Oregon Wine’s Coming-of-Age

I recently visited three wineries in the Willamette Valley, aka Wine Country, Oregon. I would have visited more if it weren’t for my desire to get in some camping as well. This is territory (at least) as renowned for its artisanal microbrewing as it is for its grape growing. But I consistently encountered a remarkably high level of hospitality, as well as a total lack of attitude (a common complaint of Napa Valley in California). The people I met at these wineries were genuinely warm, open, and knowledgeable—willing to share what they knew, answer questions, and expand upon points of interest. They seemed as enthusiastic about their industry as they were about the opportunity to catalyze another person’s interest in it.

As a bit of background, Oregon’s wine industry is still somewhat in its infancy. Its most significant growing region, by far, is the Willamette Valley, which is situated pretty much to the southwest and due south of Portland. The entirety of the valley is within a day’s drive of Portland. It doesn’t have the epic landscape that Italy, southern France, or even Chile possesses, but there is a prevailing relaxed charm about the area, a West Coast Chill that describes the dominant climate as much as the region’s inhabitants.

The most important grape grown here is Pinot noir, the significance of which requires some background of its own. Pinot noir is a notoriously fickle grape, as difficult to grow as it is to vinify. This contributes to its often lofty prices, as those who can make good wine from it deserve their (financial) due. The grape’s unpredictable nature carries over into the bottle as well, which contributes to its elusive mystique. Pinot noir’s historic home is Burgundy, France; but outside of this area the grape hasn’t consistently shown the same heights of quality. This is true even in California, where outside of the Russian River Valley and a few dedicated, skillful winemakers, Pinot noir doesn’t seem at home—most of the state, for starters, is just too hot for this delicate grape. Willamette Valley is well on its way to challenging Burgundy’s monopoly on the world’s best Pinot noir wines. (New Zealand may have this same potential, but it is too early to tell yet; and that’s a story for another day.)

The notable history of viniculture here is really only a couple of decades long. To some extent, when Domaine Drouhin, a famous French winery in Burgundy, opened up a winery in the Willamette Valley, the world began to take the place seriously. This change in reputation was furthered by a series of good-to-great Pinot noir vintages beginning in 1998. This offered a steady flow of excellent juice to the market. The wine press, restaurants, and retailers alike licked it up with enthusiasm. Nationwide attention, at least, had arrived. As far as world-wide recognition, I can’t imagine there’s more than a trickle of exports from Oregon overseas, although I have no specific data to support this speculation. The generally small production of most Willamette Valley wineries wouldn’t allow for much exportation in any case.

Rex Hill

At Rex Hill Vineyards, in Dundee, I was delighted to find out that they made some white wines I hadn’t previously tasted. Also, they happened to be tasting some higher-end Pinot noirs that normally don’t get uncorked in the tasting room owing to their minimal production quantities (like a couple hundred cases apiece, not enough to ship to even a large market such as my hometown of Chicago).

First, I am offered the 2002 Sauvignon blanc, a white wine perfect for summer. It showed the citrus/grassy aromas and flavors very characteristic of the grape, and a creeping crispness that would work well with cheese or light fare such as white-fleshed fish and chicken, or just dutifully quench one’s thirst during the summer months. I ask and am told it’s only the third vintage they’ve made of this wine. My conclusion, which I happily share with them, is that the wine should continue to be one of their offerings. The quality bodes well for the grape in the valley, which has scant plantings of Sauvignon blanc now.

Next up, another white wine that was new to me, their 2002 Pinot gris. I’ve always been a fan of the wine, much more so than its lighter, less interesting brother, Pinot grigio (despite their strong genetic similarities and Pinot grigio’s more impressive sales statistics). Rex Hill’s version held true to the grape’s telltale apple/pear (but not sugar-sweet) flavors. As a general rule, Pinot gris is a good versatile wine for holiday meals (Thanksgiving, et. al.), as well as for drinking with richer seafood—the Northwest’s excellent salmon jumps to mind.

