TASTING WILLAMETTE VALLEY WINE COUNTRY
A Unique Tasting Guide for Wine Lovers
By Linda Kissam ‘Food, Wine & Shopping Diva’
Big Blend Radio’s Happy Hour show celebrates the Willamette Valley Wine Country in Oregon, known for producing elegant Pinot Noirs, crisp Chardonnays, and striking Rieslings!
Elegant Pinot Noirs, crisp Chardonnays, and striking Rieslings are the superheroes of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The terroir and winemaking skills seem especially suited to coaching these wines to greatness. If you’ve been looking for “a great wine tasting adventure,” you can find it here in one of over 500+ wineries.
The words Willamette Valley represent more than a destination. They denote a specific sense of taste and place. Home to two-thirds of Oregon’s wineries and vineyards, this wine region is known as one of the premier Pinot noir–producing areas in the world. In fact, approximately 93% of the grapes grown in this valley are Pinot Noir. However as the region grows it is experimenting with different grapes and presentations, Pinot Blanc and Gamay and sparkling wine. The word on the vine is that winemakers rarely turn their valuable Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes into sparkling wine. But a few well-regarded innovators are changing course producing Champagne-quality levels.
What is important to note is that the majority of the wineries are dedicated to being organic or biodynamic. Being organic means a labor-intensive promise to replace synthetic sprays with organic, planting cover crops and starting a composting program. One step further is the crazy-good but unusual biodynamic farming. Never have I been to a wine region where community responsibility and stewardship of land was so important. The tag line for this region should simply be, “We Care.”
Biodynamic farming is a closed-loop system, with animals at its heart. The animals provide compost for crops and are in turn supported by farm-raised forage. By promoting diverse insect and soil microbial life, biodynamic farmers keep pests and diseases in balance without chemicals. Water and sunlight as the main inputs, it’s pretty much self-sustaining. Certified growers must meet the baseline requirements of organic farming. In addition, they must spend at least a year demonstrating their mastery of nine required homeopathic treatments, which are many times mocked by those in mainstream agriculture.
One treatment, for example, entails burying manure in a cow horn, thereby “amplifying” natural energy to accelerate its conversion to humus, which is used to inoculate compost with beneficial microbes. Another treatment involves burying a horn with pulverized quartz, which is added in small doses to water and sprayed on foliage to stimulate photosynthesis. It may all sound odd, but the wines being produced tell a very different story. They say, “This is what success looks like.”
In addition to all the wine, there is also a plethora of restaurants and interesting places to stay and things to do. Take a break from wine tasting to enjoy the many public gardens, the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum and Forest Park, the largest urban park in the county, featuring trails for hiking and biking.
Background: The Willamette Valley is a 150-mile long valley located in the Pacific Northwest. It is surrounded by mountains on three sides – the Cascade Range to the east, the Oregon Coast Range to the west, and the Calapooya Mountains to the south.
Its six largest cities are: Portland, Eugene, Salem, the state capital, and the cities of Gresham, Hillsboro and Beaverton in the Portland metropolitan area. The valley is often considered synonymous with “Oregon Wine Country”, as it contains 22,846 vineyard acres planted, 756 vineyards and 564 wineries. Distance to the ocean is 50 miles.
The distinct flavor profiles come from the following predominant soils: Marine Sedimentary: Willakenzie, Volcanic (Basalt): Jory, Nekia, and Windblown Loess (Silts): Laurelwood.
Less than 60 years have passed since pioneer David Lett planted Pinot Noir and other cool climate grape varieties in the valley. Few wineries have even seen a single generational handover in that time period, and nearly 75% of the valley’s vines have been planted in the last 25 years. This makes Willamette Valley a very young gun in the scope of global vine planting. The good news is it is already making remarkable Pinot, but the real question is what else will it do in the coming years?
Getting Around: If you come by air, you can fly in and out of either the Eugene (my pick) or Portland airport. Depending where you start of stay, travel time is about an hour. You can rent a car or take a shuttle like USA Airport Shuttle to and from your destination (dependable and cheap). First Nature Tours out of Portland is a great tour company to arrange a personal tour guide and transportation.
