Pinot Noir, the finicky, elegant grape of Burgundy provides Oregon's Willamette (pronounced will-AH-meht) Valley with its wine tradition. Though the Valley also produces wines made from Riesling and Pinot Gris, the region is known for their Pinot Noir production.
The Willamette Valley is cradled by forest and farmland with winding, two-lane roads that snake between wineries well-marked by blue signs. "Cities" outside of Portland exist, but these mostly resemble small town huddled together; an address in capitol city Salem might look rural indeed.
Not all vineyards are set up for tasting, though a large majority are. Weekends are the best bet for any winery, but many open tasting rooms throughout the week. Tastings typically go from 11 to 5, though some start as early as 10 and run as late as 6. They range from free to $20, with most tastings of five to eight wines costing $5 or $10. Usually the tasting fee is waived with a wine purchase, though there may be a minimum requirement beyond just one bottle.
Visitors with a vehicle, which is necessary, can easily visit four to six wineries in a day; more are possible for the dedicated. The drive itself is beautiful, green with leafy trees and the occasional roadside stand selling peak-fresh produce. Best times to visit weather-wise are July and August when the sun is ripening the fruit.
Northern Willamette Valley – Forest Grove Area
Forest Grove sits in the northern region of the Valley, little more than a stone's throw to the Tillamook Forest. Home of the Pacific University, this town of 21,000 does not feel like a college town.
Forest Grove features the region's sole sake distillery, Sake One. It closes at 5:00 – unwise, considering it's in a town where many people, such as me, are returning from an afternoon of wineries and would be happy for one more stop – so I did not get the chance to visit. It comes highly recommended by locals, though.
The following wineries are easily visited in one day. Bring a picnic lunch as there are no restaurants easily accessible outside of Forest Grove but plenty of picnic tables with scenic views.
- Shafer Vineyard Cellars: Home not only to Shafer Wines but also Miki's Santa Shop. (See ancillary article) 6200 N.W Gales Creek Road, Forest Grove, OR 97116
- Kramer Vineyards: This homey winery is just up the road from Elk Cove. Home to one very old Lab, Kramer makes delicious bubbly wine. Their tasting room also features a picnic area with a panoramic view of the vineyards. In addition to their bubbly and the obligatory Pinot Noir, they also make small batches of a fun wine called Carmine. Open daily 11 to 5, tastings cost $5, refundable with a two-bottle purchase. 26830 Northwest Olson Road, Gaston, OR 97119
- Elk Cove Vineyards: The drive up highlights the green of the vineyard meandering from a tiny pond to the modern tasting room. The wines are delicious and reasonably-priced, their Pinot Gris is a particular standout, fruity and complex with a hint of citrus. One of their best values is The Roosevelt Club, a wine club membership: $65 for two bottles of wine, shipped free; the wines are guaranteed to retail at up to twice the wine club price. One of the early risers, Elk cove opens at 10 to 5 with a $5 tasting fee. 27751 NW Olson Road Gaston, OR 97119
- David Hill Vineyard and Winery: Housed at the midway point of a graveled, twisty, sometimes elevated road, this winery features a breathtaking view of the Valley. The yellow farmhouse may look like a residence, but it hosts the tastings. The vineyard consists of 40 acres of vines, some of them the oldest in the state. Indeed, the tasting room showcases a 60-year-old picture of the vineyard. In addition to the typical Pinot Noir, they feature a Gewürztraminer and a delicious Riesling. Open 11 to 5 daily, their tasting fee is $5, refundable with purchase on 1 bottle. 46350 NW David Hill Road Forest Grove, OR 97116
Central Willamette Valley – Dundee Hills Area
Vineyards and wineries are concentrated in this area. The truly dedicated could visit more than six in a day. The roads meander through the farmland, punctuated with fruit trees. Lunch options are available in both Dundee and Carlton. Locals recommend The Horseradish Restaurant Wine and Cheese Bar in Carlton. Locals and Conde Nast Traveler recommend Red Hills Market in Dundee; I personally can vouch for the latter. Avoid Dundee at "rush hour" though as the two-lane road through town gets surprisingly backed up.
