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Oregon's Willamette Valley Has It All
Located 35 miles southwest of the very cool (and we don't mean the temperature) city of Portland, and twenty miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, Oregon's northern Willamette Valley wine country centers primarily in and around the towns of Newberg, Dundee, and McMinnville. Very rural in nature, these towns nevertheless provide fine dining, as well as at least one monster tourist attraction. But of course the primary reason to be here is to visit the awesome wineries, which are producing American style Pinot Noir, meaning complexity with layers of bold fruit
Day 1: We began at the well know Elk Cove Vineyards, where we were impressed with the scenery on the hill, but surprisingly unimpressed with this year's products. Only the 2003 Pinot Gris ($15) earns a hearty recommendation, while the 2000 Estate Riesling ($15) is something we will avoid. The Pinot Noirs, while fair, were too expensive for their quality.
Our next stop included a fascinating lecture on Oregon soils and trellising practices by Dale West at Ken Wright Cellars, definitely one of Oregon's leaders in the production of single vineyard Pinot Noirs. All the wines we sampled from the barrel were wonderful, which, coupled with small production, explains why this winery is able to virtually sell out via barrel futures and high end restaurant offerings.
The afternoon and evening came to a charming close at the fascinating Carlton Winemakers Studio. Marketing Director Lauren Glazer showed us through this "green" facility where we met partner (and innovator) Eric Hamacher, who has created a state of the art facility (for small production) where wines are crafted by independents using environmentally sound methods. On Wednesday nights the business offers a high quality BBQ (gigantic ribs from a 350 pound hog) to accompany wine tasting. We were able to sample a variety of wines made and sold here, and we recommend: 1999 Hamacher Cuvee Forets Diverses Chardonnay ($25 - crisp and rich); 1998 Domaine Meriwether Brut Rose Olivia's Cuvee ($30 - crisp and a beautiful salmon pink color); 2003 Tabula Rosa Rose ($15 - unusual for us to like a Rose, but this has an intriguing grapefruit undertone); 2000 Hamacher Pinot Noir ($35 - deep red nose with excellent spice); 2001 Penner-Ash Cellars Pinot Noir ($45 - full body with lots of fruit and earth); and 2003 Penner-Ash Cellars "Rubeo" ($19 - great buy for a big, bold Pinot Noir/Syrah blend).
Day 2: One of Oregon's most respected wineries, Archery Summit provides undeniably well crafted and nicely structured Pinot Noirs. Three we tasted received high scores from other writers, and we agree they are downright delectable. Yet we have our own doubts about spending the asking price because we tasted brighter fruit at other wineries. The wines: 2001 Arcus Estate ($75 - full bodied and satiny); 2001 Red Hills Estate ($75 - earth and dust are prominent); and 2002 Renegade Ridge ($65 - plum nuances and spice).
Argyle boasts one of the area's most fun tasting rooms with Anna Gradek, Jim McDaniel (take time to let him teach you), and Shani Roesner. Most of the wines are nice for the value, and we especially liked the 1999 Sparkling Brut ($21.50 -- toasty and nutty with light citrus); the 2000 Nuthouse Chardonnay ($28 - the vineyard was once a filbert tree orchard and the grapes reflect a delightful toasted nut characteristic); the 2001 Pinot Noir Reserve ($30 - big, red fruit from start to finish); and the 2001 Nuthouse Pinot Noir ($40 - short front but huge red and black berry fruit in a velvet finish). Interestingly, all the still wines made here use screw top closures.
A surprise to us was that we found all eight wines we tasted at Ponzi to be only so-so.
The evening closed beautifully with a private tasting at Don and Margie Olson's outstanding Torii Mor Vineyard and Cellars (to which we devoted an entire article last year), followed by a marvelous dinner at Richard and Nancy Gehrt's Red Hills Provincial Dining, where the regional food is ultra fresh and the flash sautéed oysters with bacon were the best we can remember. Of course, the quality at Torii Mor is always in evidence, especially this year with the 2002 Deux Verres Pinot Noir Reserve ($35 - bold, dark fruit, and earthy); the 2002 Olson Old Vines Pinot Noir ($42 -- ripe fruit tapering to a light, elegant finish); and a truly incredible (buy all you can) 2003 Pinot Gris ($13 - one of the best prices ever for a wine that will rival any in the state. Perfect fruit and balance).
Day 3: Beaux Freres' co-owner/winemaker Michael Etzel's Pinot Noirs are only recently receiving the attention they deserve. The 2001 Beaux Freres Vineyard ($75) and Belles Soeurs Vineyard ($65) bottlings are luscious, but the 2002 Beaux Freres Upper Terrace is something very special ($75 - seamless layers of deep black fruit).
We predict a new star in partner/winemaker Josh Bergstrom of Bergstrom Winery. Josh shared his current releases with us, as well as a number of future barrel samples. When we left we agreed that each was superbly "our style," with reds exhibiting elegant yet bold dark balances of fruit and acidity. Just to mention a few: 2003 Pinot Gris ($18); 2003 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($22); 2002 Cumberland Reserve Pinot Noir ($35); 2003 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir ($55); and 2003 Lancellioti Vineyard Pinot Noir ($55).
Patricia Green Cellars takes a back seat to no one in producing Pinot Noirs with intensely bold fruit (to prove it, the stains on our fingers after an hour of barrel tasting were quite Syrah-like). Space does not permit us to list each of the samples we tasted, but it is not necessary to do so. We just suggest you watch for all of the 2003 vintages when they are released next year. Fabulous, and, actually, at $30 - $60, a nice price to quality ratio.
Producing well priced organically farmed wines is Brick House, owned (and farmed) by former network correspondent Doug Tunnell. We enjoyed the 2002 Chardonnay ($24 - creamy nose and long finish); 2002 Gamay Noir ($20 - for cranberry and turkey); and the 2002 "Les Dijonais" Pinot Noir ($40 - elegant light body with a bright cherry cola nose).
You should not visit this area without dining at the gorgeous Joel Palmer House, owned by Chef Jack Czarnecki and his wife Heidi. All the food is superb, with each plate focusing on one or more types of mushrooms either as the star or a complement. The dishes comprised of these gems are alone almost worth the trip to Oregon.
Day 4: Most would be surprised to know that the Aviation Museum in McMinnville houses the actual Hughes "Spruce Goose" (which you can board), along with well preserved aircraft of every era. Former pilots are on hand to answer any questions about a fascinating collection. Don't miss it.
Our winery day began at Witness Tree Vineyard, always good, and getting even better. The 2002 Vintage Select Chardonnay ($20 - bright acid and butterscotch) is one of Oregon's best of this varietal, and we also recommend the 2001 Estate Pinot Noir ($20 - red berries in the mouth and long finish. A Great bottle of wine); the 2001 Vintage Select Pinot Noir ($32 - spicy and elegant); and the 2002 Sweet Signi Eola Hills ($15 for 375 ml. - white peaches, honey spice, and a spectacular finish. Wow.).
We usually like Cristom, but this year can only marginally recommend one wine -- the 2001 Germaine Chardonnay ($19). We do like the tasting room and host Robin Wheeler.
Dinner was at The Heathman Hotel restaurant in Portland, and we would return in the proverbial heartbeat. Northwest cuisine with a French flare is the specialty of Chef Philippe Boulot, and Sommelier/Assistant GM Tysan Pierce's wine list is a thing of beauty.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.