Pinot Noir Comes of Age in Oregon’s Willamette Valley

Portland, Oregon is the self-proclaimed microbrewery capital of America, with dozens of breweries and pubs sprinkled throughout the city and its environs. Less well-known is the state’s reputation as a producer of superb wines, which have grown in stature with each vintage.

California’s Napa and Sonoma counties are world-famous for their wines, deservedly so. But Oregon’s Willamette Valley is not far behind, especially in the cultivation of Pinot Noir, the temperamental, thin-skinned black grape used to produce the great wines of Burgundy. Climatic conditions in Willamette (pronounced wuh-LAM-it) closely rival those in Burgundy. Both regions straddle the 45th parallel. The notoriously finicky Pinot Noir grape thrives in the valley’s cool, moist climate and serendipitous mix of coastal and volcanic soils. Long established as a superior fruit and berry growing region (good hazelnuts, too), the region’s progression to the cultivation of grapes and the making of wine 50 years ago was a natural.

Thirty miles southwest of Portland, quilted rows of vineyards along the Highway 99W Scenic Route in Yamhill County signal your arrival to wine country. Cross quaint covered bridges, explore historic Newbery and McMinnville, visit public markets, and drop by a few of the wineries that have sprung up throughout the region. Among the top-class producers are Archery Summit, Argyle, Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene, Elk Cove, Erath, Penner-Ash, Ponzi, Rex Hill, Sokol Blosser, and many others. Be liberal in your tastings, but don’t ignore the 2008 vintage for Pinot Noir, which Wine Spectator ranks in the “Classic” bracket, 95 – 100.

By way of background, David Lett, a Willamette Valley pioneer who established Eyrie Vineyards in 1966, saw his 1975 Pinot Noir finish second in a competitive blind tasting in Paris in 1979 against the legendary Burgundies, which gave Oregon instant cachet and international stature as a wine producer.

Grapes flourish in the Willamette Valley's cool moist climate

Swirl some Oregonian Pinot Noir in a glass. Along with the classic raspberry and black cherry nose is a distinctive wild, briary bouquet. These wines are not uptight. They’re delicious and approachable. You will encounter no wine snobs in the Willamette Valley. Travel backcountry roads and seek out rustic barnyard tasting rooms to get a real taste of the region. McMinnville plays host to the International Pinot Noir Celebration Festival (July 29 – 31), which attracts the cognoscenti, but the valley shows best at a quieter time.

Be sure to sample some of the white wines produced in the Willamette Valley, notably pinot gris, which is grown in Italy as pinot grigio. Other cool-climate varietals, such as riesling and gewurtztraminer, are exemplary.

Progressive to the core, Oregon winemakers in the mid-1970’s drafted and passed into law the the nation’s strictest consumer-oriented wine labeling regulations. According to British wine expert Hugh Johnson, “Oregon has state wine laws that should put California to shame.” The state’s regulations, combined with those of the federal government, assure the consumer that what is written on the label is indeed what is contained in the bottle. For starters, the label must say where the grapes were grown. A vintage date indicates that at least 95 percent of the grapes used were harvested during the year stated. No Oregon-produced wine may be given a generic name, i.e., Chablis, Burgundy, etc. Finally, ‘varietal’ wines must contain 90 percent of the grape variety named, with the exception of Cabernet Sauvignon, which is traditionally blended.

As for dining, the Willamette Valley is mushroom country. At the Joel Parker House in Dayton, a converted home that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, the signature beef Stroganoff is topped with fresh chanterelles. The Dundee Bistro specializes in gourmet pizzas and wine-savvy patrons who debate pinot-mushroom pairings. Also in Dundee is Tina’s, a casual bistro that features organic farm-to-table cuisine. For accommodations, book a room at the Black Walnut Inn, a Tuscan-style hilltop lodge with fine views of Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson. With organic produce sourced from local purveyors, there can’t be a better breakfast than the one served at the Black Walnut.

Of course, if you’re craving great golf more than fine food and enchanting wines, you can always zip over to Bandon Dunes, which is roughly an hour’s flight west from McMinnville Airport. There is a caveat, however: California labels far outnumber the home-grown stuff on the resort’s wine lists.


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