Two other Pinot gris followed. A reserve bottling, which spends some time in small, old oak barrels, had a richness brought about by frequent stirring of the lees (the dead yeast cells left over in the barrel after fermentation—it doesn’t sound pretty but it adds texture and intensity to the wine). The single vineyard ‘Jacob Hart’ Pinot gris was just downright jumping with white peach and pear aromas and flavors. Great wine, but unfortunately, not enough of this is made to be shipped back to the Windy City.

Ahhh, then onto the Pinot noirs. We started out with the 2002 King’s Ridge Pinot noir, which is a second label also made at the winery and sold at a more everyday price. It was light in color and body but showed pretty black cherry fruit. It constitutes a solid value for its $16 price tag, and is available in the Midwest. It carries an ‘Oregon’ (geographic) designation (instead of the more specific and esteemed ‘Willamette Valley’), meaning they can use some grapes from elsewhere in the state to make this wine.

The 2001 Rex Hill ‘Willamette Valley’ Pinot noir was fuller and darker in color. In addition to those same dark cherry characteristics, it hinted at something earthy and herbal underneath. This secondary flavor would become more pronounced with a couple more years of aging in the bottle, but the wine is soft and drinking so well now that it would be hard to wait. It would certainly hold its own against similarly priced red Burgundies at about $25 a bottle.

The 2000 Reserve Pinot noir had even more of this underbrush quality. Phoebe, a cheerful and knowledgeable Rex Hill employee, suggested ‘sage’ to best describe it. It also had a more serious acidity—a textural grip or verve to it that promises several years of cellaring potential.

And finally, a bonus tasting of three single-vineyard bottlings that were a real treat to taste one after another—to compare and contrast them in a way that would be difficult (and expensive) if not impossible to do at home:

I’ll admit that since this was my first stop after a bit too much driving (on account of my own bad directions), and since this was the first Oregon winery I’ve visited, I may have been predisposed to really liking everything thrown my way. But the overall quality here was impressive beyond what I had previously seen from Rex Hill. Years ago, some of the very first Oregon Pinot noirs I tasted were from this winery. But after visiting, I have developed a newfound respect for the overall quality of their reds and whites that I shall not soon forget.

Sokol Blosser

While their Pinot noirs are available in the Chicago market, what Sokol Blosser Winery is best known for is an eclectic white blend called ‘Evolution #9’. The name (and label) suggest a casual playfulness a la Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Vineyards in California. The 9 also refers to the number of different white grapes that go into the bottling. I guessed 7 of them right, not getting Traminer at all, and guessing Semillon wrong—which they have just recently swapped out in favor of Sauvignon blanc. (Admittedly, I only knew there was some Muscat in the blend upon seeing it written on a sign by some vines by the main entrance.) Evolution #9 has a touch of sweetness, but it’s a good fun blend that I’ve enjoyed with spicy Asian food. I plan to put it to the test with some ‘Evolution’ seasoning blend that I bought at the winery. I generally prefer my culinary heat to come from hot peppers, but one taste of this had me imagining coating fish fillets and chicken breasts alike, and throwing them either on the grill or in the broiler should the rain be pouring too heavily.

They also had a Pinot noir Rosé that is only sold out of the winery. It was lively with bright strawberry notes, the kind of wine begging for a summer evening waiting for grilled salmon to come off of the grill. I’ll bet there’s a (wasabi? tuna?) sushi match with this wine that I just haven’t properly tweaked yet. I guess it goes to show that food and wine is a never-ending experiment…

Next I tried two Pinot noirs from the 2001 vintage, one with a simple ‘Willamette Valley’ designation and the other ‘Dundee Hills’. The former, the more entry-level of the two, was good with subtle fruit yielding to earthy, spicy qualities. Quite simply, it was more strong evidence that our continent has found its rival to Pinot noir’s traditional home of Burgundy, France. The latter showed more richness and persistence of the fruit flavors.

An Ice-wine styled dessert wine is handed to me to wrap things up (and Jesus, it’s not even 11 AM here and hence a sobering 1 PM in the Windy City). This is another offering that I wasn’t even aware of. It smelled of honey, apples, and caramel; a good amount of acidity cleansed it all away—well-balanced and begging for a plate of rotten cheese, I suggested. The Sokol Blosser employee said, ‘I was thinking white cheddar last time I tried it’, and I added it to the list of pairings to test out upon my return home.