Lodging: Oregon Garden Resort in Silverton is centrally located and offers affordable rates and many unique features. The rooms are spacious, there is a full-service spa, an outdoor pool and an onsite restaurant, but the deal closer for me is the 80 acre Oregon Garden, just a few steps away from the hotel. Take your room key to gain entrance. Wander around on your own or take the shuttle to see all the beautiful seasonal displays, water features and art. It’s a beautiful place. Soothing to the eye and soul.
Restaurant Recommendations: Valley Commissary (McMinnville, OR), Community Plate (McMinnville, OR), Ruddick /Wood (Newberg, OR).
I never met a wine I didn’t like in the Willamette Valley. As is usual in any wine country, there are good wines, great wines and stellar wines, but there are no real stinkers or disappointing efforts here. I could have focused on exact wines to taste, but I choose instead to tell you why each winery on this list deserves a visit. I share what makes Willamette Valley wines and wineries so unique through the personal backstories of my favorite 12 wineries. When you taste and buy wines from any of the wineries featured, be assured stewardship and love of the land is first and foremost in the making of their world-class wines.
Junction City, OR
Winemaker /Founder Stephen Hagen
Driving time to next winery: One hour
This is the first and only place to start your wine tasting adventure. It will set a standard you won’t be able to forget. So much so, it is my favorite. Dedicated to a biodynamic structure with their own twists, by their own words Antiquum Farm calls itself, “A place of anomaly. Almost an oddity.” Ask for a tour with your tasting to see why the vineyards yield deep dark fruit, fine refined tannins, and almost tropical acidities. I promise you, you will walk away with a changed view of how great wines come to be.
Willamette Valley Vineyards
Jim Bernau, Founder
Time to next winery: 35 minutes
Another sustainable practices grower, they are part of the founding of the Low Input Viticulture and Enology Program (LIVE). They ferment and barrel each vineyard lot separately. The wines are terrific. The winemaker seems to have his hands on the pulse of the vineyard. Who knew a great winery could be sustainable through shared ownership. With more than 16,000 very enthusiastic owners, this place has grown from a tiny endeavor to a large scale winery featuring a large tasting room, restaurant, tours and gorgeous views.
Keri and Tim Ramy Owners,
Time to next winery: 30 minutes
This is a different kind of stop. Zenith Vineyard is actually a custom-designed wedding and event ballroom in the Eola-Amity Hills vineyards. Tasting, tour and event planning is by appointment. Don’t think the owners put all their efforts into events. Zenith Vineyard has been LIVE certified for many years but with the 2013 vintage the winery received a certified sustainable rating as well.
Brad Ford, Winemaker
Time to next winery: 15 minutes
Illahe has a policy of making wine as naturally as possible. Their focus is Pinot, but try all their wines. Stunning views. Some of their wines are made entirely by hand – no electricity or modern automation. A great place to recognize that some of the old ways are just as good as the new ways. Their horse-driven wagons are still used in the vineyards and adored by thousands of visitors.
Eola Hills Wine Cellars
Steve Anderson, Winemaker
Time to next winery: 12 minutes
Eola Hills Wine Cellars farms about 327 acres of vineyards across 13 properties in the Eola-Amity Hills American Viticultural Region (AVA). The region’s protective hills, well-drained soils and mild, maritime climate combine to create an ideal terroir not only for Pinot Noir, but for cool-climate white varietals including Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. The region is characterized by cooling afternoon winds that travel east through the lowest point in the Coast Range, the Van Duzer Corridor. Cooler afternoons and evenings preserve the natural acid structure in the grapes, resulting in very food-friendly wines.