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- Penner-Ash: This winery is known for its sustaibability. (See ancillary article) 15771NE Ribbon Ridge Road, Newberg, OR
- Adelsheim Vineyard: The tasting room to me bears a resemblance to a monastery, or maybe it was an attendant hush when I arrived. Beautiful and modern, the tasting room bar actually stretched through one whole wing of the building. Seated on a hill, Adelsheim Vineyard looks out across the central valley. They feature wines often named after family and friends; these labels are reproductions of hand-drawn art. A little bit on the pricier end, Adelsheim wines are excellent for a splurge. Tastings run $15, refundable with a featured wine; open daily 11 to 5. 16800 NE Calkins Lane, Newberg, OR
- Lachini Vineyards: Just up the road from Adelsheim, but very different in style, Lachini Vineyards offers customers tastings in a garage. I kid you not, their lovely wine taster pours in a garage. Do not let the surroundings fool you, the wines are delightful. I traveled there because they were one of the few pouring an older selection, a 2007 Pinot Noir. Pricey at $60, it was nonetheless a complex wine with distinct notes of coffee and chocolate with lots of stone fruit. The winery seems humble, but they deliver a quality product. Tastings are $10, refundable with a bottle purchase. 18225 Calkins Lane, Newberg, OR
- · Vidon Vineyard: Another humble vineyard offering quality product, Vidon, is a scant ten minutes from Lachini. Their boutique tasting room sits in a tiny room overlooking the vineyards. They do not distribute their wine, so it is only available from a few local wine shops, restaurants, and, of course, the vineyards themselves. Tastings, which are offered 11-4 daily, cost $10, refundable with a $50 purchase. 17425 NE Hillside Drive
Newberg, Oregon 97132
- Domaine Serene: The opposite of humble, Domaine Serene caters to its select members. Wine club members receive its best benefits, including discounts on the wine, gratis attendance to their various events, and possible usage of their breathtaking estate. Granted, the estate and buildings are truly exquisite. However, their wines do not outshine their neighbors. The tasting fee is $20, worth it only for the chance to walk around the premises and gawk at those who spend for appearances. In truth, the highlight of my tasting was not the wine but the opportunity to talk to their novice sommelier, who is very knowledgeable about wine but could offer no reason for inflated prices beyond "quality." Again, the vineyard is worth the trek for the scenery. $20 for a tasting, open 11 to 4 Wednesday to Monday. 6555 Hilltop Lane, Dayton, OR
- De Ponte Cellars: Just down the road from Domaine Serene, De Pone Cellars offers similar views. When I visited, they had just hosted an event to fundraise for Great Danes; their sommelier looked in vain for doggie treats for visitors' mutts. This homey attitude carries through the pouring of their estate and library wines. The tasting room is open daily 11 to 5, and tastings run $10, applicable towards a three-bottle purchase. My favorite part, besides the dog-friendliness, was being able to view the huge wine barrels with aging wines at the back of the tasting room. 17545 NE Archery Summit Rd., Dayton, OR
Southern Willamette Valley – McMinnville and Salem Area
The land between the capitol Salem and the small town of McMinnville is filled with wineries, sometimes all in a convenient row. I drove through Salem, or I think I did – like I said, I never saw the town center (much less the capitol building.) Michele, the tasting room manager at David Hill describes Salem as a city that's been "squashed and spread out."
McMinnville – or Mac, as the locals call it – is a walkabout town. The Main Street has a fifties-era small town feel. Nonetheless, the town features several decent restaurants and is a convenient hub to the neighboring wineries. The following vineyards can be visited in a day, though I visited over a day-and-a-half.
- Left Coast Vineyards: This solar-powered vineyard sits on some of the most beautiful acreage. (See ancillary article)
- Firesteed Vineyards: Located just down the 99 from Left Coast, Firesteed Vineyards, Firesteed represents a different approach to wine-making. They sit atop a hill covered in vineyards – formerly Flynn Vineyards -- yet they also source many of their grapes for hand-picked vineyards. They make wine this way purposefully, so that they do not need to restrict themselves to estate-grown wine. They also have a vision for their product as a whole: affordable and with a label that looks beautiful in the candlelight. They have also won many prestigious awards with their wines. At Firesteed I first learned about the Great Vintage of 2008 and the Pinot Noir wine glass that could hold an entire bottle of wine. Oh, and their wines are delicious. The tasting room is open daily 11 to 5 and features $5 tastings, refundable with a wine purchase. 2200 N. Pacific Highway W. (99W), Rickreall, OR 97371
- Methven Vineyards: I did not buy a bottle of their 2008 Pinot Noir. I regret that. It was only my second day of tasting and, though I knew of the Great Vintage of 2008, I did not realize not all wineries would be pouring said vintage. Their 2008 Estate Cuvee Pinot Noir, made exclusively of estate-grown fruit, has fruit and spice on the nose, cherry and vanilla on the palette. Though not quite as complex as a fine 2005 Bordeaux, this wine is the best representation of the Great Vintage I tasted on my trip. It seemed a smidge pricey at $33 – I had just been to Firesteed and other wineries with $18 price tags and had not yet made it to the land of Domaine Serene of the $20 tasting. $33 is a fair price. I will probably order this wine and pay that much more to have it shipped. They also grow and produce a Gamay wine, which is unusual in the region. Enjoy Methven – they make a beautiful wine. Their tasting room is open 11 to 4 daily; tastings cost $10, refundable with purchase. 11400 Westland Lane, Dayton OR 97114
- Stangeland Vineyards and Winery: This vineyard is a challenge to find, though worth the effort. The sign is a bit difficult to see from the road, and the driveway splits halfway up. I drove up the wrong side, convinced myself I had just arrived in someone's backyard, drove back down atnd turned around just to arrive in the same spot. They specialize in estate-grown Pinot Noir and small batches of Temprenillo grown on a neighboring estate. Depending on the quality of the fruit, owner/winemaker Larry Miller makes the Temprenillo into a red or rose wine. Truthfully, I preferred the rose. The other wine of note, to my mind, is their balanced and complex Gewürztraminer. Stangeland Pinot Noir has won prestigious awards in France against Burgundy wines. Their tasting runs $5, refundable with a three-bottle purchase, though the affable Larry let me squeeze by with two. The tasting room is open Tuesday to Sunday 11 to 5. 8500 Hopewell Rd. NW, Salem, OR
The Incredible Wine-Guzzling Pinot Noir Glass
Glassmakers Riedel worked with Oregon winemakers to produce a glass that showcases Oregon Pinot Noir in particular. At first glance, the glass looks like a standard Pinot Noir glass – meaning it has the wide bowl typical of red wine glasses. However, the rime flares out in a distinctive tulip shape. The wider bowl allows aromas from delicate Pinot grapes to accumulate. The reason for the tulip-shaped rim is to deliver the Oregon Pinot Noir wine to the center of your palette, allowing the elegant flavors to disperse equally.
