This kind of wine-daily life integration lends an accessible vibe that is reminiscent of Italy's Piedmont region.
Sitting at the top of a hill with a majestic view of the valley, Amity is a bit out of the way but worth the treasure hunt. In addition to a tasting lineup of at least 10 wines poured by the very knowledgeable Diana, the vineyard offers a picnic area amid the grapes, so be sure to pack a snack.
In addition to a variety of pinot noir possibilities (single vineyard, estate, winemaker's reserve), Redford is also making a distinctive Pinot Blanc that has become my new fave among whites. I was also taken by his Gamay Noir, another grape that you don't hear much about on the East Coast. A bit of smoke and black pepper on the tongue, the mouthfeel is light and perky, and I agree with Diana on its pairing possibilities with anything cooked on the grill
Closer into town, in McMinnville, David Lett has set up a tasting room for showcasing his pinots (noir, blanc and gris) with a few Chardonnays sprinkled in. Producing wine since 1970, Lett is known as "Papa Pinot," having produced the first Pinot noir (1975) and Pinot gris (1970) in the United States.
Going to the source of a wine is an education unlike any other. My traveling companion, a long-time Pinot noir skeptic, had his eyes opened. "I didn't know there were so many sides to a Pinot noir," he said. "I guess I've been drinking really bad stuff until now."
We expanded our knowledge even further with a visit to the Oregon WineTasting Room, with a guided tasting led by the inimitable Patrick McElligott, who's got a contagious passion for wine. (When you meet him, ask him about his "Pinot Nowar" label.) Open since 1980, the tasting room showcases 250-plus wines from more than 90 Oregon wineries. We had an opportunity to taste about 20 wines, running the grape gamut, at all price points. I loved the opportunity to try so many wines in one venue and compare/contrast grapes by vineyard, year and McElligott's local perspective.
Here's what made it into the case to be shipped back east: Wild Z 2004, a blend of five red grapes, by Zerba Cellars; Vista Hills 2003 Pinot Noir; Andrew Rich 2002 Syrah; Cooper Mountain 2004 Organic/Biodynamic Chardonnay and Anna Maria 2004 Viognier.
Tomorrow: We ate well, too. I'll share my dining tales from the Valley.
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