It’s Willamette, dammit! Making the case for Oregon wines


The Willamette Valley is the largest AVA in Oregon, with more than 100 miles stretching southwest of Portland to Eugene. File photo. The Willamette Valley is the largest AVA in Oregon, with more than 100 miles stretching southwest of Portland to Eugene. File photo.

If rain is Oregon’s best-known cliché, then Pinot Noir is the runner-up. With May celebrating Oregon Wine Month, and the Willamette Valley being one of my favorite wine regions in the world, what better time than now to delve into this sustainable wine mecca?

Viticulturally, Oregon is a big state, with five AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) of varied terrain, climate, and soils. The largest of these is the Willamette (pronounced Will-AM-ette, it rhymes with dammit) Valley, which stretches southwest of Portland and runs for 100 miles south to Eugene, with the Coast Ranges to the west and the Cascades to the east. The Willamette Valley is situated an hour from Portland and the coast, about 30 minutes from a plethora of mushroom foraging, biking, hiking, and moss-saturated adventures in the mountains. The area has it all—including a rainy season lasting from October to May, which creates challenges for winemakers.

“The weather—that’s the biggest issue in growing grapes here in the Willamette Valley, which can be a positive and a negative,” said David Lett of Willamette’s Eyrie Vineyards. “The negative is that if it rains at the wrong time you’re had. The positive, of course, is having the great wines that come out of here.”

Lett set up shop in the northern section of the Willamette Valley, where he uprooted 20 acres of prune trees to plant Pinot Noir and establish Eyrie (which is currently run by his son, Jason). His peers thought he was crazy to grow grapes in such a wet, cold, and unpredictable climate, but his foresight and perseverance led the way to many world-class wines. In 1970, Jim Maresh, David Adelsheim, and a few others planted vines in the Dundee Hills, which is now the most concentrated wine region in the Willamette Valley.

But Oregon wine is more than just Willamette. The Tualatin Valley has a group of good, primarily white, vineyards in the north. Heading south, the Chehalem Mountains grow some of the finest fruit. The Eola Hills south of McMinnville also produce some great wines. Brooks Winery, located on the Eola Crest, makes some of the most intriguing wines in the area. Winemaker Chris Williams has a natural skill with all grapes (some of which are estate grown) but shines with Amycas, a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, and Riesling. It is crisp with a touch of minerality and a lot of personality. Try a bottle at the Ivy Inn Restaurant or Greenwood Gourmet Grocery.

The backbone and vision of the first grapes grown in Oregon are based on two great European styles of wine—the Rieslings of the Rhine and Mosel valleys in Germany, which are flinty and mineral driven, and classic Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, with refreshing acidity and red cherry fruit. Pinot Noir reigns, but Pinot Gris and Chardonnay are sneaking up behind. The Amalie Robert Chardonnay is a fine example of this subtle, Chablis-style chardonnay, handcrafted by Dena Drews and Ernie Pink at their winery near Salem. Find it at Beer Run for $25.99 per bottle.

As for Pinot Noirs, Belle Pente’s 2010 has complex aromas of mint, red fruit, flowers, and smoke, and is available at Greenwood Gourmet Grocery. Cameron Winery consistently makes solid Pinot Noir, and sources from a few vineyards throughout the Willamette Valley; the 2005 Abbey Ridge in Dundee is stellar and lean, with bright cherry fruit notes, and reminiscent of red burgundy; and Left Coast Cellars does an excellent job of making quality, affordable wines that are versatile and accessible. The 2011 Cali’s Cuvée Pinot Noir is a great accompaniment to light meats and charcuterie at the Ivy Inn, or on the shelf at Beer Run.

What truly differentiates Oregon winemakers from their peers? A lack of ego. “It really started out with a bunch of well-educated hippies sitting around in meadows passing around bottles, critiquing each other,” said Josh Bergstrom of Bergstrom Winery in Newberg. “It was all about sharing information. [That mentality] is still very much alive today.”

In Oregon, the close relationship between winemakers, alongside an overall sense of camaraderie, has created a truly unique wine-based community. With a laid back attitude, and a strong focus on sustainability, Oregon wines are only gaining strength and popularity. As long as the rain doesn’t get in the way.

Tracey Love is the event coordinator at Blenheim Vineyards, the sales and marketing associate for the Best of What’s Around farm, and proprietress of Hill & Holler.