Pinot Noir glasses are not strictly necessary unless you are a big Pinot fan. Even so, probably a regular red wine glass, especially one with a wide bowl, will suffice. However, Pinot Noir varietals from Oregon can be green-tasting the first time around – most of the 2011s I tasted had a distinct green-fruit taste. Probably Pinot Noir glasses help disperse this flavor profile, though decanting should also help.
The best – or most fun – reason to buy Pinot Noir glasses is their large capacity. They hold 35 ounces. Typical 750 ml bottles hold 25.3 ounces. So, you can easily say you're "just having one glass" and interpret that to mean as much of the bottle as you want!
- Redhawk Vineyard and Winery: Perched atop a hill, Redhawk has picnic tables located under a canopy and estate cats. Redhawk prides themselves on being informal, though this does not translate to unknowledgeable. True their flagship Pinot is called Grateful Red, but it is a wine with terroir in addition to berry flavoring. Their Pinot Gris is crisp and food-friendly. They also make Dolcetto, a typically Italian varietal. Bring a picnic, purchase a glass – or bottle – of their affordable wine, and enjoy the view. Bring a treat for the cats. The tasting, only $5 and refundable with purchase, happens daily 11 to 5. 2995 Michigan City Ave NW, Salem, Oregon 97304
- Honeywood Winery: Honeywood is the city-dweller but also the oldest producing winery in Oregon. Located in Salem-proper – the most urban section I saw anyway – Honeywood pours more than 50 wines. Not in a sitting, mind you – guests are welcome to sample up to seven wines gratis. Besides the typical Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, Honeywood is especially known for making several varieties of fruit-based wines. Most of their fruit wines are expectedly sweet; interestingly, even the "hard cider" drinks like a sweet apple wine. However, the marionberry is endemic to Oregon, and Honeywood turns this berry into a sweet-tart wine. They are also very well-known for their gift shop; every time I mentioned them at succeeding wineries, some comment about "Christmas shopping" ensued. The tasting room-cum-gift-shop is open 9 to 6 most days. 1350 Hines St. SE, Salem, OR
Oregon Pinot Noir
The Great Vintage of 2008
"Great" vintages depend on your perspective. For Bordeaux, 2005 was a stellar year. Then so was 2009. Now 2010 is looking to be another stellar vintage. Maybe the climate change has just worked in Bordeaux's favor, and the bar is going to be raised again for quality vintages. (For my taste, I adore the 2005, quite like the 2009, and haven't decided yet on the 2010.) Some people think "stellar vintages" are just hype.
Oregon saw a warm summer in 2008, great for growing grapes. However, the clouds came out in September, and vintners thought they'd have another cool vintage, one that was green and under-ripened. Annie promised the sun would come out tomorrow, and it did in this case – or in October, anyway. Grapes ripened, the rain stayed away, and vintners picked grapes at their leisure. They then made the wines they wanted to make.
Oregon Pinot Noir sees at least seven months in oak and need between three to five years to age well. One year can make all the difference; the 2010s drink much more smoothly than the tannic 2011s. The 2010s, though, are just hitting their peak in the three to- five year range. The 2008 is in its prime.
What makes a vintage stellar, though? A sommelier at Sipp Fine Wines in Denver explained to me that in vintage years, most wineries in a region produce excellent-tasting wines. It's almost as if you can't produce a poor wine in vintage years. That means that, fortunately, you can pick up a wine from that vintage and (almost) guarantee it's drinkability which is great because, unfortunately, "stellar" years often carry a "stellar" price tag. (I can't even find 2005 Bordeaux anymore – I probably need to seek out really top-tier shops, which I won't be able to afford anyway.)
Oregon's 2008 Pinot Noir is balanced. They have aged enough to mellow the tannins. They feature enough acidity to avoid being fruity, though the ones I tasted generally offered berry and, occasionally, cherry on the palette. This vintage offers elegant wines that are medium-bodied and complex and pair beautifully with food.