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Willamette Valley Revisited
by Christopher Sawyer
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 5.1

oregon's most recognized wine region

The minute we left Porland and headed into Willamette Valley, the heart of Oregon's most recognized wine region, the theme song from "Green Acres" started closed-loop play in my head. Daa-da-dah, da-da-dah, da-da! This valley is capital G - green! - with stripes of shocking emerald blocking off repeating rows of vineyards. I'm impressed, and I'm from Sonoma.

Willamette is gargantuan. Tucked between the Coastal and Cascade ranges, the region extends all the way from Portland to Eugene. About 100 of the state's 161 bonded wineries call this place home. The appellation's divided into north and south, with the majority of wineries located in the north, primarily west of the Willamette River. Most are found in clusters near small towns. In the south, the separation between wineries is on a much grander scale. In this region, pinot noir rules. Other red players (in limited quantities): gamay noir, pinot meunier, marechal foch.

Whites cut a wider swath: lots of pinot gris and chard, and a solid showing from white riesling, pinot blanc, gewurztraminer, sauvignon blanc and muller-thurgau.

Historical flashback: the first modern grapes were planted in Oregon by ex-Californian David Lett, near the town of Dundee, back in '66. Lett founded Eyrie Vineyards, believing that Oregon - like France's legendary Burgundy region - was the place to grow pinot noir. He proved himself right in 1980, when his 1975 Orgeon pinot placed second at a premiere French wine tasting. The man who organized the tasting was Robert Drouhin, one of Burgundy's most respected negociants. In 1988, Drouhin opened shop in Oregon and started Domaine Drouhin in the Red Hills above Dundee, securing a significant link between Oregon and Burgundy. Since then, both quality and quantity in the Willamette Valley have increased dramatically.

If any of this is starting to sound familiar, don't fool yourself: Willamette's a lot different than other notable left coast appellations. It rains like a s.o.b. here, so securing a certain amount of good grapes from vintage to vintage can be a serious struggle. Vintners have to marry ma nature, 'cause there's no fighting her. Another consideration: virgin land. In other words, some wineries are still timid (not open to the public); others let their hair down at certain times of the year (special occasions like Memorial and Thanksgiving weekends only); some need a little room (closed Christmas through February); and some really like to party (open year round).

From Portland, get on Highway 99W and head south. There are more than 5,000 acres of vineyards planted in Northern Willamette Valley, where average annual rainfall is between 40 and 50 inches. Yamhill County is by far the largest producer of wine in all of Oregon. Let's start there.

Rex Hill is one of the first wineries you'll see outside Portland. Founded in 1982, it's one of the oldest and largest wineries in the region. The beautiful vista of vineyards, trees and gardens surrounding Rex Hill winery scream that you've officially entered the country. Inside the winery you'll find a number of whites and pinot noirs to taste, along with a collection of contemporary art.

Just past the town of Newberg, stop by Duck Pond Winery. Owned and operated by the Fries family, the winery's the fourth largest producer in Oregon. After tasting the normal lineup, ask to try the wonderful ice wine (100 percent semillon). It's normally not available for tasting, but if you mention "Wine X," they'll open it just for you.

Down the road, the quaint, peaceful town of Dundee is home to a number of notable wineries. Argyle's one of them. Located on the main strip, the winery's gained a reputation for producing some of Oregon's best sparkling wines. The tasting room and visitor center are located in a Victorian house rumored to be haunted - consider yourself forewarned. Also take note that Argyle's bubblies can solicit interesting interpretations.

Dundee may be small, but there's no shortage of great places to dine. The Ponzi Wine Bar features tasting flights and a nice assortment of appetizers;the adjacent Dundee Bistro focuses on local produce and farm raised meats made in their mesquite-fired Tandoor oven; and local favorite Tina's features nightly specials, an extensive wine list and impeccable service. For an even more laid-back atmosphere, go to Lumpy's Tavern for burgers, beer and a good game of darts.