Left Coast Cellars
Joe Wright, Winemaker
Time to next winery: 20 minutes
This place is very special. Try taking a tour of the LIVE certified vineyards before you taste. This place is the real deal in terms of commitment to its community and land holdings. The wines are great, but you are going to love the fact that they walk the talk by recycling paper, glass, plastic, and cardboard from their offices and tasting room. Additionally, they offer a Bottle Recycling Program for their customers. Left Coast Cellars is also involved with Oregon’s Adopt-A-Highway Program and have adopted their local stretch of the 99-W. If that’s not enough, Left Coast Cellars has over 100 acres of ecological compensation areas and 70 acres of old growth oak forest. Through time the forest has become populated with invasive species. Their goal is to restore the forest to a native oak savanna. They have partnered with the US Fish and Wildlife Service so the forest will be a permanent wildlife refuge creating habitat for native plants, wildlife, birds, and insects as well as improving the watershed. The list of stewardship goes on and on, but you get the idea. Great wines come from a greater sustainable vision.
Cristom Winery and Vineyard
Steve Doerner, Winemaker
Time to next winery: 15 minutes
This winery has a peaceful vibe. Their elegant wines are the result of whole-cluster fermentation by native yeasts. The four estate Pinot Noir vineyards – Eileen, Jessie, Louise and Marjorie, named for Gerrie family matriarchs – each possess natural variances in soil, elevation and exposition. With minimal intervention during the winemaking process, Tom, Steve and their team craft wines that are an authentic representation of both the vineyard and the vintage. The resulting wines are an exceptional blend of tradition, modernity and finesse.
Chris Williams, Winemaker
Time to next two wineries: 20 minutes
Employing biodynamic farming practices since 2002, winemaker Chris Williams produces a variety of fine wines. Much of his vines are planted on rootstock, not grafted as is the usual process in other wine regions. This is a tricky move, as Phylloxera is lurking everywhere and has been the downfall of many regions. He has been proactively reintroducing native plants in his insectary and medicinal herb gardens for his biodynamic preparations and compost teas. You’ll love the many wine offerings, comfy view oriented tasting room and excellent customer focused service.
Robert Brittan, Winemaker
Winemaker Robert Brittan left Stags’ Leap Winery to start his own winery in the Willamette Valley. He is involved in every aspect of grape to glass. He is an iconic winemaker who knows just what he wants, which leads to premium wines. Enough said. Visit their tasting room in McMinnville.
Winderlea Vineyard & Winery
Robert Brittan, Winemaker
Distance to next winery: 15 minutes
The Winderlea tasting room is located in the same tasting room as Brittan Winery and uses Robert Brittan as the consulting winemaker. You’ll taste some similarities in the two winery’s offerings, which is not a bad thing. These wines are perfect for those who feel the pairing of wine and food is essential to their lifestyle and well-being. Their focus is on making small lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay crafted with minimal intervention and the modest use of new French oak barrels. Chances are you are going to love these wines.
Carlton Winemakers’ Studio
Distance to next winery: 35 minutes
One of the first green-built cooperative wineries built in the county. A visit here is about tasting many different wines from smaller producers. Fifteen independent small-batch wineries share space together in an incubator style program. It is a fascinating and inspiring tour and tasting – especially for those dreaming about starting their own wine brand.
Lady Hill Winery
St Paul, OR
Dan Duryee, Winemaker
Love the back story on this winery. A long female lineage is a tribute to a family farm that started in the 1860’s. Today the Lady Hill Winery team captures the earth, the weather, and the year in a bottle in the ultimate farming effort. The owner is a supporter of local artisans. My hope is you will visit while there is music or a theatrical event going on.
Willamette Valley Wineries Association – www.willamettewines.com
Oregon Wine Pioneers by Cila Warncke – An in-depth guide to fifteen pioneer wineries (Only two of which I talk about in this article). Use the tasting notes, maps and winemaker’s restaurant recommendations as you tour the wineries. About $12.
Linda Kissam ‘Food, Wine & Shopping Diva’ is a professional travel, food, and wine writer based out of Southern California, who specializes in easy, breezy destination stories sharing her favorite things about the places she visits. Visit www.AllInGoodTaste.info.