Archery Summit

My last winery visit proved to be the shortest in duration, yet the most rewarding of them all. Pulling up to Archery Summit Winery, at the top of a hill with baked clay-red soils lined with grapevines, I ate up the beautiful scenery and couldn’t help but think ‘yeah, I absolutely OWE it to myself to move out here and work in the industry someday…’ (and if your humble narrator ever pulls that off, you’ll be certain to be reading it online someday). The atmosphere was set, and the wines proved to be an exclamation point I’m not sure I’d even find here despite my radiant vacationing optimism.

Alphonse, a Frenchman working here out of a life-long love of Pinot noir, was behind the counter of the tasting room. That fact by itself signaled to me a sort of coming-of-age of Oregon’s Willamette Valley reputation. I asked him numerous questions, most of which I don’t even recall, but certain comments stuck with me. Foremost among them was his follow-up to my noting that the Pinot noirs here all seemed to be steeped with cinnamon sticks—especially the Archery Summit wines. He said that this was a result of the winery’s use of a percentage of whole-cluster fermentation—entire vine stems are thrown right in with the grape must. I wasn’t sure where he was going with this yet, but he continued that they literally taste the flesh of some of the vines, looking for ones that are sufficiently ripe, to throw in with the grapes. And in these sufficiently ripe stems was a compound called ‘cinnamite’; which yielded the cinnamon aromas and flavors so prevalent in their wines. He also told me that the 2002 vintage on the whole would be very good for the valley.

The fine wines that I tasted that day were:

Back in Chicago, the ‘Arcus’ was the wine from Archery Summit that Oregon Pinot noir fans sought after with a serious passion, but I was won over by the minerality of the Red Hills Estate. All three were fantastic wines and I was very happy to have had the opportunity to try them. Despite their high price tags, I was sufficiently in awe—of these three wines specifically and Oregon Pinot noir in general—to purchase one of each.

I got a tip from a local to check out a place called The Carlton Winemakers Studio on my way to the coast. It was a new facility, a certified green building, created to showcase a number of different local winemakers’ wares. It was the brainchild of Eric Hamacher and Luisa Ponzi, each of whom have their own, independent wineries. It is the first of its kind here, where wines from different producers were not only made and bottled, but also were served at a sunny, open wine room/bar on the ground floor. The huge windows allowed for much natural light (part of the whole green thing), and a patio extended just outside some sliding glass doors. I sat at the bar, meeting someone who used to shop at one of the stores in Chicago where I once worked—although we didn’t remember each other specifically.

There were wines from Andrew Rich, a dusty red-fruited Malbec that was very pleasant and a viscous sweet dessert Gewürztraminer, as well as wines from Dominio IV, including one called ‘Oso’, a Tempranillo-based wine that was a nice Rioja (Spain) look-alike. Hamacher wines there included a decent Chardonnay, and a Pinot noir that was supposed to be just for the studio, but developed such a following that it is now served elsewhere around town as well. Lastly, I tried the Hamacher Pinot noir Rosé, which despite its pale color had good red/strawberry flavors and was excellent with the smoked salmon I ordered.

I got my camping in west of Crater Lake (which was still buried in snow—literally 8 feet’s worth), and while it was no rugged backpack survival-type of camping, I can’t tell you how relaxing it was to sit by a fire, eating smoked gouda and drinking down a decent bottle of Pinot noir each evening. The first night was even better because I got a fire going despite the intermittent rain, which was softened somewhat by the canopy of Douglas-fir trees I was under. But being able to hear the rain falling, occasionally even feeling it, while still being able to enjoy the warmth and glow of a campfire, was very rewarding.

I took the time to reflect upon the wineries I visited, and couldn’t help but think that I needed to encourage more of my friends to do the same. Even though I’d enthusiastically supported Oregon wines before, now I found myself seriously hooked. I thought about the foods I wanted to make to pair with them, and who among my family and friends would like what better. There’s a lot to like in the wines coming from there, and compared to many other places, these are still very much under the radar. Whether or not I ever wind up working out here, I am happy to have traveled here, soaked up the sun and rustic tranquility, and gotten to know Willamette Valley wines more intimately than I could have ever done back home, 2,000 miles away.

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