South of town you'll find Sokol Blosser Winery. Whether it's the groovin' music playing inside, the artsy Gen X posters on the wall or the chops/'stache combo that tasting room manager Lee Medina sports, this elder winery (founded in 1971) still has youth written all over it. Behind the tasting room is an educational vineyard where visitors can learn about the effects of soil on different varietals. And if you want to taste an example of how it works, try their Evolution No. 9 ("9" standing for the number of white varietals used in the blend) - here's a wine that stands up to sushi or spicy Mexican foods.

Archery Summit is located just above Sokol Blosser vineyards. Owned by Gary Andrus (of Napa Valley's Pine Ridge Winery), this is another fine example of outside interest in Willamette Valley. The winery produces an amazing white blend (predominantly pinot gris), Vireton, as well as four distinctive pinot noirs. According to winemaker Sam Tannahill, they're aiming to make pinots packed with flavor. No wimpy wines here!

Past the town of Lafayette, 99W intersects with Highway 47, which leads north to the historic towns of Carlton and Yamhill. Wineries of note in that area include Belle Pente, Stag Hollow, Domaine Serene, Ken Wright and WillaKenzie. Carlton offers a number of good places to stay, including McMenimin's Hotel Oregon and the tranquil cabins at Flying M Ranch.

If you decide to continue on 99W, you'll pass through McMinnville, where you'll find Yamhill Valley Vineyards, Panther Creek, Torii Mor and others. Golden Valley Brew Pub offers an assortment of beers on tap as well as its own wines. I'd also recommend a stop at the Wine Shop at Third Street Grill. And McMinneville offers a number of good places to stay, including McMenimin's Hotel Oregon and the romantic Youngberg Hill.

To the east, off 99W, is winery row, including Cuneo Cellars, Tempest, Bethel Heights and Amity Vineyards. Amity makes a very interesting fruity, sulfite-free pinot called ECO. Stock up on this at the winery or at the Oregon Wine Tasting Room at Lawrence Gallery (located outside of McMinnville on Highway 18), which offers wines produced by a number of local boutique wineries.

It's also worth mentioning that there are a number of wineries - Eola Hills, Flynn, Redhawk and St. Innocent - located around Salem, Oregon's state capital. South of Salem, along Interstate 5, you'll find Willamette Valley Vineyards (WVV). My favorites here include a number of the vineyard-designate pinot noirs, the late harvest viognier and the aperitif-style Tualatin Estate semi sparkling muscat. (Tualatin Estate is located west of Portland, along with Cooper Mountain, Ponzi Vineyards, Laurel Ridge and the Momokawa Sake factory.)

The majority of the wineries in the southern Willamette Valley are located west of Oregon's two college towns, Corvallis and Eugene. The area's a bit warmer and averages a little less rain per year than its sister to the north. More than 1,100 acres of vineyards are planted here. Hinman Vineyards/Silvan Ridge, Benton Lane, LaVelle Vineyards and Tyee Wine Cellars are among the region's 22 wineries.

And then there's King Estate. Located in the middle of, um, nowhere. (Actually, it's southwest of Eugene, off Territorial Highway.) Once you get there you'll realize the trip was worth it. The size of the facility is breathtaking! The winery was founded in 1992 by Ed King Jr., creator of the airplane radio system that bears his name. The placement of the winery turns out to be logical. Seems that the relationship to the coast gives it a maritime environment reminiscent of other great pinot noir regions, like Russian River Valley, Santa Barbara County and Carneros, to name a few.

What do they make here? Well, they start with what they call their Pinot Envy wines - pinot noir, pinot gris and pinot blanc. This is the core of King's production. They also produce a large amount of chardonnay, some vin gris (made from pinot noir), and a bit of cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. When you get there, make sure to go on the tour. Besides taking in the impressive equipment, the view you get from the tower and the Gallo-Roman columns in the barrel room kick butt!

There you have it. If I learned one thing about this region, it's that wine has put Willamette Valley on the map - and Oregonian hospitality will keep it there.

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