Oregon by the glass

In rural Willamette Valley, Pinot noir reigns supreme in small vintners' intimate wine tasting rooms

October 05, 2008|By Margaret Backenheimer | Margaret Backenheimer,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Back in the storied 1960s, a handful of dauntless winemakers trekked north from California wine country to the valleys of western Oregon, where they struck liquid gold. Once better known for its tall firs than for its fine cuvees, Oregon today is home to more than 370 wineries producing wine from 72 grape varieties under 442 labels.

Sixteen viticulture areas span the state, but the Willamette Valley, just south of Oregon's largest city, Portland, is the state's leading wine region, with two-thirds of the state's wineries and vineyards. This is a fortunate coincidence for the visitor, because it puts some 200 wineries within easy reach of the state's three largest cities. An afternoon's outing from Portland, Salem or even Eugene yields a menu of tasty choices, from the modern facilities of the vast Willamette Valley Vineyards to the rural settings of Redhawk Winery and Amity Vineyards.

Wine-tasting in the Willamette Valley is a let's-go-for-a-ride-in-the-country experience. The back roads are picturesque year-round. Not every field is devoted to grapes. This is fertile territory for commercial nurseries and orchards. Lambs and foals dot the fields in spring, and small farm stands sell seasonal produce and dried hazelnuts, another Oregon specialty.

One sure sign that visitors are far from Napa Valley is that the pourers in many Willamette Valley tasting rooms are the winemakers themselves. Oregon wineries are primarily small, family-owned affairs. Many of these boutique operations produce less than 5,000 cases a year.

This is good news for travelers. Most of the time, wineries welcome picnickers, tasting rooms remain uncrowded and the roads are not chockablock with traffic. Except for Memorial Day weekend and the three days after Thanksgiving, that is, when about 120 wineries, some normally closed to the public, stage barrel tastings and food-and-wine pairings. Then traffic on Highway 99W south of Portland can be bumper to bumper and wine bars elbow to elbow, although seasoned visitors insist it's all part of the holiday fun.

Proving that the early wine pioneers were on the mark, the Pinot noir grape, though complex and finicky, thrives in the rainy Willamette Valley. Pinot noir has become the signature wine of the valley and the state, putting Oregon on the world wine map. Oregon's Pinot noir is more intensely fruity than French Burgundy and fresher and more acidic than its California cousins. It is often savored with grilled salmon for a quintessential Northwest pairing.

Visitors will find varying styles of Pinot noir at scores of Willamette Valley wineries, among them Rex Hill in Newberg and Benton-Lane in Monroe. J.K. Carriere in Newberg produces nothing but Pinot noir, and Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner just won "Best of Show" at the Oregon State Fair for a 2006 Pinot.

Oregon is so renowned for its Pinot noir that it hosts an annual International Pinot Noir Celebration. Pinot noir producers, wine critics and wine lovers gather at Linfield College each July to sip and slurp Pinot from some 60 top wineries worldwide. The next Pinot fest is slated for July 24-26.

Those who eschew red wines can also take heart. The Willamette Valley's "other Pinot" is a white wine, Pinot gris. It is usually light, fresh and dry, sometimes tasting of minerals and melons, and pairs well with salmon and seafood. Visitors can give it a try at Dobbes Family Estate or Duck Pond Cellars, both in Dundee.

Some Willamette Valley wineries also produce Chardonnay and Riesling, as well as Gewurztraminer, Muller-Thurgau, Dolcetto, Marechal Foch, Viognier and even sparkling wine, as they reach out for new challenges.

The biggest movement at present, however, is toward sustainability. The Oregon Wine Board estimates that over a third of Oregon's wine-grape growers and winemakers adhere to a sustainable or "green" philosophy and engage in Earth-friendly practices - no surprise in the first state to pass a "bottle bill" to promote recycling, and where the best bottle in the house is often a local Pinot noir.

if you go

Getting there

Multiple air carriers offer service from BWI Marshall Airport to Portland, Ore. Restricted round-trip fares begin at about $247.

Lodging

Oregon Garden Resort, 895 W. Main St., Silverton 97381, 800-966-6490; moonstonehotels.com. A brand-new Craftsman-style hotel adjacent to the 80-acre Oregon Garden, with 103 garden-themed rooms priced from $89-$199.

Brookside Inn on Abbey Road, 8243 N.E. Abbey Road, Carlton 97111, 503-852-4433; brooksideinn-oregon.com. Mondo the dog is official greeter, presiding over nine themed suites, priced from $185-$350.

McMenamins Hotel Oregon, 310 N.E. Evans St., McMinnville 97128, 888-472-8427; mcmenamins.com. Quirky hand-painted walls tell tales of this building's colorful history, with 42 unique guest rooms priced from $50-$100.

Wineries

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